Tuesday, March 24, 2015

On the Non-Mimetic Representation of Nature

You'll want to start with the evocative synopsis that Steve Mentz shares of "Transition, Scale, and Catastrophe."

Borneo, Indonesia
40,000 years ago
Of the many memories entangling Karl Steel with oysters, Stephanie LeMenager with graphic novels, Lynn Tomlinson with Holland Island House, myself with Holbein's Ambassadors, Steve Mentz with the Shipwreck of The Amsterdam, and Stacy Alaimo with deep sea creatures, the recurrent problem / impulse / vortex / pleasure / challenge of REPRESENTATION continues to work away in both my sleeping and waking thoughts. My dreams have been vivid of late, perhaps because of multiple transitions (we leave tomorrow for the Midwest Art History Society conference in Minneapolis, for example), more likely because all of the entities I mention above had lives of their own in the beautiful writing of their thinkers. Oysters reached for shipwrecks and deep sea creatures, ambassadors in exile for sinking houses and graphic novels - and every kind of vice versa and combination thereof that emerged (and continues to emerge) from the ideas of each and all: the bare life and barely life of oysters; the no words and species feeling of graphic novels and art in space; the perpetual becoming and undoing of a house represented in clay on glass; the melancholy of mimesis, not just for the ambassadors; the acts and words and images of living in, not just or necessarily through, the shipwreck; the simultaneous discovery and destruction of deep sea life. These are the entities that keep coming together to ask insistently: and so how will you represent us? Not here, not in a blog post, or now - but as a practice. Our day keeps making me think of the mimetic modes of representation of (what has quite possibly become a separate realm precisely through these modes!) of nature (or Nature, or the natural world, or what we keep calling all of these things that exist in perspectival continuity and rupture with the human). And so, some specific challenges:

1) To think and represent non-mimetically. To not assume perceptual continuity between myself and what is presented to me visually about a realm dubbed separate and natural. To look for what Steve Mentz called "mimetic breaks" - those moments when the oyster recedes from my perception and use into its own murky depths; those moments when I'm not sure what I'm seeing (as happened in Lynn's marvelous film, or Stephanie's descriptions of FutureCoast); those moments not safeguarded by what Stacy called "guiltless wonder." But instead, a way of seeing what has been called nature as hovering between the recognizable and the unrecognizable. Why on earth would this be productive, or even do-able, you ask? Because mimesis, the imitation of the visual world, exercises a control we have come to believe is real and absolute. Mimesis is marvelous (any detail of The Ambassadors can still send me); and mimesis is dangerous (it is an illusion of the perceptual world that we have taken as a reality). And so, I feel this call to think non-mimetically, or (as I tried to do in "Anamorphic Reach)" to think beyond mimesis. Right now, it's the handprints of Paleolithic cave painting that are opening up possibilities for me: perhaps because of their immediacy - these are not images that are mimetic of hands, these are images by hands: they acknowledge human intervention, they mark it and keep it, and sing of the meeting of human flesh and lithic surface mediated by paint. They witness contact as much as (more than?) representation; they are the traces of an entanglement between human and environment.

Green Man, Norwich Cathedral
The fluid ontologies of the Green Man, and many an image that falls outside the Western project of verisimilitude, could join this fray. Their fantasies, their narratives, their frights, their pleasures. We can continue seeking those moments when perspective and mimesis are not assured, when the human is de-centered, when the transition between human and environment is blurred, when we're just not sure. There was a strong appeal, all day during our day together, to a critical examination of narrative and mimesis both as relational modes. So to seek or create narratives with a narrative voice diffused over time, space, and/or subjectivities. To seek, as I will keep trying to do, mimesis that shifts the relation of human to environment from one of control to one of contact (and disorientation, and lost objectivity).

2) To think about the politics of non-mimetic representation. Stacy's words continue to challenge me on this. Because in the disorientations of non-mimetic representation, might we not lose coherence altogether? Coherence needed for political action, for environmental policy, for actions in the world? This becomes the challenge, too, for me: how to do the important work of displacing human exploitation while asserting human stewardship. Stacy presented moments when fantasy narrative ("Jellyfish Gone Wild!" if you can believe it) meets scientific purpose (the connection between climate change and jellyfish swarms) at the National Science Foundation. This entangled narrative/scientific mode is new - artists like Lynn are both in and representing unchartered waters. Her film thinks through rising sea levels from the point of view of a house abandoned and submerged. I've recently come to know the images of artist Chris Jordan, which begin with the mimesis of a narrative or art image, and end in the objecthood of climate change - the incredible transition in scale culminates in the numbers of our environmental catastrophes. And please, look at Lynn's film, and please click on Chris's images (several of them!), and let's start thinking together about moving through mimetic breaks. Mimetic breakthroughs?

World enough and time, I would ask here about the non-representation of nature. I would ask about the points of contact between human and environment in my dear friend's garden in Brittany - about labor and thought and materiality. And then I'd want to ask about the mimetic impulse of all the times his garden has been photographed and awarded; about the pull to narrative, to allegory even!, that his garden provokes. I could loop back to oysters and shipwrecks and ask again. But soon we leave, and so there's dinner and packing, and what has been deemed a necessary screening of at least a couple of episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show for the children's Minneapolis preparation. Onwards to other images always.

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