Saturday, March 31, 2012

Cold Fusion

Following on from the readings and screenings of the past few weeks, confusion emerged for me as a key theme when reading Melville's Moby-Dick. Confusion reigns from the get-go at The Spouter Inn where Ishmael spies the “very large oil-painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal cross-lights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits ... that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose.” (9) This “boggy, soggy, squitchy picture” looks to Ishmael like some attempt of an ambitious young artist from the days of the Salem witch trials “to delineate chaos bewitched.” (10) In the end, Ishmael decides that the painting depicts a battle between a boat and a whale. Yet, what surrounds this inscrutable picture are equally confusing scenes: weapons made of human body parts, old broken tools that had once supposedly slaughtered record numbers of whales (10-1). He finds a bar set inside a right whale’s head populated with “villainous green goggling glasses deceitfully tapered downwards to a cheating bottom.” (11) As with the classic noir plot replayed in Polanski's Chinatown, the message is clear: nothing is as it seems. 

These confusions abound in chapters like “The Mast-Head.” Ishmael finds himself “a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep.” (137) The ship and his body merge in a fantasy of wondrous (literally, with reference to seven wonders of the ancient world) monstrosity—“as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea, even as ships once sailed between the boots of the famous Colossus at old Rhodes.” (137) This aggrandizing fusion of boat and body then expands still further as sea and self become one: “Lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is the absent-minded you by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading man-kind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it.” (140) So, where Thomas Willis had imagined the soul gazing out from its glass chamber into a fountain-spume of heart-heated blood, Ishmael takes the liquidy world around him as the insides of his brain.

Whatever we make of Bryan Wolf’s "Emersonian" reading of this passage, a much more sinister self is discovered later on in the sea of brit. “Like a savage tigress,” so Ishmael tells us, the sea kills its own young; it has no mercy and no master. (247) He invokes: “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began. Consider all this; then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life.” (247) Now, there is one way of reading passages like these in which we might cast Ishmael as an old salt who has the sea and whales on the brain and simply sees the sailor’s life everywhere. This is the Ishmael who takes Nelson on his column in Trafalgar square as churlishly impervious to a “hail from below, however madly invoked.” (136) Or, the viewer who sees whales not only in fossils found in “bony, ribby regions of the earth,” but also “in mountainous countries where the traveller is continually girdled by amphitheatrical heights; here and there from some lucky point of view you will catch passing glimpses of the profiles of whales defined along the undulating ridges. But you must be a thorough whaleman, to see these sights ...” (244) Like those skrimshanders compulsively carving mazy, barbaric images of whales from whale bones (243-4), we might say, Ishmael is obsessed with the totemic animal he follows (and is) to the point of delusion. He is just confused.

Yet, the confusions of self and sea, living body and liquid, aren’t resolved by dismissing these as merely narcissistic delusions. As we learn in “The Great Heidelburgh Tun” (named for a gargantuan, eighteenth century wine vat depicted at left), the sperm whale’s head is both an impervious shield to the watery world outside it and a receptacle of the sea within. The head, Ishmael tells us, is “of a boneless toughness, inestimable by any man who has not handled it. The severest pointed harpoon, the sharpest lance darted by the strongest human arm, impotently rebounds from it. It is as though the forehead of the Sperm Whale were paved with horses’ hoofs.” (301) Yet, inside that thick casing, which passes seamless through the water, is the "case" or proverbial Heidelburgh Tun of the whale’s “highly prized spermaceti, in its absolutely pure, limpid and odoriferous state. ... Though in life it remains perfectly fluid, yet, upon exposure to the air, after death, it soon begins to concrete; sending firth beautiful crystalline shoots, as when the first delicate ice is just forming in water.” (303) Further, if the skin of the whale is impermeable to liquid and yet bears liquid within it, the Pequod is also similarly constructed. Given the fact that the sailors prefer drinking water from home, Ishmael tells us, whaleboats move across the watery world carrying “a whole lake’s contents bottled in her ample hold.” (340) 

At a still further level, the mammalian nature of the whale leads to all kinds of confusions. It breathes not by receiving oxygen from the water like fish, but by surfacing, inhaling and withdrawing “from the air a certain element, which being subsequently brought into contact with the blood imparts to the blood its vivifying principle.” (330) So, in water, the liquid-filled beast comes partially out of water, inhales air, mixes air with watery blood, descends back into water, then resurfaces and expels air in a plume of misty vapor as water meets air. (333-4) Further, in the midst of “The Grand Armada,” Ishmael discovers a kind of primordial, amniotic lake—perhaps like the ancient lake within and below Fingerbone in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, the pool of Dirce in Poussin's Birth of Bacchus or the pool of Eden in Milton—wherein the elementary nature of mammalian watery life are unfolding, the young calves “leading two different lives at the same time.” (346) I'll return to this pool in a moment.

The amphibious picture: I wonder if this is what we might call the project of Gustave Courbet as read by Michael Fried? What Fried calls attention to is the role of water in Courbet’s paintings, how it is often used to trouble or undermine “the ontological impermeability of the picture surface, by which I mean its standing as an imaginary boundary between the world of the painting and that of the beholder.” (59) Fried enlarges upon the point by highlighting the role of water in Courbet's paintings in making their bottoms unusually boggy, soggy and squitchy. "There is a further point of resemblance," Fried tells us, "between the Wounded Man and the Sculptor [at left]: the way in which in the earlier painting the water in the immediate foreground functions as a natural metaphor of continuity, of the spilling-over of the contents of the painting into the world of the beholder, and therefore of the incapacity or the refusal of the painting to confine its representation (to confine itself) within hard-and-fast limits. If this seems fanciful, let me simply say that images of flowing water are deployed to much the same effect throughout Courbet's art ... and that in general the bottom edges of his paintings have a problematic status unlike anything to be found in the work of any painter before or since." (59)

If the fall of water makes the soggy, boggy base of the picture permeable, we might identify (at least) two other kinds of water in Fried’s Courbet: the flows that carve out the picture-plane in serpentine paths (p. 120-125; 131-2) and the flood that offers a reciprocal, congruent model of the painter-beholder's own desire for union with painted world. (209-215) But, why would these imaginations of water be such an issue for Courbet? As I read it, Fried's claim is that Courbet’s art followed on from a fundamental insistence on the painter’s own embodiment—one evolved (of course!) from the dynamics of absorption and theatricality Fried had previously charted through eighteenth century French painting, not to mention Minimalist sculpture. The crucial point here, though, is that these dynamics offer an explanation of why Courbet's self-portraits of the 1840s (including the Sculptor above) look so weird. Courbet, Fried proposes, is trying to accommodate his conviction of his embodiment into the stock, specular models of self-depiction availed by his culture. In many cases, he is failing spectacularly in that task. 

Instead, what he produces are body-images that appear “disunified, multiscalar, technically disparate, and bizarrely orientated.” (73) Further, Courbet is compulsively and unconsciously imprinting the muscle memory and embodied traces of the postures by which his pictures are made into the representation. Thus, its less that he is showing himself to a beholder than constituting a self at the threshold of art: “In seeking to portray his own embodiedness—to revoke not only all distance but also, so far as might be possible, all difference between himself and the representations of himself—was in effect striving to annul, if not his own identity as beholder, at any rate something fundamental to that identity: his presence outside, in front of, the painting before him.” (79) Reckoning with Courbet, Fried argues, must require acknowledging the force of this position of "painter-beholder" which "the historical individual Courbet neither created nor controlled, that existed before him and in one form or another would survive his disappearance." (137)

While I won't try to reconstruct all of the complex, provocative hi-jinks Fried gets up to in elaborating the force of this "bottoming-out" of Courbet's paintings, his observations on the monumental Burial at Ornans (1849-50, now at the Musée d'Orsay) are highly suggestive in light of my confusions around Moby-Dick's cold fusions. Having called attention to the way in which Courbet affectively depicts his friend Max Buchon entering the funeral procession at far left, Fried writes: 

"To think of the painter-beholder projecting himself quasi-corporeally into the representation of Buchon is thus to envision him joining the cortège at its source. And this suggests that the act of projection itself may be that source—that the painter-beholder's quasi-corporeal insertion of himself into the Burial via the figure of Buchon may be not only what impels the procession of mourners across the vast expanse of canvas to the right but also, in effect, what generates the procession: as if nothing less than all those life-sized, black-garbed, self-reiterating bodies or quasi-bodies could sufficiently absorb, could manage to contain, the heavy urgency of the painter-beholder's determination to achieve union with the painting before him and by so doing to annul every vestige of his spectatorship." (141)

Recall here the passage from Moby-Dick where, amidst the great armada of whales, Ishmael encounters that amniotic pool of mothers and babies: "The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while sucking will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the same time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;—even so did the young of these whale seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if were were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight." (346) So, like the cleft identity of the painter-beholder—and as with the two points of view to which Courbet's Burial answers (Fried, 136-139)—the young, water-born mammal leads a double life. Looking up through the liquid pane of the water in which it lives to the airy world in which it breathes from an impermeable body filled with liquid, the whale-calf gazes toward Ishmael while recalling a pre-lapsarian union with the maternal body from which it feeds. As with Courbet's refusal of proffered body-images, the whale looks at but does not cognize the humans above; it sees them instead as bits of floating weeds. On the picture-plane of the water as seen below, the humans become a macula—a blot like the black expanse of Courbet's mourners—blocking the whale's sight from its yearned-for fusion.

Monday, March 26, 2012

"Suspended ... on the depth and nothingness of formless transparency"

In his well-known volume Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (MIT, 1999), Geoffrey Batchen conjures up a persistent "mystery." If the raw materials of photography—the formation of an inverted, reversed image inside a camera obscura that could be focused by a lens and the sensitive response of silver salts to sunlight—had been available since the early eighteenth century, why was it that photography's invention had to wait until the banner year of 1839 with the revival claims of Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot? Even if the earlier advances by Thomas Wedgwood and Humphry Davy of 1802 or the "points de vue" of Nicephore Niepce of ca. 1816 were to be taken into account, nearly a century would still mysteriously divide the discovery of photographic means and the arrival of the art itself.

It must be said that this supposed air of mystery has been pretty convincingly dissipated under critical examination. Far from relying on century-old techniques, so photo historian Joel Snyder argues, Talbot and Daguerre might better be seen as making their crucial inventions by using chemical preparations that had only been formulated in the mid-1830s. Rather than being surprised that photographic processes were not invented earlier, Snyder quips, "it is something of an astonishment that they were invented as early as they were." However we want to sort out this debate, Batchen's basic claim still merits further consideration. That is, by his account, photography was conceived before it was brought into practice; a desire to fix the images that generations of learned observers had watched in the camera obscura preceded the chemical capacity to materialize those ephemeral effects. And, crucially, that desire materializes only in the years around 1800. "Only at the end of the eighteenth century," Batchen claims, "did speculations of this kind become frequent and widespread." (Burning with Desire, 32)

To explain what drew this desire to photograph into existence, Batchen supplies an array of factors that follow a roughly Foucauldian scheme. Classical knowledge, in this account, saw Nature's profusion as:

... signs of God's mysterious ways, of an order operating beyond the ken of mortal beings. However, at a certain point in history [around 1800] this view of nature, together with the Linnaean tabula rasa, suffered a profound internal crisis. During the period in question, the speculations of European thinkers as diverse as Lamarck and Lyell, Goethe and Erasmus Darwin, Kant and Hegel, Coleridge and Constable, contributed to its complete transformation. From a stable clockwork entity produced by a single act of divine creation, nature came to be seen as an unruly, living, and active organism with a prolonged and continuing history. (Burning with Desire, 59)

So, Batchen claims, in addition to flourishing discourses like the picturesque that confused the natural and the artificial (p. 78) and the shifting nature of the beholder (p. 82-4), the compulsion to fix images inside a camera space emanated from this new dynamism within nature herself. The "dry," mechanical Nature of the Classical age is made, as it were, so "liquid," fluid and fluxing that she needs to be captured by early nineteenth century optico-chemical intervention.

Whether or not Batchen's model (or Foucault's, for that matter) of pre-1800 knowledge would really withstand the dynamism that we have seen in seventeenth century texts also examined in this class, let's allow for a moment that there is something to this thesis on the changing nature of nature. I advocate for that tolerance as that view of nature finds an incredible interesting resonance in an unlikely source: that is, Sir Charles Eastlake's Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters (1847).

Concluding the second volume of this study, Eastlake offers a scintillating contrast between the Flemish technique of painting in oil with that of the Venetians. Whereas the Flemish painted "alla prima—that  is, though the work might be long in the hand, each part was finished as much as possible, and often literally, at once" (Eastlake, Vol. II: 272), the Venetians went contrived a complex system of underpaint and glazing that remained ever open to revision: "No part was finished at once, and, far from desiring to give a glossy surface while the picture was in progress, the contrary was aimed at at till the whole was completed." (Eastlake, Vol. II: 273) Light colored underpainting would then read as a warm tone when seen through an oil film of darker, transparent glaze, while a darker underlayer would appear cool when swimming beneath a lighter colored glaze. The differences in effect and conception are substantial; whereas Flemish painting was made piece-by-piece with colors mixed on the palette and then applied so that the composition came into view more or less as it would ultimately look, the Venetians required a complex sequence of interactions. Eastlake puts it this way: "In the Venetian practice, degrees both of warm and cool tints could be obtained dynamically as opposed to a clayey or atomic mixture of the colours." (Eastlake, Vol. II: 276-7)

More than optical appearance and painterly fact were at stake, though. As Eastlake acknowledged, there was something effeminate and even cowardly in the endless equivocations allowed by the Venetian technique that stood in firm contrast to the "neck or nothing, irrevocable Flemish method [which] is a far more manly and difficult practice." (Eastlake, Vol. II: 274) Indeed, what emerges from Eastlake's account—particularly as he turns to Venetian masters like Giorgione whose Il Tramonto (ca. 1506-10) we see at left—is an emphasis on dynamic tension between a rocky, masculine art of underpainting in vivifying resistance to the oily, lapping, feminine seas floating on top of it. Giorgione, Eastlake writes:

... would at the same time see the danger of the extreme softness and obliteration of form to be apprehended from this treatment, and therefore the necessity of a proportionate boldness and solidity as its basis. Without the substance and ruggedness of the rock, the superadded cloud, still more softened by glazing, would have wanted contrast of texture and truth of imitation. While therefore adopting contrivances which insured the softest transitions, the most perfect roundness, and the largest breadth, it was impossible for a painter of energetic character like Giorgione not to feel that the utmost vigour and apparent contempt of labour were requisite in the earlier stages of a work in order to conceal the delicate operations reserved for its completion. (Eastlake, Vol. II: 279)

Now, Eastlake goes to some truly extreme measures of violence in his language for communicating the requisite tension between layers. The painter must operate by "beating and stabbing" (p. 283), aiming to "kill the cold colour" (p. 284) and to make sure all blue shadows are "neutralized." (p. 285) It is as if only by these extremes of violence that the Venetian method by Eastlake's account could avoid collapsing into an emasculating, liquid softness—an employment, as Michelangelo supposedly claimed, "fit for women and children." (p. 280)

Given the violence of this language, I can't help but think of Jim Elkins's account of painting-as-alchemy, which we read earlier in the term. It seems highly to the point here: "One of the aims of alchemy ... is to make the volatile fixed: to cut the limbs from the lion, or clip the wings from the dragon, or shear the feathers from the phoenix. The alchemists thought of fixation as hobbling, chaining and mutilation." (What Painting Is, 123) While the violence with Eastlake's Venetians is less fixing volatility than keeping it in productive, rigorous motion, the author was surely cognizant of the alchemical operations at work. "So simple a process as this will banish all ideas of the palette [i.e. of the Flemish, "atomic" method]," Eastlake tells us at one point as he invokes alchemy's transmutational aims: "Evident as the brush-work may be, and ought to be, [it] will transform the mere paint into silver and gold." (p. 285-6)

So, masculine and feminine, under-structure and surface, heat and cold, etc. must all be kept in dynamic tension if the Venetian scheme is to work. But, when it does work, the effect is truly marvelous. And the following are the terms by which Eastlake concludes his study:

The production of various degrees of transparency and of the whole range of warm and cool tints by judicious alternations of scumbling and glazing, is a world which may be said to be at the painter's [end p. 295] command. The art of producing such results may be studied at first merely as an art, and without direct reference to nature. The processes in fact are in a degree precisely those of nature, and therefore can never fail to open up a universe of colour unapproachable by any other means. It need not there be dissembled that the dynamic method considered with reference to colour only, involves completeness in itself, and is so far independent of nature as it is an application of nature's own means. But the power and the capabilities of the system being felt, its possible refinements, with all its accidents, and all its assistance from vehicles and from substance—such as the repeated interposition of colourless media (for which the Italian varnish is adapted) and the production of internal sparkle by brilliant colours half ground, or even by the veiled glitter of metallic particles—all these capabilities being felt, with many more aids from that "cunning" which he has acquired at home, the painter goes to Nature and compares her world with his own. He finds that infinite as the Great Artist is, he too has in his possession a miniature scale of processes which, in conjuring up of magical effects, is analogous to those which Nature herself puts into requisition, and he at once selects and delights in the most difficult of those problems in light and colour which the external world presents to him. (p. 295-6)

As I read this passage, Eastlake's Nature overlaps substantially with that which had brought photography into existence according to Batchen. That is, Venetian painting is a dynamic method that creates its values—indeed, its "magic"—through a quasi-alchemical juxtaposition of male and female, dry and liquid, subterranean and superficial elements brought into dynamic tension. Although the Venetian artist can get lost in that world of his artificial making, it turns out that he is already in the world because Nature and her processes are structured like his dynamic painting method. Now, if we recall that Eastlake was centrally involved with both painting and photography ca. 1850—he became President of the Photographic Society in 1853 and the first Director of London's National Gallery in 1855—some interesting questions emerge. Is it too simplistic to say that where the painter's "cunning" had to be used to craft juxtaposition between elements to create a dynamism equivalent to nature, the photographer's intelligence aimed to bring nature's flux to a halt? If Venetian painting had long been likened to Nature, is Eastlake's emphasis on dynamism new to both (as Batchen would have us believe at least for the latter)? And what are we to make of all this talk of alchemy, cunning and magic? Fascinating!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Printing as liquid technology

A good old story tells us that the volatile years of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century represent a moment of explosive growth in the market for printed materials. Greater numbers of men and women in Europe were able to read. Participation in coffee house culture and other bulwarks of the "bourgeois public sphere" created avid desire for newspapers, pamphlets and other, far less learned printed materials. And, thanks to the rupture in censorship during the French Revolution, new, radical or just risqué printed materials were readily on offer.

But, that late Enlightenment period sees dynamic changes in printed form and content alike. Aiming to capture the dramatic contrasts of light and dark achieved in the famous "candle-lights" of his friend Joseph Wright of Derby, Liverpool experimental Peter Perez Burdett, for example, developed (well, he said he invented it, but ...) a method of aquatint printing. In Burdett's process, rosen would be distributed across a copper plate, then heated to form tiny chemical indentation in the plate capable of bearing ink, which would then be pressed onto the dampened paper to read as the dark, velvety textures necessary for rendering Wright's works. "Impressions chemically wrought" as Burdett's prints were described at exhibition in the early 1770s.

For the scale, speed and ease of production requisite to addressing modern mass audience, few period methods could rival the new technique of lithography. And, so that we could all learn more about liquidy processes of subtending that technique, our class made a visit to the well-equipped studio facilities at a nearby university. There, two graduate students (Hideki, who stands in profile on the left above, and Aanchal who appears in the photos below) gave us some practical demonstrations.

The crucial principle of lithography is the chemical resist between oil and water. Invented by musical-printing entrepreneur Aloys Senefelder in the mid-1790s, so Hideki told us, the traditional lithographic process requires a finely smoothed limestone surface, which can be treated for printing, then ground down and re-used. As you can probably guess from the examples on metal work table at left, these blocks are extremely heavy! Once the limestone surface has been made flush, the image-maker draws or paints onto the stone with oily media. As you can see from the example here, our class collaborated on this masterpiece using waxy crayons and a range of other mark-making instruments.

Throughout the process, reinforcing the resists between oiliness and wateriness is critical. For, after the ink is set out and prepared for rolling ...

... the print-maker applies a solution of nitric acid diluted in gum arabic onto the stone. As Hideki explained, the acid solution needs to vary according to the tonal qualities of the image. A higher proportion of acid should be mixed into the areas of the design that are to read as darkest. But, as we see at left, the application of acid and gum effaces the design.
Here, Aanchal is explaining how, for the process to work, the stone must constantly be kept wet as the greasy design attracts the oily printer's ink rolled onto the stone, while the untouched zones of the image retain their watery resist to the oil.
Here, Hideki and Aanchal are working together to keep the chemical action on the stone in order. First, Aanchal wets the stone with water. Then, Hideki rolls on the ink.
Next, a sheet of paper is affixed to the stone and rolled through the press. I think you can understand why everyone would want to get involved in the fun!

Here are some awesome examples of etched states from Aanchal's notebook.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Liquid Courage

A camera is fixed on the beach, pointing out to sea where a small fleet of cargo ships sits at anchor in the middle distance. From the left-hand side of the frame, a man enters dressed in dark clothes. He iscarrying a red plastic bucket. Barefoot, he wades into the shallow, lapping surf, fills his bucket and walks back out of the picture-plane. So low is the camera's line of sight that we cannot see his head as he makes this exit. The screen then cuts to black, where we see the title of the work, Watercolor, reading in white text; a moment later, we see a textual blurb glossing the conceit unfolding before us. That is, the Belgian-born conceptual artist Francis Alÿs is creating his "watercolor" by mixing waters from the Black Sea gathered at Trabzon in Turkey with those of the Red Sea. And so, in the next shot, we seem to see the same male figure in his dark clothes, red bucket now entering the picture plane from the right and tossing his liquid load into what is identified as the Red Sea at Aqaba, Jordan. 

Alÿs's video is little more than minute long. The conceit, though, is that time and distance have been so compressed into filmic space that the water lifted from the Black Sea at the beginning is deposited into the Red Sea seconds later. The journey across Turkey, Syria and the length of Jordan—a route that Google maps refuses to compute, at least by my reckoning—is thus completely elided. Now, whatever playful, political or other point Alÿs may be pursuing in this video, his elision of that central, liquidy transit is precisely that which art historian Jennifer Roberts has sought to restore to attention in her celebrated, recent studies of colonial American painters like John Singleton Copley. Without rehearsing Robert's now well-known readings, I wonder how her account of eighteenth century watery space stands in relation to period texts, which often place the ocean in the register of the sublime. More to the point, if Alÿs's video (vaguely) gestures to possibilities for rethinking the massively under-theorized medium of watercolor, how might we understand the affect of the medial space of the ocean, which Roberts's work has so compellingly forward?

In his 1986 volume, The English Atlantic 1675-1740: An Exploration of Communication and Community, historian Ian K. Steele published the diagram at left. It is a bewitching image. Where conventional maps typically flatten the earth's watery expanses into a demure, monochrome blue, Steele's figure prints the human-inhabited continental landmasses in uniform grey (rendered splotchy here, alas, by my crappy scanner). Reading white on the bare page, Steele's oceans become vortices of drifts, streams, and currents within now-nameable aquatic places. Cued by the legend in the figure's lower right corner, those swirling curls of line also become legible as notations of currents' direction and temperature. British imperial interests of the long eighteenth century had to learn the vicissitudes of the terrifyingly-violent oceanic force if it was to be their collaborator.

But, Steele stresses, once we recognize that fact—once we see the ocean as a (quasi-)known domain to be sailed through, rather than a blue non-space to be flown over, we can appreciate the skill and scale of period navigational accomplishments. Steele makes this point with a brilliant anecdote: "In 1745 ... Cooper Thornhill of Stilton, Huntingdonshire, wagered that he could ride a 213-mile course to London and back in 15 hours. After he accomplished the trip in less than 12.5 hours, a contemporary recorded the following in amazement: 'This is deservedly reckon'd the greatest performance of its kind ever known. Several thousand Pounds were laid on this affair; and the roads for many miles lined with people to see him pass and repass.' This breakneck pace, which must have exhausted a number of horses as well as innkeeper Thornhill, was run at an average speed of 17.3 mph. ... Unless we can share their surprise, we cannot appreciate the communications of the period that preceded that ride." (Steele, 5-6)

In our readings for this week, we're asked to consider various ways in which watery spaces, oceans, were imagined in the eighteenth century—or how early modern watery space has since been imagined in film. And one of the obvious points of introduction to this conversation is the eighteenth century discourse of the sublime.
For Edmund Burke, a view out over a liquid expanse of the ocean is well capable of generating sublime ideas: "A level plain of a vast extent on land, is certainly no mean idea; the prospect of such a plain may be as extensive as a prospect of the ocean; but can it ever fill the mind with any thing so great  as the ocean itself? This is owing to several causes, but it is owing to none more than this, that the ocean is an object of no small terror." (Burke, 97) 

Contrary to the oceanic pathways and currents of Steele's map, the terror and sublimity of the ocean for Burke depend on their resistance to intelligibility—on its incapacity to be wholly grasped. “It is our ignorance of things," so Burke puts it, "that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions.” (Burke, 105; see also, 106; 118) That which is merely useful or merely knowable (see 108) completely eliminates the effect of the sublime. (Burke, 113, esp. 114) Water thus factors into Burke’s thinking on the sublime in interesting ways. Beyond the prospect of its oceanic immensity, water when falling can generate a kind of overwhelming mental seriation: "After a long succession of noises, as the fall of waters, or the beating of forge hammers, the hammers beat and the waters roar in the imagination long after the first sounds have ceased to affect it." (Burke, 130) This aural "after-image," as it were, induces a contemplation of sublime infinitude. Further, hearing the sounds of these massive falling waters is so overwhelming an experience that the subject's sense are almost compelled by a kind of sympathetic resonance to join into the rhythm. (Burke, 151)

For Kant in the Critique of Judgment, however, it is entirely wrong to describe specific natural objects like the vast ocean heaving in storms as sublime. This is because the impression of that scene is merely horrible. But, the sublime is not in those sensations; instead, the effect of the sublime is a reflective judgment in the mind. (Kant, 99) So, the feeling of the sublime is initially unpleasant as the imagination struggles to present sensation to reason; but it becomes pleasurable as the reason generates a feeling of purposiveness out of conflict. (Kant, 116) The pleasure of the sublime lies not in nature or sensory presentations but in the subject’s recognition of power within himself, in the unlimited ability of reason. Kant makes this point by again evoking the sight of the seas thrown up in terrible storms: 

"Though the irresistibility of nature's might makes us ... recognize our impotence, it reveals in us at the same time an ability to judge ourselves independent of nature, and reveals in us a superiority over nature that is the basis of a self-preservation quite difference in kind from the one that can be assailed and endangered by nature outside us. ... Hence nature is here called sublime merely because it elevates our imagination, making it exhibit those cases where the mind can feel its own sublimity, which lies in its vocation and elevates it even above nature." (Kant, 121)

So, in the blast of mist thrown up by the ocean's storm, it is as if the subject is able to perceive not the power of nature, but of her own reason. There is very interesting room for comparison between the quasi-narcissistic image of the subject’s own powers grasped in the ocean storm and that (deadening) self-image perceived by Narcissus in Poussin’s Birth of Bacchus discussed here. However, the key point is that, rather than overwhelming and stupefying human intellectual capacities qua Burke, the sublime in Kant’s sense is pleasing as a glorification of intellection. While certainly, Kant allows, there are those rustic peasants who have no capacity for the reflective pleasure of the sublime at all (Kant, 124), contemplation of sublime and beautiful effects can serve as a propaeudeutic to higher realms of philosophy. He puts it this way: "The beautiful prepares us for loving something, even nature, without interest; the sublime, for esteeming it even against our interest (of sense)." (Kant, 127)

Some sense of this bleeding between natural and human power—maybe even of the beautiful and the sublime—is materialized in Kenneth Anger's Eaux D'Artifice (1953). Set in a sixteenth century space (that of the gardens of the Villa D'Este at Tivoli), the protagonist in Anger's film appears to be dressed in the high fashion of the 1780s-90s with elaborate ostrich feathers in her hair, which merge into the jetting plume of water in the films opening and closing sequences. So, with our human's animality clearly foregrounded, we see this character running through the gardens, her movements sometimes following the gravitational descent of the water as it trickles down through the garden's elaborately constructed eddies. Indeed, as is nicely captured in the frozen still above—where we see the parabolic arch of upward-projected water splintering at left into falling, liquid fragments—the film highlights tensions between natural directions of flow and the implicit artificial contrivances needed to control and to propel water. 

Thus, we might conclude, rather than docilely commanding nature like the cargo ships at anchor in Alÿs' film or upwelling within us in the face of nature's fury per the Kantian sublime, human power is dramatized in Anger's film as a fraught project. Beset from within by our own animal characteristics, human power requires a collaboration with nature that can be both beautiful but terrifying in its own right when—like the pulsing, jetting fountains—it seems to take on a life of its own.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Liquid Power

In last week's readings, we considered Thomas Willis's incredible conception of blood being heated and pumped up from the heart, through the body like water through a fountain. Warmed until they separate from the mass of the blood, the animal spirits act for Willis both as purveyors of life and as the medium of thought insofar as they can be impregnated with impressions of species propagating from objects in the sensory field. Circulation, a concept drawn from William Harvey's then-recent physiological studies, thus acts for Willis as the substrate for understanding intelligence and its liquidy forms.

But, as the reading for this session by literary scholar James Thomson shows, metaphors of circulation were also readily taken up by British political economists who aimed to understand the nature of money and its relation to wealth. The story that Thomson tells follows two major shifts in a general movement toward liquidity as circulation of currency comes to be seen as a means of nourishing economic growth as a river does parched land. (Thomson 71; 75) First, Thomson traces a "dematerialization" story—a shift in the conception of monetary value from a "materialist" notion focused on the weight of bullion to a "nominalist" position wherein money is only a sign for the denomination printed on it. Value becomes radically detached from the material of the currency itself. (Thomson 43; 77-8; 83) Secondly, Thomson argues for (although he does less to demonstrate) a shifting conception of wealth as treasure, which should be buried in the ground at the least sign of market instability or military threat as Samuel Pepys does in the later 1660s, to money seen as capital—as a means for producing more wealth through circulation. This point comes across most powerfully with Adam Smith where the wealth of nations lies not in its hoarded coins and currency, but in the goods and production it generates annually. (77-8)

But, how might we understand this conception of "liquid" values and capitalist circulation in relation to the royal/aristocratic flows described by Meredith Martin? Are the "economies of flow" detailed by Martin in her recent study of ancien régime pleasure dairies (such as that at Versailles at left) and their rituals performances of milk-pouring coextensive with the Lockean pastorals described by Thomson? That is, in Thomson's telling, Locke advances a theory of coinage whereby weight equals monetary value; he is strongly against paper money and bills of credit. For Thomson, this is all apiece with a "conservative," aristocratic agenda that seeks to emphasize an image of stasis, continuity and tautological identity above all. "Silver is silver," in Thomson's paraphrase of Locke; aristocratic privilege begets aristocratic privilege. (Thomson, 61-1) Yet, in the Absolutist context described by Martin, patriarchal authority is asserted by ritualized performance of liquid pours. Visible only to his most privileged courtiers, the milk Louis XIV pours in his laiterie stands in as much for his fertile semen as for the purity of the blood running through the French royal line. (Martin 74-5; 86-93)

Flows of money and flows of patrilineal, bodily fluids are brought together in truly ghoulish ways in the person of Noah Cross in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974). Especially in the last scene at Evelyn Mulwray's house (from which the still at left is taken; see ca. 2:00:30), private detective Jake Gittes lures Cross to his daughter's house to swap money (by phone, Gittes asks "do you have your checkbook ready?"; so, he's not even getting paper currency—let alone bullion—but a bill of credit) for Cross's daughter who, though incest, is also his grand-daughter. Cross's is no exogamic kinship, let alone a bourgeois model of political economy that takes value from the circulation of its currency. Instead, his is a straight, "pure" line of genetic material. Like the grail legend by which Polanski was partly inspired, the grail is not an object, but a person, a flow of pure blood from Christ to the future.

We are deep in religious waters here. Like the maimed, dying Fisher King of the grail story, Polanski's Cross is frail; he walks with a cane and reads with bifocals. (Indeed, these are the glasses that incriminate him in the murder of his ex-partner, Hollis Mulwray, after Gittes finds them in the salty "tide pool" in the backyard). Where the Noah of the Bible commands the waters of the Flood, Polanski's Noah holds court at the Albacore Club; a massive tuna is its ensign. Yet, we're mistaken if we conflate the flows of currency through which Gittes reads (or, more to the point, repeatedly misreads) motives for action and the drift of Cross's intent. When confronted by Jake in this scene by the pool, after all, Cross scoffs at the idea that he wants money. What does he want? "The future! The future, Mr. Gits"

So, to bring this all together, I wonder if we might use Chinatown to articulate two kind of power-flows in the early modern context. First, we have the rising middle class model with its complex instruments of credit, its paper currency, etc., that all serve to dematerialize value—to release it from mere weight and to relaunch it as capital that generates wealth through circulation. Second, we have the older "aristocratic" model in which milky, bodily fluids are carefully guided through highly-prescribed channels to reproduce the same, tautological result over and over again. Silver is silver, aristocracy is aristocracy, Cross's grail/blood is Cross's grail/blood into "the future!"

All of this might be related to Tiepolo in the telling of Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall in subtle but compelling ways. At the most direct level, we could say that Tiepolo possess complete command of the watery elements of his medium, executing wash drawings with an almost athletic brilliance. (Alpers/Baxandall, 51-3; 58) However, the real target of the authors' investigation is a "pictorial intelligence" that exceeds this mere material wetness and expands it into a fluid aesthetics of mobility and light. These points come across most powerfully at the end, where one of Tiepolo's greatest successes—a harnessing of light reflecting off the watery canals onto his ceiling painting, seen at left, at Santa Maria dei Gesuati in Venice (Alpers/Baxandall, esp. 84-88; 92)—is contrasted with his failures at the Venetian Palazzo Labia. There, his design is described as inhibited, paralyzed and incapable of bringing the "fluid potential" (p. 94) of Tiepolo's sketch into the domain of the mobile light and moving viewer needed for his art. (p. 97)

So, although this work by Alpers/Baxandall seems (intentionally) ahistorical, is there a way in which we could draw a historical relation between Tiepolo's privileging of a circulating, mobile beholder and his general, "liquid" aesthetics with the Smithian/political-economic conception of money (also coming into realization in the mid-eighteenth century), which acquires value only as it moves?