Unreal Nature

February 28, 2015

Dissectio Naturae

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

… An entirely organismic approach to reality, as the one preached by contemporary holistic philosophies, would be powerless to perform that dissectio naturae demanded by Bacon, which gave us and is still giving us modern science and its applications.

Continuing through Causality and Modern Science: Third Revised Edition by Mario Bunge (1959; 1979):

… The fact that nonlinear theories are rare is not so much a peculiarity of nature as a sign of the infancy of our science. Nonlinearity involves large mathematical difficulties; besides being mathematically clumsy, it affects the very symbolic representation of physical entities. Thus forces that add nonlinearly (as gravitational forces do) cannot be exactly represented by vectors, since the addition of the latter conforms to the superposition “principle.” From the moment it was discovered that the laws of ferromagnetism are nonlinear, it has been more and more clearly suspected that all physical phenomena may turn out to be at least weakly nonlinear, linearity being only an approximation which is excellent in some cases but only rough in others.

Since nonlinearity entails noncausality, we see once again that causality is a first approximation, that is, so to speak, a linear approximation to determinism.

[ … ]

… Real determination is probably neither wholly causal nor strictly functional. However, in some cases determination can be approximately described as causation, and in other cases as interaction — which suggests that sometimes we are in the presence of predominantly (but not exclusively) causal processes, whereas at other times we are confronted with predominantly (but not exclusively) functional dependencies. It is likely that in most events both causation and interaction take part, in combination with other determination categories.

… Yet, the tremendous historical and methodological importance of the hypothesis of the (approximate) independence and hence superposability of causes should be realized. An entirely organismic approach to reality, as the one preached by contemporary holistic philosophies, would be powerless to perform that dissectio naturae demanded by Bacon, which gave us and is still giving us modern science and its applications. The more or less explicit recognition of the principle of superposition of determiners, on the other hand, makes an analysis of real situations possible; most of our science involves it. The exteriority of causes, like the remaining defects of the doctrine of causality, should then be criticized from a progressive standpoint, that is, from a point of view which, instead of proclaiming the utter impotence of the analytic method, acknowledges instead that causal analysis is not the sole kind of analysis needed in the scientific treatment of problems of determination.

A constructive critical attitude toward the problem of the superposition of causes should rely on the recognition that the neat separation and isolation of determiners, while not the last stage of research, is a very important preliminary stage, whereas the tenet of the unanalyzability of wholes blocks ab initio every advancement of knowledge. The hypothesis of superposition is, then, neither an absolute truth nor utter nonsense; like so many simplifying hypotheses of science and philosophy, it is true to a first approximation.

Once more, we conclude that causation does not exhaust determination, but the latter necessarily entails the former as one of its varieties.

To be continued.

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




February 27, 2015

Ringed by the Indifference of the Watching Stars

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… I would play for man more fiercely if the years would take me back.

This is from the Prologue to The Invisible Pyramid by Loren Eiseley (1970):

… Like John Donne, man lies in a close prison, yet it is dear to him. Like Donne’s, his thoughts at times overleap the sun and pace beyond body. If I term humanity a slime mold organism it is because our present environment suggests it. If I remember the sunflower forest it is because from its hidden reaches man arose. The green world is his sacred center. In moments of sanity he must still seek refuge there.

If I dream by contrast of the eventual drift of the star voyagers through the dilated time of the universe, it is because I have seen thistledown off to new worlds and am at heart a voyager who, in this modern time, still yearns for the lost country of his birth. As an anthropologist I know that we exist in the morning twilight of humanity and pray that we may survive its noon. The travail of the men of my profession is to delve amid the fragments of civilizations irretrievably lost and, at the same time, to know man’s enormous capacity to create.

But I dream and because I dream, I severally condemn, fear, and salute the future. It is the salute of a gladiator ringed by the indifference of the watching stars. Man himself is the solitary arbiter of his own defeats and victories. I have mused on the dead of all epochs from flint to steel. They fought blindly and well against the future, or the cities and ourselves would not be here. Now all about us, unseen, the final desperate engagement continues.

If man goes down I do not believe that he will ever again have the resources or the strength to defend the sunflower forest and simultaneously to follow the beckoning road across the star fields. It is now or never for both, and the price is very high. It may be, as A.E. Housman said, that we breathe the air that kills both at home and afar. He did not speak of pollution; he spoke instead of the death that comes with memory. I have wondered how long the social memory of a great culture can be sustained without similarly growing lethal. This also our century may decide.

I confess that the air that kills has been breathed upon the pages of this book, but upon it also has shone the silver light of flying thistledown. In the heart of the city I have heard the wild geese crying on the pathways that lie over a vanished forest. Nature has not changed the force that drives them. Man, too, is a different expression of that natural force. He has fought his way from the sea’s depths to Palomar Mountain. He has mastered the plague. Now, in some final Armageddon, he confronts himself.

As a boy I once rolled dice in an empty house, playing against myself. I suppose I was afraid. It was twilight, and I forget who won. I was too young to have known that the old abandoned house in which I played was the universe. I would play for man more fiercely if the years would take me back.




February 26, 2015

To Enact Themselves

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… people are required virtually to enact themselves, to represent their own normality, before the camera. What manner of truth, then, can be claimed for the outcome of this … ?

Continuing through Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart McAllister, Film Editor by Dai Vaughan (1983):

… In the 1930s and 40s, what we now know as vérité — the spontaneous synchronous filming of events as they take what may (or arguably may not) be their natural course — was, for better and for worse, not an option. Slower emulsions demanded bulky lighting; 35mm synch cameras could not be hand-held; and sound recording equipment, rather than being something you slung over one shoulder, was something you drove around in. The key documentary requirement, that the image should represent that which had passed before the camera (i.e. should be capable of being understood as so doing), could therefore not be met with such deceptive facility as it can today.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] The only way in which it could be respected was — to speak, for convenience, as if history had moved in reverse — by a fragmentation of the correspondence between the image and its materials: a fragmentation in which this correspondence is distributed among many elements of a scene or event — clothing, faces, dialogue, properties, location, narrative — for eventual reintegration, at the level of language, in the totality of the film. A casual example of the prevalence of such thinking occurs in a letter of 1943, from the Crown Film Unit to the War Office, requiring that about twenty ‘real 8th Army veterans’ be released to take part in Humphrey Jennings’s The True Story of Lili Marlene: ‘I am sure you will agree that there is something about such men which cannot credibly be counterfeited in the Studio.’

A concomitant of this approach, and of a situation where only the most neutral of events (traffic in a street, say) can be photographed without rehearsal, is that people are required virtually to enact themselves, to represent their own normality, before the camera. What manner of truth, then, can be claimed for the outcome of this: what manner of correspondence between the image and its source? A possible answer is that the image is to be seen as embodying the general meaning, rather than that of a moment-to-moment plotting, of what it represents: that people’s images are to be taken as true-to-type: as ‘representative’ — representative, perhaps, of their group, of their activities, of their conditions. But once we are committed to an understanding of film language as generalizing or typificatory, we must accept that the truth to which it aspires is the statistical.

This conception of film imagery found expression — and the word already hints at the paradox entailed — in the style of photography developed in its service: crisp, easily legible, but otherwise difficult to define other than by its negative characteristics: avoidance of camera-positions other than those of the passer-by or participant; avoidance of compositions which, being out of the ordinary, might hint at abnormality; avoidance, not so much of lighting not encountered in everyday life, but of lighting which might take on disturbing connotations when transferred to the screen: avoidance, in short, of expressionism.

… But, since photography cannot not signify, what was evoked by our litany of stylistic avoidances was a generalism, a lack of individualizing oddity, which seemed to refer back from the images into the things represented. It was as if every chair, every human face and every locomotive had been caught in the act of aspiring towards its ideal Platonic form: the form of its image in a GPO production.

[ … ]

… deftness in investing purely denotative shots with a transient, glancing and often polyvalent symbolism which is, as I hope will be apparent, McAllister’s most enduring characteristic as an editor. (I should emphasize that I am not here using the word ‘symbolism’ in the sense of a shared system of arbitrary signs — like mathematics or natural language.) At the same time, this skill in lending heightened significance to cinematic elements is not confined to the representational ‘content’ of imagery, as we shall see if we consider the handling of the aerial attack itself [in Men of the Lightship].

In addition to long shots and to low angles from the deck of the lightship, for which British aircraft were dressed up as Heinkels, the script calls for over-shoulder shots of the pilots; and here — whether from choice or necessity — German library footage was employed. The problem of how to represent the enemy’s sector of the experience without sacrificing either narrative cohesion or that credibility which underwrites the documentary imperative is one which many narrative documentaries faced, and which few succeeded in solving.

… In Men of the Lightship … the library material has been used in a way which leaves no doubt as to its character. We cannot know what McAllister had to choose from; but it is difficult to believe that he has not wilfully selected the most granular, high-contrast, ‘soot-and-whitewash’ shots available: shots whose oddity of composition and near-abstract patterning of light and shadow make them sometimes almost unreadable as images even as they are ‘realistically’ integrated into the action. What confronts us here is not so much an alternation between the British and German PoVs as the interaction of two contrasting filmic idioms: and the use of physically damaged film at the climactic moment of the skipper’s injury can be seen — though maybe this is stretching the point — as registering the impact of the two incompatible discourses.

The effect of Men of the Lightship on an ordinary audience enjoying an average program was electric.
(William Whitebait — New Statesman, 3 August, 1940)

A memorandum of March 1943 indicates that, in combined UK and US receipts, Men of the Lightship had by that time made more money at the box-office than any other GPO/Crown production except the feature length Target for Tonight.

“I don’t think he was very proud of it. I don’t think he cared about it. He was a very strange, purist man, and he hated commercialism in any way: and this one, he always said, was tainted by commercialism — and by propaganda.” Jack Lee.

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




February 25, 2015

That Stir and Infect Human Experience

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… every doll is a small flash of light.

This is from Eugenia Parry’s essay ‘Forager’ in Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks (2011):

… The photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard are mystery plays. Background was all important to his theaters. He established it first. It was more than an aesthetic concern. A chosen site had to have secret associations. Wendell Berry saw “an imagined darkness … the darkness of an original condition.” To this condition the photographer added symbolic objects — mirrors, mannequins, debris — and the ritual gestures of his actors.

His company featured his wife Madelyn, daughter Melissa, and sons Michael and Christopher. They posed in forlorn places and didn’t play themselves. He made sure of this …

[ … ]


… Like magic charms, dolls know. They act on human feelings and actions and spiritually change them.

In Meatyard’s photographs, every doll is a small flash of light.Transformation waiting to happen. A divine force within the doll “reminds us, tells us, sees ahead of us.” A tiny doll’s arm on a rotten plank is an omen. A naked doll propped in the corner of a crumbling room is an idol. A staring doll lying legs apart on a human-sized bed may be a reason to call the police.

The poet Charles Simic found the head of a doll on a beach and approached it not as a toy but as an icon. The saints in religious icons may look stationary, but their furrowed brows suggest they have been captured en route somewhere between earth and heaven. They are thresholds, invitations to change. Staring at the sightless eyes of the doll head, Simic thought he’d confronted a force, an oracle, and asked it impertinent questions.

Whose demon are you,
Whose god? I asked
Of the painted mouth
Half buried in the sand

… The fissure between the mundane and the always-present archetypal forces that stir and infect human experience is standard Meatyard.


I’m not doing this series of posts on Meatyard (over the last few Wednesdays and for the next few Wednesdays to come) because I think he’s one of our greatest photographers. I find only some of his pictures to be really successful. Quite a few that make me cringe. It’s what he’s was aspiring to do that I think is good.




February 24, 2015

Sorting Out

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:39 am

… character will decide.

This is from ‘Four Scottish Painters’ (1977) found in Clement Greenberg: Late Writings, edited by Robert C. Morgan (2003):

The artist goes toward maturity through a succession of acts of taste, decisions of taste. In the course of these he comes to terms with the art preceding him, and crucially with the art immediately preceding him. Doing this, he begins to decide just how ambitious he’ll be. The ones who’ve turned out the best artists (or writers or composers or performers) have usually been those — or among those — able to sort out the best, or enough of the best, in the art immediately preceding them. The sorting out is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the unfolding of their art.

Sorting out, discriminating the best, means rejecting the less than best (it can even mean rejecting, for yourself, what’s good but not good enough to be the best). Sometimes the rejecting comes before anything else — as I think it did in Manet’s case (his revulsion at the “stews and gravies,” at the dull, neutralized color he saw in most of the painting being done around him when he was starting out in the 1850s, was crucial to the development of his originality; the revulsion led to his more positive acts of taste).

… The painters at hand aren’t slavish to their main influences. They add something; that’s why they’re noticeable. Nor are they all of a piece. What they have most in common, aside from the abstractness of their art and the New American influence, is their level, the level of their quality (which comes only in part from that influence). Otherwise they go their separate ways — not too separate, but separate enough.

All I ask is that they keep going. They’re young, they haven’t done enough yet; the highness of their aspiration, of their sense of quality, is still a promise that has to be fulfilled. I’ve just said that they’d added something already, but they’ll have to add still more. They’ll have to maintain their isolation from the current scene, and that’s a challenge to character more than anything else. The art scene has, as it looks, become more formidable than ever, now that avant-gardism has become the affair of officials — directors, curators, ministers of culture, art councils — as well as of art dealers, collectors, bohemians, critics, let alone aggressive artists (I remember when aggressiveness couldn’t belong to anything but the authentic avant-garde). So character will decide.




February 23, 2015

Poetry and Engineering

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… it was possible to build a unified style on the collective achievements of the age of Cubism, joining Klee’s and Kandinsky’s more explicit “poetry” to Picasso’s and Matisse’s “engineering” …

Finishing up Joan Miró by Clement Greenberg (1948; 1950):

… Already graceful and felicitous, Miró’s painting begins to acquire from 1931 on a monumentality that is both literal and figurative, dramatic and decorative. His art does not become the vehicle of history in the way that Picasso’s is; it cannot present as broad a surface or draw as much into its course. Picasso has at times — as in his classical Cubism — transcended the limits of a personal sensibility, whereas everything that Miró does is signed unmistakably with the hand of a painter who is forced to explore himself rather than the world. Yet within that self he is a more powerful and various artist and more of an historical force than is perhaps generally realized. Since the thirties he has taught the world a lesson in color, using it with a vigor, economy and originality no other painter except Matisse has matched. And he has created a style that answers to our contemporary world’s sense of itself and which is so incorporated by now in its visual sensibility that no one who paints ambitiously can afford to be unaware of it.

[ … ]

… Those who had the opportunity to meet Miró while he was here [on his 1947 visit to New York] saw a short, compact, rather dapper man in a dark blue business suit. He has a neat round head with closely trimmed dark hair, pale skin, small, regular features, quick eyes and movements. He is slightly nervous and at the same time impersonal in the company of strangers, and his conversation and manner are non-committal to an extreme. One asked oneself what could have brought this bourgeois to modern painting, the Left Bank, and Surrealism.

Nevertheless, he did come to them, bringing his extraordinary gift. And what he took, in fact, for the chief content of his painting was the very spirit and atmosphere of the Left Bank, which he has caught more completely for the twenties and thirties than any other painter, not excepting Picasso and Matisse — who belong in the essence of their moods to a previous period. (The fact that none were more infatuated with the Left Bank of the twenties and thirties than Americans may help explain why Miró is more popular, and exerts more influence, in this country than anywhere else.) Yet Miró could become the painter-laureate of Jean Cocteau’s, André Breton’s and Ernest Hemingway’s Paris precisely, and only, because he remained an outsider, kept forever at a distance by innocence, caution and an ineradicable personal conventionality.

Miró is an eclectic, by which term I mean nothing opprobrious. Quite the opposite: I mean to praise him: the organic, personal unity of his art excludes any suggestion of the calculated, second-hand thing usually associated with the term. It was logical, however, that an eclectic master should have come along when Miró did, to synthesize the seemingly disparate tendencies already in the field and, by doing so, to realize possibilities that had been opened up but hardly explored at all during modern painting’s heroic age before 1920. Miró’s freedom of imagination showed us that the Cubist legacy was not the severe and narrowly technical — let alone “intellectual” — discipline it was so commonly interpreted to be, that it was as much capable of flexibility and variety of emotion as any style in the history of art. And not only did Miró show that it was possible to build a unified style on the collective achievements of the age of Cubism, joining Klee’s and Kandinsky’s more explicit “poetry” to Picasso’s and Matisse’s “engineering,” and not only is he the sole new master of international importance to have appeared in painting anywhere in the twenty years between the two wars (Klee and Mondrian were already definitely on the scene by 1920) — he has also acted as a test case to decide the viability of post-Cubist painting as a school.

… When I say that his art sums up, at least in part, the collective achievements of the age of Cubism I do not mean to imply that its range exceeds, or even equals, that of Picasso’s and Matisse’s. Range does not depend on the variety of influences absorbed, and Picasso’s purer and stricter classical Cubism has still a wider scope and greater depth and breadth than Miró’s more eclectic art. Although the Catalan painter could pretend to say a lot more than he does — and it is to his credit that he does not so pretend — it remains that he does have a limited register.

Joan Miró, The Poetess, 1940 [image from WikiArt]

[ … ]

… As painters go … Miró is not old yet [Greenberg is writing in 1948]. This is why it is reasonable to hope that one day the bland surfaces of his canvases will become agitated and dense again and speak with a sonority surpassing even that with which they spoke in the thirties.

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




February 22, 2015

This Harassment, This Assault

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:02 am

… Uninterrupted speech, without void, without rest, that prophetic speech seizes and, seizing it, sometimes succeeds in interrupting to make us hear it and, in this hearing, to awaken us to ourselves.

This is from the essay ‘Prophetic Speech’ found in The Book to Come by Maurice Blanchot (1959; 2003):

… When speech becomes prophetic, it is not the future that is given, it is the present that is taken away, and with it any possibility of a firm, stable, lasting presence.

… speech prophesies when it refers to a time of interruption, that other time that is always present in all time and in which people, stripped of their power and separated from the possible (the widow and the orphan), exist with each other in the bare relationship in which they had been in the desert and which is the desert …

[ … ]

… Symbolic reading is probably the worst way to read a literary text. Each time we are bothered by language that is too strong, we say: it is a symbol. This wall that is the Bible has thus become a tender transparency where the little fatigues of the soul are colored with melancholy. The coarse but prudent Claudel dies devoured by the symbols he interposes between Biblical language and his own. Actual sickness of language. Yet, if prophetic words reach us, what they make us feel is that they possess neither allegory nor symbol, but that, by the concrete force of the word, they lay things bare, in a nudity that is like that of an immense face that one sees and does not see and that, like a face, is light, the absolute quality of light, terrifying and ravishing, familiar and elusive, immediately present and infinitely foreign, always to come, always to be discovered and even provoked, although as readable as the nudity of the human face can be: in this sense alone, figure.

… “If they burrow down into Sheol, my hand will seize them; if they rise up to the heavens, I will make them come down; hidden under Carmel, already I find them there; if they think to take refuge in the deepest depths of the seas, there I make them bitten by the Serpent.” Terrible curse of speech that makes death vain and nothingness sterile. Uninterrupted speech, without void, without rest, that prophetic speech seizes and, seizing it, sometimes succeeds in interrupting to make us hear it and, in this hearing, to awaken us to ourselves.

… This harassment, this assault by movement, this rapidity of attack, this indefatigable overleaping — that is what the translations, even the faithful ones, tangled up in their fidelity, have so much difficulty in making us feel.




February 21, 2015

An Infinity of Neglected Factors

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… A consequence of causalism is the need of making a choice among an uncaused First Cause or infinite regress. The former is a theological, the latter a philosophical, fiction.

Continuing through Causality and Modern Science: Third Revised Edition by Mario Bunge (1959; 1979):

… The hypothesis of isolation, or, conversely, of a noninterfering background, is … a methodological requirement of the sciences dealing with the material world; hence, the fiction of the isolated “causal chain” will work to the extent to which such an isolation takes place. And this is often the case in definite respects during limited intervals of time. But actually an infinity of neglected factors — Galileo’s cause accidentarie or cagioni secondarie — are constantly impinging upon the main stream — the chosen “causal line” — producing in it small modifications that may accumulate, thus eventually provoking, in the long run, an essential modification. As Bernal put it, such “chance variations or side reactions are always taking place.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] “These never completely cancel each other out, and there results an accumulation which sooner or later provides a trend in a different direction from that of the original system.” (Elementary statistical theory usually treats only the simplest case, namely, that in which chance deviations cancel out, so that no significant change in the general trend of the process is produced, the process ending up in an equilibrium state. The mass of small canceling influences coming from the rest of the universe is of this type; thus, the gravitational disturbances impinging on the earth are randomly distributed and do not produce lasting effects on the earth’s orbit, which is stable. Such collections of small influences have been regarded as an “irrational remainder”; actually they are not irrational but unknown in detail: although the individual elements are not controllable, the whole mass of the deviations is statistically tractable.)

[ … ]

… Only simple causation (to which multiple conjunctive causation can be reduced) complies with the usual formulations of the causal principle, all of which entail the uniqueness of the causal bond. Multiple disjunctive causation is often a more adequate picture of change, but owing to its ambiguity it is not strictly causal; moreover, when the complex of determinants is complex enough, and when they are all about equally important, multiple causation goes over into statistical determination.

Simple causation involves an artificial isolation or singling out of both factors and trends of evolution; it may reflect the central streamline but not the whole process. Isolation is a simplifying hypothesis rather than a fact. It is indispensable and even approximately valid in many cases; nevertheless, it is never rigorously true.

A consequence of causalism is the need of making a choice among an uncaused First Cause or infinite regress. The former is a theological, the latter a philosophical, fiction. Infinite causal regress has no cognitive value, since the knowledge of the present is thereby made to hang from the whole infinite ignored past. There is regression, but it is neither linear nor, in particular, causal.

To be continued.

My most recent post from Bunge’s book is here.




February 20, 2015

With a Radish

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:39 am

But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

This is from the essay ‘On Teaching Poetry’ (2003) found in What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World by Robert Hass (2012):

… When I began teaching poetry, one of my doubts about my ability to do it had to do with the fact that I was never not interested in it, and so I didn’t know how to put myself in the place of people who were bored or intimidated by it. My inclination, therefore, was not to go to the students and bring them along from my imagination of some place of trepidation or suspicion, but to assume their interest, and at Berkeley for the most part that’s been a reasonable assumption.

In talking about this to Judith, I was able to quote a haiku that I love by the nineteenth-century poet Kobayashi Issa, which goes like this — seventeen syllables in the Japanese:

…… The man pulling radishes
Pointed my way
…… With a radish.

[ … ]

… Having said all this, I should add that, beginning to teach, I came to realize that I had forgotten my own experience. It’s true that I was always interested in poetry, but it’s not true that I was never intimidated by it. I had, in high school and college, skulked around the edges of what I understood to be the great modernist masterworks by Pound and Eliot and Williams and Stevens and Moore and others — feeling their importance, catching flickers of whatever it was that poetry held and that I desired — in some of the bits of them that I could make out, and wishing to be, though in a somewhat defiant way and with somewhat mixed feelings, the sort of person who could understand them.

[ … ]

……………….. Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.

One of the traditional ways of teaching poetry is to discuss, to explicate, what Eliot is saying here to make sure that students (and the teacher) understand what’s being said, for the reason that what’s being said might be useful to them. And one can try to characterize the feeling of what’s being said. And leave it at that. In fact, in teaching poetry, that is quite often what we settle for. We hope that the deeper thing that we can’t communicate has gotten communicated, passed directly from the poem to the student reader without our aid or interference. We do what we can with content, especially if, as in this case, the content is rich, psychologically or philosophically. And we do what we can, harder but still manageable, with affect. And we leave the deeper thing in the work of art, which is also famously the most ineffable, its tone or mood, which is like a sensation of echo, which we often take away quite mutely and quietly, in the same way that people do coming out of a concert hall or a theater. In those deepest reaches of a work of art, the truth is that we mostly cannot teach.




February 19, 2015

Two Horses

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… there are two horses: one signified within the language of photography; the other an indispensable item of the materials from which this sign has been made.

This is from Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart McAllister, Film Editor by Dai Vaughan (1983):

… The apparently trivial question is often asked: why is it that the people who work in documentary are predominantly left-wing, and the people who work in features predominantly right-wing? The answer usually given — apart from the cynical but true one that right-wing people will go where the best money is to be made — is that those on the left are more interested in making films about our society and its problems. But this is no more than a begging of the question unless it can be shown independently that documentary is more appropriate to such purposes than fiction — something which, though commonly taken for granted, is not self-evident.

The key, since film is a succession of photographic images, may be sought in the nature of the photograph and in the way this differs from other means of representation. If we wish, say, to represent a horse in the medium of sculpture, we shall require a block of stone, a mallet and an armory of points, claws and chisels; if we wish to represent one in painting, we shall require brushes, paints and canvas; if we wish to represent one in writing, we require only pen and paper: but if we wish to represent a horse photographically, we require film, a camera and a horse. Thus the horse in a photograph has a dual existence. Indeed, we might more accurately say that there are two horses: one signified within the language of photography; the other an indispensable item of the materials from which this sign has been made.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Fiction settles for the signified horse, any relationship with the horse required for the making of the sign being deemed fortuitous. The documentary impulse — which transforms itself, as a commandment to the viewer, into what might be better termed ‘the documentary imperative’ — is, at its most rudimentary and irreducible, a desire and a requirement that the representation should keep faith with the materials: that the two horses should become, in some sense or other, one. And this ‘some sense or other’ is not a casual vagueness on my part: for it is differences in conception of what this ‘sense’ should be, at this or that stage of film’s technical development, which lie at the root of much disputation between the schools of documentary.

Some critics,treating film only in its aspect as a signifying system, would argue that the material horse, being inaccessible to us except through its representation, is irrelevant. And perhaps, in the ultimate, they are right. Certainly the contradiction entailed in our being visually directed to the priority of something we have not seen — being reminded, as it were, of what we have not experienced — is essential to the elusive yet specific quality of documentary. (Films which remind us of what we have experienced are not documentaries but home movies.) But the fact remains that you cannot make a documentary about a unicorn. The upshot of the pure critical position is to negate the documentary project altogether. If we wish to keep documentary, we must treat the ‘ultimate’ argument as a piece of pure mathematics which, whilst we acknowledge its elegance, has meaning only within the circuit of its own economy.

My previous post from Vaughan’s book is here.




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