Sunday, September 27, 2015

formal abstraction

"Piet Mondriaan, 1930 - Mondrian Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow" by Piet Mondrian - [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - Wikipedia

at the very beginning of a new project on political aesthetics that at the moment concerns Truth, Beauty and the Good, with first steps into truth being made at seminars in Paris (INHA) and Oslo (Seminar of Aesthetics) trying out distinctions between truth to perception, to objects and to materials, the idea came along of

a further truth to feeling which might include (as it did for Kandinsky and Mondriaan as founders) truth to the Spirit as supra-personal subject of the cosmos. Abstraction abstracts from the perceptible its constituent elements – colour and form – in pursuit of an expression of truth pertaining to a human or super-human subject. Abstraction requires a subject to feel it. In one direction it tends towards truth to materials (Greenberg); in another it leads directly to the next part of the enquiry, beauty (where it will meet the concept from data visualisation of 'beautiful data')

Abstraction as formalism seems the least intimate, approximating to classicism (Apollonian). But consider the abstractions of spiritual arts - cathedrals, masks, groves, mosques. The anthropomorphic principle in natural religion meets the inhuman nature of gods, as of the one God as supreme abstraction. By removing the diligent approach to the extremely perceptible and enumerable world, abstract formalism can approach the noumenal, but in the guise of a subject who either is, is modelled on, or is marked by difference from the human.

The formal abstraction is close to the idea of symbol traced in the first iteration of Glitch as Labour: it is not a signifier locked into a system but a radical punctuation of semiotic structure by irruption from elsewhere (and in Beauty from else-when). Like a soul-catcher, formal abstraction arranges physical forces (masses, light) to attract divinity or other souls, to provide avenues to the noumenal beyond.

Truth to subject then because (1) it seeks out the truly immaterial (soul, self) (god, spirit) as a subject, capable of agency sufficient to complete the communication - an angelic bridge between subjects and the worlds they constitute as subjects; and (2) because the subjectivity evoked in the human maker and spectator/inhabitant is constructed in yearning for something more wonderful than all this stuff. Not therefore to be confused with the truth of science or perception (secular wonder) but of subjectivity extended to become the very principle of simultaneous inhabitance of this world and its (perfect) shadow or reflection

The form abstracted from ordinary perception is the form of the human, of the subject: and of the inhuman or otherwise-than-human, of the Subject.

Montage would fall under this description of formalist abstraction because it displaces unity into the perceiving subject on which it depends

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

After the Apocalypse: Firefly/Serenity and Children of Men

A talk given earlier this year in Belfast for the Irish Screen Studies Seminar about two post-apocalyptic science fiction films, Joss Wheedon's Serenity (and the TV series it derived from, Firefly, and Alphonso Cuarón's Alphonso Cuarón's Children of Men . It also forms part of a chapter in Sean Redmond and Leon Marvell's Endangering Science Fiction Film. This passage comes from near the conclusion.

The dialectic of monstrous and sublime in these post-Apocalyptic films brings the two into extreme proximity. Drawing on historical accounts of zombi as culture of resistance and as myth of colonial hatred and fear of Haitian revolution, in a fine essay on Firefly/Serenity, Gerry Canavan speaks to the 'postcolonial resonance' of the zombie in the depiction of the Reavers. Canavan shares Achille Mbembe's analysis of the present as apocalypse:
To live under late modern occupation is to experience a permanent condition of “being in pain”: fortified structures, military posts, and roadblocks everywhere; buildings that bring back painful memories of humiliation, interrogations, and beatings; curfews that imprison hundreds of thousands in their cramped homes every night from dusk to daybreak; soldiers patrolling the unlit streets, frightened by their own shadows; children blinded by rubber bullets; parents shamed and beaten in front of their families; soldiers urinating on fences, shooting at the rooftop water tanks just for fun, chanting loud offensive slogans, pounding on fragile tin doors to frighten the children, confiscating papers, or dumping garbage in the middle of a residential neighborhood; border guards kicking over a vegetable stand or closing borders at whim; bones broken; shootings and fatalities—a certain kind of madness.

This, which might be a verbatim description of the Bexhill camp in Children of Men, is Mbembe's description of Gaza under Israeli military occupation. He concludes that this kind of government by permanent violence requires a new mode of political thought, one that reverses the polarity of biopolitics: we need, he argues,
the notion of necropolitics and necropower to account for the various ways in which, in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds , new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.
It is in this context that the zombie appears, the product of necropolitics who takes up the strategy of the powerful and turns it back on them. It is the revenge of the garbage: the repressed and excluded waste produced by the consumer society returns to assault the elites that most benefit from the system.

In this way the sublime is assimilated into the filth and abjection of the Reavers in Serenity and the motiveless mob that kills Theo's ex-lover Julian in Children. Against that we have the homeliness of Jasper's farmhouse and the 'Serenity'. But there is that third term, which earlier appeared as sublime: the aesthetic of formal, classical beauty in art and architecture associated with the domain of the wealthy and powerful in both films. Typically we oppose beautiful and ugly; or beauty and the sublime. There remains a third opposition: between the aesthetic, beauty, and the anaesthetic: the numb, the sensationless. The calm white architectures of the beginning and end of Serenity, and the apartment of a senior bureaucrat which houses both Picasso's Guernica and Michelangelo's David (we are not informed if these are copies or have been looted from less 'civilised' areas of the post-apocalyptic world) early in Children present themselves instead as the anaesthetic of a class capable of enormities without remorse, as if there were no waste, no refuse, no garbage, human and material: as if in fact we inhabited the waste-free worlds of so many previous science fictions. The danger these films face, the danger we might even say of all nihilism, is that the voided refuse of utopia has to pile up somewhere, and someone has to shovel it.

This is why, despite the humanitarianism of Children and the neo-liberalism of Serenity, Serenity is in the end the more utopian of the two, not because it promises a better world – far from it – but because where Children embraces an existential and lonely act of sacrifice as the highest good, Serenity has us embrace the posse as social unit, and the principle of misbehaviour. As Jameson has it,
The Utopian form itself is the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible, that there is no alternative to the system. But it asserts this by forcing us to think the break itself, and not by offering a more traditional picture of what things would be like after the break

Jasper's farm, like Mr Universe's base, is a little utopia: a retreat from the world, but to that extent a cynical resort, a place without action except the action that terminates it. The 'Serenity' on the other hand embraces the difficulty of change. The present is the unique moment of action - definable as the moment in which events become irreversible. In Mal's neo-liberal belief, however, action is no longer possible: the heroic act damages but does not destroy, only redoubling the Alliance's desire for vengeance. Nothing fundamental changes: to believe is merely to survive in open space, the open market, 'The Black', as 'Serenity's crew call deep space, and the fog in the channel at the end of Children. The difference is that Mal's firm, his crew and ship, have as motive their continuation, their ongoing resistance, and sustaining themselves as a community at the expense of what the actually existing firm of the present does, which is to abandon all values save profit. The problem that remains, and that is integral to the externalisation of waste and environmental destruction in neo-liberal economics, is that this magical technology still generates refuse. Only in acknowledging this unspeakable detritus of history, can we be free to act towards the unspeakably different future.

Friday, August 14, 2015

de Soto

Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto estimates that 'the total value of real estate held but not legally owned by the poor of the Third World and former communist nations is at least $39 trillion' (de Soto 2000 :32). de Soto's solution is to monetize these holdings by introducing the formal machinery of laws to recognize them as property, such that they can then be mortgaged and the loans used to create new enterprises. The difference between monetizable and what de Soto calls 'dead capital' is that the capital that can be monetized is alienable: transferrable, mobile, liquid, and so also transformable. de Soto argues that were we to count in this 'dead capital, the world's poor would actually own the majority of the world's wealth. Against de Soto, Mike Davis (2006: 79-82) argues that land titles benefit only the better off, invariably driving the poor off their land (in much the same way that selling council houses to tenants resulted in rapid gentrification in the UK of the 1980s, and a housing crisis still in full flood thirty years later). A critique based in Rancière would argue that the forms in which the poor hold land, such as indigenous stewardship, constitute a counted but excluded quantity: a part of no part, and that the genuinely political act would be to confront existing property laws with the radical alternatives practiced by the poor. The political principle is therefore not to bring new areas in under the existing partition of social goods, which is in effect to colonize them, but instead to confront wage-labor and property with alternative practices of unpaid work and unregistered landholding. The risk is that the poor's land will be taken from them: the certainty is that it will be devalued and exploited in the interests of those who pay the wages and issue the mortgages.

de Soto, Hernando (2000). The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. London: Black Swan
Davis, Mike (2006). Planet of Slums. London: Verso.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Ethics and Animation

A talk given at the animation symposium organised by Esther Leslie recently at Birkbeck. Here's a sample from the introductory movement. The paper is mostly on Rango, and on the weirdness of voice synchronisation, and is rather unsatisfactory, in the sense that it poses a problem, then wanders round it poking at the places where it looks vulnerable, but without actually helping. In the conclusion, I made a too familiar and inadequate move, requiring an ethics of reading. Still, there does seem to be a real problem here, and it is in some respects that the solution to an ethical challenge may well be political, rather than ethical.

Applying existing codes to specific, often explicitly didactic or exploitative animations only tells us that the normal norms apply. I wonder whether there is anything that is more specific to animation as such, to the process of animating the inanimate. Should we, as makers or spectators, take responsibility for animated characters and worlds? Do we owe anything to the inanimate, to the resources we use in animating, as design ethics still considers truth to materials? That question is fundamentally ecological, addressing our connectivity with the whole universe. Against both the implicit human exclusivity of utilitarianism and the rationalist individualism of Kantian freedom, animation ethics speaks to what Simon Critchley (2007: 37) calls 'this moment of incomprehensibility in ethics . . . with the subject is faced with a demand that does not correspond to its autonomy'. If, as Critchley (2007: 91) also argues, the accelerating dislocatory power of capitalism does not lead to the emergence of a unique political subject, but rather to the multiplication of social actors', then the unique encounter with the inanimate is not experienced by a subject definable as human, but as a unique constellation of sexuality, ethnicity, class, gender, indigeneity and so on. Consideration of the unique individual and the unique encounter concerns then a uniquely mutual dependence, which however one of the parties at least is capable of rejecting. Ethics normally places us in relation to other people and occasionally animals, but in the Anthropocene, are we confronted with the limits of individual and species autonomy, and does animation give us a laboratory for conducting moral experiments in the relations of control, contingency and autonomy in the frame of universal connectivity proposed by ecology?

Revolution Earth (take 2)

We did a major redesign for a hardcopy relaunch of Revolution Earth at the wonderful Barton's Bookshop in Leatherhead.

All thanks to my wonderful co-author and partner of 30 years Alison, who has also rebuilt the Lambert Nagle website.


I've been very lazy about this blog: apologies to both my fans.Here however is the link to the video of my inaugural lecture at Goldsmiths, with thanks to Stefan Zambinski for production.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

16 Theses on Meteorology

Kant noted that innocence was a splendid thing, but didn't keep well, and tended to be misled. We cannot afford to be innocent about the weather, but we do not know where to go for wisdom. The blasphemous desire to see the spectacular extremes of weather is not innocent, but neither is it wise.

There was a collective sigh of relief breathed in the middle of the nineteenth century when Sir Thomas Huxley, the doyen of British science, announced that the oceans were to all intents and purposes infinite. We might take from and dump into them as much as we wanted: they would be forever fecund and forgiving. It took the spectacular collapse of the Atlantic fisheries, even more than the near-extinction of several species of whale, to persuade anyone otherwise.

Water and air: the facts of the south are oceanic. As refugees from the dead Atlantic ply further south to feed the gourmets of Paris and New York, what price our islands and shores, what price our ice and swelling El Niño?

The iconic weather maps with their sweeping curves decorated with triangles and semicircles were inspired by maps of battlefields. The language of 'fronts' comes from the same source. The weather, for almost as long as there has been anything like a science of meteorology, has had its metaphorical roots in war. The satellite technology we use now puts the weather under surveillance. Defence against the elements: we have made the climate in our own image, and it has become our enemy.

1962: the year of the Cuban missile crisis, also saw the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the book that launched ecology as a global political movement. In less than fifty years, we have moved from the fear that politicians would annihilate us through their actions to the fear that they will annihilate us through their inaction.

The Saturday papers in late May 2007 carried a brief notice of the opinion of a group of researchers that the terrestrial biomass may have passed the point at which it is capable of sequestering the carbon that the human population produces. The catastrophe may already have happened, while we dickered over blame.

Even as the Weddell Sea divulges a hundred new species in the dark depths below the ice, the ice is melting and their habitat expiring. Was our species the only great experiment of consciousness? Will the universe bother trying it again?

A catastrophe is not a crisis. It occurs as often as not quite quietly, while we walk the dog, or pickle lemons. It is only days, weeks, months later that you realise that somewhere back in the past the crucial nail fell out of the roof, the vital pipe began its slow leak. A crisis, by contrast, is a sudden loss: we recognise a crisis because, suddenly, the news reports have no images to show us. A crisis is a moment for which the response is pure action. There is no ecological crisis: only a catastrophe. Now is not the time for action. Now is the time for talk. And for images, songs, perfumes, pretty clothes and good cuisine.

Political inaction may have brought about this state of affairs, but political action is probably the most dangerous of all possible tools to apply to rectifying it. Ecofascism is also fascism.

It is enormously difficult to see the planet, even with our iconic photograph from the Apollo moon lander (the last true photograph ever taken in space). "Free the human six billion" is not a slogan that will rally the world. The portentous music and slick graphics of news programs on TV are there to persuade us that the world is knowable, exactly because in our hearts we know that it is not.

Weather is definitionally what we cannot know as a whole: this is why it is the commonest example of emergent behaviours in chaotic systems. We consider the butterfly effect, and begin to retrace its logic: how does a hurricane in New Orleans effect the butterfly in China? (If Milton Friedman had read Kipling's Butterfly That Stamped instead of The Wealth of Nations things might have gone better, or at least otherwise). The interconnecting turbines of the four southern oceans are as unknown to us as galaxies on the far side of space, but no longer so distant.

Because the weather is our enemy, we have been cowering in artificial caves for millennia. We have the technologies that would allow us to turn our houses inside out, to publish our intimacies in ubiquitous networks. Instead we have invested in smaller artificial caves with wheels, which we use to transport the three-piece suite of the frightened living room around streets on which we no longer care to walk because of all the other frightened caves rolling around them. In the age of instantaneous communication, we sit gridlocked and fuming.

In the information economy, human creativity is held, like Huxley's oceans, to be effectively infinite. No matter what we dump in it, and how much we extract, will it forever produce energy and ideas from calories? Creativity may yet turn out to be a finite resource. We must nurture it, because we do not know what it is for. This is not an analogy with Huxley's oceans: it is the same case.

We do not know what oil is for. In 1856, then aged eighteen, William Henry Perkin extracted the first aniline dye from coal tar. We have no notion what riches, what cures, what marvels lie hidden in the long-chain organic compounds formed in the Earth's crust. So we set fire to it. Saddam Hussein merely cut out the middleman.

Climate change has become the cause célèbre of our times, so much so that politicians can reanimate what we all had hoped was the decaying corpse of nuclear power. I write this sentence of a machine whose built-in obsolescence would have embarrassed Detroit in 1962, and which is destined for the miserable recycling villages of the Philippines. "Kyoto" has become a slogan for the ecofascist tendencies of the society of control. The only way to avoid catastrophe is to want less. Art is not very good at that. Art is not a way of avoiding catastrophe, but a way of defusing crisis.

"A poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom" wrote Robert Lowell (the best thing he ever wrote). What we call creativity is the struggle between reality and the imagination. To the extent that that struggle has no end, it will never achieve wisdom. It may never escape from innocence. But without creativity's start in innocent delight, we will never truly recognise the dangers of innocence.

These hypotheses first published in The Trouble with Weather: A Southern Response, curated by Norie Neumark and Maria Miranda, UTS Gallery, Sydney 2007; online at