Monday, 17 August 2009

the moment of choice (part i) - 12,809 words

- glaucous den - james joyce -

I’d have posted sooner, but I got bitten by something strange and ended up in A&E with my ankle feeling (and looking) like it was making a bid for freedom. No idea what got me, but I’d avoid it if I were you (suggestions of vampirism have been much appreciated by the way).


A notion of choice has increasingly been on my mind. I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while now: a few weeks back Matthew linked me to this great post on Dylan Triggs’s ‘Side Effects’ blog, a piece on the attempt to reconcile a classical notion of a dis-corporealised sublime moment, a moment of our being ‘lost in the object of contemplation’, with an always-embodied conception of being that we read in the later Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Trigg suggests that the classical sublime moment is a moment of ‘wild-body’, a temporary return to a pre-refelctive mode of being. But, he wonders, if we are always embodied, and the body is always cognitively and culturally constructed, then how might the personal (baggage) become the anonymous (uncannily baggage-less in the face of the wilderness (wilderness?)) in a sublime moment?

Using the opening sequence of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God as a case-study of sorts, he concludes:

“At first, the impression of this scene can be formulated as thus: human being, finite and egotistical, swallowed by the infinite and boundless grip of the surrounding world, the result of which instigates an aesthetic of the sublime in the viewer attending to this movement. Human being is literally dwarfed by the mountains, with all that is peculiar to human life…smouldered in the foggy presence of the Amazonian mountains. But this formula lends itself to the desire of the viewer, pre-empting the sublime in advance. Recall Merleau-Ponty: ‘There is a fundamental narcissism of all vision.’ The scene is too easily read as a classical vision of the sublime. But if we reformulate the opening as less a mode of human life colonised by barren, anonymous wilderness and more as a scene of deep ambiguity between the microcosmic animation of human movement and the colossal stillness of the mountain, then the result is more of a hybrid…As a viewer, the landscape touches a part of our embodied being that was there all along, and this is the flesh coming alive - a sentiment that is best expressed in Merleau-Ponty’s claim that ‘It is impossible to say that nature ends here and that man…starts here.’”

There seems, to me, to be a choice here, a choice not to find something sublime, that is rather appealing. To give in to a feeling of the sublime is to give in to a duality of self and other, where your self is temporarily dispersed (or threatened) by the process of observation. It’s as if you were made of different stuff to the world, and the world was suddenly able to discombobulate your stuff by simply being. This is the ‘narcissim of vision’ - why are we so other to the world, and the world to us, that we should fear destruction via sight? Reconfiguring the sublime moment as a moment of tremendously powerful connection, trying to find, actively seeking, the shared ground between the awe-inspiring in nature and the tininess of ourselves is at once enormously empowering, and also a stance which leads to understanding and commonality, things which are crucial to a sustainable engagement with the world around us. We’re made of the same stuff; it’s impossible to say where one ends and the other starts.

This started me thinking that this moment in Herzog, as it is outlined by Trigg, is linked somehow to the notion of a ‘cinephiliac moment'. In discussing its conception within Christian Keathley’s Cinephilia and History, Or The Wind in the Trees, Girish describes the cinephiliac moment not as a moment of drama, or spectacle, but as those “small, marginal moments that detonate an unforgettable little frisson in the viewer…[T]hey are fleeting ‘privileged’ moments writ small that we find ourselves strongly attracted to, perhaps even disproportionately so given their scale and possible (lack of) intention”.

One of Girish’s descriptions of his own such moment is worth keeping in mind as an example:

“Jean-Paul Belmondo is driving his babysitter Anna Karina home in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965). They’re having a long conversation, but I can never remember what it’s about even though I’ve seen the film three or four times. Here’s why: The streetlights passing by are reflected on the windshield in crisp, crackling colors - electric blue, flaming yellow, tart orange - moving diagonally across the windshield like little comets, one every few seconds. It’s so visually gorgeous, and hypnotic - due to its metronomic regularity - that I find myself doing little more than following the shifts of color and light that streak across the car, forgetting all about story, character and dialogue for the rest of the scene”

As to whether there are audio-/bibliophiliac moments of a similar order, I would utter a tentative ‘yes’. I see an easy(ish) similarity in those moments in music where it isn’t the melody or the lyrics that are hitting home, but instead the way a musician is phrasing a line, or the tone of a trumpet that is achieved, the little extra bits that only matter to you, and that amaze you all the more if you come across someone else who loves them for the same reason. The bibliophiliac moment is, by its nature, different I think. There’s less scope for accident or serendipity in the written text, every word has been chosen carefully, and there is nothing on the page extraneous to the writing which might affect us in the same way as the above examples (typos and printing/binding errors aren’t really of the same order; I think it’s unlikely that such a vertiginous effect could be produced by their appearance, though not impossible. Even so, they remain somewhat apart from this discussion; I would not describe the play of light on the ice-cream cart’s umbrella as a cinephiliac moment, even though it may occur in the cinema and have a profound effect upon your viewing). The ‘moment’ as we’re discussing it seems best defined as a superficially minor event within the text that resonates with us disproporionately to what would be its generally percieved relative weight, part of the effect of which is peculiar to the medium in which it is delivered - the serendipitous play of light on a windscreen in a film, the way a trumpet player bends, just so, into his high C in a piece of music.

So what of writing? I think there’s more work which has to be done on the reader’s part to produce such a moment. The writer provides us with a space which can be peculiarly fertile for our own creativity, so that a certain play of words might stand out to us irrespective of their narrative drive, or of their existence as a programmed article of imagery, but they cannot choose to include these sequences, they cannot even know that they are there. No doubt Godard knew the lights on the windscreen were beautiful, but he could not have predicted their effect on Girish; their presence in the film is incidental to their effect. In a book, however, the writer sets up a host of windscreens to which we must provide the hypnotic little comets; they are never on the page. My own most recent example came from Jacques Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind: Self-Portraits and Other Ruins:

“The author of Ulysses, after having written his own odyssey (itself haunted by a ‘blindman’), ends his life almost blind, one cornea operation after another. Hence the themes of the iris and glaucoma pervade Finnegans Wake (‘…the shuddersome spectacle of this semidemente zany amid the inspissated grime of his glaucous den making believe to read his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles, édition de ténèbres...’)”

The lines from Joyce, contextualised by Derrida, just stopped me, and I read these few sentences over and over, enjoying their weight, not just their meaning. Two words, ‘glaucous den,’ still haven’t left my head, and they continue to bounce between meaning a beautiful description of blindness, and an oddly bodily-yellow lit small room, a room the colour of the insides of cataracts. A bibliophiliac moment I think, a moment that could only be produced by a book, as indeed all of the word play in the above quotation is in part based on how it looks on the page as much as in our heads.

To return to Trigg’s example of Herzog’s opening scene, it is not really a cinephiliac moment in this sense; the scene is clearly designed to impact upon the viewer, rather than it being a small moment stumbled upon and with its meaning (or maybe ‘meaningfullness’) largely ascribed by the individual. But the ‘small’ cinephiliac moment, in the same way as the decision not to view the mountain’s image as sublime, also seems to be a moment of choice. It’s the choice not to be lost in spectacle, but to revel in the detail, and as such I think that it stands equally well against the sublime as a messy zone of connection, rather than a concrete division between ourselves and the other which we are bowled over by.

This notion of choice has increasingly been on my mind. I’ll pick it up again next week.



- from a paragraph on touch in chapter 2 -

“When we remove our ‘tactile observation’, it is a unique and very human kind of blindness which we need to fear. When we read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly it is Jean-Dominique Bauby’s paralysis which stays with us, not the sewing shut of his left eye. Tales of the blind, for all their ability to scare us, for all their links to a Freudian castration complex, hold none of the horror of a true loss of touch, not just a numbness of the hands, but a removal of the skin from our sensation. To touch is never in our control - we touch against our will - always maintaining a point in pressure with something, hence the fascination with temporary escape: acrobatics, zero-gravity, or the weightlessness of floating in a heavily-salted sea (though none of these represent a true loss of touch or else they would become grotesque, the feel of the air, our clothes, the water keep us, forgive the word, grounded). Never in our control, but for the most part controlled (what is pain but excessive touching, or the echo of a misplaced touch?). No wonder that so many avid readers, so many holders of printed books, feel that they must speak out - do they subconsciously fear that the new technology might make us, if not paralysed, then haptically blind?”


Jos Smith said...

I like this idea of a 'bibliophiliac moment'. Particularly because I recognise Girish's 'cinephiliac moment' in my own reading. It reminded me of an Alice Oswald poem I come back to again and again. It's called 'Owl' and ends on the following description of the owl call in the forest as an 'elsewhere'.

'then out, until it touched the town's lights
an owl's elsewhere swelled and questioned

twice, like you might lean and strike
two matches in the wind'

No matter how many times I read the end of this poem I lose the sense because I'm distracted and fascinated and tickled by the 'twice... two', or the 'twit... tawooo' that are buried in the syntax but stacked (nested?) neatly on top of one another visually. Oswald may have no idea this resonance is there, she may have put it there deliberately, or it may have been a lucky accident that she has kept, it doesn't matter - I see it as my discovery, my 'bibliophiliac moment' as you aptly put it.

In terms of the sublime/other stuff, I think you touch on something interesting about reading there: our more subtle likes and dislikes are so often glossed over by a nervousness about reading correctly. Strap me to a chair and bellow The Odyssey at me. Or the story of the artist who was blindfolded, ferried over to Spain and ushered in front of Velasquez's 'Las Meninos', blindfold taken off, he bore witness, had the blidnfold replaced and was shipped back to Britain. The point is there is no perfect experience of a literary work and to believe so compounds the myth of a stereotypical reader up against a sublime other. Like you said above, what is more interesting is to choose to study the particular interest a literary work holds for you, its singularity as Derek Atridge might have it.

cryurchin said...

That Alice Oswald piece is a perfect bibliophiliac moment. It could only exist in the form it's in, and it's yours. Who knows if she even intended it to be there (I'm sure she did, she seems pretty great like that), but the fact that it could be serendipitous aligns it even more closely with that of the cinephiliac moment outlined in Keathley's book. I know that this is something Matthew was particularly interested in - he suggested that these 'unprogrammed' moments can occur more readily in film. If I understand him correctly then I'm forced to agree that film can lead to these instances, at least in their strictest sense, more readily than in print; the writer chooses their words too carefully for things to remain unprogrammed for the most part - the bibliophiliac moment comes more from the reader than the page.

Regardless, your Oswald example holds as a potentially serendipitous moment which I think neatly fits into the current conception of the -philiac moment.

As for your last paragraph, I haven't read Attridge, but I'll get on it. The idea of a "perfect" reading state is, of course, a myth. Our personal responses to things is all there is in, a very practical way. This is not to say that there isn't a tremendous amount of common ground on which we can start to make judgement calls, but, at least to my mind, a text doesn't end at the covers of the book, or get held between the lights going down and coming up in the cinema, the first note played and the last note dying out. A text is both situated and embodied. A text then, and I'll use a book as an example, is everything I've absorbed up until the moment of reading, the act of reading itself, what I'm reading on (page/screen/scroll), where I'm reading, when, all the interruptions, who I talk about the book with, how many times I have to pick the book up and put it down, my re-readings, my consultations of prior pages (as if any book wasn't a hypertext, as if there has ever been a linear reading...), my speeding up and slowing down, in short my place and practice of experiencing this thing called 'book'.

It's easy to see why that might seem sublime if in nothing else but its complexity, but it's surely far more accurate to see the act of reading as a moment of connection rather than simply meeting, not just a point of contact with an other, but a point of mingling.

That said, I'd love to have the Odyssey bellowed at me for a few hours...

girish said...

Hi Matt, I just discovered your blog: lots of interesting reading here! I've subscribed to it by RSS and look forward to following it.

Jos Smith said...

With this emphasis on mingling and connecting as an alternative to the sublime moment, I can't help but bring in a short quote from John Wylie's article 'An Essay on Ascending Glastonbury Tor' (Geoforum 33 (2002): 441-454)which uses Merleau-Ponty's 'The Visible and the Invisible' as a way into understanding the interplay of landscape and subjectivity. He is redressing Cartesian dualism more than the sublime but as you mention above the sublime has a habit of reinforcing that dualism. I think it might be interesting to consider this as an approach to reading (reading landscape, reading film, reading text, reading texture).

'The body composes itself by tuning to the elements and levels of the visible. This composition, moreover, is intimate with the emergence of an idea of coherence and awareness. One becomes this individual, this locus, this apprehensive ability , in the midst of seeing and framing. With the view, you are composed.'

If we do away with the expectation of a sublime 'fix' that essentially compounds a preordained subject, there is an opening up to the very particularity of the experience, the connecting and mingling you mention, and subjectivity itself can be seen to emerge from the landscape. This is entirely about physical orientation but drawing on cryurchin's comment above I guess an interesting question might be: how can we differentiate between what we bring with us to the act of reading and what is created in us by the act of reading? (Of course to answer that we would have know when the act of reading started.) Drawing again on the above comment, this can be a phenomenological question of physical orientation at one end rising to a personal question of cultural oreintation at the other.

cryurchin said...

@girish - Glad you found the blog, hope you enjoy whatever crops up here.

@Jos Smith - If I read this correctly I very much like the idea of observing being able to compose the body performing the observation; we structure ourselves in response to what we experience about ourselves. Very simply: if I see a tree taller than me then I know that I am shorter than a tree; if I smell something I haven't smelled before then I know my olfactory memory is incomplete or has limits. In this way we can see that sensing can be humbling. If we choose only to interpret that sensory data which empowers us (I am bigger than most animals, I am smarter than all animals, I can tame the plants, I can leave the planet) then we are surely more prone to the sublime, a sudden hit of that which is beyond us. If we treat all sensory data equally then we learn our position in reference to matter, we are created by our relation to other things in the world.

We could also argue that our perception of the world affects that world as it applies to us. There would be a positive feedback loop which I think is really interesting: I observe the landscape, I compose myself in relation to it, I compose it in relation to me, I refine myself in relation to this new composition of it, I refine it in relation to this newly composed me, etc., etc.

Importantly though, whilst quantum theory would suggest that observation changes things, I'm not entirely sure my observation actually changes the landscape! Thoughts?

In relation to this idea of a feedback loop, I wonder if as well as "how can we differentiate between what we bring with us to the act of reading and what is created in us by the act of reading?" there is also the similar question "what do we bring back to the text each time we pick it up?"

If I bring my history to the text, my reading of the text then becomes part of that history. Each time I pick up that text my reading is affected by it. In the same way as above it affects me, which affects my perception of it, and round we go. With a book this might apply each time we pick it up over the course of 'completing' (whatever that might mean) the text, maybe 100+ times if you can only read in your spare moments.

I have to ask though, what might be the use of these questions? Perhaps what lies at the root this particular line of inquiry is wondering what effect a book can actually have on us? I think that's certainly worth looking into.

Jos Smith said...

I think the point of these questions is to take the idea of a subjectivity that is mingled and connected with the text(ure of the environment) to the next level, which is one of a mutual and continuous creativity. The subject is being recreated by its living within and engaging with texture. And to answer your above question, yes, the landscape is being recreated as well - not perhaps at the moment of perception, but through the 'returning to' the landscape, the building up of a relationship with it, the addition of a bench or folly, the trimming of a treeline, the treading of a path. I think that by realising the inherent sharing of a creative process here, there is scope for play, and great things come from play. Actually I wonder if there isn't something deeply playful to the idea of the cinephiliac/bibliophiliac moment...?

cryurchin said...

Absolutely, I think the -philiac moment is pure play. It's a guessing game, a detective game, semiotic play, play with meaning, playful interaction. It puts a smile on your face and you learn something at the same time, about yourself, about a text - that seems the very definition of play, like tiger cubs wrestling! (Not meaning to be cute here, just that it was the first example of play being about learning that sprang to mind...).

On that notion of the landscape being recreated I was wondering how we go about distinguishing between it being physically recreated (topiary, landscaping, inscription with feet etc.) and perceptually recreated (mapping, relationships etc.). Is there a correlation to you, or are these distinct concerns?

Jos Smith said...

They're interconnected. There wouldn't be any physical recreation without perceptual recreation. And as such the physical reflects the quality of the perceptual. A bench is a physical inscription of a perceptual point of view, one that speaks of meditation and appreciation. At the other extreme, the kind of chemically fuelled mass agriculture that slowly lays waste to a natural ecosystem - the likes of which Rachel Carson rallied against in Silent Spring - this kind of inscription belies the absence of a point of view, or rather, directs us to a perceptual recreation of the landscape that is political, industrial and economic. It was the recovery of a physically embedded perception of the landscape (bearing witness to the devastation firsthand) that brought about the legal process that restricted the rapacity of the industrially recreated perception.

So yes, the correlation is an important one to remember. When the perception goes awry, so does the physical impact.

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