The Poetics of Description

Description and the Nonhuman View of Nature

by Joanna Stalnaker

The essay begins:

Today, when thinking about the divide between literature and science, we may tend to associate literature with the imagination and science with observation and description. The prehistory of this assumption can be traced back to the eighteenth century, when description first emerged as a contested category in urgent need of definition, beyond the traditional rhetorical notion of enargeia, the figure by which an absent object or person is made vividly present through words. As Lorraine Daston, John Bender, Michael Marrinan, Cynthia Sundberg Wall, and I have shown, the practice of description underwent significant transformations in the eighteenth century, as competing regimes of description emerged and were defined in opposition to each other. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s famous Encyclopédie, published over two decades beginning at midcentury, offered three separate entries on description: one for geometry, one for natural history, and one for belles lettres. A later iteration of that work, the Encyclopédie méthodique, added yet another entry on the newly invented genre of descriptive poetry, which purportedly undermined classical poetics by failing to subsume description to narrative or didactic design. Yet the disciplinary landscape operative in these definitions—and in the descriptive practices surrounding them—cannot be easily mapped onto our familiar opposition between imaginative literature on the one hand and scientific description on the other.

423px-thumbnailIn what follows, I will look at two writers from the French eighteenth century whose work illustrates the contingency of modern categories and definitions of description. The first is the famous naturalist and renowned stylist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, whose multivolume Histoire naturelle spurred the vogue for natural history across Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century. The second is the once-celebrated but now obscure poet Jacques Delille, who took the Scottish poet James Thomson as his model and introduced the so-called genre of descriptive poetry in France in the last decades of the Old Regime. Taken together, these two writers exemplify what the great naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier called “the age of description.” This age has fallen out of view since Cuvier’s lifetime, lost to the modern fracture between literature and science. Yet I will argue that it holds special relevance for us today, at a time when short-story writers and political theorists alike share an impulse to ascribe agency to nonhuman things and to question the centrality of human perspectives. One of the biggest surprises to emerge from the unfamiliar landscape of the eighteenth-century age of description is its elaboration of a poetics of description grounded in dramatic shifts in scale and nonhuman perspectives on nature. Continue reading …

This article looks at two writers of the French eighteenth century, the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon and the poet Jacques Delille, whose innovative practices of description call into question our modern opposition between literature and science and raise the issue of how literature might be transformed through attention to nonhuman views of nature.

JOANNA STALNAKER teaches in the French Department at Columbia University. She is the author of The Unfinished Enlightenment: Description in the Age of the Encyclopedia (Cornell, 2010) and is currently working on a book about the last works of the French philosophes at the end of the Enlightenment.

Classifying Mutability

Cloud Physiognomy
by Lorraine Daston

The essay begins…

When it came to clouds, art and science faced similar challenges of description: how to capture almost infinite variety and variability? Both variety and variability flummox description, whether in words or in images, but not in the same way. Perform the following thought experiment: first, imagine all the species of life on earth arrayed together in their dazzling diversity, all circa ten million of them, from the Lesser Antillean iguana to the figeater beetle, from brain corals to black-capped chickadees, from mosquitoes to barley. That is variety, and clouds have it aplenty: cirrus fibratus intortus, cirrocumulus castellanus lacunosus, altostratus undulatus, and on and on. But viewed on a human time scale, it is a static variety. Evolution rarely proceeds before our very eyes. Now imagine all of these ten million-odd species constantly metamorphosing into one another and into intermediate forms—not just evolution speeded up to cinematic tempo but everything changing into everything else, all at once, not just past forms to present forms but also present to past and this present form to that other one, without regard to taxon or phylogeny. That is variability—the vertiginous variability of clouds.

It is not just the variety of clouds but also their fast-paced variability that eludes description: if the pace of biological evolution is too slow to be perceptible on a human timescale, that of cloud evolution is too swift for the human eye to fix, much less to capture in a net of words and images. Although the skies have been scanned and studied since the meticulous astrometeorological diaries kept for more than six centuries by ancient Babylonian scribes, and weather-watching networks sponsored by scientific societies have been trying to systematize observations since the seventeenth century, it was only at the turn of the nineteenth century that two naturalists, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in France and Luke Howard in Britain (it is significant that both were steeped in the practices of Linnaean classification) independently and simultaneously proposed cloud classification schemes—but two quite different schemes based on different principles.

For the next hundred years, cloud observers elaborated their own systems, splitting and lumping the original categories according to local weather patterns and individual proclivities. Is it any wonder that almost every scientific publication on cloud classification from Lamarck’s and Howard’s pioneer attempts around 1800 to the latest edition of the International Cloud Atlas in 1975/1987 begins with a tetchy paragraph defending the whole enterprise against skeptics who point to the notorious mutability and evanescence of their subject matter?

After centuries of serving as the metaphor for mutability, clouds began to be classified by genera and species in the nineteenth century, on the model of Linnaean taxonomy. In order to standardize nomenclature, cloud watchers had to learn to see in unison, recognizing cloud types as one would recognize human faces. The analogy between cloud and facial recognition runs deep: in both cases, a few salient features (that aquiline nose, those long wispy streaks) are foregrounded at the expense of a great many others. What the art of caricature is to faces, condensed description was to clouds: a few bold strokes that focused attention on the essential and screened out everything else. Cloud classification depended crucially on description by omission.

LORRAINE DASTON is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and a regular Visiting Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Her work spans a broad range of topics in the early modern and modern history of science, including probability and statistics, wonders and the order of nature, scientific images, objectivity, quantification, observation, and the moral authority of nature.

Questions of Poetics Symposium

On Friday, September 23, Representations board member and co-editor of the special issue, “Financialization and the Culture Industry,” C. D. Blanton, will participate in a symposium on Barrett Watten’s Questions of Poetics: Language Writing and Consequences at UC Berkeley.

Blanton is Associate Professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. His research interests include modernist literature and thought generally, as well as the long history of post-romantic verse. He is the author of Epic Negation: The Dialectical Poetics of Late Modernism (Oxford, forthcoming) and co-editor of two volumes of postwar poetry: Pocket Epics: British Poetry After Modernism (Yale Journal of Criticism) and A Concise Companion to Postwar British and Irish Poetry (Blackwell). He is currently working on a project on the end(s) of modernist aesthetics.

Lyn Hejinian will host the symposium, which takes place from 1–2:30PM in room D1 of the Hearst Field Annex, on the UC Berkeley campus. Other participants include Jane Gregory, Donna V. Jones, Andrew Key, Charles Altieri and Barrett Watten.

Improvisational Conceptuality

The Point of Precision
by Kathleen Stewart

The essay begins…

ANNIE DILLARD’S Pilgrim at Tinker Creek opens with a series of scenes attuned to “the unthinkable profusion of forms” encountered in her daily walks in the woods; “the inrush of power and light … the curl of a stem” are not just sensory details described, but material-aesthetic registers of what Wallace Stevens called “the mobile and immobile flickering / In the area between is and was.” A “form gulping after formlessness” that can “seem physical if the eye is quick enough.”

This is what Derek McCormack calls a “radical empiricism,” here entrained on a bid, according to Félix Guattari, to “capture existence in the very act of its constitution.” Here, the act of description, then, is a peering, accidental glimpse of what matters—what comes into matter in the cocomposition of objects in contact, what shifts its matter in a moment of recognizable, though unnamed and partial, significance. Isabelle Stengers calls this a “vivid pragmatics.” Erin Manning and Brian Massumi, following Alfred North Whitehead’s theory of the prehension of all things, call it “thought in the act”: “Every practice is a mode of thought. . . . To dance: a thinking in movement. To paint: a thinking in color. To perceive in the everyday: a thinking of the world’s varied ways of affording itself.”

Dillard’s description of her walks in the woods is not a report of finished events and known entities but a realism of prismatically energetic states: “Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent”; “light . . . suddenly runs across the land like a comber, and up the trees, and goes again in a wink.” Things radically perform their capacities. A mockingbird takes a single step off a roof gutter into the air. “Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care . . . and so floated onto the grass.”

Thought and practice, telling and sensing, foreground and background, fuse in a soft focus trained on tonal differences, a spark of color, a modulation in tempo, the half-patterned expressivity of a scene teemingly differentiated and marked by thresholds of matter. Subjects and objects are at once taken aback and literally transformed by their own self-surprised acts and effects.

This essay proposes a kind of critique aimed at approaching the improvisatory conceptuality of ordinary forms emergent in everyday life. Using a slowed ethnographic attention to the immanent aesthetics of objects, it argues that the singularities through which forms take place animate both event and perception.

KATHLEEN STEWART teaches anthropology by means of writing experiments at the University of Texas, Austin. Her books include A Space on the Side of the Road (Princeton), Ordinary Affects (Duke), Worlding (forthcoming from Duke), and, with Lauren Berlant, The Hundreds (in preparation).

Describing Behaviors

Observable Behavior 1–10
by Liza Johnson

The essay begins…

1. IN ACTING, BEHAVIOR IS A word for observable gestures, pulses of affect. It is a primary craft element of screen performance; alongside dialogue and action, it is one of the main ways that anything becomes legible in cinema—character, plot, meaning. It’s also the element that is generally unscripted, so, for actors, behavior is a site of invention and interpretation. It’s very rare that a screenplay dictates behavior: ‘‘She bites her lip,’’ or, ‘‘He lurches a little to one side.’’

2. Some people rely a lot on observing behavior. Everyone does it, but not everyone does it in the same way, and not everyone is good at it. At least in my experience, if you’re outside a culture or a friend group, or in figurative or literal ways you don’t speak the language, you must rely on observing behavior. It makes other people think you have ESP, when in fact you are really using sensory perception in a way that culture would prefer you didn’t.

It is said that the children of addicts and other erratic parties are especially good at this kind of observation, of reading all the surfaces of the world all the time. I like to think of it as a special skill that is learned eccentrically, outside the academy. This may be one of the reasons that acting remains a semidemocratic site of class mobility, because the things that make you really good at observing or reproducing behavior are unsystematic, unpredictable, or at least not the same things that get you into Harvard.

There are different words for this: if you want to pathologize, you call it hypervigilance; if you want to psychoanalyze, you call it projective identification; or if you are an actor of a particular training, you might also liken it to Anne Bogart’s viewpoint of kinesthetic response.

Behavior comes before language, before affect can be named as feeling, or explained or narrated, or described in words. It is arguably one word for the legible pulses of affect that people can pretend are illegible, so you seem psychic if you recognize them.

In this “listicle,” filmmaker Liza Johnson proposes ten ways of thinking about—and looking at—behavior, through her own and others’ films and writing.

LIZA JOHNSON is an artist and filmmaker. Her feature films include Elvis and Nixon (2016), Hateship Loveship (2013) and Return (2011.) Her short films and installations include South of Ten (2005), In the Air (2009), and, with Elizabeth Povinelli and the Karrabing Indigenous Corporation, Karrabing: Low Tide Turning. She is Professor of Art at Williams College.