Unreal Nature

February 28, 2014

The Dazzlement of Skill

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

…  Being able to do something is never an adequate reason for doing it.

This is from Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting; Writings 1962-1993 edited by Hans-Ulrich Obrist (1998). This first is from ‘Notes, 1962’:

… There is no excuse whatsoever for uncritically accepting what one takes over from others. For no thing is good or bad in itself, only as it relates to specific circumstances and to our own intentions. This fact means that there is nothing guaranteed or absolute about conventions; it gives us the daily responsibility of distinguishing good from bad.

Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense. It is like the religious search for God. We are well aware that making sense and picturing are artificial, like illusion; but we can never give them up. For belief (thinking out and interpreting the present and the future) is our most important characteristic.

[ … ]

… Strange though this may sound, not knowing where one is going — being lost, being a loser — reveals the greatest possible faith and optimism, as against collective security and collective significance. To believe, one must have lost God; to paint, one must have lost art.

The next bits are from ‘Notes, 1964’:

… I collect photographs (nowadays, I also get a lot given to me) and I am always looking at them. Not ‘art’ photographs, but ones taken by lay people, or by ordinary newspaper photographers. The subtleties and tricks of the art photographers are easily seen through, and then they are boring.

Happenings, pictures, objects: the lay person has and makes all these in a way that puts every artist to shame. Have artists ever made objects remotely as large and as good as a lay person’s garden?

[ … ]

… I hate the dazzlement of skill: e.g. being able to draw something freehand from life, or — even worse — inventing or putting together something entirely original: a particular form, a particular composition or an eccentric colour scheme. It’s all too easy to get carried away by one’s own skill and forget about the picture itself. There are legions of painters who are just too talented to paint good pictures. Being able to do something is never an adequate reason for doing it. That is why I like the ‘non-composed’ photograph. It does not try to do anything but report on a fact.



February 27, 2014

Without Cover

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:39 am

… When the sounds of sex became audible for the first time without the cover of music, and when the kind of affective control offered by musical interlude was not deployed, a new kind of nakedness became available to films …

This is from Screening Sex by Linda Williams (2006):

… through the auspices of a friend’s mother I came, in 1961, to see my first foreign films at an art house in Berkeley, California.

The two films I saw were in blatant violation of the Hollywood Production Code. They not only displayed simulated genital sex in the form of the rhythmic grinding of hips but they showed it taking place on the ground, brutally. Both Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1959), which had won an Academy Award for best foreign film, and Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (1960), for which Sophia Loren won an Oscar in 1961, portrayed gang rapes of young virgins.


… I might have wished for a gentler awakening to the visual knowledge of genital heterosexual sex through more romantic, or at least more conventionally erotic, scenes. But this is how it goes with carnal knowledge, which never arrives at the exact moment we are ready to learn about it, but always too early or too late. Nor do we know exactly from where this knowledge comes: does it arrive as an intrusion from the outside, like a seduction or a rape (in this case from foreign movies), or as a latent knowledge that seems to have always been present from the beginning? Is there ever a right moment to “get” sexual knowledge?

… I will argue that carnal knowledge came to American screens at the end of the Code in some of the same ways in which it comes to the child: in deferred, partial ways, never at the right time, and almost never as a clear revelation.

[ … ]

… There are two primary registers of affective response to screened sexual acts (in both the revealed and screened-out senses I have been stressing). The one with the most impact and the one to which we film scholars always give precedence is the visual, by which I mean what we see and how we respond to these visual cues. The other register, which we too often ignore, is aural, which is harder to isolate given the ambient nature of sound, and which has no equivalent, for example, to a close-up; although certainly it makes a difference whether sounds are miked in ways that make them sound close or ways that make them sound far. Music, as we shall see in the following, is often the most prevalent accompaniment to sex acts in Hollywood films, as well as a way to cover over what might appear to some as the tasteless grunts and moans of sex. But before movies got to that point, they used the aural register of talk, talk, and more talk.

… As late as 1969, even the new Hollywood of the post-Code era seemed more comfortable talking about carnal knowledge than showing it. The two brief love affairs chronicled in Bob and Carol are verbally analyzed but pointedly not shown. As in Virgina Woolf, the only carnal knowledge evident are two new words added to the lexicon of sex talk — orgy and vagina. Verbal satire, whether savage as in Virginia Woolf, or gentle as in Bob and Carol, was the preferred way of addressing adult situations during the transition from the Code to the new ratings system.

… the conjunction of music and sex, as opposed to the presentation of sex acts with little or no music, is enormously important in the history of cinematic sexual representation. Just as kisses in the silent or sound film almost never occurred without soaring music, so it would prove extremely rare for post-Code Hollywood films to depict carnal knowledge without the added affect of music.

When the sounds of sex became audible for the first time without the cover of music, and when the kind of affective control offered by musical interlude was not deployed, a new kind of nakedness became available to films, even when the characters having sex remained clothed. It was this aural nakedness that proved so disturbing in my audiovision of the rapes of Bergman’s and De Sica’s films.

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



February 26, 2014

“We Had Seen It in the Movies Already”

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… The process is self-reinforcing and reconfirms everyone’s view of the world.

This is from the essay ‘Ethnography as Narrative’ by Edward M. Bruner, found in The Anthropology of Experience edited by Victor W. Turner and Edward M. Bruner (1986):

… It is not that we initially have a body of data, the facts, and we then must construct a story or a theory to account for them. Instead, to paraphrase Schafer, the narrative structures we construct are not secondary narratives about data but primary narratives that establish what is to count as data. New narratives yield new vocabulary, syntax, and meaning in our ethnographic accounts; they define what constitute the data of those accounts.

… We go to the [Indian] reservation with a story already in mind, and that story is foregrounded in the final professional product, the published article, chapter, or monograph. If we stray too far from the dominant story in the literature, if we overlook a key reference or fail to mention the work of an important scholar, we are politely corrected by such institutional monitors as thesis committees, foundation review panels, or journal editors. At the beginning and the end the production of ethnography is framed by the dominant story. Most of the time there is a balance to research innovation — the study is new enough to be interesting but familiar enough so that the story remains recognizable. There are those who are ahead of their times — Bateson did publish Naven in 1936 — but we usually define research with reference to the current narrative and report back our particular variation of that narrative to our colleagues, most of whom already know the plot structure in advance. The process is self-reinforcing and reconfirms everyone’s view of the world.

… We can all agree … that the field situation initially presents itself as a confusing “galaxy” of signifiers. It is alien, even chaotic; there is so much going on, all at once, that the problem becomes one of making sense of it. How do we accomplish this? I am reminded of Abrahams’s statement about  hijacking: “A common reaction of people involved in airplane hijackings, when asked how they felt and what they did, was ‘Oh, everything was familiar to us; we had seen it in the movies already.'” Previous ethnographic texts and the stories they contain are the equivalent of the movies. Narrative structures serve as interpretive guides; they tell us what constitute data, define topics for study, and place a construction on the field situations that transforms it from the alien to the familiar.



February 25, 2014

Guaranteed Success

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:08 am

… It has all the characteristics of an art whose development had long ago brought it to the point where it was possible to rationalize the means to a standard repertory of effects and to control these effects with a sureness that guaranteed success — but only within limits and only at the price of spontaneity and freshness. What we get in the end from this sureness within limits is the pat and the pretty.

This is from the essay ‘The Art of China: Review of The Principles of Chinese Painting by George Rowley’ (1950) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 3, edited by John O’Brian (1993):

It can be said that the Orientals and the West have tried to subdue to consciousness quite different areas of experience. The West has devoted itself to history, the physical environment, and practical method; the Orientals have concentrated on religion, introspection, and aesthetic experience. Thus the rich terminology developed by the Hindus for introspection makes precise distinctions between sensations and states of mind that our own culture deals with as more or less undifferentiated. The Chinese, for their part, devised an almost equally elaborate terminology for the subjective effects produced by art.

Art, according to the author of this sumptuous and informative book, has been the dominant bent of Chinese civilization, to such an extent that “all … other [Chinese] activities seem to have been colored by their artistic sensitivity.”

Ma Lin, Listening to the Wind, mid-13th century [image from Wikipedia]

… The Chinese painter seems to have been early accorded a much higher cultural as well as social status than his Western counterpart; he was expected to be a kind of scholar first of all, literally conscious of all the references of his art, and then a seer in whose art aesthetic effect was merged with mystical state.

The Chinese connoisseur looked to painting for insights into the nature of reality that were accepted as hardly less valid than those expressed by the verbal expounders of religion and being. A picture was read like a poem, and more than poem. And it was an even more serious error than in the West to regard it principally as a part of décor. It is true that Chinese painting could be very decorative and that it was increasingly subordinated to decoration, but this has been done, it seems to me, judging by the results, at a more serious cost than in the case of almost any other art. For it violated the Chinese picture’s function as an object of contemplative pleasure and perverted some of its most essential plastic elements. I believe this to be true in spite of the fact that the absence of full color and strong modeling in Chinese painting  and its, so to speak, passive naturalism gave the decorative a foothold from the beginning. The emphasis on brushstroke quality and subtlety of dark and light values, and the exploitation of empty space were equally important elements that of necessity resisted the decorative. In view of this, it is my hunch that Chinese painting became as decorative as it now seems only toward the end of its development two or three centuries ago; and it is this that is responsible for the present insipidity of so much of it.

Most of the Chinese art we see in Europe and America strikes me as being late. It has all the characteristics of an art whose development had long ago brought it to the point where it was possible to rationalize the means to a standard repertory of effects and to control these effects with a sureness that guaranteed success — but only within limits and only at the price of spontaneity and freshness. What we get in the end from this sureness within limits is the pat and the pretty. Its lateness, its decorative prettiness, its corruptness, together with its naturalism, would seem to account for the relative quickness with which Chinese art was accepted in the West, once popular taste in the West was ready to accept exotic art; we began to acquire a taste for chinoiserie a hundred years before any of us ever looked at an Egyptian statue as something more than an archaeological curiosity.

… These remarks are, of course, not intended as a criticism of Chinese painting as a whole. Some excellent paintings are reproduced in Mr. Rowley’s book, excellent for their abstract qualities as well as for their apprehensions of mood through nature. Beside them most Western landscapes of mood would appear obvious and even coarse. And when it comes to the use of the brush, that use which conveys exact feeling with every touch and harmonizes each touch, as an individual facet of feeling, with the unifying emotion of the whole picture — then the Chinese masters certainly have no equals.



February 24, 2014

Former Ideas and Other Authors

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… not finding what he believes should be there, he comprehends no more and he is not moved.

The following are from various writings of Paul Gauguin (written between 1885 and 1901):

… There are noble tones [of color], ordinary ones, tranquil harmonies, consoling ones, others which excite by their vigor. In short, you see in graphology the features of honest men and of liars; why is it that the lines and colors of the amateur also do not give us more or less the grandiose character of the artist.

… The further I go the more I am overwhelmed by this sense that the translations of thought are something completely different from literature; we will see who is right. If I am wrong why is it that all your Academy, who know the means employed by the old masters, cannot produce the pictures of a master? Because they don’t create one nature, one intelligence, and one heart; because the youthful Raphael had intuition, and in his pictures there are relations of lines which can’t be accounted for, since it’s the most intimate part of a man that finds itself again completely hidden. Look even in the accessories and in the landscape of a Raphael, you will find the same feeling as in a head. It is pure everywhere. A landscape of Carolus Durand is as vulgar as a portrait. (I can’t explain it but I have this feeling.)


… Like singers, painters sometimes are out of tune, their eye has no harmony. Later there will be, through study, an entire method of harmony, unless people neglect it, as is done in the academies and most of the time also in studios. Indeed, the study of painting has been divided into two categories. One learns to draw first and then to paint, which means that one applies color within a pre-established contour, not unlike a statue that is painted after it is finished. I must admit that until now I have understood only one thing about this practice, namely that color is nothing but an accessory. “Sir, you must draw properly before painting” — this is said in a pedantic manner, but then, all great stupidities are said that way.

Does one wear shoes instead of gloves? Can you really make me believe that drawing does not derive from color, and vice-versa? To prove this, I commit myself to reduce or enlarge one and the same drawing, according to the color with which I fill it up. Try to draw a head by Rembrandt in his exact proportions and then put on the colors of Rubens — you will see what misshapen product you derive, while at the same time the colors will have become unharmonious.

During the last hundred years large amounts have been spent for the propagation of drawing and the number of painters is increasing, yet no real progress has been made. Who are the painters we admire at the present? All those who reproved the schools, all those who drew their science from the personal observation of nature.


… Why is it that before a work the critic wants to make points of comparison with former ideas and with other authors. And not finding what he believes should be there, he comprehends no more and he is not moved. Emotion first! understanding later.



February 23, 2014


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

World is the name of a gathering or being-together that arises from an art — a teknē — and the sense of which is identical with the very exercise of this art

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

… The “question of technology” is nothing other than the question of sense at the confines. Technology is quite precisely that which is neither theoria nor poiesis: that which assigns sense neither as knowledge nor as work. This is why, in addition, science can be called technoscience today without it being a matter of “degrading” its knowledge to the status of a “mere” instrumentality: science no longer designates, in a metaphysical manner, the virtually final punctuation of a knowledge of truth, but on the contrary — increasingly — the enchaining and entailing of truths along the edge of teknē, neither as knowledge nor as work, but as the incessant passage to the confines of phusis.

… The world of technology, that is, the “techonologized” world, is not nature delivered up to rape and pillage — although barbarity and madness are indeed unleashed there as much as rationality and culture, according to the scale of the technological gesture itself. It is the world becoming world, that is, neither “nature” nor “universe” nor “earth.” “Nature,” “universe,” and “earth” (and “sky”) are names of given sets or totalities, names of significations that have been surveyed, tamed, and appropriated. World is the name of a gathering or being-together that arises from an art — a teknē — and the sense of which is identical with the very exercise of this art (as when one speaks of the “world” of an artist, but also of “the world of the elite [grand monde]”). It is thus that a world is always a “creation”: a teknē with neither principle nor end nor material other than itself. And in this way, a world is always sense outside of knowledge, outside of the work, outside the habituation of presence, but the désoeuvrement of sense, sense in excess of all sense — one would like to say the artificial intelligence of sense, sense seized and sensed by art and as art, that is teknē, that which spaces out and defers phusis all the way to the confines of the world. There is no point in protesting — and it is even dangerous to protest — against the putting-to-work of technology on nature, or in wanting to subordinate technology to the ends of a mythical “nature” (as the “totalitarianisms” have done). But it is necessary to come to appreciate “technology” as the infinite of art that supplements a nature that never took place and will never take place. An ecology properly understood can be nothing other than a technology.

No doubt it is exact to say that the endlessness of technology contains within itself a terrible ambivalence, quite foreign to nature, the universe, or the earth (sky). The world, as such, has by definition the power to reduce itself to nothing just as it has the power to be infinitely its own sense, indecipherable outside of the praxis of its art.

But without this ambivalence, there would be no being-toward-the-world.



February 22, 2014

Graspable Objects Grab Our Attention

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… Only when the affordance is blocked, or when a tool breaks, or something disrupts our action do we shift gears and start to consider things in more theoretical ways.

This is from the essay ‘The Enactive Hand’ by Shaun Gallagher found in the collection, The Hand, an Organ of the Mind: What the Manual Tells the Mental edited by Zdravko Radman (2013):

… Anaxagoras’s observation that we humans are the wisest of all beings because we have hands better reflects an enactive view than Aristotle’s claim that “Man has hands because he is the wisest of all beings.”

… The focus on vision leads to high-church cognitivism, idealism, and the main insights of metaphysics and epistemology.

[ … ]

… In action, the body schema functions in a holistic way (in contrast to the perceptual and articulated aspects of body image). In the same way, it seems right to say that the brain is part of this holistic functioning. It’s not a top-down regulation of movement, brain to hands; nor is it a bottom-up emergence of rationality, hand to brain. Rather, neural processes coordinate witih and can be entrained by hand movements, forming a single integrated cognitive system. This implies a reciprocal unity of feedforward-feedback processes in which the hand and the brain form a dynamic system that reaches into the world …

… The hands lead us toward things. As Handy et al. (2003) show, graspable objects grab our attention. When we see different hand gestures, they automatically direct our attention toward congruent target objects. Moreover, the position of one’s hands has an effect on visual attention. Objects located near one’s hands receive enhanced visual attention. In a study of several classic visual attention tasks (visual search, inhibition of return, and attentional blink) — participants held their hands either near the stimulus display, or far from the display. The position of the hands altered visual processing so that subjects shifted attention more slowly between items when their hands were located near the display. The results suggest that the hands facilitate the evaluation of objects for potential manipulation.

George Herbert Mead called this reachable peripersonal space around the body the “manipulatory area” and suggested that what is present in perception is not a copy of the perceived, but “the readiness to grasp” what is seen. The perception of objects outside of the manipulatory area is always relative to “the readiness of the organism to act toward them as they will be if they come into the manipulatory area. … We see the objects as we will handle them. … We are only ‘conscious of’ that in the perceptual world which suggests confirmation direct or indirect, in fulfilled manipulation.” On this enactive account of perception, the manipulatory area, defined in part by the hands, is the index of how something pragmatically counts as a percept. Perceptual consciousness arises in the spatial and temporal distances between a possibility of action in the manipulatory area and the distant object outside of that area.

… the world presents us with specifiable affordances (Gibson 1977). Only when the affordance is blocked, or when a tool breaks, or something disrupts our action do we shift gears and start to consider things in more theoretical ways. Things then become, as Heidegger puts it, “present-at-hand” (Vorhanden). On this view, it’s not so much that we carve out a manipulatory area from the surrounding world as that we discover the surrounding world within an already established manipulatory area.



February 21, 2014

Totally, Suddenly, from All the Work Before

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:19 am

… In my work, the visual is always subservient to the field, the total system of perception/cognition at work.

This is from ‘Putting the Whole Back Together’ (1992) in the collection of writings, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 by Bill Viola (1995):

… when I think back and try to pinpoint a specific influence, I can’t — it’s all like a big bowl of Minestrone soup, which is maybe the most accurate model of a human being. You just never know what’s going to be an influence — the time you got sick on a long car trip, or reading a book on the history of religion. I guess I have always been unconsciously aware of this phenomenon, because I remember that from when I was quite young I always kept very active notebooks. Not notebooks like sketchbooks, which I have never kept, but notebooks like a journal or a kind of travelogue, mapping a personal course through various readings, quotations, associations, observations, experiments, and ideas for pieces, all jumbled into one. There was an occasional picture but for the most part it was all written down in words, even the visual things.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Everything I have ever published or created as an artist has come from these books. I should call them the Minestrone recipe books. It’s an interesting thing, all the words and so few pictures. It was like I’ve been trying to arrive at the visual by skirting it. I guess I do have a mistrust of only working something out in pictures, a fear that it’s possible to make something that looks good (that is, is successful) but doesn’t think well (that is, have depth). For me, the visual has always been the end, the last step, so that the final point of making a work is to plunge, to dive right into the image, totally, suddenly, from all the work before. In my work, the visual is always subservient to the field, the total system of perception/cognition at work.



February 20, 2014

Code Kisses

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… “The actor winning the woman gratifies me by proxy. His seductiveness, his good looks, his daring do not compete with my desires — they fulfill them.”

This is from Screening Sex by Linda Williams (2006):

… Movie kisses were the fist sex acts I ever screened. Before I had my romantic first kiss, I already knew, from movies, that one needed to tilt the head a little to avoid bumping noses, but that if both kissers tilted the same way they would still bump noses, so a complex choreography of bodies had to be worked out in this simple act. I learned this from the big screen where kisses were greatly magnified in the garish Technicolor kisses of Rock Hudson and Doris Day. But I also learned some things from the little black-and-white screen before which my mother and I sat watching TV movies on warm summer nights when I could stay up late.

[ … ]

… Sexual desire ultimately exists in … many … Code-era films so that it may be sublimated to a more purified, ideological, and aesthetic “good” — whether the good of the family or, in this case [Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca]the good of the American and European struggle against fascism. Desire and sexual pleasure as positive values in themselves have no legitimate acknowledged place in the era of the Code, though they certainly sneak in around the edges. This, of course, is the special, perverse pleasure of watching sex in movies of this period: sex can never be indulged in for itself, and for this reason it must remain exquisitely ambiguous what exactly transpires between Rick and Ilsa.

It is easy to ridicule a Code that works so hard to keep us from inferring what its very obfuscations and interruptions cause us to suspect. But this is how eroticism works in the Code era. It is no accident that the most erotic of the kisses in which Rick and Ilsa engage is the one most fully adulterous (by this time they both know that Laszlo lives). This may also be why the two [voted by viewers #1 and #2, best] other movie kisses — that in From Here to Eternity and that in Gone with the Wind — have also been deemed among the sexiest. They, too, are structured on internal conflicts between illicit sexual desires and the demands of war, whether the Civil War or World War II. Code kisses are memorable, it seems, not because they are necessarily performed by sexy men and sexy women (has Humphrey Bogart, with his perpetually wet lower lip, ever been, objectively speaking, sexy?), but because they are intrinsically structured around conflicts between sexual pleasure and taboo.

[ … ]

… In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Warhol writes: “Sex is more exciting on the screen and between the pages than between the sheets anyway.” His Kiss pays homage to this idea by sustaining a fascinated look that is also cool and analytical. His real interest, like that of the audience in the era of the kiss, is not in seeing, like actual voyeurs, what happens between kissers in real life, but in seeing what happens on the screen when these acts are projected. (Warhol himself is rarely in the room when his films were shot.) By slowing down, by skipping the beginning and the ends, by taking Edison’s original fixed close-up and just holding it there, Warhol bypasses all the coy business — dialogue, twirling mustaches, telephones, cigarettes — used to motivate the oral relation.

[ … ]

… A realist theorist [André Bazin] who in every other way celebrates the ability of cinema to directly present life as it is, without the intervention of language codes or the hand of the artist, Bazin here acknowledges … the sensational power of a medium that deals in the extremes of sex and violence. His ultimate fear is that “real sex,” like “real death,” will lead audiences back to the abuses of the Roman circus. His theoretical point is that cinema is founded on just such an illicit glimpse of real bodies and real objects of the world. In the cinema a nude woman can be “openly desired” and “actually caressed” in a way she cannot be in a theater because, he writes, “the cinema unreels in an imaginary space which demands participation and identification. The actor winning the woman gratifies me by proxy. His seductiveness, his good looks, his daring do not compete with my desires — they fulfill them.”

Yet if the sex scene does gratify by proxy (if not exactly in the male/subject, female/object teleological progress to orgasm that Bazin suggests, but in the more diffuse and rebounded way I have been indicating), we are seemingly plunged into pornography, a realm Bazin abhors. The liberal realist who admires the documentary quality of narrative cinema in many ways and who believes “there are no sex situations — moral or immoral, shocking or banal, normal or pathological — whose expression is a priori prohibited on the screen,” nevertheless argues that as far as sex goes, to remain on the level of art, “we must stay in the realm of imagination.”

The problem, of course, is that every kiss in every film is already a kind of documentary of that particular intimate, and yet still publicly acceptable sex act in a way that an act of violence, which is usually faked, is not. In or out of character, two people must really kiss in a film close-up. The kiss or caress has, as Bazin notes, the potential to “gratify by proxy.” But everything is organized in scenes of violence so that actors, even though they may touch in a relatively intimate fight, do not really hit, knife, or shoot one another the way they are expected to kiss and caress. Bazin recognizes and is embarrassed by the inconsistency of his argument. Writing in 1956 in direct response to the provocations of Roger Vadim’s Brigitte Bardot vehicle, And God Created Woman, which (following reluctantly in the tradition of John Sloan) he calls a “detestable film,” he realizes that his remarks have also brushed off a good part of the contemporary Swedish cinema. His only recourse is to claim, weakly, that the “masterpieces of eroticism” do not cross a certain line. But as Bazin clearly foresaw, times were changing: the sixties were about to happen, and the argument that masterpieces never go too far sexually already rang hollow as movies would take on the challenge of “going all the way.” Many so-called novelistic masterpieces had already described a great deal about sex, not leaving it to the imagination. And Bazin honestly admits at the end of his essay that the situation of the writer may not differ all that much from that of directors and actors. So he concludes simply: “To grant the novel the privilege of evoking everything, and yet to deny the cinema, which is so similar, the right of showing everything, is a critical contradiction I note without resolving.”

These are the honest and intelligent words of a great film critic grappling with the unprecedented realism of the new media form of the twentieth century and its special relation to both sex and violence.

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



February 19, 2014

Quick Shifts

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… each moment contained surprises and quick shifts in strategy.

This is from the essay ‘Ilongot Hunting as Story and Experience’ by Renato Rosaldo, found in The Anthropology of Experience edited by Victor W. Turner and Edward M. Bruner (1986):

Although limited in knowledge and capable of distorting our motives, we usually offer accounts of why we do what we do. These accounts of intentions, plans, or the meaning of experience usually shape our conduct. Notions about witchcraft, for example, can profoundly influence human lives, leading one person to be burned at the stake and another to endure an ordeal of exorcism. Other cultural conceptions, ranging from ideas about mothering to the lethal myths toted by cold warriors can prove similarly consequential. In more mundane ways we can reasonably suppose that cattle herders know a good deal about  bovine lifeways. This point, of course, has not been lost on gifted ethnographers who, among other things, privilege actors’ interpretations of their own conduct.

… In moving from one version of realism to another, from viewing human action guided by culturally appropriate expectations to telling spellbinding tales about encountering the unexpected, I will attempt to show how narrative can provide a particularly rich source of knowledge about the significance people find in their workaday lives. Such narratives often reveal more about what can make life worth living than about how it is routinely lived.

Skipping over all of Rosaldo’s detailed transcriptions and descriptions of Ilongot hunting, I cut to the conclusion:

… this paper began by asking how ethnographers should represent other people’s lives. To lend substance to this conceptual concern I have explored possible ways to apprehend the human significance of hunting among the Ilongots of northern Luzon, Philippines. Sketches in two ethnographic modes stood for the discipline’s conventional wisdom. Stressing indigenous systems of classification, ethnoscience has identified the cover term for hunting, ‘adiwar, “seeking, looking for, or foraging,” and has gone on to discover such culturally relevant discriminations as hunts with dogs versus those without dogs. Ethnographic realism, by contrast, has provided a detailed composite account that describes step-by-step how the Ilongot hunting process generally unfolds. In both approaches to ethnography hunting emerges as a form of life at once specific to and general within Ilongot culture.

Next I turned to novelistic realism and found that it differed from the ethnographic variety by displaying a particular hunt in its unfolding, rather than by piecing together a composite account. When James Fenimore Cooper depicted a specific chase, each moment contained surprises and quick shifts in strategy. His portrayal was the opposite of the monograph in which one thing leads to another in ways that, if not predictable, are at least culturally expectable. By contrast with the novelist’s account, the ethnographic sketch robs the hunt of its unexpected encounters. The point, of course, is that Ilongot hunting stories, like novels, stress precisely the qualities of suspense and improvisation that the monograph suppresses.

What, then, have we learned from reading of the telling of hunt stories? This question involves both the subjects that can be told as stories and the qualities depicted in their telling. Hunting becomes historiable (unlike gardening, which never does) through the measured search over significant terrain, the alert capacity to pounce on game that presents itself, and the ability to cope with misfortunes — pythons, trapped dogs, broken weapons. Story forms that recollect experience and create new experiences in the telling embody the culturally valued activity of ‘adiwar. They both describe and play out the central qualities of hunting: taut alertness and quick improvisation.

The stories these Ilongot men tell about themselves both reflect what actually happened and define the kinds of experiences they seek out on future hunts. Indeed, their very postures while hunting resemble those used in storytelling, and in this respect the story informs the experience of hunting at least as much as the reverse. Huntsmen measure their prowess not only in numbers of animals killed but also against their capacity to improvise in the face of adversity. In fact, the qualities that make a man admirable by Ilongot standards stem more from the latter capacity than the former record of achievement. When responding to a challenge with speed and imagination, Ilongot huntsmen experience themselves as the main characters in their own stories.

Only a person who has never gardened or farmed could write/believe that “hunting becomes historiable (unlike gardening, which never does).”



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