Unreal Nature

January 31, 2014

The Notion of the Boundary

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

“… many post-structuralists would reject any kind of notion of the essence, or would say that the perception of something like the soul is just the engine of language throwing off heat, a simultaneous by-product that’s not active or operational in any way.”

This is from ‘Interview with Michael Nash’ (1990) in the collection of writings, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 by Bill Viola (1995):

… When I started making videos I was caught up with the current issues of the day, structuralism being probably the most dominant. This was in the early 1970s. A lot of my work ostensibly started out by trying to prove something, much like a scientist does. You start with a premise or hypothesis or an observation and you want to create an arena that acts as a symbolic representation of that aspect of the world in you. The idea of the controlled experiment is what I think a lot of early performance and conceptual art was very much taking on — that kind of pragmatic positivistic approach of the experiment that exists in a kind of rarefied state outside normal existence. But video would not let me do that because the camera, as it was evolving, became better and more portable, and all of a sudden you could take this thing outdoors instead of working within the confines of the electronic studio. I found that you could just take a camera outside, walk down the street, bring it back, and then integrate it into this electronic domain. You would just take life as it comes, which is what happens when you take the lens cap off.

[ … ]

I would say that more than any other artist working in video, perhaps as much as any contemporary artist I can think of, your work asserts and elaborates upon the life of the soul. The idea of soul-life is not very much in theoretical vogue these days — many post-structuralists would reject any kind of notion of the essence, or would say that the perception of something like the soul is just the engine of language throwing off heat, a simultaneous by-product that’s not active or operational in any way. What is your theory of the soul, and how is it reflected in your work? Or is it possible to assign to your thinking about the soul a notion like a theory?

No, I don’t think you can assign a notion like a theory to it, because the reason that I make my work is to understand. I don’t make my work to explain, to describe, or to state a position. I think this is a very big difference from science, because when scientists go out to prove something they’re functioning exactly like lawyers who have a premise, and they’re going to prove that premise, using the rules of the legal system. For the scientist, a set of relationships and interactions we call the laws of nature exist to be manipulated in one’s favor in order to prove whatever is one’s point. So it’s sort of dead thought in which we’ve come to exist, and it’s one of the detriments of the evolution of logical empiricism. The Cartesian method was a major revolution in consciousness, no question about it, but as we’re coming to its back-water period, you find that this way of thought has taken over to such an extent that people tend to approach life in those terms.

Then you have another type of scientist, who isn’t going out to prove anything, but is just going out to learn something. All great scientific discoveries are accompanied by this kind of humility that is experienced when whatever thoughts, ideas, and preconceptions one has had in one’s mind are completely blown away by seemingly incongruous and inexplicable behaviors of the natural world. That’s the magic. I have questions and I’m interested in why things are certain ways.

[ … ]

… The notion of the boundary is a fundamental part of the structure of human consciousness. Finitude is really the essence of what being alive is all about. A baby is born, and immediately mortality has been created before your eyes. … Often I’ve used water as a metaphor, the surface both reflecting the outer world and acting as a barrier to the other world. Without limits there is no energy created; physicists have taught us that limits create energy. If you have someone who believes in everything, then he doesn’t believe in anything at all.



January 30, 2014

Its Own Performative Agenda

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… Documentary now widely acknowledges and formally engages with its own constructedness, its own performative agenda …

Final post from New Documentary, Second Edition by Stella Bruzzi (2000, 2006). Here she’s summing up by taking a look at how recent documentaries are trending. She uses four examples: I’m choosing bits from two of them:

… Any documentary filmmaker who prioritizes style as well as content (not necessarily style over content) is still readily damned, as if a distinctive and non-realist mise-en-scène by its very nature obscures, even represses reality. The tabloid portion of Hoberman’s critique [of Errol Morris’s film, The Fog of War] is probably referring to images such as the creative graphic sequence in which numbers superimposed onto aerial black and white footage of the firebombing of Japan during World War II fall like bombs towards the ground. In interview Morris has professed to being particularly proud of this sequence:

I love the falling numbers over Japan, the whole sequence of the firebombing of Japan. And McNamara is telling you a very, very, very powerful story, a very important story. But I like to think that it’s been communicated visually. The voice-over, the visuals combine in a way that a story is told. History can easily become overburdened by details. And so, in telling history, you have to chart a course through a morass of material. You have to tell a story, and you have to communicate the story powerfully.

This comment gives both the essence of Morris’s style and the likely reason for people not liking The Fog of War. Morris does not want simply to convey a story verbally or through purely illustrative archive material; he uses reconstruction, computer graphics and traditionally cinematic techniques such as intricate lighting and an intrusive, repetitive score to create an evocative synthesis of what he considers his overall story to be. Morris’s documentaries offer his spectator immense visual pleasure. However, his critics would argue that such sumptuousness diverts attention from the films’ superficiality (as Hoberman says: the beauty of The Fog of War is ‘skin deep’), Morris serving their cause well by making remarks such as ‘History can easily become overburdened by details,’ as if the aesthetically pleasing conjunction of visual and historical material takes automatic priority over detail. Another feature of The Fog of War that makes it especially vulnerable to such attacks is the use of the ‘eleven lessons.’ These are Morris‘ lessons (another attempt at helpful synthesis?) not McNamara’s, as the latter has stated, and they help to divide up — appearing as intertitles — the otherwise sprawling and unchronological subject matter. As Indiana rails, the eleven lesson ‘range from clichés as old as von Clausewitz … to specious dicta … to secular mysticism … to corporate-training-manual exhortations.’ The ‘lesson’ that introduces the firebombing sequence (‘Maximize Efficiency’) Indiana places within the final category.

[image from Wikipedia]

[ … ]

… Documentary is commonly thought of as a cerebral, intellectual genre (Bill Nichols’ notion of a ‘discourse of sobriety’); quite often it is virtually the opposite: emotion-driven, sensual and — in that it sometimes asks its spectator to respond to it spontaneously on a gut, almost physical emotive level — primal in its appeal. This is the case with the final, longest section of Touching the Void, which is structured around a trio of emotions and emotive situations: the immense physical effort needed and the danger to Simpson of finding a way out of the crevasse then dragging himself down Siula Grande to base camp, his despair at believing he is going to die and the final elation as he is discovered by Hawking and Yates. At a couple of key moments (when Simpson describes being on the point of death and when he has been rescued and taken to base camp) the exhausting drama of Simpson’s epic bid for survival is temporarily broken by humor. In that we find ourselves laughing out loud, these interruptions in themselves prompt non-cerebral responses, thereby facilitating the release of some of the tension and anxiety generated by our enforced and prolonged identification with Simpson during his painful descent of the mountain. What Macdonald does  here is to mix catharsis with a complex and sudden reversal of not fortune, but emotion.

[image from Wikipedia]

[ … ]

… What is interesting about [these films] historically is that they represent an important moment in documentary history when, among cinema audiences, some non-fiction films rivalled their fiction counterparts for popularity.

…When the first edition of [this book] appeared [in 2000] it was still the case that a substantial portion of documentary output on television or in the cinema had its roots in observation, the one clear and consistent exception being the historical archive-based documentary. The relative marginalization of observation since 2000 logically has occurred at a time when the inherent drama of documentary  has been increasingly sought and exploited, a shift illustrated by a number of things: the omnipresence of dramatic reconstruction in historical documentaries, the dominance on television of sellable and reusable generic formats and even the tailoring of ostensibly observational material to suit the predetermined script or drama …

… As John Corner has remarked in relation to post-millenial television documentary, we are now in a ‘post-documentary’ era. Rather than categorize recent developments in documentary as ‘post’ documentary, I would argue that it is more constructive to view these changes as symptomatic of documentary’s renewed (for this is not an entirely unprecedented phenomenon) interest in the more overt forms of performativity: reconstruction, acknowledgement of and interplay with the camera, image manipulation, performance. Documentary now widely acknowledges and formally engages with its own constructedness, its own performative agenda; it is not that reality has changed, but rather the ways in which documentary — mainstream as well as independent — has chosen to represent it.

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



January 29, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… The beautiful is the consummate flower of the muddled search for meaning by men and women alive in the full complexity of their mutual attraction and repulsion …

This is from the essay ‘Dewey, Dilthey, and Drama: An Essay in the Anthropology of Experience’ by Victor W. Turner found in The Anthropology of Experience edited by Turner and Edward M. Bruner (1986):

… Meaning arises when we try to put what culture and language have crystallized from the past together with what we feel, wish, and think about our present point in life.

… There is a dichotomy here which Wilhelm Dilthey immediately seized upon in his distinction between mere “experience” and “an experience.” Mere experience is simply the passive endurance and acceptance of events. An experience, like a rock in a Zen sand garden, stands out from the evenness of passing hours and years and forms what Dilthey called a “structure of experience.” In other words, it does not have an arbitrary beginning and ending, cut out of the stream of chronological temporality, but has what Dewey called “an initiation and a consummation.” Each of us has had certain “experiences” which have been formative and transformative, that is, distinguishable, isolable sequences of external events and internal responses to them such as initiations into new lifeways (going to school, first job, joining the army, entering the marital status), love affairs, being caught up in some mode of what Emile Durkheim called “social effervescence” (a political campaign, a declaration of war, a cause célèbre such as the Dreyfus Affair, Watergate, the Iranian hostage crisis, or the Russian Revolution). Some of these formative experiences are highly personal, others are shared with groups to which we belong by birth or choice. Dilthey saw such experiences as having a temporal or processual structure — they “processed” through distinguishable stages. Moreover, they involved in their structuring at every moment and phase not simply thought structuring but the whole human vital repertoire of thinking, willing, desiring, and feeling, subtly and varyingly interpenetrating on many levels. A cognitive Occam’s razor, reducing all to bloodless abstractions (if one can visualize a bloodless razor), would simply make no human sense here.

These experiences that erupt from or disrupt routinized, repetitive behavior begin with shocks of pain or pleasure. Such shocks are evocative: they summon up precedents and likenesses from the conscious or unconscious past — for the unusual has its traditions as well as the usual. Then the emotions of past experiences color the images and outlines revived by present shock. What happens next is an anxious need to find meaning in what has disconcerted us, whether by pain or pleasure, and converted mere experience into an experience. All this when we try to put past and present together.

… Today, unfortunately, culture insists that we must assume the post-Renaissance burden of working each meaning out for ourselves, one by one, unassisted, unless we choose the system woven by another individual no more corporately legitimate than we, as individuals are. This is possibly a major difference between theater today and earlier kinds of theater, insofar as theater is a cultural mirroring of the meaning-seeking process at the public, generalizing level. Earlier theater removed the burden of meaning assignment from the individual to the group, though the tragic painfulness resulted then from the individual’s physical terror, or at least extreme reluctance in the face of social duty whose fulfillment might mean physical or mental torment or death.

In Dilthey’s view, experience urges toward expression, or communication with others. We are social beings, and we want to tell what we have learned from experience. The arts depend on this urge to confession or declamation. The hard-won meanings should be said, painted, danced, dramatized, put into circulation.

… The beautiful is the consummate flower of the muddled search for meaning by men and women alive in the full complexity of their mutual attraction and repulsion in war, worship, sex, economic production, and the marketplace.

As some of you know, I have been much concerned in my work with a specific kind of unit of experience, what I call “social drama.” This has protoaesthetic form in its unfolding. In many field situations in markedly different cultures, in my experience of Western social life, and in numerous historical documents, we can clearly discern a community’s movement through time as taking a shape to which we can hardly deny the epithet “dramatic.” A person or subgroup breaks a rule, deliberately or by inward compulsion, in a public setting. Conflicts between individuals, sections, and factions follow the original breach, revealing hidden clashes of character, interest, and ambition. These mount toward a crisis of the group’s unity and continuity unless rapidly sealed off by redressive public action, consensually undertaken by the group’s leaders, elders, or guardians. Redressive action is often ritualized and may be undertaken in the name of law or religion. Judicial processes stress reason and evidence; religious processes emphasize ethical problems, hidden malice operating through witchcraft, or ancestral wrath against breaches of taboo or the impiety of the living toward the dead. If a social drama runs its full course, the outcome (or “consummation,” as Dewey might have called it) may be either the restoration of peace and “normalcy” among the participants or social recognition of irremediable breach or schism.

Of course this model, like all models, is subject to manifold manipulations.

… ritual and its progeny, notably the performance arts, derive from the subjunctive, liminal, reflexive, exploratory heart of social drama, where the structures of group experience (Erlebnis) are replicated, dismembered, re-membered, refashioned, and mutely or vocally made meaningful — even when, as is so often the case in declining cultures, “the meaning is that there is no meaning.” True theater is the experience of “heightened vitality,” to quote Dewey again. “At its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events.” When this happens in a performance, what may be produced is what d’Aquili and Laughlin call a “brief ecstatic state and sense of union (often lasting only a few seconds) [which] may often be described as no more than a shiver running down the back at a certain point.” A sense of harmony with the universe is made evident and the whole planet is felt to be communitas. This shiver has to be won, though, to be a “consummation,” after working through a tangle of conflicts and disharmonies. Theater best of all exemplifies Thomas Hardy’s dictum, “If a way to the better there is, it exacts a full look at the worst.” Ritual or theatrical transformation can scarcely occur otherwise.



January 28, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… he suppressed shadows and dark and light shading …, feeling that shadows obscured the essential forms of objects and the logic of their relations in space, while shading dulled the natural and desirable liveliness of color.

… he felt so strongly the need to enhance the unity and decorative force of the surface design that he let himself sacrifice the realism of the illusion to it.

This is from the essay ‘Cézanne: Gateway to Contemporary Painting’ (1952) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 3, edited by John O’Brian (1993):

… People complained, for the most part wrongly, that the paintings of the Impressionists lacked form and solidity.

Of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) it is often said that he remedied this lack — which is another error, in my opinion. But it can at least be said that he made the relative flatness of the Impressionist picture a solid and more powerful one.

Cézanne’s aim was to carry over the frank, liberated color of the Impressionists into pictures that would be as firmly and lucidly put together as those of an Old Master like Raphael or Poussin. He would use the color method of the Impressionists to show the surfaces of things not as mere catchers and reflectors of light, but as enclosing masses and volumes and stopping the flow of empty space. Then the picture would look more compact and monumental than the blurred, melting rectangle of the Impressionists (which had a virtue of its own nonetheless)); its parts would be fitted together more tightly, interlocked like t hose of a watch’s mechanism. The Impressionists had crosshatched or juxtaposed little dabs of pure color to get their effects; Cézanne got his with loose rows of squarish, more regular brushstrokes, each of which by its difference in color (not necessarily pure or uniform) indicated a change of direction or plane in the surface of the object shown. He followed the Impressionists, however, in concentrating on the main masses and shapes of the theme from which he painted, to the neglect of minor and “realistic” details. But whereas in the Impressionist case these were obliterated by the play of daylight, in his they were erased solely in order to make the relations of planes clearer. Cézanne, once he found his final path, had lost interest in light effects.

Paul Cézanne, The Brook, 1900 [image from WikiPaintings]

The outcome for him was a paradox that has invited misinterpretation. He painted some very great pictures, of a monumentality and a radiance of paint substance without parallel; and it is true that these conveyed an impression of greater depth, weight, and mass than the pictures of the Impressionists. Yet in another sense they looked even flatter. His strongly marked and uniform brushstroke called attention to the physical surface of the canvas; his preference for direct frontal views and his way of changing the outlines and positions of objects, so that they were tipped up, with an unnaturally  high horizon line, and presented a broader and simpler set of planes to the eye, tended to close up the illusion of free space and push everything forward; furthermore, he made his backgrounds just as emphatic as the objects in the foreground. Last but not least, he suppressed shadows and dark and light shading just as much in his way as the Impressionists had in theirs, feeling as much in his way as the Impressionists had in theirs, feeling that shadows obscured the essential forms of objects and the logic of their relations in space, while shading dulled the natural and desirable liveliness of color.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Cézanne did try to shade, much more than the Impressionists did, but with “natural,” frank color; yet the very freshness and warmth of this color tended to negate its purpose. It was supposed to show planes that receded, but light, bright, or “warmer” colors give the effect of coming forward. Cézanne tried to counteract this and resolve the contradiction by digging around the contours of objects — which represent their furthest points of recession from the eye — with deep blue lines, blue being a “cold” or receding color. But the contradiction, or ambiguity, was only heightened thereby — happily, I feel, for this ambiguity is precisely one of the largest sources of pleasure in art. Herein lay its solid flatness, or flat solidity, and it was from this that Picasso and Braque, as Cubists, took their point of departure in 1908, shortly after Cézanne’s death, and went on to produce what is still the greatest painting of the two or three generations since.

Paul Cézanne, Bend in the Forest Road, 1906 [image from WikiPaintings}

But if Cézanne was so interested in the essential, abiding aspects of nature, why did he alter or distort? Because, fundamentally, there are two main factors in the artist’s attempt to capture on a two-dimensional surface his vision of the three-dimensional world we move and live in. First, there is the illusion itself, or representation, of that world, which is situated within the space that seems to lie below the actual flat surface of the picture; then there is the pattern or design made on the surface itself — which the artist sees when he squints his eyes to judge his own or other artists’ pictures. In all successful painting some attention and care are paid to this last, but the Old Masters were more absorbed by the first and made every effort, as I have already said, to prevent the spectator’s eye from resting too long on the surface. Manet, however, and then Cézanne began, unconsciously for the most part, to shift the emphasis precisely there (where abstract painting has put it almost entirely), and when Cézanne altered contours and proportions in an unrealistic manner, it was largely because he felt so strongly the need to enhance the unity and decorative force of the surface design that he let himself sacrifice the realism of the illusion to it. It was certainly not because he could  not draw well enough.



January 27, 2014

Only to Be Ruined

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:58 am

… if we start from the assumption that new, i.e. ‘other,’ art is in fact never more than the same thing in a new guise, the heart of the problem is exposed.

This is from ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’ by Sol LeWitt (1967):

… When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories, it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless. It is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman. It is the objective of the artist who is concerned with conceptual art to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator, and therefore usually he would want it to become emotionally dry. There is no reason to suppose however, that the conceptual artist is out to bore the viewer. It is only the expectation of an emotional kick, to which one conditioned to expressionist art is accustomed, that would deter the viewer from perceiving this art.

Conceptual art is not necessarily logical. The logic of a piece or series of pieces is a device that is used at times only to be ruined.

… If the artist carries through his idea and makes it into visible form, then all the steps in the process are of importance. The idea itself, even if not made visual is as much a work of art as any finished product. All intervening steps — scribbles, sketches, drawings, failed work, models, studies, thoughts, conversations — are of interest. Those that show the thought process of the artist are sometimes more interesting than the final product.

… New materials are one of the great afflictions of contemporary art. Some artists confuse new materials with new ideas. There is nothing worse than seeing art that wallows in gaudy baubles.

This next is from ‘Beware’ by Daniel Buren (1969):

… To do away with the object as an illusion — the real problem — through its replacement by a concept [or an idea] — utopian or ideal(istic) or imaginary solution — is to believe in a moon made of green cheese, to achieve one of those conjuring tricks so beloved of twentieth-century art. Moreover it can be affirmed, with reasonable confidence, that as soon as a concept is announced, and especially when it is ‘exhibited as art,’ under the desire to do away with the object, one merely replaces it in fact. The exhibited concept becomes ideal-object, which brings us once again to art as it is, i.e. the illusion of something and not the thing itself.

… Art is the form that it takes. The form must unceasingly renew itself to insure the development of what we call new art. A change of form has so often led us to speak of a new art that one might think that inner meaning and form were/are linked together in the mind of the majority — artists and critics. Now, if we start from the assumption that new, i.e. ‘other,’ art is in fact never more than the same thing in a new guise, the heart of the problem is exposed. To abandon the search for a new form at any price means trying to abandon the history of art as we know it: it means passing from the Mythical to the Historical, from the Illusion to the Real.



January 26, 2014

Neither a Word Nor a Concept

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… to go up and touch the concretion of the world where existence makes sense …

This is from the essay ‘Sense and Truth’ found in The Sense of the World by Jean-Luc Nancy (1993):

That one speaks of sense does not mean that one abandons or disdains the category of truth. But one does shift registers. Truth is being-such [l’être-tel], or more exactly it is the quality of the presentation of being such as such. Sense, for its part, is the movement of being-toward [l’être à], or being as coming into presence or again as transitivity, as passage to presence — and therewith as passage of presence. Coming does not arise out of presentation any more, indeed, than it arises out of nonpresentation.

… sense is necessarily presented as deferred by truth: deferred by or according to différance as invented by Derrida, that is, coming that keeps on coming without arriving, identity whose presence is a precedence and a prepossessing prevention of itself.

… “Neither a word nor a concept,” writes Derrida of différance. This is, in short, the definition of sense, or better, the sense of sense: to be neither word nor concept, neither signifier nor signified, but sending and divergence, and nonetheless (or even for that very reason) to be a gesture of writing, the breaking [frayage] and forcing of an a the entire signification and destination of which (in French the à [or in English the to] of the a) is to exscribe itself: to go up and touch the concretion of the world where existence makes sense. To this degree, there is no truth of différance, or rather, it is the void of its a-semantic truth. But this very (non)truth opens (onto) sense.

… Thus — and this is the example of examples — the sense of the word sense traverses the five senses, the sense of direction, common sense, semantic sense, divinatory sense, sentiment, moral sense, practical sense, aesthetic sense, all the way to that which makes possible all these senses and all these senses of “sense,” their community and their disparity, which is not sense in any of these senses, but in the sense of that which comes to sense. From touching, from the “mere” contact between two things (as soon as there is something, there are several things, and there is the being-toward of one thing toward the other), all the way to the general, the absolute signifyingness or significance of a world as world, there is one sole coming, the same, never identical, one sole sense presencing (itself) or pre-sensing (itself), that is, deferring (itself) in its very truth. Differing/deferring signifyingness.

That last paragraph is quintessential Nancy. He loves to roll a word over and over, ostensibly to tumble ever more juice out of it, but, I suspect, just as much for the pure pleasure of it.



January 25, 2014

Skipping and Hopping and Flying

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… The weight of a petal has changed the world and made it ours.

This is from How Flowers Changed the World by Loren Eiseley (1996). I’m sure you all know this story, but I like hearing it again. And again:

If it had been possible to observe the earth from the far side of the solar system over the long course of geological epochs, the watchers might have been able to discern a subtle change in the light emanating from our planet. The world of long ago would, like the red deserts of Mars, have reflected light from vast drifts of stone and gravel, the sands of wandering wastes, the blackness of naked basalt, the yellow dust of endlessly moving storms. Only the ceaseless marching of the clouds and the intermittent flashes from the restless surface of the sea would have told a different story, but still essentially a barren one. Then, as the millennia rolled away and age followed age, a new and greener light would, by degrees, have come to twinkle across those endless miles.

… In those first ages plants clung of necessity to swamps and watercourses. Beyond the primitive ferns and mosses that enclosed the borders of swamps and streams the rocks still lay vast and bare, the winds still swirled the dust of a naked planet. The grass cover that holds our world secure in place was still millions of years in the future. The green marchers had gained a soggy foothold upon the land, but that was all. They did not reproduce by seeds but by microscopic swimming sperm that had to wriggle their way through water to fertilize the female cell.

… Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know — even man himself — would never have existed.

… If we were to go back into the Age of Reptiles, its drowned swamps, and birdless forests would reveal to us a warmer but, on the whole, sleepier world than that of today. Here and there, it is true, the serpent heads of bottom-feeding dinosaurs might be upreared in suspicion of their huge flesh-eating compatriots. Tyrannosaurs, enormous bipedal caricatures of men, would stalk mindlessly across the sites of future cities and go their slow way down into the dark of geological time.

In all that world of living things nothing saw save with the intense concentration of the hunt, nothing moved except with the grave sleepwalking intentness of the instinct-driven brain. Judged by modern standards, it was a world of slow motion, a cold-blooded world whose occupants were most active at noonday but torpid on chill nights, their brains damped by a slower metabolism than any known to even the most primitive of warm-blooded animals today.

A high metabolic rate and the maintenance of a constant body temperature are supreme achievements in the evolution of life. They enable an animal to escape, within broad limits, from the overheating or the chilling of its immediate surroundings, and at the same time to maintain a peak mental efficiency. Creatures without a high metabolic rate are slaves to weather. Insects in the first frosts of autumn all run down like little clocks. Yet if you pick one up and breathe warmly upon it, it will begin to move about once more.

… A high metabolic rate, however, means a heavy intake of energy in order to sustain body warmth and efficiency.

… The agile brain of the warm-blooded birds and mammals demands a high oxygen consumption and food in concentrated forms, or the creatures cannot long sustain themselves. It was the rise of the flowering plants that provided that energy and changed the nature of the living world. Their appearance parallels in a quite surprising manner the rise of the birds and mammals.

Slowly, toward the dawn of the Age of Reptiles, something over two hundred and fifty million years ago, the little naked sperm cells wriggling their way through dew and raindrops had given way to a kind of pollen carried by the wind. Our present-day pine forests represent plants of a pollen-disseminating variety. Once fertilization was no longer dependent on exterior water, the march over drier regions could be extended. Instead of spores, the simple primitive seeds carrying some nourishment for the young plant had developed, but true flowers were still scores of millions of years away. After a long period of hesitant evolutionary groping, they exploded upon the world with truly revolutionary violence.

The event occurred in Cretaceous times in the close of the Age of Reptiles. Before the coming of the flowering plants our own ancestral stock, the warm-blooded mammals, consisted of a few mousey little creatures hidden in trees and underbrush. A few lizardlike birds with carnivorous teeth flapped awkwardly on ill-aimed flights among archaic shrubbery. None of these insignificant creatures gave evidence of any remarkable talents. The mammals in particular had been around for some millions of years but had remained well lost in the shadow of the mighty reptiles. Truth to tell, man was still , like the genie in the bottle, encased in the body of a creature about the size of a rat.

… The trees themselves are ancient, slow-growing, and immense, like the redwood groves that have survived to our day on the California coast. All is stiff, formal, upright and green, monotonously green. There is no grass as yet; there are no wide plains rolling in the sun, no tiny daisies dotting the meadows underfoot. There is little versatility about this scene; it is, in truth, a giant’s world.

… The primitive spore, a single cell fertilized in the beginning by a swimming sperm, did not promote rapid distribution, and the young plant, moreover, had to struggle up from nothing. No one had left it any food except what it could get by its own unaided efforts.

By contrast, the true flowering plants (angiosperm itself means “encased seed”) grew a seed in the heart of a flower, a seed whose development was initiated by a fertilizing pollen grain independent of outside moisture. But the seed, unlike the developing spore, is already a fully equipped embryonic plant packed in a little enclosed box stuffed full of nutritious food. Moreover, by featherdown attachments, as in dandelion or milkweed seed, it can be wafted upward on gusts and ride the wind for miles; or with hooks it can cling to a bear’s or a rabbit’s hide; or like some of the berries, it can be covered with a juicy, attractive fruit to lure birds, pass undigested through their intestinal tracts, and be voided miles away.

The ramifications of this biological invention were endless. Plants traveled as they had never traveled before. They got into strange environments heretofore never entered by the old spore plants or still pine-cone-seed plants. The well-fed, carefully cherished little embryos raised their heads everywhere. Many of the older plants with more primitive reproductive mechanisms began to fade away under this unequal contest. They contracted their range into secluded environments. Some, like the giant redwoods, lingered on as relics; many vanished entirely.

The world of the giants was a dying world. These fantastic little seeds skipping and hopping and flying about the woods and valleys brought with them an amazing adaptability. If our whole lives had not been spent in the midst of it, it would astound us. The old, stiff, sky-reaching wooden world had changed into something that glowed here and there with strange colors, put out queer, unheard-of fruits and little intricately carved seed cases, and, most important of all, produced foods in a way that the land had never seen before, or dreamed of back in the fish-eating, leaf-crunching days of the dinosaurs.

[ … ]

… The stolen energy [from hunter / gathering] that would take man across the continents would fail him at last. The great Ice Age herds were destined to vanish. When they did so, another hand like the hand that grasped the stone by the river long ago would pluck a handful of seed and hold it contemplatively.

In that moment, the golden towers of man,  his swarming millions, his turning wheels, the vast learning of his packed libraries, would glimmer dimly there in the ancestor of wheat, a few seeds held in a muddy hand. Without this gift of flowers and the infinite diversity of their fruits, man and bird, if they had continued to exist at all, would be today unrecognizable. Archaeopteryx, the lizard-bird, might still be snapping at beetles on a sequoia limb; man might still be a nocturnal insectivore gnawing a roach in the dark. The weight of a petal has changed the world and made it ours.



January 24, 2014

The Still Turbulence

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… It is the time of an unfinished thought, the time that the painter must go through (not the painting itself) …

This is from Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 by Bill Viola (1995). Each of the below are from different ‘notes’ or essays:

… In my work I have most strongly been aware of the camera as representation of point of view –point of consciousness. Point of view, perceptual location in a space, can be point of consciousness. But I have been interested in how we can move this point of consciousness over and through our bodies and out over the things of the world. I especially identify with artist’s like Rilke’s, location of this point out over the vastness and tremendous distances of open space — it is hard to locate his point of view in the poems if you are looking for it in the usual places. I want to make my camera become the air itself. To become the substance of time and the mind.


… Just glance at an object as you pass it by. This is the physical realm — we avoid bumping into things when in this mode, without really thinking about them. But then grab an object with your eye and stare at it for a long time. It gradually takes over your psyche and becomes your thoughts. This is why duration is an important element in my work — cultivating the ability to see “through” objects.


Rumi, encouraging his students to penetrate beneath the many forms of surface appearance in this world, often used to scream at them and say, “Break the wineglass and fall towards the glassblower’s breath!”


… Once involved with time, it becomes clear that one must also embrace the first stages of an insight as being just as important as the insight itself. This is the state of confusion, unclarity, non-understanding that precedes all creative breakthroughs. It is the time of an unfinished thought, the time that the painter must go through (not the painting itself), the time behind the façade of all great discoveries. The still turbulence of being up alone working at three-thirty in the morning.



January 23, 2014

Modes of Production

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… the film itself is necessarily performative because it is given meaning by the interaction between performance and reality.

… The fundamental issue here is honesty.

This is from New Documentary, Second Edition by Stella Bruzzi (2000, 2006). The current chapter is ‘The performative documentary’:

… this discussion will focus upon documentaries that are performative in the manner identified by [Judith] Butler and others after J.L. Austin — namely that they function as utterances that simultaneously both describe and perform an action. … Examples of words that Austin identifies as being ‘performative utterances’ are ‘I do,’ said within the context of the marriage ceremony, or “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth,’ said whilst smashing a bottle of champagne against the vessel’s side, his reasoning being that ‘in saying what I do, I actually perform that action.’ A parallel is to be found between these linguistic examples and the performative documentary which — whether built around the intrusive presence of the filmmaker or self-conscious performances by its subjects — is the enactment of the notion that a documentary only comes into being as it is performed, that although its factual basis (or document) can pre-date any recording or representation of it, the film itself is necessarily performative because it is given meaning by the interaction between performance and reality.

… the new performative documentaries herald a different notion of documentary ‘truth’ that acknowledges the construction and artificiality of even the non-fiction film. Many theorists would view this reflexivity as breaking with documentary tradition — but this is only valid if one takes as representative of the documentary ‘canon’ films that seek to hide the modes of production.

… A prerequisite of the performative documentary as here defined is the inclusion of a notable performance component, and it is the insertion of such a performance element into a non-fictional context that has hitherto proved problematic. If, however, one returns to Austin’s speech models, then the presumed diminution of the films’ believability becomes less of an issue: what a filmmaker such as Nick Broomfield is doing when he appears on camera and in voice-over, is acting out a documentary. This performativity is based on the idea of disavowal, that simultaneously signals a desire to make a conventional documentary (that is, to give an accurate account of a series of factual events) whilst also indicating, through the mechanisms of performance and Broomfield’s obtrusive presence, the impossibility of the documentary’s cognitive function. Nick Broomfield’s films do this quite literally, as the conventional documentary disintegrates through the course of the film and the performative one takes over. The fundamental issue here is honesty. The performative element could be seen to undermine the conventional documentary pursuit of representing the real because the elements of performance, dramatization and acting for the camera are intrusive and alienating factors. Alternatively, the use of performance tactics could be viewed as a means of suggesting that perhaps documentaries should admit the defeat of their utopian aim and elect instead to present an alternative ‘honesty’ that does not seek to mask their inherent instability but rather to acknowledge that performance — the enactment of the documentary specifically for the cameras — will always be the heart of the non-fiction film. Documentarists like Austin’s performatives, perform the actions they name.

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



January 22, 2014

Burnt Offerings

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… The limin … is a no-man’s land betwixt-and-between the structural past and the structural future …

This is from On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience by Victor Turner (1985):

… Simmel, Coser, Gluckman and others have pointed out how conflict, if brought under gradual control, stopping short of massacre and war, may actually enhance a group’s “consciousness of kind,” may enhance and revive its self-image. For conflict forces the antagonists to diagnose its source, and in so doing, to become fully aware of the principles that bond them beyond and above the issues that have temporarily divided them. As Durkheim said long ago, law needs crime, religion needs sin, to be fully dynamic systems, since without “doing,” without the social friction that fires consciousness and self-consciousness, social life would be passive, even inert. These considerations, I think, led Barbara Meyerhoff to distinguish “definitional ceremonies” as a kind of collective “autobiography,” a means by which a group creates its identity by telling itself a story about itself, in the course of which it brings to life “its Definite and Determinate identity” (to cite William Blake). Here, meaning, in Wilhelm Dilthey’s sense, is engendered by marrying present problems of the living present to a rich ethnic past, which is then infused into the “doings and undoings” (to quote John Dewey) of the local community.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Some social dramas may be more “definitional” than others, it is true, but most social dramas contain, if only implicitly, some means of public reflexivity in their redressive processes. For by their activation groups take stock of their own current situation; the nature and strength of their social ties, the power of their symbols, the effectiveness of their legal and moral controls, the sacredness and soundness of their religious traditions, and so forth. And this is the point I would make here: the world of theater, as we know it both in Asia and America, and the immense variety of theatrical sub-genres derive not from imitation, conscious or unconscious, of the processual form of the complete or “satiated” social drama — breach, crisis, redress, reintegration, or schism — but specifically from its third phase, the one I call redress, especially from redress as ritual process, rather than judicial, political, or military process, important as these are for the study of political or revolutionary action.

… The limin, or threshold, a term I took from van Gennep’s second of three stages in rites of passage, is a no-man’s land betwixt-and-between the structural past and the structural future as anticipated by the society’s normative control of biological development. It is ritualized in many ways, but very often symbols expressive of ambiguous identity are found cross-culturally: androgynes, at once male and female, theriomorphic figures, at once animals and men or women, angels, mermaids, centaurs, human-headed lions, and so forth, monstrous combinations of elements drawn from nature and culture. Some symbols represent both birth and death, womb and tomb, such as caverns and camps secluded from everyday eyes. I sometimes talk about the liminal phase being dominantly in the “subjunctive mood” of culture, the mood of maybe, might-be, as-if, hypothesis, fantasy, conjecture, desire, depending on which of the trinity, cognition, affect, and conation (thought, feeling, or intention) is situationally dominant. … Liminality can perhaps be described as a fructile chaos, a fertile nothingness, a storehouse of possibilities, not by any means a random assemblage but a striving after new forms and structure, a gestation process, a fetation of modes appropriate to and anticipating postliminal existence. It is what goes on in nature in the fertilized egg, in the chrysalis, and even more richly and complexly in their cultural homologues.

Theater is one of the many inheritors of that great multifaceted system of preindustrial ritual which embraces ideas and images of cosmos and chaos, interdigitates clowns and their foolery with gods and their solemnity, and uses all the sensory codes, to produce symphonies in more than music: the intertwining of dance, body languages of many kinds, song, chant, architectural forms (temples, amphitheaters), incense, burnt offerings, ritualized feasting and drinking, painting, body painting, body marking of many kinds, including circumcision and scarification, the application of lotions and drinking of potions, the enacting of mythic and heroic plots drawn from oral traditions. And so much more.

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



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