Unreal Nature

November 30, 2013

In a Different Way

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… [some people say … ] It is not a good thing to take the center of the stage and to feel at one’s back the amused little eyes from the bush.

This is from The Firmament of Time by Loren Eiseley (1960):

… The lime in our bones, the salt in our blood were not from the direct hand of the Craftsman. They were, instead, part of our heritage from an ancient and forgotten sea.

Yet for all this flood of change, movement and destruction, there is an enormous stability about the morphological plans which are built into the great phyla — the major divisions of life. They have all, or most of them, survived since the first fossil records. They do not vanish. The species alter, one might say, but the Form, that greater animal which stretches across the millennia, survives. There is a curious comfort in the discovery. In some parts of the world, if one were to go out into the woods, one would find many versions of oneself, with fur and grimaces, surveying one’s activities from behind leaves and thickets. It is almost as though somewhere outside, somewhere beyond the illusions, the several might be one.

… Many years ago I was once, by accident, locked in a museum with which I had some association. In the evening twilight I found myself in a lengthy hall containing nothing but Crustacea of all varieties. I used to think they were a rather limited order of life, but as I walked about impatiently in my search for a guard, the sight began to impress, not to say overawe, me.

The last light of sunset, coming through a window, gilded with red a huge Japanese crab on a pedestal at one end of the room. It was one of the stilt-walkers of the nightmare deeps, with a body the side of a human head carried tiptoe on three-foot legs like fire tongs. In the cases beside him there were crabs built and riveted like Sherman tanks, and there were crabs whose claws had been flattened into plates that clapped over their faces and left them shut up inside with little secrets. There were crabs covered with chitinous thorns that would have made them indigestible; there were crabs drawn out and thin, with delicate elongated pincers like the tools men use to manipulate at a distance in dangerous atomic furnaces.

There were crabs that planted sea growths on their backs and marched about like restless gardens. There were crabs as ragged as waterweed or as smooth as beach pebbles; there were crabs that climbed trees and crabs from beneath the polar ice. But the sea change was on them all. They were one, one great plan that flamed there on its pedestal in the sinister evening light, but they were also many and the touch of Maya, of illusion, lay upon them.

… It is not the individual that matters; it is the Plan and the incredible potentialities within it. The forms within the Form are endless and their emergence into time is endless. I leaned there, gazing at that monster from whom the forms seemed flowing, like the last vertebrate on a world whose sun was dying. It was plain that they wanted the planet and meant to have it. One could feel the massed threat of them in this hall.

“It looks alive, Doctor,” said the guard at my elbow.

[ … ]

… those crabs taught me a lesson really. They reminded me that an order of life is like a diamond of many reflecting surfaces, each with its own pinpoint of light contributing to the total effect. It is a troubling thought, contend some, to be a man and a God-created creature, and at the same time to see animals which mimic our faces in the forest. It is not a good thing to take the center of the stage and to feel at one’s back the amused little eyes from the bush. It is not a good thing, someone maintained to me only recently, that animals should stand so close to man.

It depends, I suppose, on the point of view. On my office wall is a beautiful photograph of a slow loris with round enormous eyes set in the spectral face of a night-haunter. From a great bundle of fur a small hand protrudes to clasp a branch. Only a specialist would see in that body the far-off simulacrum of our own. Sometimes when I am very tired I can think myself into the picture until I am wrapped securely in a warm coat with a fine black stripe down my spine. And my hands would still grasp a stick as they do today.

At such times a great peace settles on me, and with the office door closed, I can sleep as lemurs sleep tonight, huddled high in the great trees of two continents. Let the storms blow through the streets of cities; the root is safe, the many-faced animal of which we are one flashing and evanescent facet will not pass with us. When the last seared hand has flung the last grenade, an older version of that hand will be stroking a clinging youngster hidden in its fur, high up under some autumn moon. I will think of beginning again, I say to myself then, sleepily. I will think of beginning again, in a different way. …



November 29, 2013

Failure Tends to Be More Interesting than Success

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:41 am

… the failure of a project, or the mistake of an idea crashing against reality, can express the truth of that idea or the meaning of that project.

This is from the essay ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime’ by Andrés Di Tella, found in the collection The Cinema of Me: The Self and Subjectivity in First Person Documentary edited by Alisa Lebow (2012):

I want to talk here about my experience making [an autobiographical] documentary, Fotografias (2007).

… the events and encounters documented in India [Di Tella’s mother was born there] have to be at the service of telling the story of what happened to ‘me’ (the figure of the documentarist documented) in that experience of constructing an identity.

And who cares about that identity or about what happens or fails to happen to me? Answer: only the audience. There is a kind of complaint directed at authors of personal or autobiographical documentaries, as if we were egotists or victims of extreme narcissism. (There is surely narcissism at work. How could there not be? But curiously nobody talks about a worrying lack of self-esteem or a negation of intimacy when a filmmaker makes one of the more ‘objective’ or ‘social’ kind of documentaries). I really think it is the other way round. To put into a film autobiographical substance, to sacrifice one’s own family, to expose intimacies of experience, all of that is ultimately a kind of public offering. An autobiographical documentary is a curious act of responsibility. I assume responsibility for this story. I answer for it with my life. I answer for my ideas about film and art (and life) with my own life. I lay down my own body there, with no surrogates. And of course, in so doing, I confess my limitations. And in this case as a spectator I can bear witness to  having benefitted from the generosity of so many autobiographical projects, so much so that they pushed me towards my own project. Marcel Proust (1954) says the writer offers the reader a sort of optical instrument that allows him to see that which, without the book, he would not be able to see for himself. That the reader recognizes in himself what the book says is proof of the truth of the book.

… What happened is that I returned to Buenos Aires with the material I had recorded on my trip to India and began to tell my friends, my editor, my producer, like one does, all the things that had happened to me there. And I realized that none of what I was talking about was in the material. I  had gone there with a difficult idea to put in  practice: to defy all my fears, the fear of facing the reality of India, the fear of not being able to understand anyone, the fear of losing my son Rocco in the crowd. To have all this in mind, to juggle everything, hoping Rocco would not get sick and that my wife would not feel ill at ease, concerned that the camera crew not get into any trouble, wondering what would happen when I met my mother’s family — my family — which was quite unknown to me … It was all rather difficult to deal with. And at the same time, I was trying to make a film out of all this. It was too much. And to all that, of course, you have to add what was happening to me. During  the entire first week of our stay in India I was unable to sleep. I was in a kind of feverish state. And every day I had to make decisions as to what we were going to shoot. And often I did not have a clue. But I tried to hold on to a plan, which of course did not respond to what was ‘happening’ but rather to what I  had imagined or assumed.

… I had the constant feeling that, in any event, whatever was happening was happening off camera. All the same, the problem was I could never anticipate it. If one day ‘something’ happened during a family dinner, the next day I would ask the crew to attempt to shoot during dinner (which was also, inconveniently, their own dinner) to see if we could catch something. As you can imagine, that evening nothing happened. And so on. It is like the impossible challenge of the documentary: how to record people’s so-called ‘interior’ processes through an exterior record such as that provided by camera and microphone? The challenge therefore passed from the shoot to the editing room. How can you show, in a documentary, what you did not shoot? Or rather — and the distinction is perhaps significant — how does what you shot end up reflecting the experience that you did not shoot? And so: the job was to go back to reviewing the raw footage to see where I could find an echo of the experience, even in my mistakes, in the stuff that at first sight seemed to be of no use.

… I am currently grappling with the ways in which the failure of a project, or the mistake of an idea crashing against reality, can express the truth of that idea or the meaning of that project. And I am always looking for ways of somehow reflecting that failure in the film. (It is not as easy as it seems!) For example, in this film about India, there’s a moment when the cameraman left the camera on, unawares, while I was somewhere else. And he starts complaining about the lack of a plan, that I had arrived late at the shoot and that was intolerable, that we were in India and the director has us waiting somewhere for two hours … That moment reflects better than most of the ‘successful’ material — where we did get what we set out to shoot — the attempt to capture an experience that slips away from my control, the whole idea of trying to understand my mother’s story, why she left  her family and never talked to us about it, all those questions without possible answers. And this unpredictable error, this moment with the cameraman, is where we are perhaps closest to the reality of the experience of making this documentary in India. Which of course was a spectacular failure, in accordance with the impossible ambition behind its making. But failure, as a rule, tends to be more interesting than success.

… The difficulty in the editing room, where I am finishing the film as I write these notes, is to construct a story that tells the tale I wanted to tell — the story of my mother, my reflections about identity, the idea of India — but also that something else, i.e. what happened during the whole process. I have to construct a narrative in relation to all such moments, the ones that did not work according to plan, which on the other hand are the ones that have the most life. I think a documentary must at least convey the feeling that what we are witnessing was not planned.



November 28, 2013

Between Apertures

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… The “core” of representation is the reflexive interval.

… each closure can defy its own closure, opening onto other closures, thereby emphasizing the interval between apertures and creating a space in which meaning remains fascinated by what escapes and exceeds it.

This is from the essay ‘The Totalizing Quest of Meaning’ by Trinh T. Minh-ha (1991) in the collection Theorizing Documentary edited by Michael Renov (1993):

… Reality is more fabulous, more maddening, more strangely manipulative than fiction. To understand this is to recognize the naivety of a development of cinematic technology that promotes increasing unmediated “access” to reality. It is to see through the poverty of what Benjamin deplored as “a truth expressed as it was thought” and to understand why progressive fiction films are attracted and constantly pay tribute to documentary techniques. These films put the “documentary effect” to advantage, playing on the viewer’s expectation in order to “concoct fables.” (Common examples of this effect include: the feeling of participating in a truth-like moment of reality captured despite the filmed subject; the sense of urgency, immediacy, and authenticity in the instability of the handheld camera; the newsreel look of the grainy image; and the oral-testimony-like quality of the direct interview — to mention just a few.)

The documentary can thus easily become a “style”: it no longer constitutes a mode of production or an attitude toward life, but proves to be only an element of aesthetics (or anti-aesthetics) — which at best and without acknowledging it, it tends to be in any case when, within its own factual limits, it reduces itself to a mere category, or a set of persuasive techniques. Many of these techniques have become so “natural” to the language of broadcast television today that they “go unnoticed.” These are, for example: the “personal testimony” technique (a star appears on screen to advertise his/her use of a certain product); the “plain folks” technique (a politician arranges to eat hot dogs in public); the “band wagon” technique (the use of which conveys the message that “everybody is doing it, why not you?”); or the “card stacking technique (in which prearrangements for a “survey” shows that a certain brand of product is more popular than any other to the inhabitants of a given area).

[ … ]

… when not equated with mere techniques of beautifying, aesthetics allows one to experience life differently or, as some would say, to give it “another sense,” remaining in tune with its drifts and shifts.

The myth of science impresses us. But do not confuse science with its scholasticism. Science finds no truths, either mathematized or formalized; it discovers unknown facts that can be interpreted in a thousand ways (Paul Veyne). One of the familiar arguments given by anthropologists to validate the prescriptively instrumental use of film and of people is to dismiss all works by filmmakers who are “not professional anthropologists” or “amateur ethnographers” under the pretext that they are not “anthropologically informed,” hence they have “no theoretical significance from an anthropological point of view.” To advance such a blatantly self-promoting rationale to institute a deadly routine form of filmmaking (to quote a sentence of Marcorelles once more) is also — through anthropology’s primary task of “collecting data” for knowledge of mankind — to try to skirt what is known as the salvage paradigm and the issues implicated in the “scientific” deployment of Western world ownership. The stronger anthropology’s insecurity about its own project, the greater its eagerness to hold up a normative model, and the more seemingly serene its disposition to dwell in its own blind spots.

… Now, obviously, in the process of fixing meaning, not every explanation is valid. This is where the role of the expert anthropologist comes in and where methodologies need to be devised, legitimated, and enforced. For, if a nonprofessional explanation is dismissed here, it is not so much because it lacks insight or theoretical grounding, as because it escapes anthropological control; it lacks the seal of approval from the anthropological order. In the name of science, a distinction is made between reliable and nonreliable information. Anthropological and nonanthropological explanations may share the same subject matter, but they differ in the way they produce meaning. The unreliable constructs are the ones that do not obey the rules of anthropological authority, which a concerned expert like Evans-Pritchard skillfully specifies as being nothing else but “a scientific habit of mind.” Science defined as the most appropriate approach to the object of investigation serves as a banner for every scientific attempt to promote the West’s paternalistic role as subject of knowledge and its historicity of the Same.

… The “core” of representation is the reflexive interval. It is the place in which the play within the textual frame is a play on this very frame, hence on the borderlines of the textual and extratextual, where a positioning within constantly incurs the risk of depositioning, and where the work, never freed from historical and sociopolitical contexts nor entirely subjected to them, can only be itself by constantly risking being no-thing.

… Meaning can neither be imposed not denied. Although every film is in itself a form of ordering and closing, each closure can defy its own closure, opening onto other closures, thereby emphasizing the interval between apertures and creating a space in which meaning remains fascinated by what escapes and exceeds it.

… In the quest for totalized meaning and for knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake, the worst meaning is meaninglessness. A Caucasian missionary nun based in a remote village of Africa qualifies her task in these simple, confident terms: “We are here to help people give meaning to their lives.” Ownership is monotonously circular in its give-and-take demands. It is a monolithic view of the world whose irrationality expresses itself in the imperative of both giving and meaning, and whose irreality manifests itself in the need to require that visual and verbal constructs yield meaning down to their last detail. The West moistens everything with meaning, like an authoritarian religion which imposes baptism on entire peoples (Roland Barthes). Yet such illusion is real; it has its own reality, one in which the subject of Knowledge, the subject of Vision, or the subject of Meaning continues to deploy established power relations, assuming Himself to be the basic reserve of reference in the totalistic quest for the referent, the true referent that lies out there in nature, in the dark, waiting patiently to be unveiled and deciphered correctly. To be redeemed. Perhaps then, an imagination that goes toward the texture of reality is one capable of playing upon the illusion in question and the power it exerts.



November 27, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… Through surrendering to a total discipline a transformation takes place — a transformation that is unpretended and therefore unpretentious.

This is from Between Theater & Anthropology by Richard Schechner (1985):

… Training in Kathakali — as in Noh, classical Western ballet, and so many forms that own a living repertory — is fundamentally a repetition of whatever it is that the training is training for, a very logical preparation but one fundamentally different than that used for contemporary Euro-American theater, mainstream or experimental.

Imitation is the core of Kathakali training — imitation at all levels. A performer is free from imitating only relatively late in his life, and then only under special circumstances. This is different from what Stanislavski saw as the essence of theatrical art (and training) — and from Stanislavski through to almost every nook and cranny of the Western theater world: Meyerhold, Brecht, Strasberg, Spolin, Chaikin, Benedetti, Schechner, Grotowski … just about everybody. Stanislavski:

Let us now return to the definition of the creative road of the actor. Are there any generally accepted and recognized rules which can teach you how “to act”? If I have just told you that an actor can be said to have embarked on the road of creative art only when he finds in himself the never-changing, unshakable, unquenchable love of art which thrives on difficulties, and failures, and which always burns with a steady flame, then will you please tell me this: do you think it is possible to lay down generally accepted rules, according to which every actor can learn “to act,” that is, to express his feelings, in the same way as any other actor? Every man discovers for himself his own germ and his own love of art and sets them free from his creative work by a special and unique method, which constitutes his individual uniqueness and his own secret.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] For this reason the secret of the creative work of one man is of no earthly good to another and cannot be handed to anyone as a model for imitation. For imitation is the most deadly sin of all. It is something that is completely devoid of any creative principle. And by imitation I mean teaching someone to imitate someone else’s voice, or manner, or results, or to give an exact copy of the deportment of a well-known actor. That is not the road of individual creative work, that is to say, it is not the way to awaken in an actor an ever new perception of life and its problems, but the choking up of the purely organic thought by an accidental mode of expression which has become the established manner of one actor. [1962]

Following Stanislavski’s dictum, few Euro-Americans imitate Stanislavski, his way or his exercises; but many use his ideas as “jumping-off places.”

In defense of imitation, Schechner argues:

… At the first level, doing is learning, learning is doing. When my son, Sam, was two years old and wanted to be carried, he’d say, “Pick you up.” This was because people called him by “you” and he thought “you” meant “Sam.” When I corrected him and said, “No, pick me up,” he’d get angry. “Not me, daddy, you!” Then I’d laugh and play according to his logic. Finally, after much repeating and the passing of some weeks, he said, “Pick me up.” It was still later that he got the difference between “me” and “you” — a difference that depends entirely on usage within context. Well, this is a model of learning by direct experience, the kind of learning done at the Kalamandalam and in Noh. Only after repeated use — and only from the inside-by-experience — can the learning performer know what a technique “means.” Long before that illumination happens, he knows how to use the technique. To demand to “know” before one can “do” often retards the learning process. It locates the learning in the head before it gets into the body. Too often, when I conduct a workshop, I am barraged by “why” questions when at the first stages of work the questions should all be “what” and “how.”

… [Stanislavski’s] methods were not frozen; over more than thirty years they changed considerably. The changes are noteworthy in that the tendency was to leave behind subjective/psychologistic interior training and move toward what Stanislavski called his “method of physical action.” This method combined elements of concrete physical work familiar to those who know the Asian techniques with standard “find-the-motivation” work from Stanislavski’s earlier periods. What Stanislavski wanted to do, ultimately, was to physicalize the psychological work, to make the interior states of mind (intentions, motivations, “through lines” or “spines”) clear by developing for each role a specific physical score.

[ … ]

… According to Cage, theater is made by using one of two frames: either by the viewer looking at a subject “as theater” or by performers “intending to make” theater. Usually these two are joined, as when people go to a theater to watch a play. But Cage says the two can function independently of each other, and that the presence of either one is enough to make theater happen. So theater that is truly “in the mind of” the observer can occur without any training, rehearsal preparation — or even knowledge on the part of the “performers” that they are performing.

In my 1965 interview with Cage I tried to challenge this definition. At the time I found it too inclusive. Cage had been talking about watching simply what was happening on a beach as theater.

Schechner: Isn’t the difference between the beach and the theater that the beach is not rehearsed and the theater is? The thing that bothers me about the happenings I’ve seen is that they were obviously rehearsed but badly done. Either they shouldn’t have been rehearsed, or they shouldn’t have gone half way. …

Cage: I couldn’t be in greater agreement. If there are intentions then there should be every effort made to realize those intentions. Otherwise carelessness takes over. However, if one is able to act in a way that doesn’t have intentions in it, then there is no need for rehearsal. This is what I’m working on now: to do something without benefit of measurement, without benefit of the sense that now that this is finished we can go on to the next thing.

Cage’s thinking is somewhat out of style in the eighties. But it keeps, for me, its importance. He reminds us that there is no such thing as structureless behavior: rhythm, sequence, intensity, progression do not depend on intentions.

[ … ]

… My experiences in Asia have helped me grasp the creative process differently than I had when I knew only Euro-American theater. I have come to know the body as the source of theatrical thought as well as a means of expression. I experienced a confluence of theater, dance, and music: they became transformed into the consciousness of action, movement, and sound. I felt, as Suzuki does, that “the word is an act of the body.” And I know what Phillip Zarrilli means when he reflects upon changes wrought in his being through training in Kalarippayatt, a Karala martial art closely related to Kathakali training.

In the course of these six years of nearly daily practice of a  highly disciplined form of Indian movement, my initial ineptitude, my initially sore muscles, and my total ignorance of the important implications of all I’d been learning gave way to an experience of such movement forms [as Kalarippayatt and Kathakali] which is totally the opposite: “flow,” “release,” “psycho-physical integration,” are but a few of the terms I use to describe my present experience of Kalarippayatt. … Visitors would come [to Minneapolis] where I was teaching at the time to observe and talk. [Musician-dancer] Meredith Monk said: “you suddenly became a warrior-hero, right before my eyes.” I hadn’t expected her comment. In fact, I had only been “doing the exercises,” or “manipulating the weapon,” exactly as taught. I hadn’t consciously tried to “act” the warrior-hero. … There had been no pretence or artifice, no “playing at.”

Through surrendering to a total discipline a transformation takes place — a transformation that is unpretended and therefore unpretentious. This state of performed actuality is very appealing to people who want to perform their passions precisely but without the phoniness associated with “acting.” As choreographer Carol Martin remarked: “I really don’t like acting — it’s such an incredibly old-fashioned thing to do.”

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



November 26, 2013

Being Disconcerted

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… Despite certain qualms, you relish your helplessness in the matter, you relish the fact that in art things happen of their own accord and not yours, that you have to like things you don’t want to like, and dislike things you do want to like. You acquire an appetite not just for the disconcerting but the state of being disconcerted.

This is from the essay ‘Complaints of an Art Critic’ (1967) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 4, edited by John O’Brian (1993):

… Aesthetic judgments are given and contained in the immediate experience of art. They coincide with it; they are not arrived at afterwards through reflection or thought. Aesthetic judgments are also involuntary: you can no more choose whether or not to like a work of art than you can choose to  have sugar taste sweet or lemons sour. (Whether or not aesthetic judgments are honestly reported is another matter.

Because aesthetic judgments are immediate, intuitive, undeliberate, and involuntary, they leave no room for the conscious applications of standards, criteria, rules, or precepts. That qualitative principles or norms are there somewhere, in subliminal operation, is certain; otherwise aesthetic judgments would be purely subjective, and that they are not is shown by the fact that the verdicts of those who care most about art and pay it the most attention converge over the course of time to form a consensus. Yet these objective qualitative principles, such as they are, remain hidden from discursive consciousness: they cannot be defined or exhibited. This is why such a thing as a position or standpoint cannot be maintained in the judgment of art. A position, a point of view, depends on definable or exhibitable qualitative criteria, and the entire experience of art shows that there are none. Art can get away with anything because there is nothing to tell us what it cannot get away with — and there is nothing to tell us what it cannot get away with because art had, and does, get away with anything.

Of all the imputations to which this art critic has been exposed, the one he minds most is that his aesthetic judgments go according to a position or “line.” There are various reasons for this imputation, not least among them being, I suppose, the flat, declarative way in which he tends to write. But there is also a general reluctance, or even inability, to read closely, and an equally general tendency to assign motives. The only way to cope with this is the tedious one of disclaiming explicitly and repeatedly all the things you, the writer, are not actually saying or implying. And maybe in addition to that you have to call attention repeatedly to the rules of inference. And also pause to give little lessons in elementary aesthetics, like the one I have just recited.

To impute a position or line to a critic is to want, in effect, to limit  his freedom. For a precious freedom lies in the very involuntariness of aesthetic judging: the freedom to be surprised, taken aback, have your expectations confounded, the freedom to be inconsistent and to like anything in art as long as it is good — the freedom, in short, to let art stay open. Part of the excitement of art, for those who attend to art regularly, consists, or should, in this openness, in this inability to foresee reactions. You don’t expect to like the busyness of Hindu sculpture, but on closer acquaintance become enthralled by it (to the point even of preferring it to the earlier Buddhist carving). You don’t, in 1950, anticipate anything generically new in geometrical-looking abstract painting, but then see Barnett Newman’s first show. You think you know the limits of 19th-century academic art, but then come across Stobbaerts in Belgium, Etty and Dyce in England, Hayez in Italy, Waldmueller in Austria, and still others. The very best art of this time continues to be abstract but the evidence compels you to recognize that below this uppermost level success is achieved still, by a far higher proportion of figurative than of abstract painting. When jurying you find yourself having to throw out high-powered looking abstract pictures and keeping in trite-looking landscapes and flower pieces. Despite certain qualms, you relish your helplessness in the matter, you relish the fact that in art things happen of their own accord and not yours, that you have to like things you don’t want to like, and dislike things you do want to like. You acquire an appetite not just for the disconcerting but the state of being disconcerted.

This does not mean that the situation of art at any moment is one of disorder. Time and place always impose a certain kind of order in the form of negative probabilities. Thus it appears unlikely that illusionist painting will be any more capable in the near future than in the recent past of creating truly major art. But the critic cannot proceed confidently on this probability, and least of all can he have a stake in it, so that he will be embarrassed or disappointed if it should chance to be violated (which it happens to be my very private prejudice to want to see happen). You cannot legitimately want or hope for anything from art except quality. And you cannot lay down conditions for quality. However and wherever it turns up, you have to accept it. You have your prejudices, your leanings and inclinations, but you are under the obligation to recognize them as that and keep them from interfering.

… The dishonest reporting of aesthetic experience is what does most to accustom us to the notion that aesthetic judgments are voluntary. Not only are you ashamed to say that a Norman Rockwell may move you more than a Raphael does (which can happen); you are also afraid simply to sound inconsistent — this because it is also taken for granted that aesthetic judgments are rational as well as voluntary, that they are weighed and pondered. Yet rational conclusions can no more be chosen than aesthetic ones can. Thus even if aesthetic judgments could be arrived at through ratiocination, they would still be involuntary — as involuntary as one’s acceptance of the fact that 2 plus 2 equals 4.



November 25, 2013

We Have a People In Mind

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:59 am

… We have a people in mind who make history, change the world and themselves. We have in mind a fighting people, and therefore an aggressive concept of what is popular.

… For time flows on, and if it did  not, it would be a bad prospect for those who do not sit at golden tables. Methods become exhausted, stimuli no longer work. New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change.

This is from ‘Popularity and Realism’ by Bertolt Brecht; written in 1938 (but not published until much later):

… Let us recall that the people were for long held back from any full development by powerful institutions, artificially and forcefully gagged by conventions, and that the concept popular was given an ahistorical, static, undevelopmental stamp [i.e. folktales and fables]. We are not concerned with the concept in this form — or rather, we have to combat it.

Our concept of what is popular refers to a people who not only play a full part in historical development but actively usurp it, force its pace, determine its direction. We have a people in mind who make history, change the world and themselves. We have in mind a fighting people, and therefore an aggressive concept of what is popular.

… We must not derive realism as such from particular existing works, but we shall use every means, old and new, tried and untried, derived from art and derived from other sources, to render reality to men in a form they can master.

… we shall allow the artist to employ his fantasy, his originality, his humor, his invention, in following [the precepts of realism].

… we shall acknowledge that there are works which are sensuously written and which are not realistic, and realistic works which are not written in a sensuous style.

… Realism is not a mere question of form. Were we to copy the style of these realists, we would  no longer be realists.

For time flows on, and if it did  not, it would be a bad prospect for those who do not sit at golden tables. Methods become exhausted, stimuli no longer work. New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change. Nothing comes from nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new.

The oppressors do not work in the same way in every epoch. They cannot be defined in the same fashion at all times. There are so many means for them to avoid being spotted. They call their military roads motor-ways; their tanks are painted so that they look like MacDuff’s woods. Their agents show blisters on their hands, as if they were workers. No: to turn the hunter into the quarry is something that demands invention. What was popular yesterday is not today, for the people today are not what they were yesterday.

Anyone who is not a victim of formalistic prejudices knows that the truth can be suppressed in many ways and must be expressed in many ways.

… The criteria for popular art and realism must … be chosen both generously and carefully, and not drawn merely from existing realistic works and existing popular works, as often happens; by so doing, one would arrive at formalistic criteria, and at popular art and realism in form only.

Whether a work is realistic or not cannot be determined merely by checking whether or not it is like existing works which are said to be realistic, or were realistic, in their time. In each case, one must compare the depiction of life in a work of art with the life itself that is being depicted, instead of comparing it with another depiction. [ … ] There is not only such a thing as being popular, there is also the process of becoming popular.

If we wish to have a living and combative literature, which is fully engaged with reality and fully grasps reality, a truly popular literature, we must keep step with the rapid development of reality. The great working masses are already on the move. The industry and brutality of their enemies is proof of it.



November 24, 2013

The Space of Our Minds

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:59 am

… We attend to aspects of its appearance that we like or dislike, and then, as did the painters of old, we make our own fable of its reality in the space of our minds. But perspective denies this.

… The heart of the moment eludes us because this new geometry only acknowledges objects, forms, appearances which have cluttered the instant.

This is from the essay ‘Time and the Timeless in Quattrocento Painting’ (1959) in The Lure and the Truth of Painting: Selected Essays on Art by Yves Bonnefoy (1995):

… Misled by the notion that the main concern of perspective was to depict space, people have, I think, failed to emphasize its principal characteristic, which I would call conceptual. Prior to perspective, which is a hypothetical way of reducing the  object to its position in space, the way of representing things was metaphorical and mythical. I mean that the painter would evoke the object through some aspect of the appearance, freely chosen for its analogical character, for the resemblance it bore to the essence he attributed to the object. A rapid sketch of a bird’s profile seemed a legitimate way of naming it, just as the Egyptian hieroglyph was assumed to have done. The stonemason’s scrollwork rendered, through analogy, far more than the external appearance of the vine: it conveyed its inner movement, its temporal élan, in short, its “soul.” And the colors themselves, which derived a spiritual and symbolic aura from the gold background, signified not the accidental fleeting aspect, which is no more than a phantom, but the specific virtue of the thing, the invisible core which, even in day-to-day life, is the only reality.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Is this not, after all, the way we see? We do not see the qualities of a thing but its totality; its look. We attend to aspects of its appearance that we like or dislike, and then, as did the painters of old, we make our own fable of its reality in the space of our minds. But perspective denies this. The effect of bringing precision to the category of space — or perhaps, simply, the concern to think space, separating out spatial perception from our global intuition of reality — fosters an equally futile precision in all aspects of external appearance. In a word, the analysis of sensory qualities replaces the intuition of a fundamental unity. The relation of the image to the model it imitates is reduced to that between a definition, or concept, and a thing. An art of the manifest gives way to conceptual speculation, certainty gives way to hypothesis forever in search of ultimate confirmation. This is the dilemma of perspective, and suddenly that of art itself. Able to render the multiple aspects of a thing, art is, in a sense, the harbinger of reality; but it also, immediately, loses track of reality.

… Perspective, as has often been remarked, leads inevitably to history. But, once again, being eludes it. Whilst the simple tremor of a line, or a blurred profile, can grasp the essence of living time, exact perspective — which, in presenting the reciprocal relation of one thing to another, always relates to just one specific state, offering a cross-section, at one precise moment, of the visible — can retain only vestiges of the moment, petrifying human gestures so that they become, with regard to the lived instant, what the concept is in relation to being. Consider Leonardo’s Last Supper. With remarkable ease, the instrument of perspective resolves the instant into its constituent parts, homing in on the gesture of each apostle, preserving it for oblivion. We can linger, at our leisure, over what was no more than the secret of a single second; but where, exactly, are we, in what sort of world? A world of Ideas and of radiant essences? Surely not: all this is to elaborate, too divided (as Plotinus would say), too particularized. Or are we there with the actors of this scene, witnesses to the unfolding of their drama? Yet, if our minds remain vigilant, why does time seem to be suspended? The truth is that perspective shuts us out in two ways. The heart of the moment eludes us because this new geometry only acknowledges objects, forms, appearances which have cluttered the instant. And the meaning of gestures caught in mid-flight, the meaning of events, escapes us because their past and their future — the élan which carries over from one to the other in the continuous process that characterizes all lived time — are lacking. As a result, whatever explanations which accumulate around them, paintings such as this convey an impression of absence and strangeness. This is the enigma of perspective, always such a vivid experience.

… There is no doubt that it was Brunelleschi’s quasi-mechanical invention [of how to depict perspective] which introduced subjective thought into painting. Because, in place of the received methods which enabled earlier generations of painters to produce images, it provides a universal instrument whose inherent purpose is undisclosed; each painter will grapple with it in his own fashion, betraying his most intimate nature by the way he uses it. As a result, being is to be found in these paintings, if we look for it in the artist’s manner. A sense of being which does stem from real existence — anxious, troubled, pre-Copernican beneath the humanist self-confidence — where Leonardo will lose his way, Mannerism will find delectation, El Greco will derive new strength. One can see why, as the dialectic of styles takes on a spiritual character of the purest kind, painters will henceforth be sharply opposed, and their work mutually illuminating.



November 23, 2013

The Thread

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… Since the first human eye saw a leaf in Devonian sandstone and puzzled finger reached to touch it, sadness has lain over the heart of man.

This is from The Firmament of Time by Loren Eiseley (1960):

… Just as there existed the balanced, self-correcting machine of the heavens, and the balanced, self-renewing machine of the earth, so life was similarly linked in the great chain of unalterable law. All was directly under the foreknowing care of the Divine Being. Nevertheless, by the early eighteenth century it began to be whispered among English naturalists “that many Sorts of Shells are wholly lost, or at least out of our Seas.”

… The hint of extinction in the geological past was like a cold wind out of a dark cellar. It chilled men’s souls. It brought with it doubts of the rational world men had envisaged on the basis of their own minds. It brought suspicions as to the nature of the cozy best-of-all-possible-worlds which had been created specifically for men.

… All the way back into Cambrian time we know that sunlight fell, as it falls now, upon this planet. As Lyell taught, we can tell this by the eyes of fossil sea creatures such as the trilobites. We know that rain fell, as it falls now, upon wet beaches that had never known the step of man. We can read the scampering imprints of the raindrops upon the wet mud that has long since turned to stone. We can view the ripple marks in the sands of vanished coves. In all that time the ways of the inanimate world have not altered; storms and wind, sun and frost, have worked slowly upon the landscape. Mountains have risen and worn down, coast lines have altered. All that world has been the product of blind force and counterforce, the grinding of ice over stone, the pounding of pebbles in the mountain torrents — a workshop of a thousand hammers and shooting sparks in which no conscious hand was ever visible, today or yesterday.

Yet into this world of the machine — this mechanical disturbance surrounded by desert silences — a ghost has come, a ghost whose step must have been as light and imperceptible as the first scurry of a mouse in Cheops’ tomb. Musing over the Archean strata, one can hear and see it in the subcellars of the mind itself, a little green in a fulminating spring, some strange objects floundering and helpless in the ooze on the tide line, something beating, beating, like a heart until a mounting thunder goes up through the towering strata, until no drum that ever was can produce its rhythm, until no mind can contain it, until it rises, wet and seaweed-crowned, an apparition from marsh and tide pool, gross with matter, gurgling and inarticulate, ape and man-ape, grisly and fang-scarred, until the thunder is in oneself and is passing — to the ages beyond — to a world unknown, yet forever being born.

“It is carbon,” says one, as the music fades within his ear. “It is done with the amino acids,” contributes another. “It rots and ebbs into the ground,” growls a realist. “It began in the mud,” criticizes a dreamer. “It endures pain,” cries a sufferer. “It is evil,” sighs a man of many disillusionments.

Since the first human eye saw a leaf in Devonian sandstone and puzzled finger reached to touch it, sadness has lain over the heart of man. By this tenuous thread of living protoplasm, stretching backward into time, we are linked forever to lost beaches whose sands have long since hardened into stone. The stars that caught our blind amphibian stare have shifted far or vanished in their courses, but still that naked, glistening thread winds onward. No one knows the secret of its beginning or its end. Its forms are phantoms. The thread alone is real; the thread is life.

… One thing alone life does not appear to do; it never brings back the past. Unlike lifeless matter, it is historical. It seems to have had a single point of origin and to be traveling in a totally unique fashion in the time dimension. That life was ever a fixed chain without movement was a human illusion; that it leaped as some mystical abstraction from one giant scene of death to another was also an illusion; that geological prophecy proclaimed the coming of man as Elizabethan astrologers read in the heavens the signs of coming events for kings was an even greater fantasy. Instead, species died irregularly like individual men over the long and scattered waste of eons. And as they died they must, as Lyell foresaw, be replaced in as scattered a fashion as their deaths. But what was the secret? Did a voice speak once in a hundred years in some hidden wood so that a nocturnal flower bloomed, or something new and furry ran away into the dark?

Creation and its mystery could no longer be safely relegated to the past behind us. It might now reveal itself to man at any moment in a farmer’s pasture, or a willow thicket. By the comprehension of death man was beginning to glimpse another secret. The common day had turned marvelous. Creation — whether seen or unseen — must be even now about us everywhere in the prosaic world of the present.

My previous post from Eiseley’s book is here.



November 22, 2013

Always Already External

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… what is captured by the camera is always already external to the person filming, and what the first person filmmaker feels about what they’re filming at the moment they feel it is irrelevant. It’s not imaginary, like fiction.

This is from the essay ‘The Role of History in the Individual: Working Notes for a Film’ by Michael Chanan, found in the collection The Cinema of Me: The Self and Subjectivity in First Person Documentary edited by Alisa Lebow (2012):

… The crucial factor is not the word but the presence of a perceptual logic which is the visual equivalent of the voice. The camera is impersonal, it doesn’t say ‘I’ but ‘here is,’ but neither does the essay as a form of writing need the grammatical first person to be able to speak in in individual voice, style, point of view or attitude.

Jean-Pierre Gorin said somewhere that at the core of the film-essay is an interest so intense that it precludes filming it in a straight line; the essay is rumination in Nietzsche’s sense of the word, the meandering of an intelligence (see Gorin cited in Everett in 2009). If the essay film is typified by resistance to generic demands, so Michael Renov (2004) has pointed out, this is because it belongs primarily to the idiom of documentary. As noted earlier, an interloper into the genre system, documentary is a highly permissive form. The essay film is documentary at its freest, favoring symbolic and associative thinking over narrative. But it does this, according to Renov, in a double register: a combination of subjectivity and worldliness. It has a commitment to the representation of the historical real, and enlists its powers of expressivity in the service of historical representation. To put it another way, it speaks through the filmmaker’s subjectivity even as it reproduces the concreteness of the historical document.

… The filmmaker who takes their own family as the subject is inevitably drawn in to the picture themselves, although they can adopt this position without the film necessarily becoming autobiographical, or only minimally so. But inevitably, if I make a film about my family, even if I am trying to focus on the others, it will say something about myself, and the result will be a first person film, however subdued. Annie Griffin played on this inevitability in her brilliant short Out of Reach (1994), where she interviews the members of her family from behind the camera about herself, thus turning out both a portrait of an American family and a self-portrait in which the portraitist is never seen but only heard.

… What do I learn from this? That what is captured by the camera is always already external to the person filming, and what the first person filmmaker feels about what they’re filming at the moment they feel it is irrelevant. It’s not imaginary, like fiction.

The fiction film is full of formulae for generating feelings in the viewer, coded in advance according to the dominant genre in question; indeed these associations are difficult to avoid, although every now and again a director comes along who changes the rules. To the extent that documentary remains true, however, to Ivens’ idea of a ‘creative no-man’s land,’ when the filmmaker sits down to edit, they must confront their material without any preconceptions, but listening and watching, attentive to what it brings. You isolate and concatenate the most telling and pregnant moments, construct a storyline or an argument (but not a plot: then it would become fiction), and what these scenes feel like is liable to change as the editing proceeds. But unless you fall back on formulae dictated by convention and laziness, this is not so much about instructing your viewer what to feel, more about mobilizing their attentiveness, intelligence and curiosity about the world.



November 21, 2013

Fly In the Soup

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… “The physicist is a very objective fellow, but he is very selective. … He tells you precisely and only what he wants you to know. All the rest is irrelevant.”

Direct Cinema … aspired to be a “fly on the wall.” Cinéma Vérité … wanted to be a “fly in the soup … visible for all to notice.”

This is from the essay ‘The Documentary Film as Scientific Inscription’ by Brian Winston in the collection Theorizing Documentary edited by Michael Renov (1993):

… On July 3, 1839, M. François Arago, the radical representative for the East Pyrenees, rose in the Chamber of Deputies to persuade the French government to purchase Daguerre’s patents for the world. In his arguments, he stressed the scientific uses of the apparatus; for instance, to make accurate copies of hieroglyphics and, more generally, for physicists and meteorologists. In short, the camera was to join, as Arago listed them, “the thermometer, barometer, hygrometer,” telescope, and microscope as nothing so much as the latest scientific instruments.

… For Latour, the work of science is to create setups, arrays which produce inscriptions which can be used in texts and scientific papers. “What is behind a scientific test?” he asks. “Inscriptions. How are those inscriptions obtained? By setting up instruments.” And what happens when we are confronted with an instrument? Latour says “we are attending an ‘audio-visual’ spectacle. There is a visual set of inscriptions produced by the instrument and a verbal commentary uttered by the scientist.”

I would like to suggest we have reached a place not unlike that occupied by the viewer of a documentary film.

… As the Encyclopedie française puts it: “The photographic plate does not interpret. It records. Its precision and fidelity cannot be questioned.” However false this might be in practice, the Encyclopedie, without question, accurately sums up the nature of photographic authority, as it is popularly understood. The centrality of this scientific connection to documentary is the most potent (and sole) legitimation for its evidentiary pretentions. Thus, documentarists cannot readily avoid the scientific and evidential because those contexts are “built-in” to the cinematographic apparatus.

… At this level of history and culture, there is no difference between the camera and the, say, thermometer.

… Throughout the sixties, scientism, as it were, triumphs. It is the experimental method and the place of the camera as scientific instrument that provides the context in which the filmmaker/observer emerges — heavily disguised as a fly on the wall.

[INDENT] With this equipment they [the American Direct Cinema school] can approximate quite closely the flexibility of the human senses. This opens up whole new fields of experience; they can follow their subjects almost anywhere, and because of their unobtrusiveness (they need no artificial light) people soon forget the presence of the camera and attain surprising naturalness.

Very quickly, this sort of rhetoric about the new equipment, which implicitly denied the subjectivities of selection and arrangement, took hold: ” … [t]he effort to capture, with portable sound-film equipment, life as it is lived and not as it is re-invented by the traditional cinema.” “The Maysles are more concerned with using their technical skill … to record reality without tampering with or imposing on it.”

… It is not just critics who adopted this position which trades so simplistically on the scientific connection; filmmakers were also happy to make similar claims. Donn Pennebaker: “It’s possible to go to a situation and simply film what you see there, what happens there, what goes on. … And what’s a film? It’s just a window someone peeps through.” Robert Drew: “The filmmaker’s personality is in no way directly involved in directing the action.”

… [In dissent] Jean-Luc Godard, writing in Cahiers, complained:

Leacock and his team do not take account (and the cinema is nothing but the taking of account) that their eye in the act of looking through the viewfinder is at once more and less than the registering apparatus which serves the eye. … Deprived of consciousness, thus, Leacock’s camera, despite its honesty, loses the two fundamental qualities of a camera: intelligence and sensibility.

… As early as 1964, Leacock had already developed a way of deflecting the criticism that claims made for Direct Cinema’s objectivity were too strong:

When you make an electrical measurement of a circuit, you do it with a volt-meter. Now the moment you do that, you change the circuit. Every physicist — and I used to be one — knows this. So you design your volt-meter so that very little goes through it. And in a very sensitive situation you need very much less going through it. … The physicist is a very objective fellow, but he is very selective. He’s much more selective than we are. He tells you precisely and only what he wants you to know. All the rest is irrelevant.

This stance also had the advantage of reendowing the filmmaker with Godardian “intelligence” and “sensibility.”

… There is another way of avoiding being eaten by the worms, whether the Godardian sort, nibbling away at the sensibility issue, or the tu quoque type, attacking on the mediation front; simply take the position of the other side at Lyon.

The French Cinéma Vérité practitioners (as they should be called in contradistinction to their Direct Cinema colleagues) took the objectivity problem on directly and tried to solve it by putting themselves into the films. By eschewing the implicit claim of objectivity that nonreflexive material carries within it, Jean Rouch, Edgar Morin, and (at times ) Chris Marker sought something more limited but, as they hoped, more incontrovertible — the “truth” of their own observation, guaranteed in some way because we, the audience, could observe them apparently in the act of observing.

… With a film like Rouch’s Chronique d’Une Été, Cinéma Vérité tried to close the gap between a rhetoric of subjective witness and the idea of evidence by avoiding transparent production practices.

The direct cinema artist aspired to invisibility; the Rouch cinéma vérité artist was often an avowed participant. The direct cinema artist played the role of an uninvolved bystander; the cinéma vérité artist espoused that of provocateur.

The price was that the only appropriate subject for documentaries appeared to be the making of documentaries; but the seeming advantage was that the supposed mimetic power of the camera to collect evidence was, in the more limited arena Cinéma Vérité created, preserved.

… Anthropology was experiencing something approaching a crisis occasioned not least by the collapsing legitimacy of field work in general and the ethnographer’s monological authority in particular; for example, in France, the classic texts on the Dogon, created by Marcel Griaule, were being subjected to increasing questioning. … It was time to leave Africa and, at home in Paris, deal with some of these questions — the politics of anthropology (“the eldest daughter of colonialism” as Rouch was to call it); the limitations of participant observation (“You distort the answer simply by asking the question”); the usefulness of film as a “note taking tool.”

The French had, then, quite different ambitions for, and understanding of, the new apparatus. As anthropologists and sociologists, rather than physicists, journalists, and lawyers, they had perhaps the advantage of a more sophisticated conception of the problems raised by participant observation and other fieldwork issues.

… As Morin indicated, pace the caveats, they were still after some type of “truth,” however problematic. [Morin and Rouch’s film] Chronique, Morin wrote, “is research. … This research concerns real life.”

… The scientific status of the image is, therefore, still in play — as was understood by Lucien Goldmann:

[T]he cinema has no autonomy in relation to equivalence with reality except in so far as it wishes to be seen as a means of aesthetic creation. Which is to say that at the same time as acknowledging the value of experience and testimony represented by Morin and Rouch’s film, we are afraid that right from the start it is very close to the limits of this kind of film, and that scientific truth, cinematic realism and aesthetic value are precisely beyond these limits.

At the end of Chronique, walking the halls of the Musée de l’Homme [which the film is about], Morin sums up by saying, “Nous sommes dans le bain” — “We’re implicated.” And they are — just as much as any Direct Cinema filmmaker. Direct Cinema (for all its caveats) aspired to be a “fly on the wall.” Cinéma Vérité, as Henry Breitrose notes, wanted to be a “fly in the soup … visible for all to notice.” Cinéma Vérité might luxuriate in revealing its processes, allowing for a claim that the work is personal, “signed,” and mediated in an open and above-board fashion. But the gesture becomes hollow because the spirit of Arago yet hovers over the enterprise, urging us to believe that what we see is evidence, evidence of documentarists making a documentary.

… It is now clear that François Arago did not, after all, give the world a species of thermometer when he argued for the state acquisition of the Daguerre patents. We should never have believed him in the first place.



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