WORD PROCESSOR: HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE COLLECTION
January 13, 2016
Some Disordered Interior Geometries
"Early writers attributed a 'squeaking' in the treetops to these snails, believing that the sound was produced by the mollusks suddenly withdrawing into their shells, and the name 'singing snails' is sometimes applied to them. The sound from the treetops, however, upon careful investigation, turned out to be a chorus of tiny tree crickets."
Consider the problem of the lush particularity of the world. In Hortus Cliffortianus Linnaeus attempts to tame "the variability and even monstrosity of nature" through disciplined modes of observation that would allow him to discern the significant features that brought specimens into taxonomic relation, while allowing what he perceived as insignificant variations to blur into the sea of irrelevant details.
In this way, moving across the grid of appearance—in this instance a long and wavy line known as sea wrack—one will find large pieces of seaweeds that have been torn from their moorings and washed ashore. Concealed in the folds and among the roots one may find scores of tiny mollusks that live out in deeper waters. If these are gathered on a day following a violent storm most of these mollusks will be live ones. Running this fine material through a sieve to eliminate most of the sand grains, will reveal minute islets of difference within a field of iteration.
A key question for any project of classification and description is how to isolate relevant features of specimens, while allowing others to blur into the sea of irrelevant particularities. In The Order of Things Foucault sets the conceptual scene in which this problem occurs by drawing on an example in which aphasia affects one's capacity to isolate consistent and relevant qualities that would permit a set of items to be ordered into a taxonomic grid. Given the task of arranging various differently coloured skeins of wool "the aphasiac will create a multiplicity of tiny regions in which nameless resemblances agglutinate things into unconnected islets; in one corner, they will place the lightest-colored skeins, in another the red ones, somewhere else those that are softest in texture, in yet another place the longest, or those that have a tinge of purple or those that have been wound up into a ball." None of these patterns of categorization will produce semantic stability and the tiny islets of arrangement will quickly "dissolve again, for the field of identity that sustains them, however limited it may be, is still too wide not to be unstable."
What is the relationship between variability and change? Before change enters a field of observation variability is compressed to a single point. Materiality is itinerant and yet within it one may discern the contours of the ideal. Faced with several foxgloves growing alongside the square of a meadow one would seek out the apertures with most distinct spots, the flowers that ascend in the most symmetrical pattern across time that is the verticality of the stem. And yet fragments of a large number of possible orders glitter separately across this field. What if each of the differences were enumerated producing a proliferation of descriptions. It is unclear whether such attention to the variability of specimens opens up the possibility of discerning change occurring within the natural world, or whether the nineteenth century natural historians are looking to situate the patterns of change within the dynamic particulars of the material world. Darwin himself discovers natural selection as the mechanism of evolution, for instance, by attending to the lush particulars of the world: it is only through the enumeration of the specific differences among the specimens that he collects that the overall picture of evolutionary change begins to emerge.
"These things arrived from my grandmother they make me think about where I fit in the odd geometry of time..."
How can one describe a changing object? In Tender Buttons Stein writes about a change of color - how "light blue and the same red with purple makes a change." A color is hurt, a callus is formed when something "hardening leaves behind what is soft," an increase occurs, something is polished or its surface is cleaned, redness enters an object.
Is all taxonomy pornographic in that it displays minute differences? What if visibility is subtracted from this grid leaving language to move qualities between materials. Describing the lineaments of the invisible object, its color, weight, texture and porosity. What if one were to use descriptions from natural history to recreate an object that does not yet exist? "In this room alone, two hundred and twenty-seven kilograms of plants cast in bronze, dispersed amongst these white bed sheets."
A tent appears: it is white a single stretched sheet on the open surface of the field—the field itself is full of mirrors that replicate the strands of grass doubling them and then doubling them again and so it is a site of mimesis. One cannot extricate the mirrored surfaces of mimesis from the materiality that is within them and from which they arise glistening in reverse, and so instead the field of potentiality must be cut or lit across into difference.
n > 2 < ∞
"If I examine a whole collection of shells, I find a marvelous variety. The cone lengthens or flattens, narrows or broadens; the spirals become more pronounced or merge with one another; the surface is incrusted with knobs or spines, sometimes strikingly long, radiating from a center; or it may swell, puffing out into bulbs separated by strangulations or concave gorges where the curved lines meet."
It is the formation, not the form, that remains mysterious. The building material seeps through in slow formation. A soft secretion that lays down the roots of the colors, the calcareous prisms, the "successive layers of mucus [that] spread a coating as thin as a soap bubble over the deep, twisted cavity." As such the shell appears in its contradictions, "so rough outside and so soft, so pearly, in its intimacy." There is no hylomorphic edge separating its form from in-formation. There is no scentless liquid of the receptacle which receives the triangles and other figures as they change without taking their shape. The liquid hardens into form.
In Les coquillages (Shells), Paul Valéry observes that "living nature is unable to work directly with solids." In this way the creation of a hard shape, such as that of a shell, requires isolating a few solid substances from the liquids or fluids that compose organic matter. And so "everything that lives or has lived results from the properties and modifications of a few liquids."
The liquids that a body makes and the manner that they attach to words and so to causation at a distance - this either means that language is a form of touch or that something can increase itself or fold inward without touch.
In his depictions of mollusks in Les parti pris the choses Ponge suggests that the slimy secretions of the snail are a kind of expression, so that an analogous relationship opens between language and the materiality of the liquids secreted by a body, or, as he elaborates in "Notes for a Seashell," language is "the true secretion common to the human mollusk." Snails can leave signs in their trails: In "Snails and Their Trails," Ng et al. suggest that males of the freshwater species Pomacea canaliculata follow mucus trails of the opposite sex, but females also follow trails laid by conspecific females. These erotic complications are also evident among the females of Littorina saxatilis, who can mask their sexual identity to avoid being pursued by males by stopping the production of "a mucus-based cue," which would reveal their sex to the males who may be pursuing their slime-trails.
In The Poetics of Space Bachelard makes a proposal for a cosmic psychoanalysis that would "concern itself with the contradictions in the Cosmos." Such a cosmic psychoanalysis would involve a "psychoanalysis of matter which, at the same time that it accept[s] the human accompaniment of the imagination of matter, would pay closer attention to the profound play of the images of matter."
"Actually, even the mathematician is baffled when in the end the tube suddenly broadens, breaks, curls back, and overflows into uneven lips, often bordered, waved, or fluted, which part as though made of flesh, disclosing in a fold of the softest mother-of-pearl the smoothly inclined starting point of an internal whorl that recedes into darkness."
The text of Some Disordered Interior Geometries arises primarily from an engagement with A Field Guide to Shells of the Pacific Coast and Hawaii by Percy A. Morris, which is housed in the holdings of the Reanimation Library. Other sources include: Francesca Woodman, Some Disordered Interior Geometries; Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity; Michel Foucault, The Order of Things; Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons; Abbas Akhavan, "Study For A Monument," November 21, 2015—January 16, 2016, Artspeak, Vancouver; Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank, Touching Feeling; Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space; Paul Valéry, Les coquillages (Shells); Francis Ponge, Les parti pris des choses; Plato, Timaeus; Terence P.T. Ng, Sara H. Saltin, Mark S. Davies, Kerstin Johannesson, Richard Stafford and Gray A. Williams, "Snails and their trails: the multiple functions of trail-following in gastropods," Biological Reviews 88.3 (2013): 683-700.
Ada Smailbegović was born in Sarajevo and has since occupied the triangular movement between Vancouver, New York and Providence. She studied biology and literature at UBC, completed a PhD in Poetry and Poetics from NYU and is now an Assistant Professor of English at Brown University. Her writing explores relations between poetics, non-human forms of materiality, and histories of description. She is a co-founder of The Organism for Poetic Research. Critical and poetic work includes Avowal of What Is Here (JackPine Press 2009), Of the Dense and Rare (Triple Canopy 2013), "The Forces of Cut Ribbon" (The Capilano Review 2015), "Cloud Writing" (Art in the Anthropocene 2015), and an article on animal architecture and the affective ethology of Monk Parakeets (Angelaki 2015). Her next chapbook is forthcoming from Doublecross Press in the summer of 2016.
View A Field Guide to Shells of the Pacific Coast and Hawaii in the catalog here.