"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Retinal pessimism and the “nothing-to-see” [Reading diary]


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From: Starry Speculative Corpse (2015) by Eugene Thacker

Chapter 2. Prayers for Darkness

[....] black is not just dark, but, well, black. If darkness implies a shrouding, a tenebrous obfuscation, should we then say that blackness is a blotting-out, a nullification of every existent? If darkness both "is" and "is not," is this also the case with blackness?

  In his discussion of the crucifixion, Nicola Masciandaro shows us a moment in which darkness becomes blackness. His takeoff point is the interim of uncertainty, confusion, and anguish when Christ, on the cross, cries out "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" The Gospels describe this interim period as one of a profound, even universal darkness: "Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour"; "It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun's light failed."67 In one traditional reading of this passage, Christ's cries of sorrowful doubt are not just the cries of one individual, but, allegorically, of every individual. In this breach between an anguished self and a seemingly indifferent cosmos, something appears. What appears is this breach, this fracture or lacuna at the core of existence. What appears is this "darkness"; what appears is precisely what one cannot see, and what one apprehends is, in anguish, that one cannot apprehend. Masciandaro: "It becomes a strange place where the only way to discern where you are with certainty is to see that you are hopelessly lost."68 Masciandaro names this enigmatic breach "sorrow."

  It is in this breach, this sorrow, that Masciandaro suggests an even more radical reading of this "crucifixion darkness." Beyond the suffering of Christ on the cross, and beyond the allegorical suffering of all individuals vis-à-vis a world that seems indifferent to them, there is a sorrow that is not simply that of individual human subjects that feel emotions. For Masciandaro the real lesson of crucifixion darkness is that sorrow is, in a way, exterior to the human being: "it is the image of a cosmos that cries, the image of tears that are materially at the heart of its being made."69 It is here that darkness becomes blackness. For, "the universe itself, an entity that most certainly includes your being in it, and vice-versa, is… the dark realm of a literally authentic melancholy, that is, sorrow humorially proper to black earth."70

  In this philosophical, or rather, mystical sense, black is less a color and more the withdrawal of every relation between self and world, resulting in this breach which, nevertheless, makes itself apparent as such. The sorrow that results is not simply the forlorn sorrow of finite, emotive human beings, but something impersonal and withering in existence itself. "There rests the difference between black and darkness," Masciandaro notes. "Darkness is a property of black, but black is not darkness. Shadow, nothingness, void look black and black is something before shadow, nothingness, void…"71 If, in this formulation, darkness always exists in some relation to light, however gradated, tenebrous, and shadowy, then blackness is something anterior to both light and dark. François Laruelle encapsulates this in one of his early, experimental texts, "Du noir univers": "Black is anterior to the absence of light, whether this absence be the shadows that extinguish it, whether it be its nothingness or its positive opposite."72 Masciandaro extends this: "It is true that black is what is seen in the absence of light. But black is not that absence. Black is its own presence, not the presence of the absence of light."73 Color and cosmos become intertwined in this blackness, something that neither exists nor does not exist; it's "is" is precisely it's "is not."

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[....] black as a color has a rich and varied history in terms of its symbolic meanings, it would take a modern, scientific theory of color to begin to address such questions. When Goethe published his Color Theory in 1810, such conundrums were largely ignored in aesthetics, and often not discussed in the science of optics. But Goethe, being the polymath that he was, was not content to write a treatise of aesthetics. The Color Theory is as much a science of color as it is an aesthetics; indeed, the aim is to attempt the synthesis of the two. Goethe's major contribution was to distinguish the "visible" from the "optical" spectrum, and to make possible a science of optics that would be distinct from that of aesthetics, but which would overlap with it as well.74 Goethe's project is determined to consider color as a physiological phenomenon, to "search for nothing beyond the phenomena" of seeing color through the apparatus of the eye. For Goethe, any theory of color must begin from the physio-logical event of seeing color.

  But black proves to be a difficult color to discuss for Goethe. In the opening sections of his treatise, "black" is often interchangeable with "dark" and "shadow," all three terms denoting a physiological state when the eye is deprived of light: "If we keep the eyes open in a totally dark place, a certain sense of privation is experienced. The organ is abandoned to itself; it retires into itself. That stimulating and grateful contact is wanting by means of which it is connected with the external world…"75 Black is conceived of in privative terms, in terms of the absence of light – not unlike Fludd's cosmic black square. And, black is even moralized by Goethe (as it is in Fludd), for the light that enables sight is not just a physiological stimulation, but a quasi-divine gift. When Goethe does briefly discuss black later on in his treatise, it is largely to discuss the combustion and oxidation processes that produce blackness in objects such as wood or metal. Strangely, Goethe does not raise the problem of black as a color, choosing instead to analyze the chemical process of blackening, and in the process sounding very much like a Renaissance alchemist.

  Goethe's Color Theory had an immediate impact on the philosophy and science of color. One person particularly taken by it was Arthur Schopenhauer, who knew Goethe and discussed color theory with him on several occasions. While Schopenhauer does not depart from Goethe's distinction between the visible and the optical, he does attempt to root color theory in philosophy more than science. Schopenhauer's On Vision and Colors was published in 1816, just three years after the completion of his doctoral dissertation. A short book, it does not display the systematicity of The World as Will and Representation nor the aphoristic pessimism of his late writings. What it does do is drive a wedge into Goethe's Color Theory. Goethe, Schopenhauer claimed, does not really present a theory of color, foremost because he never considers what color is – that color exists is something assumed in his treatise.

  Furthermore, Schopenhauer took Goethe to task for another assumption – that the perception of color necessarily corresponded to color itself, as if it were a physical thing in itself. Being a good Kantian, Schopenhauer tended to understand color as a cognitive process that began with the sensation of light and resulted in the cognitive representation of color. Schopenhauer was even more precise in identifying the "intensive activity of the retina" as the main apparatus for the perception of color. The trick was to understand what it was that made an impression on the retina in the first place; was color something identifiable in the world as such (i.e. as light), or was it merely a by-product of the physiology of vision?76 Where did color take place? To say that we receive light that stimulates our retina is one thing, but to show how color is necessarily produced from this activity is quite another. In Schopenhauer's theory of perception, the theory of color begins to ever so slightly slip away – and yet, he admits, some vague entity called "color" could be identified, classified, measured, even agreed upon in an everyday context.

  As with Goethe, for Schopenhauer the problem is black, which he sees as inseparable from white. Black and white are strange entities in Schopenhauer's treatise. At some points they seem to be additions or privations of light, much in line with Goethe: "The influence of light and white on the retina and its ensuing activity have degrees according to which light steadily approaches darkness and white approaches black."77 But at other points black and white function more as logical necessities, forming the absolute poles of color perception; that is, black and white are never actually seen, and yet they determine the perception of color.78 And, later in the treatise, there is even a third, more naturalistic interpretation, one that has to do specifically with black and not with white: that black is simply the physiological state of "retinal inactivity."79 The eye without sight – or without vision.

  After all is said and done, Schopenhauer's questions prove to be more interesting than his answers. All the same, it is tempting to make some connections between Schopenhauer's color theory and his pessimistic philosophy. A central ambiguity of Schopenhauer's On Vision and Colors has to do with black. Is black something that can be seen, like any other color? Or is black simply the name for something in the structure of vision that conditions color perception – but which can never be seen in itself? Perhaps there is a black that is seen – the black of shading and gradients – as well as a black that is unseen – the black of retinal inactivity. And here again we seem to return to the paradox of Fludd's black square – the black that can only be seen at the expense of ceasing to be black (where black becomes "dark" or "shade"). Perhaps – and here we're being generous to Schopenhauer's text – there is a retinal pessimism that secretly underlies color theory, encapsulated in the notion of black as privation (Goethe), black as retinal inactivity (Schopenhauer), black as that which precedes the very existence of light itself (Fludd). Retinal pessimism is not simply the failure of the phenomena of perception, the physiology of the retina, or the science of optics. Nor is it the conviction that whatever one is seeing is the worst of all possible things that could be seen. Both are intriguing options. But, retinal pessimism is something else, and it is encapsulated in the strange status of black: at once present and absent, at once a fullness and an emptiness, at once the absorption of all light and the total absence of light. Black is at once the foundation of all color and, in its absence or emptiness, it is also what undermines the substantiality of all color. If one is willing to go down this path, retinal pessimism is not just about the non-color that is black, but it is about the perception of color itself. It is, ultimately, the suspicion that all colors are black, that all retinal activity is retinal inactivity. Retinal pessimism: there is nothing to see (and you're seeing it).

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Black on Black. The question is, what would such a retinal pessimism see, if it is not simply the physiological state of blindness, or the metaphorical state of "inner vision"? Not surprisingly, artists have thought about this question, and there is, of course, a history of black painting in modern art.80 For me the most notable example is that of Ad Reinhardt, who, in the 1960s, produced a number of paintings that, at first glance, appear to be all matte black, much in the tradition of Malevich. But after looking at the painting for some time, what appears to be black is not black at all. Instead, subtle hues of deep mauve, purple, magenta, and gray become apparent. And the uniform black canvas reveals a grid, or a series of squares within the canvas, each of a slightly different color. The painting actually changes within the duration of its viewing. "Black" literally vanishes as one looks at it, and what quietly emerges are colors and shapes. Reinhardt's paintings are almost visual analogues for Fludd's cosmology.

  But modern black painting is, in a way, too predictable a place to begin, for black paintings always push black up front, in front of the viewer, as something to be seen. My own fascination with black in painting comes not from abstract expressionism, but from an earlier period – the infinite, stark, black backgrounds in Velázquez's "The Water Seller of Seville" (1618-22), the black clouds that envelop Rembrandt's "The Abduction of Proserpine" (1631), the almost Surreal flatness of Zurburan's "Christ on the Cross" (1627). As a painter of black, the artist that stands out from the rest for me is Caravaggio. In fact, I only came to appreciate modern black painting in seeing paintings like "The Crucifixion of St. Peter" (1601), "St. Matthew and the Angel" (1602), and "David with the Head of Goliath" (1605; 1609/10). One painting in particular I never tire of, and that is Caravaggio's "St. Jerome Writing" (c.1606).


  Certainly in paintings like this Caravaggio makes extreme use of chiaroscuro, and he is not the first to do so. But there is a sense that Caravaggio took as much care painting the black backgrounds as he did the lighted figures in the foreground. Caravaggio's black is ambiguous. In one part of the canvas the black background is flat and full. In another part it is an empty, infinite depth. In still another part it is a thick black cloud, miasmatically embracing the foreground figures. The wonderful echo between the saint's barely haloed head and the skull holding open the book is accentuated by one kind of black – a black of shadows, shading, and contour. But behind both skull and head there is only outer space, at once flat and infinite. In a strange optical illusion, this same cosmic black seems to also inhabit the edges of the books, the space underneath the table, the creases of the fabric, and Jerome's own wrists. For me, this is "black painting" – black as a background that is always about to eclipse the foreground, the groundlessness of the figure/ground distinction itself, the presence of an absence, a retinal pessimism.

  Black painting – of the abstract expressionist type – has had a long career in modern art. And a survey of contemporary art suggests that black is always back, in some shape or form. But what I find interesting about black artworks today is the way they seem to combine the likes of abstract expressionism with that of Caravaggio and his tenebrist contemporaries. An example is Terence Hannum's series "Veils" (2012), which consists of images of disembodied hair on a black background – St. Jerome as a headbanger, as it were.

  The wisps of hair not only recall the black drawings of abstract expressionism, but they give the same sense of flat depth evoked in Caravaggio, in which we see figures almost drowning in black. Black is not only flat background, but a background that literally engulfs the foreground figure into a seemingly infinite abyss below, above, behind, everywhere.

  A further play on the foreground/background distinction comes in Jonah Groeneboer's drawings, which often feature luminous, geometric forms against a cloudy black background. In a different vein, Juliet Jacobson's series of black drawings, with their dense, thick, pulverizing of graphite on paper, pick up a different aspect of Fludd and the occult philosophers – that of their material, chemical, and alchemical commitment to the connection between the microcosm and macrocosm. And it is worth noting that each of these contemporary artists produces their black artworks through very material, physical processes that are also processes of negation: rubbing, smearing, smudging, and erasing material like graphite or charcoal into shards of powder and dust. The process seems adequate for the result, the showing of nothing, the revealing of black less as a color and more as this "nothing-to-see."


  It is this transition – from black as a color you see, to black as a non-color you don't see, to black as "nothing-to-see" (and you're seeing it) – that Fludd encapsulates in his simple black square. For Fludd, black was the "color" of non-existence, of pre-existence, of an un-universe prior to its possibility. This idea has also come full circle in contemporary philosophy. In a short and opaque text entitled "On the Black Universe," the French thinker François Laruelle extends this idea of black as a cosmological principle. Neither an aesthetics of color nor a metaphor for knowledge and ignorance, black is, for Laruelle, inseparable from the conditions of thought and its limit. Separate from "the World" we make in our own, all-too-human image, and apart from "the Earth" which tolerates our habitation of its surface, there is "the Universe" – indifferent, opaque, black: "Black prior to light is the substance of the Universe, what escaped from the World before the World was born into the World."81

  In such a scenario, human beings probe the Earth and manufacture the World, but neither of these respond to the groping around that constitutes being, or being-there, or becoming-this-or-that, or the event, or what have you. The human being "is answered only by the Universe, being black and mute."82 And yet, it is this enigmatic response that leads us into thinking that this black universe, the black of Fludd's un-universe, is something "out there" – the nature of reality, the fabric of the universe, a consensual hallucination, something that I can see and touch and feel, a color. Laruelle again: "A phenomenal blackness entirely fills the essence of the human. Because of it, the most ancient stars of the paleo-cosmos, together with the most venerable stones of the archeo-earth, appear to the human as being outside the World…"83 Fludd's cosmic black square, his un-universe, is not temporally prior to the universe, but neither is it some cataclysm to come; it is right here. But you can't see it. (And you're seeing it.)

  Black is the color of ink, oil, crows, mourning, and outer space. Black is not just one color among others, and neither is it one element or material among others. Black bathes all things in an absence, makes apparent an opacity, evaporates all the nuances of shadow and light. I leave the last word to an alchemist of a different sort, Yohji Yamamoto, who provides yet another variation of black: "…Above all, black says this: I don't bother you – don't bother me."

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30 April 2023

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