Stafford organizes these essays around three concepts that structure the book: inscrutability, ineffability, and intuitability. All three, she explains, allow us to examine how both the arts and the sciences imaginatively infer meaning from the “veiled behavior of matter,” bringing these historically divided subjects into a shared intellectual inquiry and imbuing them with an ethical urgency. A vanguard work at the intersection of the arts and sciences, this book will be sure to guide readers from either realm into unfamiliar yet undeniably fertile territory.
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"Black and Glittering" The Inscrutable Sublime
[Catherine:] "It's when everything goes black and glittering. ... It's not like when you're down in the dumps, which is brown. ... It's like that car," she said, nodding at a black Daimler that had stopped across the road to let out a distinguished-looking old man. The yellow of the early street lights was reflected in its roof, and as it pulled away reflections streamed and glittered in its dark curved sides and windows.
[Nick:] "It sounds almost beautiful." ...
[Catherine:] "Well, it's poisonous, you see. It's glittering but it's deadly at the same time. It doesn't want you to survive it. ... It's the whole world just as it is," she said, stretching out to frame it or hold it off: "everything exactly the same. And it's totally negative. You can't survive in it. It's like being on Mars or something."
— ALAN HOLLINGHURST, The Line of Beauty
After Dark: Nocturne for Romanticism
I hear nothing but echo, echo of my own speech — am I then alone?
— The Nightwatches of Bonaventura
Despite the bright market rhetoric of transparency, today's "global network civilization" is smudged with fake traffic and tarnished by computer-generated scams. Pictures are composites, colors are doctored, online images are aggressively altered or manipulated. The spread of undocumentable Instagrams and other shape-shifting platforms have blurred the line between advertising, art, and photojournalism. Like the opaque Cloud on which the ethereal Web depends, large digital sectors are not only impenetrable but mute when it comes to revealing what is actually being sacrificed for "deeper" data, for more commodities designed to target individual consumers inhabiting increasingly leaky social media. No hyperlinked supply chains joining invisible users with innumerable glossy products or deceptive personal "stuff" can make up for the loss of credible connections in our supposedly leveling, yet unfathomable, Age of Connectivity.
Today, two oppositional spatial concepts — premised on the thrill of surprise and the perverse protraction of terror — are a distantly familiar legacy from the Romantic longitudinal Sublime. Less familiar, yet undergirding the entire concept, is the horizontal notion of glassy inscrutability. If sublimity's indeterminate dimensionality, its bold soaring into nebulous heights or plummeting into murky depths, has leveled in the twenty-first century into amorphous uncertainty, not so its unaccountable incomprehensibility and impenetrability that continue to make us feel out of our depth. Consider information technology's panoramic dazzle, the superficial sparkle of augmenting special effects, and the resulting engulfing ambiguity in which decipherable meaning drowns or is masked.
While the late eighteenth-century Sublime showed that shadows are fundamental to revealing the limits of human understanding, our contemporary epistemological darkness is fashionably lustrous, smoothed into inscrutable shine. The inflationary Internet of Things offers an aggressive mimicry of the world, all right, but as hypnotic product — coated with the duplicitous gloss of advertising. The global marketing industry's shift to smudging the line between ads and media (e.g., through branded content embedded in reality shows, online films, video games) ensures that we are seeing equivocally, receiving what its algorithms want us to see: directed content mirroring media companies' point of view and reflecting the general look and feel of their media properties.
Belgian artist Joseph Nechvatal's 2014 series of palimpsestic paintings and animations, 1% Owns 50% of the World, explores the ruthless compression driving this surreal takeover. In the animated version, dissonance and glare accompany the swift erasure of a quick succession of teeming aerial maps. As the tempo speeds up, the grayscale encoded terrain eerily dwindles beneath the repetitive obliterating stamp of a single percentage point. This startlingly small number also functions associationally, recalling a bargain label or cut-rate price tag — contemporary icons of devaluation that define a dire situation while concealing it. As a flickering figure, it is ominously suggestive of financial volatility, corporate shrinking, store markdowns, and slumping sales.
It seems that vaporous darkness has undergone extreme volatilitization. No longer fumy or miasmatic, the old misty Sublime has sublimed into a new slippery reality — at once brilliant and sinister, paradoxically violently hypersharp yet lacking clarity.
The opening epigraph to this essay captures the psychological breakdown such a transformation induces. Although arising from the economic, social, drug, and sexual upheavals of the 1980s, this sleek, acidic vision remains relevant to the obsidian opacities, the lack of firm structural supports, characterizing our current century. In Alan Hollinghurst's Hogarthian novel, the young, wealthy, and self-mutilating Catherine struggles to explain to Nick, a gay friend, her unaccountable condition of making nothing of what is seen, of not seeing for looking, of being unable to get through or behind or under or above things. All is insubstantial veneer, slick polish eternally returning the viewer to the image of herself. Similarly, the solipsistic field of view established by Argentinian artist Sebastian Diaz Morales in his short film The Lost Object (2017) does not end in a single thing (in this case, the radiant projection screen) but embraces the inky expanse of the environment. Here, too, the world is concealed behind its refulgent presentation. His glinting cube acts like an oracular mirror — scintillant and flaring, but icily empty.
In Catherine's near-pathological state of incomprehension, robust substance turns menacingly decorative or is inexplicably transformed into illegible ornament. This hard, cold, glamorous blackness surfacing in Margaret Thatcher's unraveling England is unlike Burke's fusive Sublime inhabiting a melodramatic surge of matter. Instead of rushing dizzyingly downward into the abyss or rising infinitely upward into the heavens, it disembodiedly skids over familiar objects and reflexively slips across things. Without any blunting atmosphere or three-dimensionality to lend perspective, this merciless metallic glare gallops horizontally, robbing identity of its hidden reality and flattening everything in its wake into vacancy or mirage.
Hollinghurst's evocation of what might be termed modern mechano-cognitive phantasmagoria resembles the air of secrecy, presence of illusion, and Gnostic motifs born out of a negative or "Tantric" romanticism, that is, out of an abject or inverted sublimity so extreme as to be inscrutable. I am reminded, in particular, of the escalating anguish pervading the strange confessions of the pseudonymous author Bonaventura. His brooding, fragmentary Nightwatches, published in 1804 — coincidentally the year of Kant's death — register the post-Kantian break with bright Enlightenment optimism by evoking a baffling subjectivism and restless irrationality. Ironically, in the midst of his disillusioned vigils, the narrator of this compulsive wandering yearns for what he has annihilated: the clear and lucid light of day.
"What is the sun?" Thus the author, or "Cloaked Stranger," asks his mother one day as she is describing the sunrise from a mountain. "Poor boy, you will never understand, you were born blind!" ... But the willful seeker's fantasy continued to belabor the question: my longing mind strove violently to break through the body and look into the light.
All in vain since his obsession remains in thrall to the continuous nightmare. The reader careens through Piranesian twisted streets, lurching along with the crazed voyeur — the puppeteer–poet–night watchman Kreuzgang — as he moves through sixteen stormy episodes.
Confined to this small-town Babel of corruption, he stops to peer through a dirty window or a cracked door. Such clandestine vagrancy reveals secretly irradiant scenes, framed as if projected on a soiled magic lantern screen — macabre murders, frenzied madness, grotesque Blue Beard– or Don Juan–sex, each vision leading to violence and suffering. This mysterious miniature world anticipates Lothar Osterburg's dusky photogravures of "imagined realities" — tenebrous images made by embedding the camera inside a dreamlike model or staged setting, much as Bonaventura inserts his roving eye inside the sinister ambient. All the while, between the author's chaotic lines, the ghosts of Burke and Kant surreptitiously peep out, the former affronted by Bonaventura's egotistical glorification of the murky unconscious, the latter by his violent disdain for moral imperatives.
The two epochs evoked by Bonaventura and Hollinghurst share fundamental negative attributes — the loneliness of narcissicism, the erosion of insanity, the disgust at ostentation and wealth, the rage at fraud constantly concealed. Yet for the Romantics, this Manichean foray into the absurd was still a sublime invention of a tormenting devil or of a distant god who inexplicably allows the vileness of life. Contemporary pretense and deceptive appearances, by contrast (Hollinghurst, after all, is writing in the twenty-first century), are seen as self-generating, automated, coolly heartless, fashionably Goth. Think of the vampiric aura of the Daimler. Note how its light-reflecting skin is simultaneously alluring and repellent, an addictive, if devastating, symbol of soulless brand awareness. In her bleak reverie, Catherine's limbic brain, like ours, is being grooved by subliminal advertising awakening unconscious desires bathed in a retail twilight.
A Surface Sublimity?
I need the world to have a surface, the same surface everyone sees. I don't like feeling like I'm always about to fall through to something else.
— WILLIAM GIBSON, Zero History
What a concept: Sublimity. Especially in an age like ours — secular, disenchanted, anxiety-ridden, nomadic — simultaneously chilled or overheated, dehumanized or massively infrastructured. What, then, might serve as an antidote to this twisted Romantic legacy of the singular self, the branded genius who, inspired, creates inscrutably, esoterically for the few in the know? How to signal unequivocally, openly, why and how things get made? Could the knowing demystification of arcane processes, the putting aside of private "signature" styles, the rejection of blinding selfie-solipsism sensitize us to work made visible again?
Trevor Paglen's bravura photographs — part of a 2016 exhibition, The Octopus, at London's Photographers' Gallery — document the extent and ubiquity of government intelligence and military surveillance. These voguish abstractions, with their wayward Hogarthian lines, lead the eye on a grim chase. Thin streams of lucent color streak across a glittering black sky, with the paradoxical result that clandestine activity is flaunted in a blaze of spectacle. Paglen's work makes us understand just how thoroughly the new world we inhabit is enmeshed in intrigue and deception: "the allegorical octopus consuming the world." Ironically, such flamboyant images — both gorgeous and deadly — are the lucid indicators of stealth. (Similarly, James Bridle outlines the shadows cast by camouflaged drones in use by the British Army; see fig. 3.3.) In the process of making global spying explicit, Paglen discloses the twenty-first century's chic armamentarium of concealment: the silvery network of fiber-optic lines converging beneath sprawling landscapes, shiny bits of electronic information coursing between continents through undersea cables, motion-dazzle drones fetchingly cloaked in metallic sheen.
In William Gibson's prescient Zero History, the author breaks ranks with science fiction to write about a contemporary material alchemy, hidden from common view, whose ethical rigors demand a renewal of craft discipline. The novel's characters tend to be featureless, paper dolls so deliberately flat as to be almost bodiless. Descriptive richness, by contrast, is lavished on their minutely analyzed clothes. Or, more accurately, on dismissing trending fashions to track down gnomic ideograms stitched or woven into garments for which there seems to be no vocabulary. The central theme, it emerges, is following the evasive route taken by a few sphinxlike samples cocooned within unadvertised simple, but superb, apparel lines specializing in what is "almost impossible to find." As someone admittedly good at "figuring out what the real products are," Meredith — one of the book's discerning protagonists — opts out of the fashion empire's "industrialization of novelty" to both make and search out a "deeper code":
[At first] I just wanted to explore processes, learn, be left alone. ... Weird inversions of customary logic. That Japanese idea of secret brands. ... [In the end] I'd have a brand, I decided, but it would be a secret. The branding would be that it was a secret. No advertising. None. No press. No shows.
This noble secrecy obliges dedicated seekers after coveted — even archetypal — garments to be vigilantly perspicuous in an inattentive world whose distracted inhabitants cannot tell the difference, for example, between imitative "distressing" and genuine "patination." Such almost morally inspired counterrevolutionaries claim not to be enslaved by the dictates of fashion but to be keenly aware of how the kind and quality of fiber, the yarn, the construction or weave, affect values — all values.
Gibson's unflattering take on the dysfunctional aspects of this huge, label-driven, theme-park industry is contrasted with an elite realm of hieratic creators engaged in reinventing exclusivity. To my mind, this esoteric plain-style cultural phenomenon, which worships reticent antisystem design — authentic plushness, not poshness — epitomizes what might be called the Surface Sublime. It is after the soul of clothes. Not only are these sought-after arcane design studios, located at the far edge of normal commerce, hard to find. They require Grail-like treks across continents from aspiring buyers paradoxically in search of what cannot be described. This rare experience resembles that of the initiate in a quasimythical cult. Pure, austere, Parsifal-clients are under the spell of legendary patterns, primordial organics that miraculously absorb glare, fabled smoky colors, and richly textured synthetics that sink into muted substance. These occult qualities arise from marvelous and unobtrusive tailoring. Like watching flitting shadows, discovering secret nonlabeled "labels" is both subtle and noticeable — but only to discerning cognoscenti.
My guess is that unlike sensational, meretricious clothing (firestormed with sequins or studded with sharp hardware) that flashes its brands but is dead, as if painted on, the seduction of nonreflective pieces lies in their inscrutability, their need to be ferreted out, their resistance to being completely probed. Their overwhelming desirability is at least partly due to the fact that they thrive without the brandished advertising that makes everyone else desperately want them.
Perhaps this is what Dutch avant-garde designer Iris van Herpen means when she speaks of fashion's most recent marvels, radical artificial/natural hybrids or intermedial experimental constructions comprising a fantasy landscape of technical fabrics. This seductive, retail-defying, futuristic outback is stocked with indescribable wearables fabricated of digital wiring, laser-cut mesh, invisible thread, holographic moire, metamorphic Mylar, springy tulle, shimmering gauze, halos of lace, and something resembling bubbling "quantum foam." She entices the avant-garde couturista with wavy smoke-and-cloud skirts, quivering mermaid or jellyfish pants, personalized materials made from the wearer's body scans that ripple, coast, and glide over the skin.
Her translucent "Water-Splash" dress — frozen spray contrived from sheet plastic — abstractly crystallizes both the look and the feeling of becoming wet, of rigid substance undergoing a sea change. In a utopian vein, Herpen questions whether we will "keep on wearing fabrics in the future, or if dressing will become something nonmaterial, something that is visible, not tangible or touchable?" On the issue of whether haptic textiles will have an afterlife, I believe Australian artist, Sally Smart, would answer a resounding "yes." Witness her visionary use of felted cloth and appliqued embroideries. She moves freely between, and among, bespoke insider fashion design, "torn and cut" silhouetted room-size wall installations and imaginative 3-D models inspired by maritime history (marauding pirates, deathly shipwrecks, abandoned passengers). The sheer versatility of her practice is seen — in addition to summoning up this rapacious derring-do—in the fabrication of enchanting hand-dressed, cord-manipulated puppets that transform shirts, pants, jackets into extended performance pieces(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ribbon of Darkness"
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Table of ContentsPreface: The Bottom of the Garden
Introduction: On Being Struck: Hitting the Eye/Arousing the Mind
1 “Black and Glittering”: The Inscrutable Sublime
2 Lying Side by Side: Fitting Color to Eros
3 The Ultimate Conjuncture: What Shadows the Brain-Mind Merger?
4 Reconceiving the Warburg Library as a Working Museum of the Mind
5 From Communicable Matter to Incommunicable “Stuff”: Extreme Combinatorics and the Return of Ineffability
6 Impossible to Name: Performing the Ineffable
7 “Totally Visual”? Op Art’s Neural Iconography and the Engineered Picture
8 Dark Wonder: Belowness, or the Ineffable Underground
9 Still Deeper: The Non-Conscious Sublime or the Art and Science of Submergence
10 Strange Shadows/Marred Screens
11 Thought Gems: Inferencing from the Impersonal Crystalline
12 The Jewel Game: Gems, Fascination, and the Neuroscience of Visual Attention
13 From Observant Eye to Non-Attentive “I”: The Camera as Cognitive Device
14 Seizing Attention: Devices and Desires