Reading and thinking 20200115 – 20200131

G. over coffee, on reading with limited background and understanding:
“Just as walking is controlled falling, esoteric knowledge is controlled ignorance in that you can’t be sure of anything, not resting on any foundation at all, but it’s a structure that guides thought in a particular direction, as walking guides your body in a particular direction.”

So I am ambling through the vast parkland of books, observing the fantastical wildlife, taking paths as the pages open to me, enjoying the journey and not thinking too much about what’s around the next corner.

I’m also changing the sense of what I’m reading, using the guide but heavily colouring and adapting to my own questions. So no academic care to quote in a justifiable way. I mine material, wash the words to find my own value. During this time I’ve started a deeper dive through my notes, following a particular theme. It makes curious reading – I’ve done so much, forgotten so much, have internalised my own takeout, no longer recognising how recently the ideas came from elsewhere.

I was also heartened by a comment made by Judith Blackall, in conversation with Kirtika Kain at Gallery Lane Cove, that you have to put effort into contemporary art. It becomes more rewarding as you put more effort into learning / thinking / looking at it.

Events, actions

  • John Berger of Goya – theatrical action rather than state of mind to epitomize a character or situation.
  • Judith Blackall (in conversation with Kirtika Kain) – artists provoke conversations
  • The distorted grid of unseen forces
  • Eco – the interaction of an action (pragma) and a plot (mythos). I struggled with the theoretical discussion, but was helped by a note contemporary use in a detective story. A sequence of events (pragmata) whose wires have been crossed, combines with a plot that tells us how the detective unravels them.


  • Kirtika Kain class self-intros – asked for a transcendental moment experiencing art. None of us could do it. We had interesting moments, or kind of memories with no specifics.
  • Leopardi writes of visual images, independent of will or deliberate recall of memory, that can be jogged by random circumstance and come to mind unbidden and unconnected to current thought. This had me debating again about Proust – still firmly on the backburner.In a later entry Leopardi notes that memory does not provide stable impressions, suggesting words such as counterfeiting, representing and imitating rather than recall. I see a connection to the “observer as participant” here. Everything is subjective, is as interpreted by the individual.
  • I’ve been trying to sidestep this by saying I am using reading, memory, observation, all as useful to my purposes. I select at this time, for this use, all subject to change. If I misunderstand an author, and in particular if that misunderstanding and possibly misquotation is in pursuit of something that interests me, that doesn’t impact on my “success” or “progress” “towards goals” (lots of problematic concepts here, but the gist feels right).
  • I’m using the editors’ index in Zibaldone to follow Leopardi’s writing on memory . In my reading so far he frequently uses the word “habituation” (at least, that’s the translation).
  • “… it is certain that man’s memory is utterly powerless (as are thought and the intellect) without the aid of signs to fix his ideas and recollections.” What exactly could that mean? Leopardi mentions young children as unable to form memories, or possibly no adult can recall early memories. Is it a question of language? I recently read of a woman with perfect recall of personal memories, beginning from around her first birthday. Her recall technique changes from the age at which she began to understand the calendar. If we don’t have language we can’t remember? I need to re-read 1984. Does my use of glyphs help or hinder my memory? I like to think a loose grouping of things that seem related to me is a way of opening up habits of thought.


  • Picking up ideas of separateness, connection, transience (the vanishing self – Jane Hirshfield)
  • Coffee with friends – variable experience of time. Anticipation; event; recollection. Different specifics. new timeline “flea jumps”
  • Nochlin quoting David – revolution began by ‘effacing from our chronology so many centuries of error’. JN –> a humanist timescale – excising whole chunks.
  • Nochlin guillotine “instanteneity”, its reduction of the temporal span associated with death to a mere blink of the eye. JN – subjective experience, but more deliberate politics.
  • Nochlin The modern experience of social, psychological and metaphysical fragmentation, leading to a sense of the ephemeral and contingent, rather than the eternal and immutable.
  • Nochlin quotes Baudelaire “the passing moment and all the suggestion of eternity it contains”. Bringing ideas of fluidity, gaseous, disintegrative structure. JN – disintegrative structure held within a structure. What could that mean?


  • Linda Nochlin “irrevocable loss, poignant regret for lost totality, a vanished wholeness.” – an artist’s view of his (‘modern’) period, ten years before the French Revolution.
  • Nochlin “The fragment, for the Revolution and its artists, rather than symbolizing nostalgia for the past, enacts the deliberate destruction of that past, or, at least, a pulverization of what were perceived to be its repressive traditions.


  • Leopardi difficulty of translation. A word coined by an author becomes something ordinary. Even harder over time – a new compound word now standard in a dictionary.
    Leopardi – a standard expression may be most apt, but use enervates it. Novelty may be more effective.
  • JN making my own “translation” of an author – whether originally in English or having already been transformed once.
  • Nochlin Fragmentation could be viewed as sacrifice, or obscenity. Castration – the fragmented/wounded male body – can suggest loss of political potency.

Observer as participant

  • JN making my own “translation” of an author – whether originally in English or having already been transformed once. (ref Drucker 20200113-2)
  • Jane Hirshfield – “Subjectivity’s perimeters, not the objective world, create the unknown.”
  • Umberto Eco “…Poetics becomes entangled in a paradox; in trying to capture the essence of poetry it misses its most essential feature, namely its uniqueness and the variability of its manifestations.” In a “vicious” feedback loop, the critic selects examples of text as part of developing a model of good writing, then uses that model to judge or critique other texts. The initial subjective selection becomes embedded in an “objective” grading system.
  • A personal connection impacts future attitudes. Walter Benjamin wrote of a complex maze of streets disentangling when a friend moved to the neighbourbood – “it was as if a searchlight set up at this person’s window dissected the area with a pencil of light.
  • On a slightly different tack, Berger wrote of Courbet’s insistence on the “existence of the subject painted”. “He realized that the artist’s independence could only be productive if it meant his freedom to identify himself with his living subject, to feel that he belonged to it, never vice versa.” This understanding of the “indestructible relationship between human aspiration and actual fact” took the artist beyond surface appearance to a deeper knowledge. But even if the painting’s subject was known as itself, beyond being the subject of art, it was still mediated by the artist’s knowledge of it. It seems to me the artist as observer, as well as the viewer as observer, remain in place.
  • Drucker “interface as an ecology, a border zone between cultural systems and human subjects.”
  • Drucker “[cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman] argues against representational models of perception, stating that animals do not represent the world to themselves in a truthful or veridical way, but through…’icon models’. Our relation to our environment is adaptive, mediating through the abstraction of an interface that supports ‘sufficing’ behaviours. The icon models organise our behaviours rather than representing the world.” JN – not sure of “icon” in this context.
  • Nochlin Impressionist painting of the urban vista “a sense of that lost of solidity, a compensatory dynamism and flow, a sometimes centrifugal and often random organisation and, above all, the notion that fragmentariness, in the broadest sense of that term – including both the cut-off view of the body and the cropped picture surface – is a quality shared in the modern city by both the perceiver-constructor and the object of perception.” JN – a link to capta?


  • Jane Hirshfield – We want to know, but also thirst for the ungraspable. Hiddenness “a sheltering enclosure”. “Subjectivity’s perimeters, not the objective world, create the unknown.”
  • Pivot and threshold – Jane Hirshfield . “death the irrefusable threshold” “self awareness is needed to recognize the vanishing of selves” “the threshold moments when things are not what they seem”
  • Consider labelling in data viz. Make it clear, but for my purposes not too clear.
  • Power of hiding, of fabrication. “[Odyessus] grows increasingly skilful at knowing what stories to speak aloud, what facts to keep hidden, shielded by silence.”
  • Hirshfield “RIddle-raising and riddle-unravelling stories appeal because they stand against and correct the impulse in us toward an overly rational abstraction. The savor of mystery teaches that details matter.”
  • Drucker The graphical user interface is a mediating apparatus. It’s not objective or neutral. “It is an expression of motivations, agendas, and deliberately concealed factors, no matter how earnestly or usefully it may serve a specific purpose.”
  • Hirshfield “a world – or book – that is felt to contain the hidden is inexhaustible to the imagination.”

Humanist data viz

  • All of my reading I test to see if it can relate to a new kind of data viz. It helps me think through (as in, by means of) making. It breaks open standard assumptions and thought patterns. It feels fresh and new, but still personal and relevant to my history.
  • Hirshfield “breaking thought loose from the habitual and the stolid.”
  • Drucker The graphical user interface is a mediating apparatus. It’s not objective or neutral. “It is an expression of motivations, agendas, and deliberately concealed factors, no matter how earnestly or usefully it may serve a specific purpose.”
  • Drucker – human computer interface a paradoxical entity – “the predictability of a mechanized automation and the myth of autonomous agency”. JN – two subjectivities involved – creators and end user.
  • Drucker Models “located and used as instruments, consciously or not, of institutionalized power.”
  • Drucker “Interface is what we read and how we read combined through engagement, it is a provocation to cognitive experience, but it is also an enunciative apparatus.”
  • Nochlin – orientation of head fragment – lying on a table rather than horizontal – and it is seen as an object. “…formal means: consigning the human elements to the realm of the horizontal.” She quotes Rosalind Krauss: “the plane of verticality is the plane of Pregnanz… the hanging together or coherence of form…. Further, this vertical dimension, in being the axis of form, is also the axis of beauty.” Plus “The plane of the horizontal is desublimatory, associated with ‘base materialism'”. JN – many links here to previous research on the object, and on orthogonal. A fragment of body on a table –> object.
  • Nochlin “… with its anonymous yet differentiated crowds swept up in an endless, seemingly haphazard pattern of movement from a point of view so high that, obliterating the horizon line, the traffic movement seems more than ever random and unmotivated…”
  • Nochlin “Of Manet’s A Bar at the the Folies-Bergère: “Between these two points of reference, the barmaid exists as a kind of way station between the world of inert, densely painted commodities in the foreground and that of evanescent, openly brushed reflections of consumers of pleasure reflected in the mirror behind her …. seem to distil the transitoriness of modern pleasure itself.” JN – distillation of information, finding pattern.
  • Nochlin Photography “particularly associated with reality, because of its tendency simply to record the raw data of visual experience…” JN – seems a big leap. Still have the subjective decision to snap.

Process, approach

  • Leopardi “by nature am never far from doubt even about things that are regarded as beyond doubt.”
  • Hirshfield “To see the tigress hiding with a handle, the handle waiting within the tigress, is to throw off the boundaries of the literal and recognise that even the simplest fragment of existence can carry multiple uses, possibilities, connections.” –> attention to the fragment, the detail.
  • Hirshfield returns repeatedly to what is found when looking for something else. We don’t know what we’ll find when we set out looking – exploration!
  • Hirshfield “Definitiveness can diminish; an alert unknowing keeps open the range of what may be possible”. “never surrender a good question for a mere answer”
  • Main foci: building a creative practice; reading; min(e)ing history, bringing all my experience to my work; making as a way of thinking
  • Making: knowledge production; practice production (?); material production
  • Walter Benjamin “Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.” but also “speech conquers thought, but writing commands it”. I think this means take notes, record ideas, but hold back on “writing as output” to let ideas percolate and form.

The tigress

  • Hirshfield “To plunge one thing into the shape or nature of another is a fundamental gesture of creative insight, part of how we make for ourselves a world more expansive, deft, fertile, and startling in richness.”
  • Hirshfield “To see the tigress hiding with a handle, the handle waiting within the tigress, is to throw off the boundaries of the literal and recognise that even the simplest fragment of existence can carry multiple uses, possibilities, connections.” –> attention to the fragment, the detail.
  • Eco “[Nomentheta] would have seen, say, tigers not as individuals embodying ‘tigerness’ but rather as animals able to develop certain behaviours, interacting with other animals and in a particular environment – and this story would have been inseparable from its own protagonist.” JN – but what if it is separated? Taken from the wild, fed as a vegetarian? Is it still a tiger? The handle is separated from Hirshfield’s jug (“the principle of correspondence proposes that the vessel with such a handle, like the body of an actual nursing tigress, will not be emptied without that emptying causing it to refill” (p. 99)

The poetic

  • Experiential approach – reading, writing fragments.
  • Reading Adrienne Rich, I try to see differently, to see with my eyes closed.
  • Jane Hirshfield – “To plunge one thing into the shaper or nature of another is a fundamental gesture of creative insight, part of how we make for ourselves a world more expansive, deft, fertile, and startling in richness.”
  • Hirshfield quoting Zbigniew Hebert “Our seeing is a mirror or a sieve”
  • I’ve wondered if I should share some of my attempted poetic fragments because it’s excruciating (the fragments and the sharing of them). As if that’s a form of honesty, and fits with my insistence that this blog is for my own purposes. But let’s be gentle to myself, and to any potential reader. No pages of not-poetry.
  • Hirshfield “Something in us awakens and breathes more deeply when it feels the world supple in its transformations and meanings.”
  • Reading Adrienne Rich on bus.
  • After a few trip-ups I have a clearer differentiation of some terms. An essay by Umberto Eco centres on The Poetics – a book by Aristotle. Poetics is an academic / critical discipline, examining how an effect is achieved – structure, not poetry nor the experience of poetry. The poetic relates to the effect, a response to the nature or impact of something.
  • Eco “fertile ambiguities”


  • Eco “… the transformation of a descriptive into a normative science..” . It reminds me of a question discussed long ago of dictionaries – which can be pre-scriptive or de-scriptive. All leading me to the new term “calcifying observation”.
  • One of the joys (or longer selection of words) of the way I’m reading and gathering is that an author may be just about to demolish (or extend) an idea just as I put the book down. Their careful exposition is dismembered by pauses as I quarrel with them in my notebook, and by my movement between books. Eco gives alternative approaches for semantics, one with definition by convention (prescriptive?), the other motivated by the nature of things – a narrative description of what one does with it, how one handles it, how it is made, what purpose it serves… That’s different to my “descriptive” dictionary, which as I recollect was based on a description of modern use of a word. So not about the object being defined so much, as about how people used the word, how a word changes meaning over the course of time. I seem to be back in the playground of the poetic.


  • Walter Benjamin One-Way Street
  • John Berger Selected essays
  • Johanna Drucker Graphesis: Visual forms of knowledge production
  • Johanna Drucker Humanist Approaches to Graphical Display
  • Umberto Eco On literature
  • Jane Hirshfield Ten Windows
  • Giacomo Leopardi Zibaldone
  • Stephane Mallarme A throw of the dice will never abolish chance
  • Linda Nochlin The body in pieces
  • Adrienne Rich A wild patience has taken me this far


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June 2022

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