the rigorous m

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Archive for March, 2015

the smell of abjection, austerity, piety

Posted by rigorousm on March 16, 2015

Amid the variety of significations granted olfactory experience, the most important resided in its capacity to reveal personal identity…. one’s disposition could not be cloaked: true identity would always be discernible to such a sensitive nose. These claims would have cause worry among religious converts, who believed their former vices could potentially be revealed by smell. Such abilities generated concerns surrounding personal hygeineand therefore encouraged a demand for early treatises on cosmetics. Cosmetics and bathing, however, also potentially endangered one’s moral status, as they sometimes could be interpreted as signs of decadence. Dirt and other real-world smells, though often the opposites of cleanliness, therefore often continued to be regarded as “an insignia of holiness.” (42)

Religious writers presupposed that believers understood how smells carried religious meanings according to the pragmatic odors of sacred rites. Holy oils and incense were incorporated into rituals that themselves became a didactic medium through which to learn sensory meanings. Rotten whiffs were equally useful as pedagogic tools, as they were often unavoidable and unmistakable markers.(45)

For Buddhists, one spiritual practice encourages those seeking enlightenment to meditate on objects of disgust, including feces and corpses, in order to “cultivate dispassion.” … Foul smells were also used to denigrate previously acceptable religious practices…. More recent studies of iconoclasm after the French Revolution have similarly highlighted the gains made by emphasizing some of the nonvisual aspects associated with regime change; disgust is conveyed by hijacking attention with pungent smell.

Nevertheless, often enough foul smells did  exist and are known to have been employed by the virtuous as part of ascetic devotion. For example, saints might choose to subject themselves to aromas avoided by others as part of their penitential practices, or they might tolerate the rankness of the sick or needy for disciplinary purposes. Ascetics also tested their resolve by ingesting moldy or putrid provisions or tainted water. These festering smells were intended to blunt bodily appetites and extinguish pleasures brought by foods or lifestyle, or to generally curb temptations. Stomaching stench was also a way of exercising the virtue of humility. Indeed, monks were expected to confess the pleasures of smell, whether secreted away in their cell or randomly encountered, each potentially invoking the desire for a more luxurious lifestyle. They were simultaneously expected to tolerate the malodorousness of disease or that of their penitent colleagues. An extreme exercise in humility was the voluntary devotion to cleaning privies, eating rotten food, or, as so often recounted of saints, washing the feet of the poor or diseased. (45-46)

Jonathan Reinarz, Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell


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artful by ali smith book review round-up

Posted by rigorousm on March 11, 2015

At stake is not the boundary of genre, in other words, but the possibility of the imagination to contain everything at once — from catalogs of ships, to disquisitions on whaling, to a poem, to photographs of a walking tour of Suffolk — and to allow each thing, the real and the unreal, to contribute to imagination’s ability to, as Smith puts it here, “know us inside and out.” Writing of this kind contains the magnificent suggestion that there are not two kinds of things in the world — that each is part of one system of thought. It reaches for whatever materials will best serve it, and in doing so, enlarges its scope beyond the present of the page. It insists on a reconsideration of the dominance of form. So Artful might better be described as an event, or, even better than that, a relationship.

LA Review of Books review by Jenny Hendrix (link)

AV Club review by Phil Dyess-Nugent (link)

Guardian review by Victoria Segal (link)

NPR review by John Wilwol (link)

The Rumpus review by Ryan Zee (link)

Bookforum review by Alexandra Schwartz (link)

NYTimes review by Leah Hager Cohen (link)

Electric Literature review by Jenna Leigh Evans (link)

Daily Beast interview by Noah Charney (link)

New York Journal of Books review by Vinton Rafey McCabe (link)

The Millions review by Jonathan Russell Clark (link)

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Posted by rigorousm on March 10, 2015

Edges involve extremes. Edges are borders. Edges are very much about identity, about who you are. Crossing a border is not a simple thing. Geopolitically, getting anywhere round the world in which we live now requires a constant producing of proof of identity. Who are you? You can’t cross till we’re sure. When we know, then we’ll decide whether you can or not.

Edge is the difference between one thing and another. It’s the brink. It suggests keenness and it suggests sharpness. It can wound. It can cut. It’s the blade–but it’s the blunt part of the knife too.

It’s the place where two sides of a solid thing come together. It means bitterness and it means irritability, edginess, and it means having the edge, having the advantage. It’s something we can go right over. It’s something we have on someone or something when we’re doing better than him or her or it. It’s something we can set teeth on. And if we take the edge off something, we’re making something more pleasant–but we’re also diminishing it.

There’s always an edge, in any dialogue, in any exchange. There’s even an edge in monologue, between the speaker and the silent listener. In fact there’s an edge in every meeting, between every thing about to come together with something beyond it.

Edges are magic,too: there’s a kind of forbidden magic on the borders of things, always a ceremony of crossing over, even if we ignore it or are unaware of it.

Ali Smith, “On edge,” Artiful 131-132.

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smith on hitchcock’s understanding of emotion and suspense

Posted by rigorousm on March 10, 2015

Hitchcock… knew that to hook a film audience with real suspense you have to let them in on parts of the plot or understandings of narrative atmosphere that the people in the story can’t have or understand. ‘The whodunnit contains no emotion. The audience are wondering, they’re not emoting, they’re not apprehensive for anyone… When the film is finished and the revelation comes, well, you get two or three minutes of saying, ‘ah, I told you so,’ or ‘I thought so,’ or ‘fancy that.’ I prefer to do the suspense film by giving all the information to the audience at the beginning of the picture.” … Hitchcock creates a psychological gray area where the division isn’t between us and the story on the screen, it’s between those who know and those who don’t. In this way, knowledge becomes more than plot; it becomes a key to understanding action and morality.

— Ali Smith, “On edge,” Artful pp 123-124.

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smith on grief and nature metaphors

Posted by rigorousm on March 10, 2015

The thing about trees is that they know what to do. When a leaf loses its color, it’s not because its time is up and it’s dying, it’s because the tree is taking back into itself the nutrients the leaf’s been holding in reserve for it, out there on the twig, and why leaves change color in autumn is because the tree is preparing for winter, it’s filling itself with its own stored health so it can withstand the season. Then, clever tree, it literally pushes the used leaf off with the growth that’s coming behind it. But because that growth has to protect itself through winter too, the tree fills the little wound in its branch or twig where the leaf was with a protective corky stuff that seals it against cold and bacteria. Otherwise every leaf lost would be an open wound on a tree and a single tree would be covered in thousands of little wounds.

— Ali Smith, “On edge,” Artful, p 103.

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ali smith on ciaran carson and form

Posted by rigorousm on March 10, 2015

… it’s as if he’s found the essence of form itself–it can generate dimensionality out of nothing, out of repetition, out of fusion, even out of its own barrenness…. It sorts the shape from the shapeless–not that the shapeless doesn’t have form too, it does, because nothing doesn’t. Even formlessness has form.

And it suggests this truth about the place where aesthetic form meets the human mind. For even if we were to find ourselves homeless, in a strange land, with nothing of ourselves left–say we lost everything–we’d still have another kind of home, in aesthetic form itself, in the familiarity, the unchanging assurance that a known rhythm, a recognized line, the familiar shape of a story, a tune, a line or phrase or sentence gives us every time, even after we’ve forgotten we even know it.

–Ali Smith, “On form,” Artful p 76.

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ali smith on the use of form

Posted by rigorousm on March 10, 2015

Form is a matter of clear rules and unspoken understandings, then. It’s a matter of need and expectation. It’s also a matter of breaking rules, of dialogue, crossover between forms. Through such dialogue and argument, form, the shaper and molder, acts like the other thing called mold, endlessly breeding forms from forms.

Ali Smith, “On form,” Artful p 69.

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cokal on the fascination with grotesque bodies in horror

Posted by rigorousm on March 4, 2015

The grotesque is often a jollier category, though it can invoke a shudder of its own. It depends almost wholly on the physical—the ugly, misshapen, scatological—and produces a feeling of comedy as often as one of revulsion. … Postmodernists love the grotesque body because it doesn’t fit preconceived ideas of perfection—it keeps changing, becoming something else. Flowing through much postmodern art is a mortal fear of everything falling into place; hence the pastiche and bricolage that are hallmarks of the era. If an artist were to find the perfect form, he or she would have nothing more to express. The grotesque fascinates because it offers contact with another plane of existence. It is one way of reaching beyond ordinary, anodyne life, as it stirs the senses and creates excitement. … What [the grotesque and the sublime] have most fundamentally in common is excess. Both transgress boundaries, whether through an exaggeration of body or a surplus of beauty; they bring us into contact with something beyond our ordinary experience.

Susann Cokal, “’Hot with Rapture and Cold with Fear’:  Grotesque, Sublime, and Postmodern Tranformation in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume,” p 182 in The Philosophy of Horror. Thomas Fahy, Ed. See here and here and here.

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taussig on the epochs of fat

Posted by rigorousm on March 4, 2015

Can we discern here different fat registers: premodern, modern, even postmodern? What the Spaniards wanted, and what the Nakaq wants, is a substance deemed so critical to a person’s essence that removal is fatal or at least soul-depleting, while by the same token it is life-enabling for those who receive it. By contrast, modern fat is less overtly magical and hovers in the West between the sexually attractive (in Rubenesque “Venus at the Mirror” women) and the jovial male ectomorph who inhabited scientific psychology well into the twentieth century, while postmodern fat swings 180 degrees to become magical in a quite different way, that of the abject and the repulsive, the definition of what one should not be.

Michael Taussig, Beauty and the Beast, 142.

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atelier bow-wow on instinct, environment and specialized perception

Posted by rigorousm on March 4, 2015

Streifzunge Durch die Umwelten von Tiren und Menschen (A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men) by Jakob von Uexkull and Georg Kriszat reminds us how we felt ourselves united to environments when collecting insects. The authors, taking the tick’s life history as an example, called the world of organisms “Umwelt (environment).” The tick moves to the tip of a twig for more light, using “a general photosensitivity of her skin.” Taking as signal the odor of butyric acid emanated from the skin glands of a warm-blooded mammal that passes under the twig, it hurls itself down to its prey. Then it “find[s] a hairless spot” and burrows deep into the prey, and slowly pumps herself full of warm blood.” Thus, the tick’s successive responses to the three stimuli—light, the odor of butyric acid, and the tactual perception of hair—determine how it behaves. Conversely, a huge world in which the ticks live becomes impoverished, now merely reduced to the three perceptual and behavioral signals. “The poverty of the Unwelt is just that which is responsible for the reliability of action, and reliability is more important than riches.” An organic order arising from the synthesis of a limited number of inorganic signals might be called the tick’s intelligence. The woods in which we navigate through the tick’s intelligence will appear very special– almost poetic.

Atelier Bow-Wow, “Insect-Hunting” in Echo of Space / Space of Echoes pp 030-031

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