Saturday, February 23, 2013

Natural Beauty/Acheiropoieta

Agate from Roger Caillois, The Writing of Stones
Natural beauty is harder to define than you'd think. And I should read Kant and find out if he provides some transcendental loophole, and I should pull out Umberto Eco and see what he has to say. But here it is another Saturday morning, already later than I want it to be due to household tasks, and little time to think but a lot of desire to write. SO. This particular beauty, this category we have called natural beauty.  It emerged because of two student comments, one presenting the "inherent and inherently shared" beauty of something like a sunset; and the other offering the marvelous phrase "it seems that nature's agency is in its appeal to our senses." For good measure, I put the medieval concept of "acheiropoieta" on the table: the idea of images "not made by human hands," an idea that I can now discuss as an aesthetic concept of non-human agency (thanks to Bennett and Bogost and object oriented ontology).

Pointe du Raz, Finistère, Brittany, France
First to speak of "inherent and shared." Nobody doesn't like a sunset. You can say you don't, that you find them stupid and trite, but so what? It's there and it's gorgeous and it's expansive and it doesn't care if you like it or not, in fact it has no consciousness of you and that, claimed a student, is part of its beauty.  So we tried to articulate the appeal of natural beauty, to identify what it is that calls out - that makes students gasp when they see one of Caillois's rocks in class, the slide flooding the classroom with a reddish hue; or makes them ecstatic when we walk together on the cliffs of Brittany and the sun comes out for the first time in six days halfway through a four hour hike. All this, by the way, needed to be folded into an understanding of medieval portable altars' use of porphyry - why these expanses of visual abstraction in the midst of ritual framework? why this "rougher, less manipulated (than the wood and metal surrounding it)" stone element? More on that in a minute. The art students in the class quickly identified aesthetic principles at work: moments of symmetry, apt color, "composition even." And here, the science students came in with the idea of "madeness" as something that appeals about natural beauty. As in: natural beauty are those moments when you are presented with something that looks like it was made by "some other" agency than human.  I loved the student hesitate for a fleeting second before saying "some other" - broader than God or Nature, but still specifically not human.  Now. You could say that it is the human gaze that makes the image, that without our perception, the particular framing of that moment, you would lose composition, symmetry, and any sense of madeness.  This is where the lack of consciousness of a human audience comes in. As much as we delight in finding madeness (symmetry, composition, color, etc.) in rocks, flora, stones, water, and other things without voices (which would otherwise express intent), we also delight in being ignored by those things. You can call it the Sublime, or a kind of eco-voyeurism (ha! I saw beauty, but it didn't/can't see me!), but unmistakeably, there is a thrill in being on the edges of an expanse (rock slide or cliff hike), witnessing it, possessing it with sight, but - despite the physical intimacy of shared space and multiple other conditions - knowing that when our gaze drops the ocean will still churn, the rock will remain fervent, and the sun will continue on its trajectory.

Anglo-Saxon Portable Altar, Cluny Museum
Critique: a student (and I think Tim Morton (and I!) would agree) worried about any process of aestheticization (even the phrase and exploration of "natural beauty") and its effects on environmentalist efforts because of the distance it creates, because one day we will drop our gaze and the ocean will rise up and churn on land. So how to collapse that distance, but still acknowledge natural beauty? Enter acheiropoieta, a principle that explores the "madeness" of things not made by human hands.  One of the satisfactions of natural beauty is recognition, both figurative (and this can stretch from people recognizing things in clouds to Caillois's landscapes and other figurative forms recognized in rocks), and abstract (fantastic crystalizations, juts of colors, shapes and forms that stretch or seem placed, even without figurative purpose).  This porphyry had both for my students: they saw constellations of a night sky, and they saw a vast abstract expanse.  The classic medieval acheiropoieta is figurative: the icon of the face of Christ pressed, not painted, onto a linen surface (think Mandylion or the veil of Veronica). But (calling Meyer Schapiro), what of an abstract acheiropoieta? What of a thing that manifests madeness but does not represent anything? Do we call it an aesthetic of ontology? Images that resist iconographic breakdown? Images whose priority is to be instead of signify? I am letting myself be swayed by Marbod of Rennes (author of a lapidary that poetically presents stones' agency, its being in action) more than, say, William Durandus (who saw representational symbolism in the stone pillars of churches).  I am wondering if the stone's ability to manifest madeness (to appear to have been fashioned but not by human hands) could not also be a glimpse of the body of Christ as it becomes manifest above the altar in the midst of the ritual of the Eucharist: an absolute presence, a natural beauty.

The Caddisfly Larvae art of Hubert Duprat
Of course with ritual, the question of agency becomes very troubling indeed.  Rituals are frameworks created by humans, and enacted by them, but for the purpose of being in the presence of non-human agency (God, love, power, etc.).  And so I'll close with a natural beauty orchestrated, but not made, by human hands: the slips that caddisfly larvae make when artist Hubert Duprat gives them gold, corral, pearls, turquoise, and lapis lazuli instead of the usual twigs, leaves, and broken shells they find in the rivers of southern France. What stuns is the patterning, the band of pearls and turquoise, and the composition and the structure. It's lovely. And the problems -- of consciousness (theirs/ours), of use (can they live there? does he sell what they made?), of setting (given the choice between gold and leaves, which would they choose?) -- are fantastic.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Chi Rho Page as Electrical Grid

The ChiRho page from the Book of Kells
I hope that Jane Bennett and Alfred Siewers have met because their ideas have much to say to each other. I combined chapter two of Bennett's Vibrant Matter, "The Agency of Assemblages" with Siewer's chapter from Strange Beauty, "The Cosmic Imaginarium," for our consideration of the idea of landscape in the Middle Ages.  This consideration was also nurtured by ideas of how art historians might reconceptualize medieval landscape (as something other than a lack, or Renaissance landscapes-in-waiting) that reside in a piece I really love by Walter Cahn titled "Medieval Landscape and the Encyclopedic Tradition" in Yale French Studies 1991 (geez, just grabbing the link reminds me of how rich that particular issue is).  I'm going to have time to highlight just two observations that emerged.  The first was applying Bennett's articulated assemblage of the electric grid to Siewer's choice image of the Chi Rho page.  In discussing the massive power outage of 2003, Bennett characterizes the electric grid as "a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic theory, wire, and wood" (25).  And so, with Spinoza's affective bodies in mind, and with Siewer's idea of "the transfer of aesthetic responsibility from the artist to the viewer" (126), we began to wander the landscape of the Chi Rho page. Eyes, butterflies, skin, loneliness, hope, blood, cold, stone, quill, plant, orthodoxy, colonialism, Christ, perpetuity, power, sacrifice, pigment, otter, letter, curve, triumph, fear, voice.  There was more. I appreciated, in a total breakdown of the certitude of the outlook on the world/landscape of Vitruvian man (who, I admit, I have made a bit of our straw man), construction through accretion, rather than through design or implementation.  I had to let go of the art historical impulse to account for everything in the image, to explain all of the iconography, and instead be witness to what emerged in associations and connections. I had to move (ever-inspired by Bennett) from epistemology to ontology. I had to let the cosmic imaginarium of the students, when they allow themselves to be called into the Chi Rho page, do the work.  And even as I write this, I think of going back on Monday and filling them in on the cats and the mice and the Eucharist (the awesome Suzanne Lewis piece in Traditio), and I get excited to do so because of the perceptual work that will have preceded the iconographic work.  I think that I'm struggling with this tension (between the materiality of the image and the wealth of textuality I know to exist behind it) now, because I am aligning images and texts to write about about a work of art of especially vibrant matter, the choir screen at Le Faoüet. Perhaps I need to let myself wander the landscape of that choir screen as Bennett and Siewers invite me to. There's more to say here, but my own landscape stirs awake with children who have dreams to report and desires for their days.  What I would elaborate upon is Siewer's awesome idea of "inverse perspective" - of the landscape looking out at you, of you feeling called in. Here we go.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Thing-Power in the Classroom: stones, ladders, spit, onions, phalluses and roses

We've had a new student join our Ecology of Medieval Art class, and it was to him that I turned first in asking for a description of the image on the screen (the same one that you see here).  "An arrangement of minerals, stones, and quartz," he said.  Absolutely, yes, thank you. I then asked a student who'd been here the first day, and she answered, "It's a picture of our class."  Oh how this course gives!!! On the first day of class, I'd positioned the twenty objects you see, one at each spot at the seminar table. Students sat, some in accordance with the rock they wanted, others, to immediately start trading stones.  I asked them to read Lowell Duckert's marvelous essay in Animal, Mineral, Vegetable: Ethics and Objects (edited by Jeffrey J. Cohen and out through Oliphaunt Books last year): "Speaking Stones, John Muir and a Slower (Non)Humanities," and to write about where they would be placing their stone for the duration of the semester. Some carry their stones with them, others have put them within sight, out of sight, framed, ensconced, placed to be picked up again and again. And all, judging by the smiles today when the student answered "It's a picture of our class," have elided subjectively with their stones.  I thought that they would still say that those were their stones, or the stones given to them, or something else that still made the stones a separate object for their use. Perhaps this is the rapid work of Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter (chapter one was due to be read today), or the Anglo-Saxon riddles I asked them to read in combination with Bennett, but in that answer, those students were ready to talk about thing-power, and its ability to trouble the boundary between the human and the non-human (and I know that she was being metonymic, not necessarily loosening her sense of self when she answered - but metonymy can do powerful work to trouble boundaries).

I love those rocks. I chose them carefully at Squire Boone Caverns in southern Indiana this summer, thinking of the students I'd be working with, learning about each stone over the intervening months. Satin spar, citrine, lodestone, fossilized whale bone, agate nodule. Don't they have great names?  The goal was to move, with Jane Bennett, from thing-power via Spinoza's conatus to LaTour's actants and the idea of assemblage by way of Bogost's Latour Litanizer and in the process to continue to articulate our interest in the ontology of the non-human. Loving the idea of "assemblage as a perceptual style that is open to the appearance of thing-power" (5), I showed them this...

Arma Christi, 15th c. Boucicaut Master
... and asked them to simply call out the names of the objects that they saw. Ladder, ear, column, dice, nails, spit, lance, rooster. I find the Arma Christi such a fantastically haunting image: all objects, no human. (When it's the Mass of Saint Gregory, there's lots of Christ, but here, no, just some impossible space and time of representation). What is the Crown of Thorns when it is not on Christ's head? Is its thorniness more manifest? Are the nails' nailness more apparent? And then the medieval twist to this assemblage: the large swath of red at the bottom of the image that students started asking about, having identified all of the other objects: it's the wound of Christ (I actually got a gasp from one of the students on that one...!). What is the Wound of Christ when it is an object? Does it reveal its woundness to a greater degree? Does it recede further? I steered some students away from narrative and iconography - away from anything resembling epistemology - and insisted on a preoccupation with ontology. The being of these objects are all ultimately predicated on the Crucifixion, but that's later. Here, now, always, they are objects unto themselves, resisting our urge to subsume them into narrative, and possibly even morality. Does that mean that they mean nothing? Yes, in that that is not our concern, but just think: they are completely (well, as completely as an object in/as an image can be - something I need to work on: the ontology of representation).

The Onion one
And then the Riddles, the glorious Riddles, which allowed us to talk about the resistance of objects: riddles resist. (Some dare you to figure out what they are). Two big realizations emerged from this session: that there is a communal re-cognition of things, and that nature has a volatile ontology. I had the students again litanize: they read their answers to the five selected riddles and I filled them in on a table so that in a matter of minutes we had 100 words assembled in a Word document table. That in and of itself became a representation field - and a fertile one at that.  For #31 (commonly identified as iceberg), we had both snail and shark. One student said "ocean rocks" which is a great way to describe an iceberg. #79 (commonly identified as gold) produced more "trees" than "gold."  And my favorite, #23 - because it is commonly identified as an onion or a phallus, but in our class was over and over again dubbed a thorned rose. The class shifted from being an assembly of individuated thinkers to an assemblage of desires that produced roses, where others had wanted onions and phalluses. We now will, in our class, add roses to the litany of answers we could provide to this riddle. Here is said riddle, whose object now hovers in representation, no definite thing, but definitely a thing.

I am a wonderful help to women,
The hope of something to come. I harm
No citizen except my slayer.
Rooted, I stand on a high bed.
I am shaggy below. Sometimes the beautiful
Peasant's daughter, an eager-armed,
Proud woman grabs my body,
Rushes my red skin, holds me hard,
Claims my head. The curly-haired
Woman who catches me fast will feel
Our meeting. Her eye will be wet.

--- trans. Craig Williamson, A Feast of Creatures (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Thoreau on Carnac

Thoreau, though he never left these American shores, wrote about Carnac! At this late hour, I can do little but happily quote favorite lines and revel in his own mixed emotions. He's traveling down the Concord and Merrimack rivers and he starts to worry about nature and history.

"There lie the stones which completed their revolutions perhaps before thoughts began to revolve in the brain of man."

He keeps on looking at the trees and stones around him in his beloved American landscape and resigns himself to say "These, and such as these, must be our antiquities, for lack of human vestiges."

He then gets defensive, thinking on Rome and all of its vestiges:

"Our own country furnishes antiquities as ancient and durable, and as useful, as any... What if we cannot read Rome, or Greece, Etruria, or Carthage, or Egypt, or Babylon, on these; are our cliffs bare? The lichen on the rocks is a rude and simple shield which beginning and imperfect Nature suspended there."

And then he lets loose among his stones and trees: "Carnac! Carnac! here is Carnac for me." But he doesn't leave the matter until a full poem emerges:

This is my Carnac, whose unmeasured dome
Shelters the measuring art and measurer's home.
Behold these flowers, let us be up with time,
Not dreaming of three thousand years ago,
Erect ourselves and let those columns lie,
Not stoop to raise a foil against the sky.
Where is the spirit of that time but in
This present day, perchance the present line?
Three thousand years ago are not agone,
They are still lingering in this summer morn,
And Memnon's Mother sprightly greets us now,
Wearing her youthful radiance on her brow.
If Carnac's columns still stand on this plain, 
To enjoy our opportunities they remain.
     --- from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

He's seeking to displace Carnac's monumentality, I think, in favor of that of his beloved own stones and flowers, but he's drawn to Carnac's stoniness, to its age, to the age of its stoniness before it became art - as though trying (maybe?) to separate out the stone from the art. But at the same time, I think that somewhere in there (in his seeking of "that time" - the time of the stones, right?) he admires art's ability to hold nature in place. Maybe just a little bit. He does speak of the measuring art, albeit beneath an unmeasured dome.  May we all have our Carnacs, though for me, I will gladly always "stoop to raise a foil against the sky."

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Back into the Reeds

Fits and Starts by Marc Swanson, now in Peeler Art Center
Seven years ago, some (many?) students got drunk, got naked, got on a public sculpture, got out their cameras, got back to their dorm rooms, and got on Facebook.  There, they posted pictures of themselves drunk, naked, and riding the deer, a public sculpture by Marc Swanson called Fits and Starts. (Indeed.) This night proved pivotal in our campus's history because it was the generational turning point  for social networks. It was the night that professors discovered Facebook. Through e-mails, and phone calls, and students and faculty running to the site at 5 a.m., word spread about the damage to the deer from the vigorous riding, and no matter what direction the word of mouth took - the outrage, the glee, the scandal - it all wound up in the same place: those pictures on Facebook. By morning, the deer had several Facebook pages, some defending its presence, others decrying it. By noon, we had our first protest against the damage (there were no rallies for the damage), and within three days, our first public conversations. By then, the conversation had expanded from the deer not "fitting in" (was it the exuberant pose? the glittering rhinestones all over its body?) to the bleak reality of many people on campus being made to feel they did not "fit it" (was it their sexuality? their talk? their body?). It was the ugliest of our school, the things you know people want to know about Indiana and private small liberal arts college and their intolerance and cliquishness. And then, it was also one of the very first times that homophobia was discussed in the public sphere on campus, that silent understandings were painfully articulated, that art's materiality (swiftly morphed by Facebook, I would argue) exposed ideology. Today, three things remain: the sculpture, safe (sigh) in the Peeler Art Center, cavorting at the top of a staircase; a great interview with the artist, Marc Swanson; and a 35-minute (!) documentary about everything called Deer Diary.

No, wait: five. A lasting conversation and activism about what makes this community what it is (as it changes and continues to feel its changes - that's what I find fascinating). And Facebook.  Students in a public sculpture class that had just watched the video on Friday stopped by my office and we had a good laugh about the part of the video in which I explain what Facebook is (I call it a "database of students") (!).  Multiple new controversies, many other tempests in our teapot, have exploded on Facebook since the deer - it's now half of where our community happens, maybe even exists - even as we share the physical space of campus and classroom.  And I think of my own migration through Facebook - it's where I go for the latest in all things medieval, it's where the newest (sometimes best) conversations in my field are happening. It's where you can start out as a voice in the wilderness and, as the comment stream and the likes build, be comforted that the wilderness is not so wild - that that crazy, or personal, or emotional thought has its place after all. It's a terrain, and it's become a natural (yes, natural in the sense of compulsive, almost instinctual, inevitable) response to events. I think, too, for the first time, that surely Facebook will change how I write out here. Facebook now feels more public than this blog. This blog now recedes a bit, more a set of reeds that I can whisper newly into.  I do wonder, as a new generation of students is wondering, if the deer, too, could go back out into the wild of the outdoors of our campus, if maybe now, those reeds are not so wild.