«1 Introduction Ivo Strecker & Markus Verne Wonder and astonishment lie at the heart of scholarship, as René Descartes noted in The Passions of the ...»
Ivo Strecker & Markus Verne
Wonder and astonishment lie at the heart of scholarship, as René Descartes noted in The
Passions of the Soul: “When the first encounter with some object surprises us, and we judge it
to be new or very different from what we formerly knew, or from what we suppose it ought to
be, that causes us to wonder and be surprised; and because that may happen before we in any
way know whether this object is agreeable to us or is not so, it appears to me that wonder is the first of all the passions.” (1972: 358) Similarly, Margaret Mead once said that anthropology demands an “open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess” (1977: IX). Thus, wonder and astonishment are part and parcel of the encounter with the world in our own and in other cultures, and they produce mental and emotional energy, which leads artists and anthropologists alike to look and closely examine a particular phenomenon that has caught their attention.
Ethnographers and artists not only experience astonishment when in the field. They also relay it to others. As Clifford Geertz, in his genial fashion, has characterized these rhetorics: Anthropologists (and also artists, one might say) are “merchants of astonishment” who “hawk the anomalous, peddle the strange,” and who have “with no little success, sought to keep the world off balance; pulling out rugs, upsetting tea tables, setting off firecrackers” (2001: 64).
Yet, even though scholars of art and anthropology have been aware of astonishment as an intrinsic part of their experience, they have as yet not explored it in any depth. Only Tim Ingold and Richard Buxton have recently identified astonishment as a topic for research.
Ingold has called for a renewal of “the sense of astonishment banished from official science” (2006: 9), and Buxton has demonstrated how ancient Greek myth and story telling may be best understood as an art aimed at creating various “forms of astonishment” (2009).
* Ingold’s and Buxton’s retrieval of astonishment as a scholarly concept goes well with the intentions of Stephen Tyler in whose honor the contributions to the present book were written.
According to Tyler’s theory—developed in The Said and the Unsaid—the use of language is precarious, full of risks and surprises and therefore prone to cause wonder and astonishment.
Speaking, he writes, is “more like breathing than thinking” (1978: 25), and “the more we consciously attend to it, the less perfectly we do it” (1978: 24).There are “slips between the
tongue and the lips,“ and “our speaking often fails to convey what we had in mind” (1978:
137). Discourse typically contains “false starts, hesitations, and repeats”, which derive “from forgetting where we were going or from searching for a fugitive word or apt phrase, or merely from a desire to hold the floor, or because we want to create a dramatic effect, even to dissimulate... One of the things we often sense in speaking is that we are not saying what we had in mind. The retrospective and prospective accommodation of phrases creates an order at variance with our original intention.” (1978: 134) The use of language is thoroughly rhetorical, for “the match between words and things … is hardly complete or total; nor is it analytic, the combination of atomic elements into larger unities. It is instead indexical, analogical and inferential—a creative accommodation of words and things” (1978: 181).
The ramifications of these and other related thoughts have led Tyler to emphasize the role of evocation in ethnography. He says that “ethnography is a cooperatively evolved text consisting of fragments of discourse intended to evoke in the minds of both reader and writer an emergent fantasy of a possible world of commonsense reality, and thus to provoke an aesthetic integration that will have a therapeutic effect. It is in a word, poetry—not in its textual form, but in its return to the original context and function of poetry, which, by means of its performative break with everyday speech, evoked memories of the ethos of the community and thereby provoked hearers to act ethically.” (1987: 202) This attractive view of a liberated form of ethnography (and by implication the interpretation of art) can only hold up its promise as long as we are aware that the source of evocation is astonishment, which however may also have its drawbacks. As Descartes observed, astonishment can cause “the whole body to remain as immobile as a statue”, and it can prevent one from “perceiving more of the object than the first face which is presented, or consequently of acquiring a more particular knowledge of it. That is what we commonly call being astonished, and astonishment is an excess of wonder which can never be otherwise than bad.” (1972: 364) Furthermore, such an excess of wonder may become a habit—a “malady“ of blind curiosity”—which leads people to “seek out things that are rare solely to wonder at them, and not for the purpose of really knowing them: for little by little they become so given over to wonder, that things of no importance are no less capable of arresting their attention than those whose investigation is more useful.” (Descartes 1972: 366) Yet, how is one to judge what deserves wonder and what not? Has the modern age not suffered less from an excess but rather from a lack of wonder, and is it not therefore the task of both ethnography and art to revive and cultivate the most important “passion of the soul”—that is wonder, astonishment, or, as James Joyce has called it, epiphany? Joyce’s hero Stephen Daedalus, pondering the meaning of a clock in one of Dublin’s streets, told his friend: “Imagine my glimpses at that clock as the gropings of a spiritual eye which seeks to adjust its vision to an exact focus. The moment the focus is reached the object is epiphanized.
It is just in this epiphany that I find the third, the supreme quality of beauty.” (Joyce 1944:
211) The “spiritual eye” de-familiarizes the object and then focuses on it anew to achieve a heightened level of trance-like awareness—epiphany—which Stephen Daedalus explained, saying: “First we recognize that the object is one integral thing, then we recognize that it is an organized composite structure, a thing in fact: finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognize that it is that thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.” (Joyce 1944: 213; Joyce’s emphases) Overhearing a “fragment of colloquy” in the streets of Dublin, Stephen Daedalus thought of “collecting many such moments together in a book of epiphanies. By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.” (Joyce 1944: 211) * Here, in the fantasy of a “book of epiphanies,” it seems that we are entering the realm of art and anthropology, for one may well understand ethnography and art criticism as an attempt to recall the spell-binding moments, the epiphanies people have experienced in their encounters with works of art or another culture. Note that Joyce not only mentions objects, gestures and speech performance, but also thought itself. What he calls “memorable phase of the mind” resembles Tyler’s cooperatively evolved text, which “evokes in the minds of both reader and writer an emergent fantasy of a possible world of commonsense reality” (Tyler 1987: 202).
Epiphany and fantasy are both elusive and inaccessible to what Tyler calls “that inappropriate mode of scientific rhetoric” (1987: 207). The only appropriate response can be the art of evocation, which “makes available through absence what can be conceived but not presented” (1987: 199). This seemingly cryptic statement needs to be read against Tyler’s theory of tropes, especially metaphor. A full account is found in the paragraph on metaphor in The Said and the Unsaid of which we quote three passages that are most relevant here. The
first introduces the topic and runs as follows:
Metaphor is perhaps the most fundamental process in language and thought, for it accounts not only for equivalence in a formal sense, it is the major means by which language changes and by which thought encompasses new ideas. A measure of its importance is the fact that it was one of the first purely semantic relations to be subjected to analysis in early philosophy. (1978: 315-16)
The second outlines the role of metaphor in the extension of knowledge:
We often speak of something being ‘just metaphor,’ and this pejorative usage signifies a common attitude toward metaphor, that it is suitable only to poetic fancy and apt to be misleading in other contexts. How wrong this view is when we take into account the role of metaphor in extending our knowledge. Rather than an inferior means of reason properly restricted to the imagination at play or in its aesthetic moments, it assumes a rational function more fundamental than any yet described. As the principal means by which we establish equivalences, it must underlie all our classifications, for a classification is nothing more than a system of equivalences. (1978: 335) The third draws attention to the fact that the use of metaphor has its cost, because metaphor
both reveals and obscures:
Metaphor is fundamental and unavoidable in meaningful discourse. True enough, it has its other uses, which have long been noted, of lending style and color to a text, and there can be no doubt but that a good metaphor has a dual role in the imagination, for it both reveals and obscures. By emphasizing certain features in a comparison, for example, it draws our attention to just those features, pushing others into the background. When we see something as something else we see only the similarities and not the differences. A metaphor may mislead in exact
proportion to the amount it reveals, but this is the price of any revelation. (1978:
335-36) One cannot, therefore, escape metaphor (as well as other tropes) and the elusive meanings it entails. But Tyler is prepared to accept this as the price we have to pay for worthwhile ethnography. James Clifford held a similar view when he wrote that ethnographies are the work of rhetoric and that all ethnographic writing is “allegorical at the level both of its content (what it says about cultures and their histories) and of its form (what is implied by its mode of textualization” (1986: 98).
However, allegory or, more generally, figuration is not only the means by which we “write culture,“ it is also the means by which we create it. As Dennis Tedlock and Bruce Mannheim have pointed out, “cultures are produced, reproduced, and revised in dialogues among their members” (1995: 2) and, most important, “once culture is seen as arising from a dialogical ground, then ethnography itself is revealed as an emergent cultural (or intercultural) phenomenon, produced, reproduced, and revised in dialogues between field-workers and natives. The process of its production is of the same general kind as the process by which ethnic others produce the cultures that are the objects of ethnographic study.” (1995: 2) To this we need to add that these dialogues abound with multivocal meanings and are saturated with tropes. Or, put differently, the dialogues make use of figures that despite or, as the present book argues, because of their elusiveness put us under their spell (Streck 2011), fire our imagination and lead us to jointly conjure those fantasies and their manifestations, which we call culture.
Chapter I, Do pictures stare? Thoughts about six elements of attention by Todd Oakley draws on the author’s long-term research in the fields of rhetoric, linguistics and cognitive science and is meant as a kind of overture to the present book, for attention—especially spellbinding attention—constitutes the precondition for astonishment and evocation. The chapter, short and written in a deceptively simple style, is in fact filled with deep thought, and is a “fruitful heuristic” not only for an investigation of attention, but also the study of astonishment and evocation. Attention may be understood as the mental and emotional energy without which neither astonishment nor evocation will occur. But what exactly is attention? How does it come about? How is it sustained, controlled, harmonized?
Oakley uses his experience of an art exhibition to provide answers to these questions.
As it transpires, not only the individual items on display, but also the museum as a whole, may induce and celebrate astonishment and evocation. It is the Frick Gallery in New York where the author’s eureka occurred: His attention “zeroed in” on two Holbein portraits—one of Thomas Cromwell and the other of Thomas More—which were so cleverly placed it seemed that the two archenemies were staring at each other. Oakley remarks, “Frick probably savored the irony of this hang.” To fully understand the curiously evocative placement of the two paintings, one needs the “ability to construct on the fly mental simulations from disparate domains of knowledge, in this case, from the domains of artistic portraiture, curatorial practices, and political infighting.” Taking off from here, Oakley launches his ideas about six elements of attention. He calls the first alerting, and defines it as “a general readiness to process novel stimuli.” The second he names orienting, the disposition “to attend to particular items over others.” These two are the “pre-attentive elements necessary for initiating a sequence of higher order
processes,” which are the following: