Phantom’s Trees, part two

by zunguzungu

(continued from here)

The crux of Carpenter’s insight, I think, is that he isn’t just interested in a privileging of sight over other senses, but a particular way of thinking of sight as touch, of imagining that the things we see are real. On a certain level, of course, we do know that if we look at a row of trees, the “trees” are real while the “row” is imaginary, but — at the same time — Carpenter is not wrong to note that we do tend to act as if these mental bridges are real. Jonathan Edwards’ notion that what God “sees” produces reality gets secularized into practices we do without thinking about it: seeing is believing, we say, and despite all the evidence that seeing a thing is practically synonymous with seeing it wrong, we can still use phrases like “photographic evidence” as if it’s not an oxymoron.

In Carpenter’s words:

“Tactility converts the flat world of sight into the three-dimensional world of bodies. One by one, objects grow out of this chaotic world and remain unmistakably separate when identified. Patients, blind from birth, on whom vision has been bestowed by an operation, at first shrink from the welter of additional stimulation and from the flat continuity of the world they see. In 1964, in Sicily, five brothers – all blind from birth – each acquired sight following an operation. Months later, they were photographed holding on to one another, with downcast eyes, as the lead brother felt his way through the doorway of their home. It took time and effort before they once more recognized the objects around them as separate items.

“The world of the blind is a world of three-dimensional bodies existing in emptiness. Test this yourself: move about the room with eyes closed – suddenly, without warning, you will bump into some object. Emptiness combines with sudden interface. All encounters become abrupt. ‘To the blind, all things are sudden.’ Without sight, connections are lacking: all the gradations, shadings, and continuities of the visual world are gone.”

Carpenter seems to believe that anecdote is the singular of data. I’m not so sure what to think of his various little stories — I have no reason to doubt them, though some have aged quite badly — but I do find it an evocative style of writing, and (coincidentally) a lot like Susan Sontag’s photography book. Both of them get a lot of mileage out of the quotation/anecdote, the strip of text torn from its context, thrown into a new one, and endowed with a false sense of its own sufficiency. Sontag even notes a broad Benjaminian analogy between the photograph and the quotation: both reproduce a fragment of the whole so perfectly as to transform it. And in that sense, when he reproduces anecdotes that seem to me — with the hindsight of the past thirty years — patently false, I’m struck by the speculation that this isn’t really a problem: calling a photograph false is only a problem if you thought it was true in the first place (and if you did, shame on you!)

From blind brothers unable to synthesize, Carpenter moves us on to the artist, masters of making imaginary sense of reality’s heterogeneity:

“Artists visually convey the sense of touch in a variety of ways. Renoir painted a woman’s body as the hand feels it, not as the eye sees it. Leonardo’s multi-line sketches of women and children also belong to the hand, not the eye. In the same sense, artists create hard-edge art, that is, abrupt edges with intervals. When Gertrude Stein met Picasso in Paris, around 1905, he asked her to obtain American comic strips for him. He was studying Japanese prints at the time, but found in comic strips clearer examples of interface and interval which interested him so much. It was at this time he began the study of African tribal art.”

When Carpenter says things like “tribal” or “native,” he means, broadly, the practices of being-in-the-world that obtain in parts of the world that have made isolation a virtue. This isn’t much of the world, much less than most people think. But if he sometimes succumbs to a kind of romantic savagism, he often enough doesn’t in order to get at something vital, something the word “culture” should men, but almost never does: the idea that there is nothing necessary or destined about the cultural matrix that has spun its web across the world, the single civilization that enfolds Europe, Iran, Japan, India, China, the United States, Brazil, Uganda, etc, etc. And thus, “tribal” becomes surrealism becomes Joyce becomes postmodernism, legible not in terms of geography but in terms of eye and hand. And then he brings us home, the return of touch, and of the phantom’s blow…

“Most tribal art is hard-edge art. So is children’s art. A Vancouver filmmaker provided young children with the means to make animated films. The result was nearly 200 films of WHAM! BANG! with figures appearing, disappearing. There were no characters in the ordinary sense: no shadings, no gradations, just abrupt encounters a la Batman of hard-edge, cartoon art. Hard-edge art is a visual presentation, but the experience it evokes or conveys isn’t visual; it’s tactile. It’s full of abrupt encounters – sudden interfaces, then emptiness.

“When you have interface and emptiness, you have happenings. In the world of happenings, surfaces and events collide and grind against each other, creating new forms, much as the action of dialogue creates new insights. It’s the world of all-at-onceness where things hit each other but where there are no connections. Not only artists and writers, but also composers use this combination of hard-edge and interval to convey the experience of touch. Edgard Varese writes: “Electronics has given music a new dimension and a new freedom. My music is based on the movement of unrelated sound masses which I always conceived as moving simultaneously at different speeds, and I looked forward to the time when science would provide the means of realization. Now, thanks to electronics, such unrelated metrical simultaneity is at last possible.

“Much contemporary music favors interface and interval, in contrast to the acoustic continuity of symphonic music. These techniques are basic to the poetry of Pound and Eliot, as they were for the Symbolists. Above all, Joyce took over the art of the interval. He used interval and interface as a means of retrieving that fantastic wealth of perception and experience stored in ordinary language. Dispensing with the storyline became a means of instant grasp of complex wholes. The scanning eye is offended by both intervals and abrupt encounters. It favors continuity. It builds bridges in the mind to create a smooth, uninterrupted flow from word to word, thought to thought. Joyce dynamited that freeway, leaving gaping intervals and massive roadblocks. Suddenly it was no longer possible to skim the page: the reader fell between words, struggled over others, and soon he was swarming all over them, experiencing them in new ways, going right inside them, deciphering riddles, discovering hidden dimensions, releasing imprisoned energies.”