Author Archive

The Glass Flowers

May 28, 2009

The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants


I’m approaching the Glass Flowers as a study of a thing that presents itself somewhat explicitly as an object of our attention. Rather than attempting to cultivate an attention to everyday things whose thingness eludes us (e.g. Heidegger’s jug, Bill Brown’s window, Latour’s door), I instead want to think about how we attend to things whose thingness we might feel is already immediately available. This study tries to be less about seeing a thing as something other than an object of our use and more about seeing something more in that very quality of objecthood. The objecthood of the Glass Flowers is made explicit in their status as objects of our use as instructional tools, objects of our contemplation as works of art, and objects of representational practice as things that forefront the fact that they represent other things (“natural” flowers). I want to tell three parts of the story of the Glass Flowers as objects.


Although [the Glass Flowers] are representations themselves, they defy representation. A photograph of the glass model of a daylily or a strawberry plant looks exactly like a photograph of the daylily or strawberry plant in your garden…. It is the wonder of the copy that itself cannot be copied, which somehow is more authentic than the original.
–Lorraine Daston, ”The Glass Flowers”

The Glass Flowers, officially known as the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, are a set of approximately 3,000 life-size models of plants made out of glass, with occasional bits of wire, paint, and glue. The collection is owed by Harvard University, where the models are on disply in the Harvard Museum of Natural History. George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of the Harvard Botanical Museum, commissioned the models in 1886 from Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, a father and son team of glassmakers based in Hosterwitz, near Dresden. The Blaschkas produced the models over 50 years, Leopold until his death in 1895 and Rudolph until his retirement at age 79 in 1936.


MusaParadisiacamusa paradisiaca191580mp Picture 1mp Picture 2

fig. 1, upper left: Musa paradisiaca – “in nature”
fig. 2, upper right: Musa paradisiaca – herbarium specimen
fig. 3, lower left: Musa paradisiaca – drawing by Rudolph Blaschka
fig. 4, lower right: Musa paradisiaca – glass model by Rudolph Blaschka

The first part of this story concerns the concept of type. Goodale’s commission of the Glass Flowers was motivated by a desire for adaquate instructional tools. There was a problem of access–students in Cambridge simply did not have access to the majority of the plant world, especially not plants in their natural settings (fig. 1, above). Existing models made of wax or paper mache as well as dried plant specimens (fig. 2) were felt to be insufficient for teaching students to recognize plants in their natural settings. At the same time, even fresh plant specimens could not entirely satisfy Goodale’s pedagogical desires, for any given specimen seemed by itself too specific to stand for an entire species of plant. When Goodale turned to the Blaschkas, he charged them with producing “exact fac-similes of certain typical plants” (Daston 2004: 249). In taking up this charge, the Blaschkas’ research was based on plants they grew in their own garden from seeds sent by Harvard botanists, plants in the nearby royal gardens in Pillnitz, and drawings Rudolph made during two research expeditions to the US and the Caribbean (fig. 3).

But what does it mean to copy a “typical plant”? If these glass flowers are models, what exactly are they models of? On the one hand, working at this level of detail, the Blaschkas clearly couldn’t simply model a glass flower on a general idea of what a given species of plant looked like–there had to be specific referents. On the other hand, Goodale explicitly did not want a one-to-one correlation between each glass model and a plant specimen existing in the world. Each Blaschka model had to represent a species, not a single specimen.

Looking at the way that the concept of type has operated in botany offers something with which to think. The type method, officially adopted for botanical work in 1910, fixed each species name to an individual specimen of that species. Yet there remained a recognition that no individual specimen could be definitively typical of a species. A specimen can be a type, but it’s harder to say that it can be typical. In Objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison write of the interplay between truth-to-nature and objectivity in the rise of modern science. Botany’s type method is an example of an approach governed by objectivity–names are tied to actually existing objects in the world. Truth-to-nature, in contrast, dictates an interest in “the idea in the observation, not the raw observation itself” (Daston and Galison 2007: 73). This approach, whose persistence in botany is indicated by the relatively recent adoption of the type method, asserts a truth to what a thing is that can’t be fully captured by any single example of the thing. Goodale’s desire for “exact fac-similes of certain typical plants” suggests a desire for truth-to-nature, for glass models of the truth of things more than of specific things themselves.

This discussion of the concept of type prompts me to touch upon the tendency to talk about a thing in generic terms–when we talk about a thing, we tend to talk about a typified thing, we talk about a jug as if it constitutes the entirety of jugness–while talking about humans in specific and individual terms. This tendency confronts us as a way in which we persist in taking up human and non-human worlds on radically different terms. We persist in standardizing the variability of the non-human world, as emerges in the botanical examples of the type method and Goodale’s pedagogical desires as attempts to put into order the seeming excesses of nature.

Type also leads me to representation. Daston tells of a remark made by Harvard botanist William Farlow to a colleague about a visitor to the collection who “told me she could not imagine anything so beautiful as the models. I ventured to ask whether she did not think the plants themselves were beautiful” (Daston 2004: 250). This remark illustrates a point often made, that representation doesn’t merely represent a thing, it also replaces that thing by constituting a new thing. Yet we can maybe say a bit more about what representation does. Namely, we can ask of a thing that represents what it does and even what it wants–we can’t simply dismiss it as a thing that merely represents. There is nothing mere about representation. Maybe by addressing the idea of representation we can more clearly recognize the ways that meaning is still so much a part of our discussion of doing and being, and that it’s not the case that we wouldn’t want it to be.


The second part of this story is about the wonderment that surrounds the flowers. It’s a wonderment that I don’t want to dispel. One way that this wonderment appears is in the form of disbelief at the process by which the Glass Flowers come into being. Theories of a secret technique employed by the Blaschkas are an integral part of this story. Even people who observed the Blaschkas at work, including Goodale, struggled to account for what they saw. Goodale managed this: “Although you may see him touch a flat piece of glass with his little metallic tools, you know that it is no ordinary touch which suddenly shapes it into a living form.” (Brown 1999). What he knew just didn’t seem sufficient for what these flowers were. There’s a sense that emerges here of an excess in what these flowers are beyond that which can be accounted for by a knowledge of how they are made. It’s an excess that can’t be reduced to an inability to grasp the technical process of manufacture. Here I want to depart from Alfred Gell’s discussion of the technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology, by which we construe objects as magical as a result of our inability to understand the technical processes by which they are made (Gell 1992: 49). It’s precisely the accessibility of the technical process that highlights the excess that remains beyond it.


Many people think that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact.
–Leopold Blaschka

Another place where the wonderment surrounding the flowers appears is in the experience of viewing them on display. This sense of wonder emerges from a play between seeing and not seeing that these flowers are made of glass. On the one hand, what’s amazing is that they look indistinguishable from natural flowers, not at all like glass. On the other hand, subtle gestures towards their material–perhaps a momentary gleam as you shift your viewing angle–contribute to an aesthetic appreciation for these flowers as not “just” natural flowers. Viewers are held in wonder, in part at least, by their minds’ play between knowing and not knowing what they are seeing.

The wonder emerges as well from the odd feeling one gets at encountering these flowers on display in rows of cabinets in a dimly lit museum hall. It’s not only that the setting strikes viewers as so unfitting for objects that seem to want to reside outdoors, attached to the ground or trees. The flowers seem also to be locked in an unaccustomed temporality–they have no past or future as flowers, they neither grow nor decay as flowers, only as pieces of glass. The Glass Flowers are simultaneously the perfect flowers and not flowers at all. If the wonder surrounding the flowers’ manufacture can be described in terms of an excess, the wonder surrounding their display seems might be described in terms of multiplicity, the multiplicity of realities the flowers enact for their viewers.


To see the flowers now made of glass, lying down on their sides, in their display cabinets, so accurate, so pristine, so without blemish, is to be in a state of wonderment. For in the end, they do not look like perfect flowers on the stems of perfect branches adorned with perfect leaves growing from perfect plants. They look real enough but as if the real is from another realm.
–Jamaica Kincaid, “Splendor in the Glass”

In taking up the idea of wonder, I’m hoping to speak to Henare, Holbraad, and Wastell’s call for a ethnographic methodology of wonder at things (Henare et al. 2007). I want to suggest that we might move towards Henare et al.’s desire to cultivate a sense of wonder at the everyday and the taken-for-granted by considering the wonder that already operates in the world without our directed attempts to produce it. The wonderment surrounding the Glass Flowers suggests that rather than thinking of wonder primarily in terms of an openess–a naivite–towards things, which can feel more disabling than enabling, we might also think of a sensibility of wonderment as carried out through a recognition of the complexity of things, a complexity that emerges in the case of the Glass Flowers in terms of their excess and their enactment of multiplicity. Perhaps this offers us a way of thinking about a methodology of wonder as a more active practice than the idiom of naivite suggests.


The third part of the story is a story of obsessiveness. It’s about the obsessive care and attention that the Glass Flowers gather around themselves. There’s of course the obsessiveness of the two men who spent 50 years of their lives under exclusive contract to do nothing with their working hours except produce these flowers. But there are other elements to this story of obsessive care and attention as well.


These people were obsessive. Not only did the Blaschkas make all 2,500 of those buds and blossoms, you have Walter Deane over here counting them.
–Susan Rossi-Wilcox, quoted in Brown 1999

Consider, for example, how the flowers made their way from the Blaschkas’ workshop in Hosterwitz, Germany to the Harvard Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
The finished model would be mounted on firm cardboard, with strong wire securing it. The mounted specimen was then placed in a sturdy cardboard box. Tissue paper was used to cushion it and keep the parts that could not readily be wired from moving…. Next, the cardboard box would be covered; and, when a number of such boxes were ready, they were all placed in a very large, sturdy wooden box with a sufficient amount of straw padding to keep the individual boxes from touching one another or the walls of the wooden box. The wooden cover was then screwed on, and the box was embedded in more straw padding before being wrapped in burlap. The finished bale, which was nearly the height of a person, was then sent to a seaport, loaded onto a ship, and transported to America. Here, the packing procedure was reversed, much care being taken in the final process of removing the models from their cardboard boxes. (Schultes and Davis 1982.)

And then there’s this anecdote about how the flowers traveled from Cambridge to New York and back for an exhibition:
The models, packed in wooden cases…, were to be flown from Boston to New York in a small plane. But the question of how they could be safely transported over the icy, potholed streets to Logan Airport in Boston and from La Guardia to Manhattan remained. What type of automobile had the best springs to give the smoothest ride? Although the obvious conclusion was the use of a limousine, test runs indicated a hearse was even better. So, one afternoon in March, two large black hearses, each with a driver in funereal dress, backed up to the doors of the museum, and the boxes were loaded. The automobiles proved to be such a perfect answer that, after a well-attended month-long showing, the models were not returned by air but were driven the 200 miles back to Cambridge in two hearses. (Schultes and Davis 1982.)

Photo 10Photo 9

It becomes clear that instead of just asking about the flowers as things that are human-made, we ought to ask about all the things that the flowers make humans do. “The Glass Flowers did more than crystallize labor; they multiplied it,” Daston writes (Daston 2004: 240). The flowers call upon an obsessive level of care an attention in anyone who encounters them, from the Blaschkas to the museum visitor and, crucially, everyone who encounters them in between. This quality of the Glass Flowers calls particular attention to the materiality of these objects by making people so careful about specifically their materiality. The flowers make us ask so intently what their materials are, how we can work to preserve and restore them, and how we ought to behave around them.

DISEASED glass1-250


  • Brown, Nancy Marie. 1999. “Flowers Out of Glass” [article online]. Research/PennState 20.3. Accessed 17 May 2009. Available at
  • Daston, Lorraine. 2004. “The Glass Flowers.” In Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science. Edited by Lorraine Daston. New York: Zone Books. 223-256.
  • Daston, Lorraine and Peter Gallison. 2007. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books.
  • Gell, Alfred. 1992. “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology.” In Anthropology Art and Aesthetics. Edited by Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 40-66.
  • Henare, Amiria, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell. 2007. “Introduction: Thinking Through Things.” In Thinking Through Things: Theorizing Artefacts Ethnographically. Edited by Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell London: Routledge. 1-31.
  • Kincaid, Jamaica. 2002. “Splendor in the Glass” [article online]. Architectural Digest June 2002. Accessed 17 May 2009. Available at
  • Schultes, Richard Evans and William A. Davis with Hillel Burger. 1982. The Glass Flowers at Harvard. New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc.
  • [photo credits: none of the photos belong to me, most come from Schultes and Davis 1982, contact me for specific information]

The Glass Flowers

May 5, 2009

The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants


“Although they are representations themselves, they defy representation. A photograph of the glass model of a daylily or a strawberry plant looks exactly like a photograph of the daylily or strawberry plant in your garden…. It is the wonder of the copy that itself cannot be copied, which somehow is more authentic than the original.” –Lorraine Daston


May 3, 2009

I apologize for posting my end of semester thoughts more than a few days late.

Henare et al.’s call for a methodology of wonderment came at just the right time for me to embrace it. I’m looking at my marginal notes to the piece and seeing a lot of exclamation marks. I hadn’t at all recognized the extent of the ontological assumptions I had been operating under, hadn’t recognized how immersed I’d been in strictly epistemological concerns–I thought I had simply been immersed in the world. Maybe I had been willing to take the idea of multiple ontologies from something unthinkable to something unpursuable, but that was as far as I had come. My (epistemological) interests were leading to a dead end, I couldn’t figure out why people were still obsessing over Writing Culture nor could I figure out how to get out of the obsession myself, I was wondering where there might be hope…

A couple points on which this course has prompted sustained thinking:

If anything, all the talk of agency has made me insistent upon thinking beyond the concept of agency. My issue with agency is that the model for it seems to me to be overwhelmingly human. While the writers working with the concept of agency have used it to help us rethink the kinds of things to which agency is applied, I don’t think it’s helped us rethink the concept of agency itself. Seeing the agency of objects feel too much like recognizing a bit of ourselves in objects, and I think this is partly where a postcolonial celebration of objects (“Look at you resisting!”) falls off track. I’m finding networks/assemblages/entanglements/collaborations to offer a more useful idiom. These concepts don’t suggest that we appreciate objects to the extent that we see something of ourselves in them, but rather that we aren’t who we thought we were in the first place. So if we see ourselves in objects, it’s not just the objects, but also we ourselves who are seen anew. This isn’t the same world now with more agents, but an entirely different world in which we’re much more hesitant to draw dividing lines.

Then how do we recognize difference in a way that explores how difference is produced rather than settling into difference as a given thing? That is, how do we not become ontological relativists? It’s not difference as a fact but difference as a production that’s interesting. So Gell’s distinction of primary and secondary agency goes too far towards accepting difference as a fact for me–we see how different kinds of being have different kinds of agency, but we aren’t pushed to consider initial assumptions of why. If we’re talking about networks, how do we talk about the enmeshing of actants in a network while speaking to the evident fact that trees, tree-huggers, and chainsaws aren’t the same kinds of things. What’s our vocabulary for difference?

market things

March 25, 2009

Mateusz and Soo-Young

And so for four years and maybe more they explored and interviewed and analysed. Why are pure-suction vacuum cleaners selling so poorly? What do people of modest origin think of chicory? Do you like ready-made mashed potato and if so, why? Because it’s light? Because it’s creamy? Because it’s easy to make – just open it up and there you are? Do people really reckon baby carriages are expensive? Aren’t you always prepared to fork out a bit extra for the good of the kids? Which way will French women vote? Do people like cheese in squeezy tubes? Are you for or against public transport? What do you notice first when you eat yoghurt? – the colour? the texture? the taste? natural odour? … Do you like frozen food? How much do you think a lighter like this costs, eh? What do you look for in a mattress? Describe a man who likes pasta. What do you think of your washing machine? …

There was washing, drying, ironing. Gas, electricity and the telephone. Children. Clothes and underclothes. Mustard. Packet soups, tinned soups. Hair: how to wash it, how to dry it, how to make it hold a wave, how to make it shine. Students, fingernails, cough syrup, typewriters, fertilizers, tractors, leisure pursuits, presents, stationary, linen, politics, motorways, alcoholic drinks, mineral water, cheeses, jams, lamps and curtains, insurance and gardening. Nil humani alienum… Nothing that was human was outside their scope.

-Georges Perec, Things: A Story of the Sixties

The protagonists of Perec’s novel work as market researches in 1960s France. They gather people’s opinions of things and their stories connected with things to better sell them. In our presentation we want to play with the idea of collaboration as a way of understanding relationships between people and things by looking at contemporary consumer markets. We will use stories from market research as a point of entry.

To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied.

-Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

discussion points

March 4, 2009

Before you begin to…

Apologies for the late posting. Some brief points on what we’d be interested in discussing tomorrow.  -Hector and Soo-Young

•    Fields of forces. According to Ingold, just as in organic entities a morphogenetic field sets the parameters of organic growth, artifacts are shaped within a “field of forces”.  Neither come about as a material translation of a preexisting blue print and both ontogenetic fields and fields of forces cut across a thing and its environment. In this scheme, the ‘maker’ is only a part of this environment, however an important part of it: “the artifact engages its ‘maker’ in a pattern of skilled activity” (Ingold, 2000, p. 345). As “the properties of the materials are directly implicated in the form generating process”, it is “no longer possible to sustain the distinction between form an substance” “so central to the standard way of making things” (loc. cit.).
This argument, as sensible as it definitely is, does not account for the practical success of the standard version and its relentless hold on us (lasting, according to Ingold, ever since Aristotle’s time). Even though it remains unable to fabricate proficient cello players or lasso users, it seems to have framed and guided the coming into being of a myriad of effective ‘as if’. Or, to put it in awkward metaphorical questions: has the potentiality of the hammer to overpower the force of iron proved forceful enough to turn the more authentic ‘weaving’ into the standard version of ‘making’? What are the consequences of its effectiveness?

•    Detachment, proficiency, and livability. According to Ingold, contemplation comes from a particular way of detachment; while, in opposition, ‘immersion’, where awareness of things is substituted by a heightened awareness of action and interconnection (like in the case of a cellist), is a sign of “dwelling” and/or proficient performance (cf. “Bringing Things Back to Life” and Ingold, 2000). Ingold also tells us that the reduction of things to objects ⎯falling for the “the illusion… by which materials are contrived to vanish, swallowed up by the objects made from them” (Ingold, “A Response to my Critics”, p. 33)⎯ is another way of substituting the awareness of things; but, this time, by becoming only aware of them as unproblematically bounded units, detachable from their context. This, according to Ingold, is made in a way concordant with a peculiar “academic perversion” (Ingold, “Materials Against Materiality”, p. 3) that delineates objects defined by their “over-againstness in relation to the setting on which they’re placed” (cf. “Bringing Things Back to Life”). But this peculiar type of awareness seems as a prerequisite of any analytic stance.  What would be the difference between these ways of awareness? What does this difference tells us about our engagement with things? What would be the practical limits between enskilment and enculturation (Ingold, 2000, p. 416)? How much we need to take things for objects in order to make places inhabitable? How much do we need take things for objects in order to make them manageable? Does the transformation actually make them more manageable? What is lost in the process?

•    Leaking. According to Ingold, things leak and consequently they are alive. The mind (or the cranium) leaks too (cf. “Bringing Things Back to Life”). Within this scheme, how can particular kinds of leaking be compared in order to be able to differentiate brains and kites, or human brains and non-human brains? What is the place of the mind ⎯imagination or creativity, if not intelligence⎯ within Ingold’s scheme of leaking things within a world of materials? Does leakage solve the problem of agency? How could leakage differentiate Ingold’s kite, Gell’s landmine, and the latest microprocessor? Or, in another note, could it be said that the possibility that things leak over us is precisely what we seek to control by turning them into objects?

•    Nature(-culture). If we re-frame the debate between Ingold and Miller as a conversation within a common project, in which mutual criticisms indicate shared concerns, one issue to which this common project certainly speaks is the relationship between nature and culture, specifically the constitution of each as a concept vis-à-vis the other. Ingold and Miller each contend that the other unduly disarticulates nature from culture. Ingold sees his turn from “the material world” to “the world of materials” as a move that recognizes materials within a context that, contra Miller, brings together the social and the natural, establishing them as “overlapping regions of the same world” (Ingold, Writing Texts, 32). Miller, meanwhile, sees Ingold as the one who insists on separating nature from culture: “Ingold wants us to contemplate the stone in its environment, but he seems to want this to be a natural, not a human, environment” (Miller, Stone Age, 27). In what ways are they conceptualizing nature vis-à-vis culture so as to allow them to trade the same criticism back and forth? In what ways does a particular conceptualization of nature shape an understanding of materials/materiality and of what’s at stake in discussing the material? CanIngold talk about plastic as something that “blight[s] the landscape” (Writing Texts, 34) without undermining his union of nature and culture? What is assumed about the landscape so as to understand it as something that can be blighted?

•    Ethnography. Ingold presents his work as a polemic, not at all a set of methodological guidelines. But can making his work speak to methodology open useful perspectives on his thinking? What kinds of anthropology can we imagine that a faithful deployment of Ingold’s concept-work (versus Miller’s) would allow? What would an Ingoldian ethnographic project look like? What are the strategies for constructing ethnographic objects in a world of mesh-works?

From Ingold’s 2007 British Academy lecture, “Anthropology is Not Ethnography”:
The objective of anthropology, I believe is to seek a generous, comparative but nevertheless critical understanding of human being and knowing in the one world we all inhabit. The objective of ethnography is to describe the lives of people other than ourselves, with an accuracy and sensitivity honed by detailed observation and prolonged first-hand experience. My thesis is that anthropology and ethnography are endeavours of quite different kinds.

•    Immateriality. Is there something productive in Miller’s discussion of immateriality (in the Materiality Introduction that we read last week) that we lose touch of withIngold’s rejection of the very concept of the non-material? That is, is there something that is addressed through Miller’s concept of immateriality thatIngold’s framework fails to recognize? Or does Ingold find other idioms through which to address the immaterial? How can we consider a conscious rejection of the material, as opposed to a failure to recognize the material? Spirits?



the Höcker album

February 18, 2009

To continue our discussion of photography and the real, I thought I’d point to the Höcker album, a collection of 116 photographs documenting the lives of S.S. officers at Auschwitz during the summer and fall of 1944 and collected in an album belonging to Karl Höcker, the adjutant to camp commandant. I think this album allows us to further pursue some of the questions raised by Hoepker’s 9/11 photo, particularly those having to do with the kind of moral reaction the photo elicits in the viewer.

This passage from Friend (referenced by Mateusz) prompted me to think of the Höcker photos:
The picture seemed to capture and invite complacency. It lacked any sense of outrage, a response Hoepker believed the background ought to have elicited from any civilized person seated in the foreground. It didn’t meet any of our standard expectations of what a September 11 photography should look like. “The idyllic quality turned me off,” he says. “It was too pretty. Maybe we didn’t need to see that, then. Maybe I wasn’t sure it would stir the wrong emotions [in the viewer] (Friend, 2006: 142-3).

The Höcker photos portray S.S. officers taking part in official ceremonies, such as a hospital opening and a funeral, and engaged in social activities, including a hunting trip, a banquet, and excursions to Solahütte, a retreat 30 kilometers south of Auschwitz. In one series of photographs the officers are joined at Solahütte by a group of Helferinnen, young women who worked for the S.S. as communications specialists. In none of the photographs do any prisoners, or other overt signs of the acts typically associated with the name Auschwitz, appear.


[The entire album is available here]

What I find interesting about the discussion surrounding this album, in connection to our discussion of the 9/11 photo, is how much the experience of viewing the album is talked about in terms of horror and moral outrage — the horror and moral outrage of viewing an Auschwitz photo that bears no apparent signs of Auschwitz. It’s precisely the “idyllic quality” — that which turns Hoepker off of his 9/11 photo — that is productive of the horror experienced in viewing the Höcker photos. “The album’s effect is discordant. The people it depicts are engaged in the greatest mass murder ever committed, yet its principal impression is of pleasure; nor do the people portrayed look like villains,” writes Alec Wilkinson in his New Yorker article “Picturing Auschwitz” [registration required]. “If you take it out of context, it very much seems like a vacation album” (Rebecca Erbelding, the archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum who initially received the album).

There is an interesting play of photo, referent, and context going on with this album, one which perhaps offers another angle from which to reconsider ‘the real’ to which we speak of photography referring. How do we make sense of an act of viewing that is so much about knowing a context that lies beyond what is being seen? What work is invovled in viewing a photo of women eating blueberries as a document of atrocity?

Mitchell, Malakulan dance, St. Celilia

February 17, 2009

Mitchell wants to put to images “a question of desire rather than meaning or power” (9), yet he acknowledges that he has “continually circled back to the procedures of semiotics, hermeneutics, and rhetoric” (46). Indeed, I read his discussions of Dolly and the World Trade Center as being, despite the framework of desire, so unavoidably about meaning and power, about what each image represents (e.g. the clone stands for “subtle horror along with a more utopian prospect” [23]) and what it has the capacity to do (e.g. the clone can “activate the deepest phobias about mimesis, copying, and the horror of the uncanny double” [25]). This is not to detract from Mitchell’s project–he certainly recognizes that what he can hope to achieve is not a complete elimination of interpretation, but rather a “subtle dislocation in the target of interpretation” (46), and even to do this is to offer us a great deal with which to work. But I wonder what might help us take his project of ‘critical idolatry’ even further, how to attempt other ways of giving pictures what they want–“an idea of visuality adequate to their ontology” (47).

The crux of our inability seems to be the imposition of the framework of language when we want to address the visual, as Mitchell suggests (47). “Vision…is not reducible to language, to the ‘sign,’ or to discourse. Pictures want equal rights with language, not to be turned into language” (47). Last Wednesday we were asking about the kinds of art for which Gell’s reading works, with Mateusz questioning whether Gell attends (or can be made to attend) to dance beyond its formal characteristics as rendered in a diagram (see Gell 94-95). Consider the different discussions we would have whether presented with Malakulan dance as Gell presents it:

…or as this (the closest I could find, I acknowledge methodological sloppiness here):

I’m wondering how thinking through music might offer help for how to attend to the non-linguistic without subsuming it to the linguistic. Considering certain kinds of music, along with corresponding historical moments in its theory, might place in us a position in which recourse to the linguistic is disabled, or at least seriously complicated, by the music’s capacity to confound representational structures. I’m recalling the way that Pels writes of the fetish — “the fetish shows the limits of representation by disrupting the continuity of reference and replacing it by a substitution (not a re-presentation but a presentation of something else)” (114) — and suggesting that music (and theoretical discussions of music) offer a way to render this disruption more explicit.

I’m thinking in particular about the concept of absolute music (i.e., non-representational music, see the wikipedia entry) and, in connection to this, the Heinrich von Kleist story “St. Cecilia, or the Power of Music,” of which I was reminded by Mitchell’s discussion of the symmetry between iconoclasm and idolatry. In Kleist’s story, four iconoclast Protestant brothers intend to smash the idols at a Catholic church to expose what they see as the emptiness of worshiping representational forms. Upon arriving at the church, however, they are overcome by the song of the nuns, in which — it strikes the brothers — any attempt to distinguish form from content is rendered meaningless. This music confronts them not a sign that represents something beyond itself, but rather it disrupts their capacity to imagine a space between sign and signified. The brothers emerge from this experience as iconophile Catholics with a newfound understanding of the ontology of Catholic icons — perhaps, we could say, a newfound attentiveness to what these icons want.

A tape is interesting when it’s an interesting tape

February 11, 2009

“We may observe that a four-part canon reveals its structure (because it is easy to hear the four successive entries of the theme) but also conceals it, in that it is near-impossible to hear all four parts simultaneously. So also the kolam reveals itself as constructed out of four superimposed figures, but just how, we cannot be certain. Drawing and music and dance tantalize our capacity to deal with wholes and parts, continuity and discontinuity, synchrony and succession.” -Gell 95

To pick up on the John Cage note… I’ve actually been thinking recently about certain kinds of electronic music and minimalist music in the context of thing theory, in terms of how the conditions of composition and performance prompt questions of who/what is a viable agent. Steve Reich’s idea of music as a process seems particularly relevant to Gell’s interest in patterning and in captivation in the context of agency. Reich’s essay, “Music as a Gradual Process” (it’s short and, more importantly, great), unsettles a clean distinction between human creativity and mathematical process, thereby unsettling an attachment to music as a product of the former alone. Reich’s phase-music or process-music compositions are composed according to mathematical relationships — their performance is the realization of these relationships.

“As to whether a musical process is realized through live human performance or through some electro-mechanical means is not finally the main issue. One of the most beautiful concerts I ever heard consisted of four composers playing their tapes in a dark hall. (A tape is interesting when it’s an interesting tape.)”

The Wikipedia entry on his piece “Piano Phase” helpfully sketches the premise of Reich’s phase-music:
Reich’s phasing works generally have two identical lines of music, which begin by playing synchronously, but slowly become out of phase with one another when one of them slightly speeds up. Reich had previously applied this technique only to sounds recorded on magnetic tape, but experimenting in his studio, he found it was possible for humans to replicate the effect. In Piano Phase, he has the two pianists begin by playing a rapid twelve note melodic figure over and over again in unison (E4 F#4 B4 C#5 D5 F#4 E4 C#5 B4 F#4 D5 C#5). After a while, one of the pianists begins to play their part slightly faster than the other. When they are playing the second note of the figure at the same time the other pianist is playing the first note, the two pianists play at the same tempo again. They are therefore playing notes at exactly the same time, but they are not the same notes, as they were at the start of the piece. The process is repeated, so that the second pianist plays the third note as the first pianist is playing the first, then the fourth, and so on until the process has gone full circle, and the two pianists are playing in perfect unison again. The second pianist then fades out, leaving the first playing the original 12 note melody. They then seamlessly change to a similar melody made up of 8 notes. The second piano fades in again, only this time playing a different 8 note melody at the same time. The phasing then begins again. After the full eight cycles have gone through, the first pianist fades out, leaving one 8 note melody playing. After a few repetitions, the pianist then takes out the first 4 notes of the melody and the first pianist fades in unison. They phase through the now four cycles, and finish after returning in unison. The music is made up, therefore, of nothing more than the results of applying the phasing process to the initial twelve-note melody – as such, it is a piece of process music.

In what ways is it uncomfortable to think that the realization of a preordained logical process is capable of evoking an aesthetic or emotional response? Why does it feel more comfortable to attribute this response to the labor of a distinct human agent? What does it have to do with “the fear of objects supplanting people” (the Daniel Miller formulation quoted on the syllabus)?

A simultaneously visual and auditory example of Reich’s phase music:

wonder and poetry

February 4, 2009

Is there a place for wonder in academia? I’m trying to think about Pels’ discussion of wonder—”the feeling of being in the presence of the extraordinary, out-of-place, or radically different” (103)—not as an impetus for understanding, but as a feeling entirely sufficient in itself. Wonder as an appreciation for “the singular instance or anomalous ‘fact'” (109) seems to go directly against an academic inclination to situate, historicize, problematize, put into conversation with, unpack, explode, etc. Does fostering a sense of wonder—wonder maintained as wonder, not wonder explained away—suggest other ways in which academics might participate in the present? Can the spirit of an “art of describing” (109) suggest any methodological moves?

Mateusz re: Soo-Young
Attention to things taken on their own terms certainly promises a different mode of engagement with the present, and not only for academics. I too was taken with Pels’ discussion of wonder, which reminded me of the day when a whale arrived in my city. I was maybe five years old and the whale—a taxidermic body with an overpowering stench—was said to be coming to Poland from what was then Czechoslovakia, notably a region of Europe that used to be and still remains landlocked. A kind of mobile cabinet of one curiosity, it was exhibited inside the truck that brought it. You would walk inside the whale and marvel. It inhabited very different worlds at the same time. It was simultaneously the whale of the BBC documentaries on the ocean narrated by Sir David Attenborough, which we would watch at home, and the whale of the biblical story of Jonas I would hear at the church (“Jonas is swallowed up by a great fish: he prayeth with confidence in God; and the fish casteth him out on the dry land”). The scene at the same time had a tonality of a circus freak show (there might have been cotton candy) and a scientific feel of a natural history museum (there might have been Linnean classification). According to the wonderful Chinese Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge of which Borges writes in The Analytical Language of John Wilkins the whale would fall simultaneously into animal category 2 (“embalmed ones”), category 6 (“fabulous ones”), category 8 (“those included in the present classification”), category 14 (“those that from a long way off look like flies”), and most importantly category 12 (“others”).

Pels’ discussion of the fetish attends to the ways in which it disrupts the modern practices of sorting, classification and clarification. It suggests a mode of thinking where things are not either-or but both-and. It is a mode which would allow the thing to collapse conflicting temporalities and conflicting epistemologies. More importantly it is an “art of describing,” which rejects coherence: in this way it is different from a lot of anthropological descriptions—thick or not—which seek to arrive at coherent “webs of signification”. The other way to go about it is perhaps think of ethnography as collecting the world, rather than understanding or even describing it in terms of meaning. Such collecting would pick up that which has been discarded in the proceses of coming up with coherent “meanings.” “Ragpicker and poet: both are concerned with refuse,” wrote Benjamin of Baudelaire. Is there a place for poetry (or ragpicking) in academia?

Soo-Young re: Mateusz re: Soo-Young
Maybe this five year old in a Czechoslovakian whale helps us toward the sort of practice of naive ethnography called for by Henare et al. Reading Henare et al., I was asking how, still, the ethnographer selects. Now I’m more inclined to ask how to take seriously a practice of not selecting. The inventory as ethnography seems less far-fetched when framed as a particular intervention, that is, into a particular process of refuse production. But to what extent is deliberate framing a mode of the selecting I want to imagine moving away from?

On collapsing (one intellectual operation verb I forgot in my original posting!): collapsing categories becomes more threatening the more there’s an attachment to the categories over the things placed into them. What becomes confused when categories collapse is not the world itself, but particular conceptual apparatuses. And perhaps this move of dismantling epistemological mediations can be one way in which we begin to take note of the things of the world, and to do so in a way that isn’t entirely encompassed by a lingering category of “the real.”

both re: both
Wonder and poetry. But what if we redirect the question? Is there a place for interpretation in academia?

“In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world, To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world–in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’ It is to turn the world into this world. (‘This world’! As if there were any other.) The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.” -Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation