S t e i n . R ø n n i n g

 

Per Bj. Boym: Always an experiment


1.
On entering a room, in a sense you do something completely different. You enter this room, and this room is something other than a room. It doesn’t help much to describe the room as, say, cubic with a base length of 2 metres, yellow walls, pine floors, white ceiling, wooden window frames, etc. You do not enter the room that is cubic with a base length of 2 metres, yellow walls, pine floors, white ceiling, wooden window frames, etc. You enter this room, which is cubic, with a base length of 2 metres, yellow walls, pine floors, white ceiling, wooden window frames, etc.
In perceiving the tension between something big and something small, in a sense you perceive something completely different. You perceive this tension between the big and the small. It doesn’t help much to describe the tension as “a sense of isolation, of tabooed impediments”. What you perceive is this sense of isolation, of tabooed impediments.
In perceiving a whole as balanced – empty space and objects, surfaces and lines all as elegantly balanced as a tightrope walker – in a sense you perceive something entirely different. You perceive this balance of empty space and objects, surfaces and lines.
The emphasis on “this” can be characterized in a variety of ways. This individual, this unique or outstanding, this singular, this one-and-only thing. For the time being, let us put the nuances of these various terms to one side.
What one encounters is the singular, the individual. You encounter what is clearly limited to being a single entity, and which cannot be repeated or divided without becoming something different. In grasping it with the intellect, you grasp it as something that can be repeated: a cube, a cube constructed of plywood, a photograph of cubes where the distance between elements is measurable and the photograph has been digitalised, a photograph that has a certain relation to an art gallery, etc. All this can be repeated. But this photograph is only a single entity. However, with the intellect you also grasp that it is such, but the questions are: How? What does it consist of? The uniqueness is not a quality in what you encounter. You cannot say: This object is unique because the distance between the three cubes does not recur in the other objects. The reason for this is that all you would then be saying is that an object with these qualities (a certain distance between three cubes) does not occur twice here, although it certainly could recur; it just doesn’t do so here. So, no matter how deep you delve into the question “What qualities, quantities and relations does this consist of?” you can never answer the question “What is it that makes this here this here?”


2.
We must manoeuvre in our thoughts. Let us begin by saying that this here is one. One? One of something, perhaps, but first just this one. One is hardly a simple affair. Aristotle worked with at least four basic meanings of one. In its lesser sense one denotes unities that are not numerical, in other words, that do not occur as one in number, but which are unities even so. This lesser unity is found in anything continuous; the simpler and less composite the movement, the greater the unity, the greater its oneness. For Aristotle, nature is one such unity: “… nature in the primary and strict sense is the essence of things which have in themselves, as such, a source of movement”. But what you encounter in the individual is one in the numerical sense. As Aristotle puts it: “In number, then, the individual is indivisible”.
It is an intriguing thought that one can conceive of greater or lesser unity, where greater unity is like a station on a journey, a level of a movement. Moreover, that the singular is bound to a certain station, greater unity, the numerical. Here, “greater” cannot be understood as an expression for greater quantity, but as a higher priority. That which possesses greater unity is, for example, more simply composed than that which possesses less; it has greater force of identity than that which has less, etc.
Duns Scotus takes this line of thought further. Nature possesses a lesser unity, the singular a greater. And he describes the relation between these as follows: “singularity belongs to the nature through something in the thing that contracts the nature”. This something he characterizes in a variety of ways, for instance as realitas positiva, although the term Duns Scotus uses most widely is haeccitas, which can be translated as thisness. There is a thisness in nature that contracts it, thereby giving rise to the individual.
It might not seem very promising to answer the question “What is it that makes this here this here?” by appealing to a thisness in nature that contracts it, thus giving rise to this here as this here. But something has been achieved: we are claiming that this here is something more than a state of mind, and moreover that it is a contraction.


3.
Duns Scotus claims that in a sense this contraction can be compared to the difference between a family, or genus, and a species. For example, the genus animal and the species human, or the genus picture and the species photography, or the genus geometrical solid and the species cube. The genus animal has one set of characteristics in a certain configuration – a form. The species human possesses these characteristics plus a number of others. Contraction occurs through the addition of a constellation of characteristics to a preexisting constellation; one formal characterization is supplemented with another. This entails that the set of animals is reduced, or contracted, to encompass only the set of humans. This helps us to understand what is meant by contraction in this context. But in another sense, the contraction that results in the singularity is something very different. The transition from species to individual does not occur through the addition of a new characteristic, a new formal characterization. In the language of Duns Scotus, the mystery is solved by claiming that the addition is not formal, “because it is never taken from an added form, but precisely from the ultimate reality of the form”.
Following this kind of argument, we could claim that the species “box” is on the one hand a certain constellation of characteristics, a form as a configuration. This can be expanded to apply to subspecies, such as “boxes” constructed from plywood with a base area of 20x30cm and a height of 55cm. The form is a set of specifications that determine the configuration. But on the other hand, this form also has a “reality” that is capable of changing the species into a singularity through the adoption of a “supplement”. This implies that the “reality” must point to something other than a simple opposition; whether it be real or unreal, reality will have to be something that is complex since it both exists – as the reality of the form in the species – and can in certain cases manifest something more, a supplement that gives rise to the individual event. The form can be real in the species, but real in another way in the individual.
Concerning the question of what makes this here this here, we have so far concentrated on the first element: this. And on this subject we have found an idea that says that this is a supplement derived from the reality of the form. The same observation can also be applied to the second element: here. We can treat “here”, the location, in the same way as “this”. Accordingly, what applies to the haeccitas of the thing applies also to the haeccitas of the location; it derives from a supplement in the reality of the form.


4.
But the singularity, this here, is not something we encounter only at a given location; the encounter also involves a given time. When we say that the encounter with the unique happens here and now we are confronted with the question “What is this now?” Is there any reason to problematize “now”? Isn’t now quite simply 14.02 Central European Time? One thing that is problematic about this 14.02 is that it is a kind of “roughly now”. Was it not 14.02 and 4 seconds? 14.02, 4 and 2/10 secs.? 14.02, 4 and 2/10 and 3/100 secs.? Etc. etc. But “now” is not approximate; it is now. In defining now as 14.02, we assert that we know many “nows” and perceive them as a continuous series; we emphasize what is common to these “nows”. But not only do these “nows” share common features, each is also unique: this moment, this now.
Many people have contemplated this difference: time as a continuous “flow” and time as the instant. The Stoics distinguished between two different types of the present. The present of the body and that of the spirit, Kronos and Aion. The foundation for the temporal present of the body – as for the body itself – was a continuity, a course of events. This progression was rhythmical in one sense or another, and, at the logical extreme, measurably so; condensed rhythm: seconds, minutes, hours, days, years … The body’s present carries with it a past, which it is constantly expanding through the addition of the present that it leaves behind as it passes into the future. In the bodily present, past and future become combined. Seen in this way, memory is an expression of the body’s present. The present of the spirit is different, just as the spirit is different from the body. The spirit is eternal, without progression, without rhythm. The present of the spirit, Aion, was the moment, the limitless (in the sense of “immeasurable”) instant that separated past and future, but which itself did not belong to, and had nothing further to do with, either of them. The encounter with something hitherto unknown, a revelation, is in this sense an expression of the present of the spirit.
This way of conceptualizing two different kinds of the present solves the problematic aspect of the “roughly now”. It acknowledges both continuity and the instant, linking them together in terms of the relation between body and spirit. Spirit is an archaic conception, which we shall make no attempt to analyse here. But we can replace it with something else in order to find out whether this way of thinking is fruitful when we make a different choice of words. Let us use the term “ideas”, the present of ideas, to find out whether the argument can be adapted. An idea can have a progression and rhythm, although it can hardly be claimed that this is true of all ideas, yours and mine. In any case, the world of ideas is limitless, and all attempts to demarcate that world have ultimately proved futile. What would be the consequence if we claimed the present of ideas to be the limitless instant (the present of the spirit for the Stoics), that which divides past from future, but which itself belongs to neither and is uninvolved with them in any other way? Wouldn’t the consequence be that we would attribute to ideas (perhaps as a supplement) something other than memory, that we could link the encounter with the hitherto unknown and revelation to the notion of the present of ideas? And this does not seem to be a consequence that overreaches everyday experience.
We appear to have arrived at two possible conceptions of “this room here and now”, which we enter. But one of these conceptions fails to capture the encounter with the singular. Memory, as expression of rhythmical time, operates with quantities, properties and qualities. With these tools it seeks to grasp the individual as a combination of quantities, qualities and relationships. This draws the encounter away from this-here and back to what is already encoded. This memory answers the problem “What qualities, quantities and relations does this consist of?” but leads us away from the problem “What is it that makes this here this here?” Kronos does not describe how time functions in the encounter with the singular; this encounter is Aion’s time, the present of ideas, the moment that divides.


5.
Is there any connection whatsoever then between the encounter with the individual and memory, or is this encounter forever excluded from memory? Experience tells us that such a connection exists, but how can it be thought? Duns Scotus offers two alternatives in the encounter with the singular, which in this context he dubs the “irreducible simple”. “Either it is grasped totally or not at all … that what is so irreducibly simple remains completely unknown unless it is grasped fully as it is itself.” Taking this as a starting point, the questions are as follows: What is it to grasp something, and what is it grasped as? How is it grasped?
To grasp in this context must presuppose a mental mechanism that does not function in a way that determines qualities, quantities or relationships. But this mechanism must possess the ability to retain something; it must have a grip. To serve as a bridge to memory, that which is grasped must involve something that enables it to impinge on memory. What is it that can be “grasped fully as it is itself” and which does not consist of qualities, quantities or relationships? One suggested solution to this question is the concept of “intensities”. What an intensity has in common with a quality is that it remains unaffected by numerical change. For example: if a yellow cube is doubled in size, it does not become twice as yellow. But unlike qualities, intensities have the ability to bring about change. For example, temperature: when two bodies of different temperatures are brought into contact, the temperatures in both change such that each ends up with the same temperature but at a level somewhere between the different original temperatures. This does not happen when two yellow cubes come into contact; they remain the same yellow cubes. In this sense, intensities are something other than quantities and qualities, while at the same time they are not passive but productive. In the world of physics it is such that “… differences in intensity … can drive fluxes of matter or energy …” In other words, intensities can set something in motion, have effects, constitute a bridge.
On this basis, the encounter with the room can be described as an encounter with an intensity, or an encounter with an irreducible batch of intensities. How can an intensity be held on to? How can the eternal moment leave traces in continuous time? Intensity is forever something different from quantities and qualities, but can the productive forces it possesses have an effect on quantities and qualities? The example concerning differences in temperature showed us that when two different bodies come into contact, the difference in intensities – here, a difference in temperature – creates in itself a trace in quantities and qualities, the trace in this case being a process of change, for example in the speed of molecular movement. Taking this example as our starting point, we have to imagine that the intensity of the encounter comes into contact with other intensities and that this contact gives rise to something capable of leaving a trace in quantities and qualities; might this be something that can be retained in the sphere of memory? First, how should we conceive of contact in this context? Do we not have to assume here that there are other intensities than the here and now of the encounter, and that these are contained in quantities and qualities – both in the recollections and concepts stored in memory and in the zones between them – in order to be able to operate with intensities with which contact can be made? If we assume this, then contact can take place on the basis of “fluxes” from the intensity of the encounter and “fluxes” from the intensities that are contained. If we imagine fluxes as vibrations or pulses, then contact can come about through a correspondence in rhythm or sequence between the intensities of the encounter and some of the contained intensities. The intensity of the encounter finds a rhythm or sequence in the others such that its own rhythm or sequence is taken up and carried on. Not as the same, but with a displacement. A simple image for this kind of displacement might be what happens when a wave of a certain wavelength encounters a wave of half its wavelength. The original wave continues to propagate, but in addition to being displaced relative to its initial rhythm, it also displaces the rhythm where it continues. Thus the process can be described in terms of acoustics or resonance. Resonance is the basis for change in the contained intensity and this change creates a trace in what it is contained in, in the concept, in the memory, or in a zone between these things. In these terms, grasping an intensity, apprehending it, will mean that the intensity is carried on in a contained intensity, creating traces in that in which it is contained within. With regard to this trace we can claim that the “irreducibly simple” is “fully” apprehended; it is not subdivided or altered. But “as it is itself” acquires a special meaning through this approach. The only way the intensity of the encounter can be grasped is by means of two displacements, one resulting from being grasped as change in something else, the other from being grasped by means of a rhythm or sequence that differs from its own, since its fluxes propagate and can be grasped as resonance, i.e. as a different rhythm or sequence.


6.
On entering a room, in a sense you do just that. You enter a room, and the room is cubic with a base length of 2 metres, has yellow walls, a pine floor, white ceiling, wooden window frames, etc.
In perceiving the tension between something big and something small, what you perceive is in a sense precisely that. You perceive the tension between the big and the small, which you might describe as “a sense of isolation, of tabooed impediments”.
In perceiving a whole as balanced – empty space and objects, surfaces and lines all as elegantly balanced as a tightrope walker – in a sense you perceive precisely that. You perceive the balance of the empty space and the objects, the surfaces and the lines.
The emphasis on what recurs, on the recognisable, on what appears the same, on the identical, the conceivable, in the sense already implicit in concepts, is an important characteristic of everything that has a history, or which is continuous. The fact that continuity arises might be a result of this very mechanism; electrons repeat their movements, people sleep and are awake, the ptarmigan changes to its winter plumage when the snowy season arrives, the earth’s axis relative to its plane of rotation around the sun gives rise to winter, summer, autumn and spring in the subarctic regions.
What is focused on here can be described as habit, but habit in a sense that is broader than that of habit as a mental phenomenon. Here habit denotes processes that are repeated, habitus, which can however also be mental. If the haeccitas of (the singular) individuality is a contraction of nature, then habitus is a combining of, primarily, expectations and memory. Expectations and memory as terms for forces, not primarily mental forces, but something that also includes the mental field. For example, expectations and memory in the construction of the ptarmigan’s feathers that lead to a change of plumage.
It is to this habitus – you enter a room – that Kronos corresponds; time as continuous, where the present encompasses both the past and the present, memory and expectations. Since life is a continuous process, this experience will dominate on the mental level. The experience and perception of entering a room “comes of itself”, whereas the experience of the singular, the unique – that which introduces a break in continuity – must be cajoled, goaded, enticed to appear, or else it will force itself to the forefront – the dominant experience must be overcome in one way or another. Kant’s concept of the “sublime” corresponds to such an experience that forces itself to the forefront.


7.
Habit is a frozen condition, in the sense that it is based on recognition and identities in addition to expectations within the limits that these set. The singular is the starting point for an open condition, the limitless instant, revelation, the encounter with the unknown. As the situation is described here, however, the singular is also linked to habit insofar as it is its only source of resonance. And habit is linked to the singular insofar as this is the point of origin for changes in habit, changes in habitus, in terms of resonance and traces.
Seen in this way, to enter a room comprises two events, or one event with two faces: a confirmation of habitus and a confirmation of haeccitas. The confirmation of habitus is a confirmation of quantities and qualities, whereas the confirmation of haeccitas is the confirmation of the intensive, of that which is productive of itself.
The intensive is both frightening and attractive. Frightening because it is a threat to continuity, ultimately to all progression, all life. Attractive because it provides contact with something fundamental in existence, something fundamental to being itself, namely the change that cannot be foreseen, life in the sense of unpredictable, productive change.
What happens when this singular, this intensive, becomes the goal of action?


8.
The train of thought in the foregoing has been an attempt to describe a field of the acutest relevance to human observations, reactions and thought, in a way that leaves the distinction between the human mental sphere and everything else unclarified and does not claim it to be essential. Even so, we have used terms which most dictionaries would define as applicable to the human mental sphere or to the psychology of other animal species, such as experience, memory, habit and the like. I shall continue using these terms in the same manner, in the enduring conviction that in context they are able to refer beyond mental conditions and events.


9.
The singular, the intensive as goal of action is therefore a goal that can be achieved by ensuring that the dominant experience of or reaction to something, habitus, is no longer allowed to dominate. The use of chemical (organic or synthetic) stimuli is a traditional and well-known behavioural pattern, regarded as driven by the intensive as a goal. In this behavioural pattern we observe a tendency to self-reinforcement; a little use leads to greater use in order to achieve the same goal, which ultimately – for chemical reasons – entails a tendency to self-destruction. (In this argument, no distinction has so far been made between intensity, the feeling of intensity and an intense feeling; more about this later.)
In the introduction to Part V of his Ethics, Spinoza writes: “At length I pass to the remaining portion of my Ethics, which is concerned with the way leading to freedom.” Following this he endeavours to make it as clear as possible that this is a matter exclusively of what we are capable of doing (and of what “mental freedom or blessedness” consists in). In other words, no more logic or “medicine” (= the ways one should care for the body), but the role that the power of reason plays in questions concerning what it is possible to do. It is very common to regard a decision to act as if it were based on a combination of one’s understanding of a situation and the will to undertake something. Spinoza denies that action involves two faculties, reason and will. He claims that reason and the will are the same. Or to put it another way, reason is a faculty, while will is something that only exists as concrete expressions of will, as consequences of concrete understanding. To conceive of that which is common to expressions of will as a separate faculty, the will, is in Spinoza’s opinion a confused opinion, and one that can be attributed, in part, to a tendency to accord independence to that which is general and to confound it with the particular. Within this kind of framework, the self-destructive use of stimuli as a pattern of behaviour intended to modify habitus and to bring out what is intensive cannot be regarded as bad will but as inadequate understanding.


10.
It is necessary to distinguish between intensity, the feeling of intensity and an intense feeling, but first to distinguish between intensity and feeling. This can perhaps be done by emphasizing that feelings are something we are aware of as our subjective property, something that belongs to a subject. On this basis, the relation between intensity and feeling is such that feeling arises when intensity is fixed upon in a subject by being set in a describable, narrative progression: emotion “is intensity owned and recognised”. An understanding of intensity as feeling will in this sense be a poor understanding of intensity. The formulation “an intense feeling” refers in general to a powerful feeling or a concentrated and powerful feeling.
Can we then speak of the feeling of intensity or is it that intensity will of necessity lie beyond the reach of any possible subjective approach and hence be something different from what we have described as haeccitas, the singular? One way to proceed is to look at feeling as a transformation of part of a field of intensity, a capture thereof. The process that takes place is therefore multi-faceted; something is captured, but the greater part “evades” capture. “The feeling of intensity” can in this sense be based on two circumstances. One is that the act of evasion itself is captured, felt as a glimmer, in addition to the feeling. The other is that these fields of intensity constitute a background for – or a membrane over – all sensory perception and all emotion, a noise that is there but does not become apparent.


11.
Intensity as a goal for action is not limited to just a few areas or phenomena. With the understanding we have built up so far, it follows that the intensity, the singular, is everything and can thus be a goal for action on every level. Viewed in this way, art as a social domain does not possess a special status or occupy a privileged position in this context; like all other levels of experiences, it is a field of activity for both habitus and haeccitas, for habit and for the distinctive, for narrative and for discontinuity, for feeling and for intensity. Within the field of art it is, however, relatively easy to notice the use of other strategies (other than the use of chemical stimuli, which are also found in the field of art), where intensity is a sought-after result. In our context these strategies can be understood as founded on the feeling of intensity conceived of as a “glimmer” or as “noise”. Given the argument presented earlier in this text, this is a rich conception of that which is distinctive.
It is not my intention here to begin a narrative about the appearance and the role of the glimmer and noise in art history, but merely to point out that it is possible to argue for a connection between the glimmer and noise and artistic strategies of this kind. A strategy in which a discontinuity in the narrative or the role of emptiness plays a central part can be viewed as an endeavour to become receptive to the glimmer, whereas a strategy that focuses on repetition can be viewed as an attempt to become receptive to noise. Thorvald Erichsen’s late Holmsbu landscapes will serve as products of the latter, while Robert Smithson’s reclamation projects for large mining fields can be seen as products of the former. Morandi’s still lifes can be seen as products of both.


12.
In this kind of context, repetition must be viewed as an experiment, an investigation. This investigation must adopt a pragmatic standpoint on many problems: What does the repetition consist in? What is it that is repeated? How is it perceptible? What stories are repeated? How should the repetition take place? etc. And the theme of the experiment could perhaps be formulated thus: How does an event become interesting and at the same time so quiet, so monotonous, so silent that it makes an opening for the noise that is created in the surface membrane, vibrations that the dominant impression can do nothing but oppose?
When you enter a room it is always an experiment.

 

 

Some sources:
Aristotle: The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon, New York: Random House, 1941.
Bryant, Levi R.: Difference and Givenness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence, Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 2008.
DeLanda, Manuel: Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, London: Continuum, 2005.
Deleuze, Gilles: Difference and Repetition, London: Continuum, 2004.
Duns Scotus: John Duns Scotus: Philosophical Writings, trans. Allan Wolter, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1987.
Massumi, Brian: Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
Spinoza, Ethics, trans. R.H.M. Elwes (1883), http://frank.mtsu.edu/~rbombard/RB/Spinoza/ethica-front.html.

 

 

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