Thursday, February 5, 2015

Biochemistry So Far

Ah yes, a urine chart
In the name of many things (curiosity, structure, new things, companionship, and a future project with a biochemist), I am taking CHEM 240: "Structure and Function of Molecules." I am storing away beautiful phrases: "the molecular logic of life," "biochemical unity," "chemical personality," and "stereochemistry." I am in love with new words: "zwitterion" (a molecule with two charged protons), "carboxy terminus" (the carbon end of an amino acid), and "nucleotides" (subunits of DNA). There is some irresponsible revelry here, some pure delight and fascination with form that has no understanding of content. But it's only been a week. Maybe I will memorize all twenty amino acids (Tryptophan is in the category of Aromatic - it's practically poetry), maybe I will understand pH balance and buffering ranges. I will certainly try. It's very interesting to learn something without immediate application. That sounds absurd because to almost anyone else, chemistry is the field of immediate application and art history is, well, not. But the future project mentioned above continues the challenge set forth by BABEL-Boston 2012 ("Cruising in the Ruins: the question of disciplinarity in the post/medieval university") to "re-sound our disciplinary wells, while also, inevitably, bumping into each other and occasionally hooking up, like Democritus’s atoms."  Oh man, I love this call so much, here's more: "Holding on to our disciplinary objects and methods and ways of knowing, while also keeping them open to futurity and the surprise of the stranger, let’s cruise each other. Let’s swerve, without steering, through the movement-filled “void” that is the university, cyberspace, society, the world. Atoms, monads, particles, singularities, seeds, souls, kernels, cells, events, appearances — gathering in molecules, crowds, assemblages, drifts, swarms, parliaments, strikes, clouds, hives, cascades, collisions, waves, one-night stands, spontaneous acts of metempsychosis, a fine spray of perfume through the atomizer, hanging in the night air." Here's the full call if you want to have a great day/life.

This one folds up for easy referral
So I'm working with this biochemist on a paper on (for now let's say) the limits of perception and the strategies for seeing what we can't see. There's a range of possibilities from metaphor to the mesoscale (which you can size up here, and is well explained here). For now, though, I am seeing all sorts of new things. I feel the world revealed. I understand much better why my dad died so soon after he stopped drinking water (Le Chatelier's Principle (lovely phrase, isn't it? assuages the fear of our fragility) helped me see how devastating the loss of equilibrium of water is to cell and then very quickly organ function), though he hadn't eaten food to speak of for weeks and weeks. When we worked through a case study of Renal Tubular Acidosis (to understand acids and bases), I better understood the delicate pH balance that must be maintained in the blood by the kidneys. I think about urine a surprising amount (it's used all the time to fix colors in medieval stained glass and, it turns out, in a lot of metalworking - and you bet I'll be asking the professor about what's going on there) and so perhaps it was inevitable that medieval urine charts came to mind, and have become my image for biochemistry right now. They're beautiful images in their shape and color variation, they're instantly recognizable though not necessarily easily decipherable, and they were used (the one pictured here folded into the stitching of its manuscript) as a means to understand what the body might be saying about its own demise. Plus, as my children pointed out, it looks like a decoding ring. There's a lot to that. Eventually I'll be writing a lot about proteins, but for now, there's one statement I keep turning over in my mind: with a protein function follows form (this is a neat reversal of the aesthetic principle, form follows function). A protein can have the exact same genetic material but if it folds differently than the way it is supposed to (if its form changes) its function changes dramatically (whereas you can change the form of a house lots of different ways, ask architectural history, and it's still a house). That fascinates me no end because proteins fold at mind-blowingly (not a scientific term) rapid speeds, and how do you track that kind of veering?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

All Directions in Time

Holbein's Ambassadors, 1533
National Gallery, London
This is a reality check post, a looking at the landscape post, a brief state of the work post. This is my first full year sabbatical and it is entering its second phase. The first was the no-sleep-'till-Brooklyn (or Paris) Paris five-month stay, and the second is the spring semester in my office processing it all. The fall produced a proposal for a collaborative project, two essays, a talk, and a mountain of photographs and exhibition catalogues from multiple multiple on-site and museum visits (The Haul). The spring calls forth four talks that will take me in four quite different directions (from agentic objects in Tolkien, to the materiality of artist inscriptions, to (the limits of) perception in Hans Holbein's Ambassadors in terms of scale, transition, and catastrophe, and back to art is Chaucer's dream visions). Three essays are due in September, also in three different directions (the iconography of narrative, the dream vision talk in essay form, and an exploration of the word "tend" in the context of Veer Ecology). There's a book review to finish and an essay to revise in there. And an on-line course about manuscripts to follow. And a book project is taking shape in a one-step-forward, two-steps-back pace (but forward, and I'll be writing about it in pieces out here). And then I'd like to read everything and process images - always good for the design and redesign of classes.

Virgo, from this lovely
page at the Met
And so the inner virgo is out and about tidying things up and making calendars and generally feeling lucky and overwhelmed-but-with-the-luxury-of-time-all-is-possible. And most mornings, I feel as though I could take off in any number of directions, even though I have my little study schedule all written out; and most afternoons, I see where I might be going after all. All fall our mantra was "this is the chance of a lifetime" - and it was, never to be repeated, and (Iris counted) of the five months, we were home seven days. I realize that this stretch of time is the chance of a lifetime, too. Summers, inimitably inaugurated by the Kalamazoo conference, are stretches, but I haven't had time like this since I was a graduate student. Right now my response is to run in all directions within the existential freedom. I hope that I get more disciplined, but connecting Viollet-le-Duc to environmental activism, Holbein to early physics, and all the really interesting thinking about time (especially Dinshaw's How Soon is Now? and Moxey's Visual Time and all of the heterochronic questioning of Moxey and Wood and Nagel) makes it feel like the ideas are in charge, taking me from one place to the next. How something as basic and fundamental as time becomes a luxury is a process to trace: the resources that have to be put in place to "afford" the time - both absurd and privileged. (The impossibility of a "Right to Time" movement). Reading the news cycle going back through the lives of the Paris attackers, seeing a German right-wing organization head step down because of a Facebook post from 2012, thinking about the work of art history and medieval studies - time gets less linear all the time. Mostly my time is incredibly linear, lived within the forward march of the academic calendar. So here goes a 7 month experiment in living in non-linear time, really going deeper into work time via reading, thinking, and writing - I know that there will be products at the end, but I hope for some kind of strange effect upon my person as well.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Viollet-le-Duc Wanted to Restore a Mountain

Towards the end of his life, Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) wrote an architectural study of the Mont-Blanc, a high peak of a massive mountain range that rears up to grip the borders of France, Switzerland, and Italy. He gathered the measurements and findings of eight summers of observations, over 500 drawings and sketches, and a lifetime of hiking into this marvelous work, which sings with his precision and conviction. In these days, when everything is symptomatic of my most embroiled feelings about France, I can simultaneously marvel at the hubris of the project, and be moved almost to tears by his simple, poetic admission that "Nous sommes si petits." ("We are so very small.") In these days, when I am thinking about scale on, well, multiple scales, and when I am fully engaged in the Counting Down of Days until the appearance of Jeffrey Cohen's much-anticipated book on Stone; an ecology of the inhuman, a few minutes' foray into Viollet-le-Duc's calls out.

The image above is from the fantastic, exhaustive, and beautifully documented exposition up at the Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris until March, 2015 (and which we were able to see just before we left). The emblem of the exposition is this cool poster depicting Viollet-le-Duc as a kind of steam punk hero (a brilliant resonance with the futuristic (and very steampunk-y show, Revoir Paris, which is up concurrently at the Cité), and indeed, the show focuses mostly on his urban and architectural projects. In its small room devoted to Viollet-le-Duc's love of nature and hiking and plein-air sketching, it re-opens the wild possibility of an architectural study of a mountain. In the introduction to the study, he has the mountain speak to its human interloper - which reminded me of Cohen's brilliant move in giving the mountain a voice in his postmedieval essay, "Stories of Stone," which considers (and radically shifts) both temporal and physical scale - something Viollet-le-Duc explores and asserts, even as he uses rational, extrapolated measurements to bring the mountain "down" to human scale, or at least to a scale available to human perception. When up in the mountains, Viollet-le-Duc writes of being "au mileu d'un monde qui n'est pas fait pour lui" ("in the middle of a world that was not made for him") - I remember this feeling so vividly as a kid growing up in Switzerland and going on hikes (never up the Mont Blanc - heavens! - but in many of its foothills). That here was complete, breathable alterity or (in my kid brain) that I was on another planet altogether while walking on my own. In Viollet-le-Duc's introduction, the mountain mocks the human (calls him "chétif!" - sickly), and mocks his dams and tunnels especially, these small attempts to get around the vivid, solid truth of the mountain. It ultimately tells the human to be on his way, that there is nothing for him here. And yet, Viollet-le-Duc asserts, we climb. He admires England and its willful, crazy climbers, attaining to heights whence they too often never return. He wishes France had more of them. His final life's work will be to perform a meticulous architectural study of the parts of the Mont Blanc annexed to France (oh the riches of critique here!).

I love the work both for its folly and for its science. It's one that I'll be reading with my geologist friend over the next few weeks, as the text is the meeting of many worlds (and a study, and a new chapter). His statements about perception and scale flashed out at me: "Puis il faut dire que de fréquents séjours sur les hauteurs donnent aux yeux une expérience de l'échelle réelle des objets que ne peut posséder le voyageur visitant pour la première fois les altitudes. C'est en cela que le dessin l'emporte toujours sur la photographie." ("It has to be said that frequent journeys to the mountain heights furnish your perception with an experience of the real scale of the objects, one that a first-time visitor to these heights wouldn't have access to. It's in this that drawing will always carry the day over photography.") Answering the question of an imagined interlocutor as to why an architect would busy himself with a geological structure, he answers: "Analyser curieusement un groupe de montagnes, leur mode de formation, et les causes de leurs ruine... c'est, sur une plus grande échelle, se livrer à un travail méthodique d'analyse analogue à celui auquel s'astreint l'architecte praticien et archéologue qui établit ses déductions d'après l'étude des monuments." ("To turn an analytic curiosity upon a group of mountains, their means of formation, and the causes of their ruin.. is, on a greater scale, to give yourself over to a work of methodical analysis analogous to that which a practicing architect and archeologist strives for in establishing claims after the study of monuments.")

That "les causes de leurs ruins" caught my eye and I looked for why he would claim that as part of his study. I found it in the very final pages of the work, in an impassioned eco-activist speech against the diversion of water flow, the building of tunnels, and the excess of hiking parties. The juxtaposition of the two drawings at the head of this post is not so much a before-and-after as a "what is now" and "what could be." And so here is what could be if the human could understand the mountain. In the end, Viollet-le-Duc reveals, his study exists so that the human can understand the mountain not just to leave it alone, but no, rather to help it do what nature won't do and the human aggravates: "La nature, rigoureusement fidèle à ses lois, ne fait pas remonter la pente au caillou que le pied du voyageur a précipité dans la vallée, ne resème pas la forêt que notre main imprudente a coupée,  lorsque la roche nue apparait et que la terre a été entraînée par les eaux des fontes et des pluies, ne rétablit pas la prairie dont notre imprévoyance a contribué à faire disparaître l'humus." ("Nature, rigorously loyal to her own laws, does not make the pebble roll back up the mountain once it has been kicked in the valley by a traveller, it doesn't resow the forest that our imprudent hand has cut down, when the naked rock appears after the soil has been eroded by water sources and rain, it does not re-establish the prairie which our improvidence has robbed of its fertile ground."). And so all of those calculations and observations and drawings are purposeful and activist science. "Si ces pages peuvent contribuer à éveiller l'attention du public sur ces questions... si elles peuvent provoquer chez les ingénieurs une attitude attentive et pratique de l'aménagement des cours d'eau dans les montagnes, si elles font admettre dans les administrations compétentes que ce n'est pas dans les bureaux, mais sur le terrain, qu'il faut essayer de résoudre ces problèmes, nous nous considérerons comme largement payé de nos fatigues, de nos peines et de nos sacrifices." ("If these pages can contribute to the awakening of the public on these issues... if they can provoke an attentive and practical approach in engineers to the issue of the sustainability of water ways in the mountains, if they make competent administrators realize that it's not in offices, but rather on the ground, that we need to resolve these problems, then I will consider myself largely repaid for my fatigue, my effort, and my sacrifice.") The transposition/transition from care and restoration of architecture to that of mountains appears seamless in the mathematics of Viollet-le-Duc's calculations - the transition of scales is elegant and rational - but his claim to care for and restore a mountain (I can't say "remains unfathomable" because it's anything but after all those calculations) continues to defy expectations. Good for him.

Friday, January 16, 2015


Saint-Cybard at Plassac-Rouffiac,
12th-century (Charente)
I'm getting ready to re-read a book written by my advisor, Linda Seidel that I've taught but haven't read since graduate school. I'll be reading Songs of Glory to think about scale and the movement (that her book negotiates so beautifully and provocatively) between small and large scales. What do we do when we make mountains out of molehills? What is going when he's got the whole world in his hands? Our language dances around this through imagistic phrases but scale (and the ability to shift scale) is one of those human habits/inclinations that we do without quite understanding. Dear us, we lose perspective all the time. And I mean really lose it: not just ignore it for something near or far, but lose our bearings. It's one of the most unnerving and glorious things we do: unfix our viewpoint, dislocate our point of view. The minute you engage in metaphor (that linguistic trick that carries us from one place to another), you're starting to shift scale. Clearly, our nightly screenings of Cosmos (and yes, last night was black holes and the bending of space and time and spacetime) are having their effect.

Today is the first day that I am able to look up from Charlie Hebdo covers, to think about other horizons of France. I've always been keenly aware of my distance from events in Paris and how that is shaping my perception of what they might mean or signify. Conversations with friends near and far have added layers (the protests by children of immigrants in the1980s for full inclusion in French society, the betrayal of the political left, the long tradition of caricature in French society, the difference between a caricature and a racist caricature). Those layers in turn are having a double effect of discovery and uncovering. Here, again, I marvel at the English language and its two distinct words (in French, there is only "découvrir" for both). Discovery here, would be the presence of something new in the public sphere (the Isaiah/Jesus/Mohammad image, the Charlie Hebdo images, for examples); uncovering would be the revelation of something that has been there all along but has been hidden from the majority public sphere (the exclusion and racism that, now, generations of immigrants experience in the suburbs of Paris and cities in France; a questioning (at least) of who has the freedom to ridicule whom and on what terms; the impossibility of a racist caricature of a white person in a white-dominant society, racist caricature relying as it does on an exaggeration (a shift in scale) of ethnic traits that are held up for ridicule). Both discovery and uncovering are happening in France and on the global media stage, I would imagine in scales ranging from new security measures at your local Monoprix store to a re-evaluation of the operations of poverty and exclusion to re-affirmations of the very best of French humanist principles.

Plassac-Rouffiac on a different scale
And so today I'm going to give myself over to thinking through professor Seidel's statements and explorations of Romanesque façades throughout the Aquitaine and, in looking at the images first as I always do, I'm enticed to think of the discovery or the uncovering of a small town like Plassac-Rouffiac, a village in the Charente that has seldom boasted more than 500 souls since census-takers started counting in 1793. Positioned on the ancient Roman road, it existed in the constant potential of scale-shift that being part of an empire entails - no matter how small and distant the village, Rome (and whatever it meant to be Roman or a subject of the Romans) was never farther than the invitation of the road to "lead to Rome."  The Roman(esque) arches on the façade of the parish church of Saint-Cybald attest to the pull of the imperial center and its ability to shift the scale of the margin. France is its own center now, with the pull of Paris felt in both Plassac-Rouffiac and Clichy-sous-Bois - it's our ability to understand differences and shifts in scale, and what these uncover, that will matter so much now.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Seeing Through

Mohammad preaching, 15th c.
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
Something happens to an image in a time of crisis. It gets pulled in every different direction; it gets seen right through. The Charlie Hebdo cover remained a racist retrenchment for me, no matter how many self-titled "free speech absolutists" I read, no matter that its 3 million copies sold out in minutes. But I'm here, far away in the U.S. and that's all I can see. Imams in London calling for "patience and tolerance," asking Muslims to remain calm while their religion and Arab ethnicity are insulted; and American news outlets blocking the image (the NBC News guy holding it rolled up like a rolling pin - I thought that was savvy) - they must have seen the image that way, too. But watching a tiny bit of news and seeing the long lines outside of kiosks and the enthusiasm with which people were buying the paper, I caught a glimpse of what else the cover might mean - not the cover, really, but something much more material and immediate: the paper itself, the physical reality of the paper coming out a week after the attacks - some kind of impossible resurgence after horror. And of course people right there in Paris, in France are living this physically, radically differently from my virtual experience of it all. Racist or rallying; divisive or unifying - those are very different directions for the image to go. We're all seeing through the image. I see through its caricature to systemic problems of racism and exclusion that are not causal of the attacks, but symptomatic of the difficulty of surviving them as a unified culture and nation. I imagine now, that purchasers of the paper might see through the image to their own survival, to the possibility of carrying on and being defiant. Or, it's a way of honoring the very specific victims of the attacks. Or, they're buying a piece of history, they're getting a relic of a terrible time, getting a hold of an object that will keep them connected to a host of things they might still not understand. There might be 3 million different reasons to buy that paper. And 2 million more as a reprint gets started for the week-end.

Isaiah, Jesus, and Mohammad, 14th c.
In the midst of all this, is the image of Mohammad. In Charlie Hebdo, it's not just represented, but represented in vicious racist stereotype. Meanwhile, images of Mohammad such as the one above, that are respectful, beautiful even, do exist in Paris - in the national library, in its Arab manuscript collection - but they do exist. And they can make connections, they can open things up. The medieval Morocco show at the Louvre had a 10th-century preaching chair like the one Mohammad is preaching from - it made history, discourse, striving immediate and palpable. The image to the right is pulled from a piece in Newsweek well worth reading, explaining the variations of images of Mohammad, and the recent changes in the perceptions of and practices around his image. It's from a 14th-century Iranian manuscript now in Edinburgh and represents Isaiah's vision of Mohammad on a camel and Jesus on a donkey. I've never seen an image of Isaiah, Jesus, and Mohammad together before, and the newness makes it impossible for me to see through the image to something else right away. I am stopped at the image's surface by its novelty - I am asked to think new thoughts. As it becomes familiar, I will go further into the image, into the possibilities that it holds forth of thinking about the intertwined histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This is not a tired caricature pulled in every direction in a time of crisis, used for multiple means in an emergency. This is an image re-emerging with new realities of old, remembering possibilities.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


The new Charlie Hebdo cover isn't doing anyone any favors. It's right back to the racist caricature of Mohammad. Didn't skip a beat. The Guardian has an excellent series of op-ed pieces debating the cover - some for, some against. Joseph Harker's piece sizes up perfectly how the racist caricature is not a grand moment of freedom of expression, but just more bullying of an already heavily-discriminated against minority in France. "Yes, of course Charlie Hebdo has the right to do this; but why would they want to, given the symbolism of Sunday's gatherings across France? Surely now is the time to move forward, to isolate the extremist murderers and bring the nation together; not to trumpet your rights by trampling over others' sensitivities, losing friends in the process." Everyone's seeing this, now that they've taken a closer look at Charlie Hebdo: sure, they "go after everyone," but they really go after Muslims. (And, depending on how you choose to read the "All is forgiven" line, the degree of "going after" varies.) You don't have to be an extremist to be offended by the images. They're wearisome.

There's a phrase in English that takes apart the absolute quality of satire and considers who is speaking about whom. "Punching up" is when someone with less power satirizes someone with more; "punching down" is when someone with more power satirizes someone with less. When you look at all of the photographs of the white men at the cover-release press conference yesterday, you can start to consider their power - which they have heavily asserted a week after the horrible attacks. When you read their comment in Le Monde that (roughly translated) "We trust people's intelligence, the intelligence of humor, a second degree [not sure how to translate this, but definitely indicating a higher, more subtle degree] intelligence. The attackers lacked a sense of humor and are at the first degree. We have to find/carve out a place for the second degree in the world in which we live." - you see who has the power to be elite about intelligence and humor. You see they're punching down. Is this consideration of the power dynamic between satirist and satirized possible within the discourse of the absolute right of satire? (Is satire a right? Is it seamlessly aligned (the veritable litmus test) of the freedom of the press?).

Max Fischer in Vox performs a meticulous breakdown of a particularly gross Charlie Hebdo cover. He represents the cover, unpacks its critique (which is ultimately a leftist critique of the rightist government) and does a savvy comparison with the infamous July 2008 New Yorker cover depicting the Obamas as radicals. He gets at the "second degree," the critique behind the joke. But he also argues that the subtlety of the second degree doesn't erase or justify the racism of the joke. "Charlie Hebdo's biggest problem isn't racism," reads a sub-heading, "it's punching down."

As everyone writes, and must keep writing, no one and nothing justifies the attacks of last week. That isn't what the critiques of Charlie Hebdo in the English and American press are about. The critiques, to my mind, are about how we live with the attacks now; how we live with the loss of life and security and understanding. Going right back to business as usual seems like a willful ignorance that Paris and France might actually be changed by the horrors of last week. Something to commemorate the dead might have been more, well, peaceful. But. That's not what Charlie Hebdo is about. A piece that came out last week (so, to be clear, not in response to this week's cover) by former Onion editor Joe Randazzo stays in my mind because of his mention of the Middle Ages. "Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter." It's a well-worn rhetorical use of the Middle Ages (of a dark time left behind by modern society, so if "even they" did something, we ought to be ashamed not to - and yes, medievalists critique this false divide). But the court jester worked for the king; he was in his employ. And was the jester's standard the truth? He might mock the king (within limits), but he mostly mocked his enemies. So. Enemy lines have been redrawn. Charlie Hebdo normally published 60,000 copies a week. This week, they're printing 3 million. Will they all sell?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Lutetian Age, then and now and again

In the very living rock
Watching al-Hazen on Cosmos last night felt good. I'd studied him (via David Lindberg (oh my goodness, who just passed away) and his marvelous book, Theories of Vision: from al-Kindi to Kepler) and the kids loved the call for curiosity and questioning. It became another occasion to think about the endless, tumultuous combination of rational process and passionate accident (Tyson takes the time to see the happenstance and the waywardness of scientific inquiry), and the importance of scientific method, which somehow in our conversation became linked to civil discourse and Paris (again? always?). And so this morning, I'm underground, in the pell-mell space of the Catacombs - a space that is both freak show of the macabre in becoming an enormous ossuary in the 18th century and bedrock (yes!) of geoscience and the discovery of the geological period now known as Lutetian. But we'll be at the top of Notre-Dame by the end.

The time of the Catacombs is very queer indeed (she said, finally reading How Soon Is Now?), and loops back through human ambition, need, and curiosity. It was when sinkholes started swallowing buildings whole in Paris that Louis XVIth created the General Inspectorate of Paris Quarries. The year was 1777, and by 1813, the Inspectorate passed a decree forbidding any further quarrying under Paris. It turns out that roughly 1/10th of the city sits atop limestone quarries that had bountifully provided building materials throughout Roman antiquity and the Middle Ages. The amphitheater of Lutèce, as Paris was then known, was built of the stuff. Notre-Dame was built of it, as was the Château de Vincennes. The carving you see above was done in the living rock from 1777 to 1782 by a man named Décure, who was one of the first surveyors of the Inspectorate. He commemorated his imprisonment in the barracks of Port-Mahon by carving it out of the stone. That was one of the first responses to the re-appropriation and the re-discovery of this site, and it's one of the first things you see when you walk through the Catacombs. I wouldn't want to forget it, nor Décure, who died in a cave-in shortly after he completed his oeuvre. He was putting in a ladder to connect the Catacombs, some 28m below ground to the upper reaches.

It was when they reached the bottom of the quarrymen's work that the geologists of the Inspectorate realized they were looking at something new. Seashells, tropical ones, line the quarrymen's marks in the rock. Lamarck came down and collected hundreds of fossils that added to his ideas of evolution (which went well beyond the theory of acquired characteristics for which he has been pushed aside for Darwin - another matter). A solid one hundred years later, the realization that this was a distinct geological period, one in which Paris had been awash in a salty sea, resulted in its naming: the Lutetian age, 48 to 40 million years ago, in the Eocene, that dawn of all eras. The part that resonates because it doesn't fit neatly is that the efforts of discovery and labor were simultaneous with the conversion of the quarries into an enormous ossuary to house the millions of remains which had accumulated in the Innocents and dozens of other urban cemeteries. Paris unearthed one era as it buried another. When the Catacombs were opened to visitors in the mid-19th-century - after all the bones had been arranged in patterns, and after citations about death and the afterlife from Virgil and other noble souls had been carved in plaques throughout - in those early days, geological specimens were on display in "cabinets minéralogiques" and you could marvel at and debate both human death and the geologic time.

Down in the Catacombs, you're not allowed to touch the bones (thank goodness), but you can touch the walls in certain places. When the Romans were here, these were above-ground quarries. As Paris built itself up from its own limestone (and increasingly that of nearby quarries at Yvelines), the quarries went underground, taking light and their fossils with them. I'm uncertain as to what their state was when Notre-Dame was built - probably a combination of contact points. I do know that the quarry tunnels that we walked during the Catacombs visits were probably carved out in the 15th century. And there are miles and miles of them. And so to touch that stone became to think on Paris under the sea, and Romans quarrying and Notre-Dame being built, and geologists looking closely, and sites of science and commemoration co-existing. And it made me wonder very much about whether or not Viollet-le-Duc went down there. And it made me wonder even more about his building materials for the restoration of Notre-Dame. He knew about the gorgeous, white Pierre de Saint-Leu limestone that comes from the Paris-area quarries (still found in the Catacombs and as far out as Yvelines) - he wrote about it in his Dictionaire. In his tenacious pursuit of authenticity, did he use the same limestone (I would think from another quarry, such as Yvelines) that the medieval builders he so loved used? I really had to ask myself these questions when I was up close with his restored gargoyles. I had started climbing the steps in homage to my advisor Michael Camille, who had a memorable picture of himself taken with one of Viollet-le-Duc's gargoyles. I wondered, too, then, what Michael must have thought of all of the little shells and crustaceans stuck in the bodies of the gargoyles. Is that a Lutetian close-up we're seeing in the image here? The temporal looping gets heady here: Viollet-le-Duc using the same stone for restoration as for the original building. Notre-Dame has then never been medieval as much as it has never been modern; even in its modernity/restoration it is made of stuff as ancient for us moderns as it was for the medievals. Our commonality with the Middle Ages is instantly created in the realization of the enormity of time that separates us both from the Lutetian period whence we have all carved and recarved our monuments.

And so Paris, folding time through its constructions and reconstructions. Because this isn't just the juxtaposition of the old and the new, of Notre-Dame's gleaming Pierre de Saint-Leu limestone and the Pompidou's bright blue and red externalized tubing. It's the restoration of both buildings now; homages to materials that have long sustained the city, and which now/always need attention, need care. Viollet-le-Duc was on to something when he made his gargoyle contemplative.

Little could he have known that the gargoyle's gaze would today be turned to La Défense - the designated space for skyscrapers; where nary a wicker chair nor an accordion player, let alone Esmerelda and Quasimodo, are to be found; our neighborhood when we lived there. There's some kind of vector to be drawn between the gargoyle's ancient materiality and the projection of its gaze into Paris's image of its future self now. A complex geometry of curiosity and the desire to know in multiple times and dimensions.