Unreal Nature

April 18, 2018


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… they all cross, eventually, the threshold of the mill proper as they pass under the clock that watches over the mill’s acutely synchronized operation.

This is from the essay ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ by John Pemberton found in Photographies East: The Camera and Its Histories in East and Southeast Asia edited by Rosalind C. Morris (2009):

A photograph recalls the Netherlands East Indies governor-general A.C.D. de Graeff, his long arm stretched forward, hand held palm down, blessing sacrificial offerings prepared for machinery at the Tjolomadoe sugar mill in Central Java on 21 May 1928. De Graeff performs this gesture ostensibly in acknowledgement of the ceremonial attitude associated with setting in motion milling machines at the advent of each harvest season in Java.

[line break added] He is presented in the photograph as calm, confident. He is as reassuring that the mill’s enormous cogwheels of production will perform smoothly, without accident, profitably, as he himself appears reassured. It is as though he does not see the ghost in the machine, particularly Machine One.

This ghost does not have a name, or at least her name was no longer known by the time the photograph was taken. She is a spectral presence that appears momentarily, sometimes as a detached head, vaporously projected and enlarged within the cogwheels of the machinery, sometimes as a well-dressed figure, wholly intact, suspended in midair. She is Javanese. She never speaks. She wears a watch. Her sudden appearance threatens to induce distraction that turns fatal. Grasp slips, a machinist is drawn into the cogs, and the sugar for a while runs red.

modern photo of a sugar mill in Java

… From about 1900 on, palace [Mangkunagaran Palace in Surakarta, Java] archives were increasingly devoted to documenting, on the one hand, scenes self-consciously celebrated in the Indies as traditional ritual performances (weddings, shadow-puppet theater, princely coronations, village commemorations, funerals, harvest festivals) and, on the other, the machinery so emblematic of modern times (sugar mills, hydroelectric plants, locomotives, railway stations, telegraph lines, radio towers).

… what the archived albums reveal, time and time again, is an obsession of a different order, an obsession which would transcend traditional/modern or cultural/technological dichotomies, a truly singular obsession with a force that is (now) ritual, (now) mechanical, (perhaps always) habitual. This is the force of repetition, of repetition itself.

[ … ]

… Were one to retrace the various paths out of cane fields lined with ox carts, paved roads with bicycles and personnel, and railway lines tracking milled cane to storage and market, they all cross, eventually, the threshold of the mill proper as they pass under the clock that watches over the mill’s acutely synchronized operation. There is a precarious sense in which the convergence of routine labors and the geared coupling of the machines themselves reiterates the peculiar logic of coincidence conjoining such worlds.




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