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).