Unreal Nature

August 9, 2018

In This Configuration

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… the body is a kind of haunt. You can fill that position for a time, perhaps, and then leave.

This is from the essay ‘ “Here is Every” ‘ by Liz Kotz found in Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts (2018):

… At times it is almost pleading: “I want to get the whole. I’m trying to get everything, accurate. / I want to get the whole, / Here is the whole, everything, accurate, precise: ” Nauman’s punctuation is idiosyncratic but exact. Since no text directly follows “Here is the whole, everything, accurate, precise: ” we cannot determine what the phrase introduces — the space below, the next stanza, or the work as a whole? “Here is every.” appears twice. It is not a sentence but a striking and insistent phrase. It is like a tautology: here is the whole/hole, here is every(thing). Pared with its anagram “Ere he is very,” it scaffolds the central passage:

……………………….. Here is every.

Here is my precision.
Here is everything.
Apparently this is my hole.
Apparently this is my meaning.

(I have precise but mean intentions.)

……………………….. Ere he is very.

… My friend Mark So suggests that what we experience in Cones Cojones is “the writtenness of thought/act, the way it advances via language/word practice.” He elaborates: “Understanding deep transformations through shifts in surface features — the strange and compelling parallel between geometric precision in space-time, an abstract location, in its relationship to granular changes in lettering/syntax/etc. — an abstract surface.”

[line break added] The progressions of the text manifest how language can move you from abstract concepts to sensory experience and vice versa. Cones Cojones implicates the body in two inscriptive functions: the text and the lines on the floor. In this configuration the body is a kind of haunt. You can fill that position for a time, perhaps, and then leave.

Cones Cojones

My previous post from this book is here.




August 8, 2018

Like Electricity, Sharp

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… that had not been cultured into “history,” but that spoke … “as though the past were just another place.”

This is from Between the Landscape and Its Other by Paul Vanderbilt (1993):

I walk the landscape to learn something, maybe something about my own limitations. I see what I see, but I know there is something more. In the physical, topographical fact, there are very likely all the prejudices about what a landscape is supposed to be; there is bias from literature, from the build-up of conventional images, from a rehearsing of names, compounding fragments of data. There is still something more, ephemeral and not exactly knowledge, susceptible to romantic notions but nonetheless an invitation to participate.

…For a work as serious and far-reaching as this, one would expect reproductions of the finest photographs obtainable. But we are exploring potential depths of meaning, and these particular depths are not necessarily in the photographs. They are in life itself as recalled by the photographs …

… The pairings exercise my defense of things elusive, impermanent and vague, which are still, like electricity, sharp and enormously effective.

My own interests, which do not primarily concern production, have narrowed somewhat to two large, related fields: first, the recycling uses of pictures after their initial purpose is served; and second, the potential association of photography with other efforts at understanding — logic, science, art, landscape studies, literature, sociology, engineering, conceptualization, planning, the whole range of the humanities. These invite all the practical uses of illustration, where the problems are largely technical or logistic, but beyond them are fields of analogy and uncertainty, which deeply affect visual imagery, real and subliminal.

… Even facing a building of some historical note as a residence or site of an event, I have often felt that the building itself, though unaltered and carefully maintained, failed to give a sense (as distinguished from information) of the past. It was not free from its modern, polished fact; it was illusory in its attempt, artificially enclosed in a textual shell. It suggested a postcard and identification. I had to recognize what was expected of me; I had to do the going back.

[line break added] Perhaps quite adjacent to or down the street there might be something as simple as a tree that showed its age, that had not been cultured into “history,” but that spoke, as George Talbot puts it, “as though the past were just another place.” It’s not so much what it is by reference as how it makes one feel. It takes one back before one quite realizes what’s happening.




August 7, 2018

Compared to the Little Brass Band

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… if someone manages to make people believe, then the poor souls are lost.

Continuing through The Beginning of Heaven and Earth Has No Name: Seven Days with Second-Order Cybernetics by Heinz von Foerster, edited by Albert Müller and Karl H. Müller and translated by Elinor Rooks and Michael Kasenbacher (2014):

… If you count all these sensors that sit in the brain waiting for each other, you get numbers and magnitudes that are just hair-raising. If, as you’ve said, there are maybe one hundred million sensors and sense cells for the external world spread over the body, then this number is practically nothing compared to what is in the brain itself.

If the brain is seen as a sensorium, then this sensorium proves infinitely richer than the sensorium for the outside world. From outside we hear almost nothing and see almost nothing. From within we hear and see constantly. Essentially we are listening, not to music but to our own brains, our own heads. Normally we’re interested in the outer casing — ears, eyes, nose. but no: we should concentrate on the brain, which is almost infinitely richer and more diverse.

[line break added] You can imagine it like this: “Close your eyes! And then what are all the activities going on inside — bad conscience, good conscience, you are pleased, you are frightened, you imagine something, you don’t imagine anything., an incomparable inner waxworks. The cerebral orchestra turns out to be a gigantic ensemble compared to the little brass band that we see or hear on the outside.

[ … ]

… This reminds me, incidentally, of that very funny saying: “Seeing is believing.” I, however, would reverse this saying — “Believing is seeing” — one sees only what one believes. If you know it’s all about this or that, only then can you see. Seeing alone wouldn’t be enough — first you have to believe what’s going on, then you see. Incidentally, here we’re dealing with a phenomenon important for sects, cults, and preachers’ flocks — if someone manages to make people believe, then the poor souls are lost.

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




August 6, 2018

History Begins with the Present

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:57 am

… You cannot hold back from making judgments, from beginning to create the frame. You cannot wait for five years; otherwise you allow others, including the commercial world, to establish history.

This is from the transcript of Kathy Halbreich’s ‘Inventing New Models for the Museum and Its Audiences’ at the symposium Curating Now: Imaginative Practice / Public Responsibility (2001):

… Confession number one: This [museum] director’s life is no longer centered on reflection. I profoundly miss the slowness of time, but seem to spend my days moving rapidly from topic to topic in a topical manner; running for meetings downtown and to dinners around town; shooting from the hip and sometimes leaving others to mop up, because I’m not even certain what the target is; intuitively responding and speaking in sound bytes; and oddly enough for someone who grew up in a field inhabited by things that are the physical embodiment of ideas and values, living vicariously.

Confession number two: Some days it seems that my pleasure is sublimated in the pleasure of others. A not entirely undesirable state of being but one I’m not certain I want to adjust to. The vision thing gets done in the darkness of night when I wake myself talking to myself. It gets hashed out, remade, and refined with the staff I truly love and am comfortable arguing with, and a board I know respects us, loves the institution, and wants its city to be competitive.

… Confession number three: There aren’t even enough hours in a day to do what I’m supposed to do, as well as to learn how to do what I don’t already know, which is lots.

[ … ]

… Even though I know change demands that we set new priorities, that we stress recently acquired and consequently unseasoned values over old ones, and divide precious resources differently, I like to think of change as a process of multiplying possibility rather than subtracting things that matter. While I admit that sometimes it’s not so easy for our traditional audiences to understand initially what’s been added so much as what’s been taken away, we must not let our faith in what’s aesthetically, intellectually, and socially necessary falter.

[line break added] It is crucial for all of us to remember that we entered this field because at least some part of our psyche was mesmerized by invention, by the ways in which artists often simultaneously make visible the values we prize while insisting that we question our own perceptions. We too must use Janus-like vision, with one eye that of the skeptic and the other the convert, to reevaluate those traditions and histories that have shaped our institutions as we recreate them for the twenty-first century.

From Nicholas Serota’s follow-up statement to Halbreich’s presentation:

… Any institution dealing with the twentieth century has to have a commitment to the present; history begins with the present. You cannot hold back from making judgments, from beginning to create the frame. You cannot wait for five years; otherwise you allow others, including the commercial world, to establish history. You have to be in there, you have to be purchasing and above all you have to be working with practicing artists.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




August 5, 2018

Cancerous Recollection

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:01 am

… it is the bad action that is transported as such, wholly living and burning, into the middle of our present.

Continuing through The Bad Conscience by Vladimir Jankélévich, translated by Andrew Kelley (2015):

… The sorrow of regret is simply in the impossibility of a return to the past: time alone is guilty, but not me. What is tragic in remorse resides in the fact that I myself am the artisan of this impossibility. Regret, in its nostalgia, creates an illusory image of this past that it will no longer relive. Remorse, on the contrary, is a presence, a haunting presence that torments us mercilessly; far from lingering on complacently in the evocation of its past, bad conscience does all that it can to get rid of it, for it no longer tolerates this ghost, this witness of a dreaded, spiritual heredity.

[line break added] There is in regret a sort of tenderness that is profoundly foreign to true remorse; regret spontaneously invents an image of this past that tempts it, and ordinarily a little bit of philosophy suffices for making this phantom disappear; in remorse it is the past that, of itself and objectively, weighs on our shoulders; it is impossible to annihilate this anguish, to purge the conscience of it; for the optative of regret, despair, has been substituted.

… remorse is a type of cancerous recollection, a recollection which monopolizes all the space, which wants to be alone, and which interests not some superficial and regional portion of our experience but rather the totality of the person and his intimate ipseity; remorse is a solitary and nagging recollection; born in the wake of a certain partial experience, it soon entirely absorbs the life that it disrupts with its hypertrophy.

[line break added] Here it is, having taken up residence, attached to our soul with the inexorable fixity of great passions; many men thus carry their pain within themselves like a secret love that they cultivate with a type of cruel delectation; everything seems to be made for this pain and nothing would seem to be able to extirpate it.

[line break added] But remorse is still something more than recollection; for recollection is the return not of the past itself (by what would it then distinguish itself from present perception?) but rather an image of this past. Remorse, on the contrary, is not reproduction but survival; that which survives this time is the past itself (ipse) or in person, and this is the event in flesh and bones.

… it is the old misdeed that directly figures into the young consciousness, that persists and lingers on among the true, contemporary perceptions.

… the sin was an exterior reality whose entire meaning was interior, and vice versa the remorse for the sin is an image that is a fact; to recall it is to relive it, to remake it, such that the bad conscience feels itself, so to speak, sinning continually. The very essence of remorse is this continuation of a misdeed that literally comes back to life, that at every moment renews itself in our hearts. There is here, thus, no difference between the matter and what is represented: it is the bad action that is transported as such, wholly living and burning, into the middle of our present.

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




August 4, 2018

The Mystery

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… people talk about themselves not out of vanity but because “they are mysterious to themselves, and they talk just to find out something about the mystery.”

This is from the essay ‘On the Politics of the Self-Created: At Heaven’s Gate’ by James H. Justus found in Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays (1980):

… [Bogan] Murdock is Warren’s single most explicit exhibit of how substance has been reduced to salesmanship, and Jerry Calhoun is his fullest development of those figures who are unable to distinguish the difference.

… Jerry Calhoun never knows with any precision who he is. In our first glimpse of him he is rehearsing definitions (“Bull’s-eye Calhoun,” the boy who “brought back the bacon from New York”) until his very name echoes in his head “like a set of nonsense syllables.”

… he learns the trick of successful behavior with potential customers:

It was all easier than he had imagined. … If they asked him questions or asked for his opinion, he would answer not too discursively, nodding slightly, his manner respectful but authoritative. He was not afraid to disagree with them. He knew football and fishing and hunting; and they knew that he knew those things. When the men talked to him about business or politics, he listened in the same way; and when they asked him a question he replied in the same way, rather briefly, respectfully, not afraid to disagree, not afraid to say that he did not know, nodding almost imperceptibly, with a slight corrugation of the strong, glowing flesh of his straight brows.

At Heaven’s Gate posits no easy solution to the problem of self-definition. Those who are most in need of solving it — Sue Murdock and Jerry Calhoun — are confounded by the complexity and try to accommodate their urgencies with the stopgap measures of surface technique. Slim Sarrett tells Sue that people talk about themselves not out of vanity but because “they are mysterious to themselves, and they talk just to find out something about the mystery.”

[line break added] But even at the end, when Sue is murdered and when a broken and bewildered Jerry is returned to his father’s house, neither has learned much about the mystery. On the other hand, Ashby Wyndham accepts the mystery because man is not his own creature: “a man don’t know, for he is ignorant,” and he “don’t know, nor was made to.” God’s will, he explains, “runs lak a fox with the dogs on him, and doubles and knows places secret and hard for a man’s foot. But a man wants to know, but it is his weakness.”

Those who use technique most outrageously to manipulate others — Sarrett, Sweetwater — continue their lives apparently without much readjustment of their personal goals and methods. In the world of rapacity, the ruthless rule, mouthing their rhetorical clichés so patly that the mask becomes the face. Swearing by the portrait of Andrew Jackson (or by theories of poetry or politics) comes to be the real as well as the fake, the goal as well as the technique.




August 3, 2018

Pleasure No. 4

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:35 am

… ‘how much we need to know … in order to translate the simplest utterance appropriate to the psychology of the fictive person who utters it.’

Continuing through This Little Art by Kate Briggs (2017):

Lydia Davis has written about taking pleasure in the company afforded — the energy that is tapped — by the work of translation. In her inventory of the pleasures of translating, pleasure no. 4 is all about not thinking or writing alone. She writes: ‘When you are translating, you are working in partnership with the author; you are not as alone as you are when writing your own work. You sense the author’s hovering presence, you feel an alliance with him, and a loyalty to him, with all his good and his less good character traits, ,whether he is neurotic and difficult, and at the same time generous and funny, like Proust, or tender toward his family and at the same time full of contempt for a great many people and types of people, like Flaubert.’

[ … ]


The Saturday morning exerciser likes dancing a lot. She goes every week. She doesn’t exactly have an end in sight — a goal, that is. No one comes to watch her (she would probably hate it if they did). She appreciates the scale of the class: it is too large for anything like individual attention; the instructor doesn’t correct or evaluate her. She is getting marginally better at following her steps, possibly because she goes every week. But the point has never been to impress, to instruct or to entertain anyone else.

[line break added] She’s clearly not a professional; her aim is not to professionalize her activity. Not only because she’s not especially good at it but because to do so would bring the expectation of others, like a weight. She is practising for no obvious purpose other than the repeated pleasure of it (‘amator: one who loves and loves again,’ writes Barthes in Richard Howard’s translation).

… the scholar Caryl Emerson quotes a letter to the NYRB from Judson Rosengrant, ‘a professional translator of Tolstoy.’ Rosengrant had offered a detailed case study of a single word as it appears in Anna Karenina — a verb favored by Stivia Oblonsky (obrazuetsia — ‘it will come right’). Reading Rosengrant’s ‘tour de force’ account of the morphology and semantics of the verb ‘reminded me,’ writes Emerson, ‘of how much we need to know, especially with a fastidious craftsman like Tolstoy, in order to translate the simplest utterance appropriate to the psychology of the fictive person who utters it.’

How much we need to know,
in order to.

… Here is an example of a different form of collective exercise: a Dutch-to-English literary translation group which convenes very irregularly in Rotterdam. Five of us with an interest in reading and writing and a desire to learn more about Dutch literature. One native Dutch-speaker, the rest of us with different kinds of English and beginners’ level Dutch.

… I believe — the very idea of our working group is premised on the shared belief — that it is possible for us to find out what the sentences in Dutch stories mean. To establish more or less and to be overwhelmed and perplexed by the range of their likely meanings. On the condition, that is, that we spend enough time with them: the length of the time and with the quality of attention that the project of translating demands of us. Which might be fast — there is no reason why translation can’t get done a bit faster — but in our case happens to be very, very slow.

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




August 2, 2018

Freedom, He Teaches Us, Can Originate from Uncertainty

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… one becomes alert or focused by becoming slightly unbalanced.

This is from the essay ‘Disappearing Acts Appear’ by Kathy Halbreich found in Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts (2018):

Much of the literature on Bruce Nauman either criticizes or celebrates the lack of conceptual and stylistic coherence in his work. Some critics see only disconnected series of obtuse provocations and narcissistically driven transgressions masquerading as sculpture. For admirers who relish the seemingly endless (and somewhat anxious) experimentation that permeates all phases of his fifty-year career, however, these alleged lapses actually manifest the fullness of Nauman’s inventiveness.

[line break added] While the variety of his media and forms, interests and advances makes it impossible to reduce his preoccupations to a closed system of concerns, it is possible to imagine his mind as a gravitational force that over time filters out everything unnecessary, leaving behind something of unusual conceptual purity.

… Functioning as an act, concept, perceptual probe, magical deceit, working method, and metaphor, disappearance has been a useful and persistent prompt for Nauman’s art.

… Disappearance seems to function as both a factual and an emotional editing device helping him to short-circuit the torpor that sets in when ideas evaporate and creativity recedes. The existential dread that springs from a sense that one may be unable to do the task at hand is not that unusual, and wakens especially in those who are easily moved by an emptiness accompanying the suspicion that meaning is elusive and any attempt to fix it is absurd.

[line break added] Creative thinkers across disciplines, however, possess an improvisational gift that enables them to be patient when the horizon fades, shadows multiply, and dusk overtakes their world. Invention often emerges from the recesses of a mind that has no specific destination but is left to wander through light and dark passages; many artists know how to trust a fluidity that moves beyond the rational, as when intuitions spring from the unconscious. This liminal stream is often flooded with painful memories or misapprehensions that, while influencing our desires and attitudes, are hidden from our immediate understanding.

… It’s something of a characteristic Naumanesque paradox that one becomes alert or focused by becoming slightly unbalanced. The loss of stability that occurs as we pivot to make sense of what we are seeing reminds us what it means to be grounded, reminds us of things we take so much for granted that they normally disappear. And the meandering associations that develop as we angle this way and that mimic the artist’s own back-and-forth dance with doubt, with whether or not he believes the statement he has authored to be true.

… Freedom, he teaches us, can originate from uncertainty, as it mitigates against orthodoxy. Nauman’s act may be construed as a gentle way to expose us, in an ultimately unthreatening manner, to a not so gentle reality.




August 1, 2018

In Quest

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… his subject is always finally himself in quest of an impossible knowledge.

This is from the essay ‘W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh; Rumors of a City’ in Lincoln’s Smile and Other Enigmas by AlanTrachtenberg (2007):

… [In his Pittsburgh project] Smith purposefully diminishes the role of people as individuals. With few exceptions, he portrays his workers not as persons but as laboring bodies; in his magnificent demonic pictures of steel making, for example, workers are abstract figures rather than individuals, swathed in darkness, silhouetted against hearth flames and smoke, their faces averted.

[line break added] The virtual absence of eyes caught noticing the camera or responding to it adds to the sense of inwardness touched by gloom in many of the pictures. Or is it the aversion of the photographer for a place he does not love? Smith’s decision to seek knowledge of the city itself rather than of its individuals comes from his guiding insight: that to know a city means to take its people as integers or emblems, performers in the larger drama of his own experience.

[line break added] “A City Experienced; Pittsburgh, Pa.” he titled a collection of his proof sheets submitted for copyright in 1956. “In this essay (photographically, that is),” he wrote, “and unlike other essays of mine (such as the Nurse Midwife), I will not search to know any individual as a complete person.” The city itself “is the individual to be known.”

… To say that he is not interested in knowing people but in knowing the city itself as an individual is to say that his subject is always finally himself in quest of an impossible knowledge. His pictures communicate a quest, though he seems often at a distance, drawn to tableaux rather than persons, to silhouettes, to spaces broken and fragmented into parts that do not communicate with or know each other.

… Whatever the explanations in Smith’s turbulence in this period, he proved to himself that he was not up to the task he dreamed of. In the light of his high ambition, the result felt like a world-shaking defeat: “the final failure, the debacle of Pittsburgh as printed.”

… The absence of closure, Smith’s romanticism would insist, is the mark of authenticity, the sign that this essay makes no dubious claims to a positivist notion of “truth.” We have not “Pittsburgh” but the artist’s “labyrinthian walk” in search of a Pittsburgh, a sequence of images and text, a coherent form of relationships commensurate with Smith’s experience of paradox …

… Did Smith have in some corner of his mind a political agenda, a jeremiad against the changing face but persisting inequalities of American capitalism? Not likely; his goals seem more private than political, the apocalypse he tempted more personal than social. Still at work on his “long poem,” the Pittsburgh essay, he began just as obsessively to photograph New York from his studio window on Sixth Avenue and then, turning even more inward, the brooding interior life of the studio itself, the painters and musicians (mostly black artists) who shared his space.

[line break added] In love with paradox, Smith had contrived failure and impossibility as the enabling presumptions of his work in Pittsburgh, clutching the heart of the project, its definitive feature. Expectations of defeat underwrote his aspirations toward greatness. Thus his pathology. Thus what Lincoln Kirstein must have meant by the “hysteria” of his best pictures, “a brooding calm before a presumed, inevitable explosion.” And thus “Pittsburgh,” an archive of stunning pictures, and an essay yet to be achieved.

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




July 31, 2018

Give It a Little Shake

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… “How do I build myself into life so that I become a co-describer of life by describing myself?”

Continuing through The Beginning of Heaven and Earth Has No Name: Seven Days with Second-Order Cybernetics by Heinz von Foerster, edited by Albert Müller and Karl H. Müller and translated by Elinor Rooks and Michael Kasenbacher (2014):

… I would, by the way, make the following recommendation to nuclear physicists: don’t think about little balls that won’t have anything to do with one another; think about little hooks, the whole universe is made of little hooks. And if you shake them, then the hooks join together especially if they’re those fishhooks that are bent at both ends.

[line break added] You’ve got to give it a little shake. Everyone can try this out in his or her room. Put fishhooks in a pot and shake it. Then take them out. They’re all connected. Marvelous self-organization. All I need to do is shake. And nothing else. That means that if I let energy flow through a thermodynamically open system then the structures, potential structures that exist, will be realized.

[ … ]

… I’m always wanting to draw attention to the fact that what interests me about the question “What is life?” is not the definition that someone, you or I, conjures up. On the contrary: if we talk about the problem of life here and now then this becomes important: in which form does this conversation play out? I want to stress over and over that it all comes down to the conversational form we use when we talk about life.

[line break added] It isn’t the problematic of life that fascinates me — of course it is one of the tremendously fascinating problems — but rather the form of speaking when we talk about life. This point fascinates me: through the ways that we talk about life, we create, bring forth, produce life.

… The problem of life does not primarily consist of fixing criteria for determining, “There is life, that is a living organization.” For me it is incomparably more urgent to find a description that finds itself, or a description that writes itself. And so not, “There is the law ABC,” but rather, “Here is the law that has set itself.” And if now I ought to conjure up this law — “Heinz, produce this life-law that writes itself” — then I answer, “I still haven’t found it.”

… If you are coming from the natural-scientific direction,then you are already quite happy to say “The worms divide themselves into …” “The living creatures divide themselves into …”

… If, however, I want to consider biology as a science of life then I deliberately do not say, “There is life,” but instead pose the question, “How do I build myself into life so that I become a co-describer of life by describing myself?” Then the categories and the forms of speaking about biology become fundamentally different.

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




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