Aristotle and Modern Science, the “Magnificent” Booth Tarkington, and Dog Portraits
It’s the 40th anniversary of Williams S. Burroughs’s Blade Runner—yes, Burroughs’s—and it has been brought back into print by Tangerine Press to mark the occasion: “Blade Runner: A Movie is a breathless, stream-of-consciousness, novella-length treatment for an adaptation of an obscure science fiction book called The Bladerunner, written by Alan E Nourse and published in 1974. Set in a near-future dystopian US, where free healthcare is available to all provided they undergo sterilisation and forego various other genetic liberties, Nourse’s novel sees those who don’t submit forced into accessing underground medical treatment. Billy Gimp is the titular Bladerunner, getting scalpels, drugs and supplies to the illegal, backstreet medics. Burroughs had moved back to New York the year the book was published, after 25 years away from the US. In 1976 he told his agent that he was interested in writing a screenplay of Nourse’s novel.”
New scholarship suggests that the 950-year-old Bayeux Tapestry was made in France, not England: “The majority opinion generally agrees that the embroidery was made in England by English embroiderers, sometime between 1067 and 1092. The first uncontestable documentation of its existence occurs in a 1476 inventory of the treasures of Bayeux Cathedral in Normandy. The tapestry was hung in the cathedral annually until the French Revolution. Yet despite the tapestry’s documented association with the French cathedral, many scholars argue it would be a better fit with a secular context such as a palace . . . Now, new scholarship by Christopher Norton, art history professor emeritus of the University of York, presents evidence that the masterpiece was originally designed specifically to be exhibited in Bayeux Cathedral, probably for its dedication in July 1077.”
Why has it taken so long for the Library of American to issue a volume of Booth Tarkington’s work? Politics, writes Jeremy Beer, but better late than never: “After 319 volumes over 40 years the Library of America (LOA) has finally collected three books by Newton Booth Tarkington. That the only author to win two Pulitzer Prizes for his novels had to wait until the timeless works of James Weldon Johnson, Charles Brockden Brown, David Goodis, and May Swenson had been issued says a good deal about literary politics—but at least the wrong has been righted. As 2019 is the 150th anniversary of Tarkington’s birth—and the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Magnificent Ambersons, his best-known novel—the timing is apt.”
All cinema is about the fear of death. This is especially true of the “late film”: “Fear of death and refusal of old age in movie-making are as old as the moving image itself. Movie stars date appallingly young, and directors sew bone-deep terror of mortality into their images. Film critic André Bazin famously defined the ontology of cinema according to its ‘mummy complex,’ its embalming of time and space. And true to form, something uniquely bizarre occurs when film directors near the death at which they’ve been thumbing their nose by preserving slices of life for one and all to experience. The ‘late film’ has become a class unto itself: what happens to your work if you know this will be one of the last times you point a camera at someone and yell, ‘Action!’? A trio of films released in 2012 — Raúl Ruiz’s Night Across the Street, made when the director was 70; Manoel De Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow, made when he was 102; and Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, made when he was 89 — are perhaps the best recent examples of the late film. They flaunt technological realism, fearlessly placing actors in front of blue screens for long dialogue scenes as the backgrounds shapeshift in fanciful directions. Here a character is at a phantom train station created by computers, there an actor walks inside the barrel of a gun. They exist in a state of autumnal melancholy, as their directors, having lived long enough to finally do whatever they please with the moving image, can only do so knowing this might be the last time they try.”
A short history of dog portraits: “The canine-crazed Victoria did more than anyone to raise the status of dog painting among professional artists. Whereas previous monarchs tended to patronize history painters, Victoria supported animal artists, an extension of her love for creatures generally. ‘No civilisation is complete when it does not include the dumb and defenceless of God’s creatures within the sphere of charity and mercy,’ she said in an 1887 speech glorifying the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals.”
Essay of the Day:
In The New Atlantis, Benjamin Liebeskind writes about the long arm of Aristotle in the sciences:
“Why Aristotle, why now, and why in the one area of study where his thought has been most vociferously rejected — why in science? These questions hover over the new essay collection Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science. The editors anticipate a negative reception, acknowledging in the introduction that ‘for the philosopher or scientist who has yet to explore this burgeoning branch of contemporary philosophy, the existence of such anthologies as this one may at first seem surprising (or even perverse).’ In the foreword, Thomist philosopher John Haldane wonders if the book is not like ‘exploring astrological perspectives on astronomy.’
“They are right to suspect suspicion. Aristotle occupies a unique place in our modern consciousness. His thought, especially his elevation of teleology — a way of explaining things in terms of purposes and ends — was used as a foil by the founders of the modern scientific project. As the founders’ thought has been passed down to us — third-hand, fourth-hand, and eventually as folklore — Aristotle has become a caricature, a bogeyman, a naïve denizen of the demon-haunted world. Of course, an old astrologer could be simply forgotten. But the modern scientific project defined itself in opposition to Aristotle; his mortification is its cornerstone.
“Perhaps for this reason, the authors write conservatively, with the essays structured around rather narrow questions relating to the many theories, sub-fields, and -isms in philosophy of science. However, despite the collection’s academic veneer, it’s easy to see the great ambitions that lie just below the surface. According to the collection’s editors — philosophers William M. R. Simpson of the University of St. Andrews (Scotland), Robert Koons of the University of Texas at Austin, and Nicholas Teh of the University of Notre Dame — a core tenet of ‘neo-Aristotelianism’ is that the causes of natural motion are ‘powers’ that are inherent in particular beings. ‘Beings’ here can mean ordinary objects or ‘things,’ but living organisms are the prime example of beings for both Aristotelians and neo-Aristotelians.
“The ascription of powers to individual beings is a radical rejection of modern physics, which locates causality in fundamental forces and fundamental particles. Physics sees individual beings, the things of the world around us, as like eddies in a river, arising from underlying immutable causes and only appearing to have a persistent being of their own. What permits these neo-Aristotelians to turn against this doctrine, which has been responsible for so much scientific and technical progress in the modern world?
“The answer is that the last century of science has partially recapitulated Aristotle’s teachings on nature, for the most part unwittingly. Since roughly the turn of the twentieth century, the scientific enterprise has focused not only on the elemental, but increasingly also on large-scale phenomena: solids, fluids, organisms, ecosystems, human behavior, and computing machines. Scientists have often maintained that these systems cannot be understood solely in terms of action at the lowest levels of organization. Thus one hears of ‘systems theory’ or ‘the theory of complex systems,’ of ‘holism,’ ‘irreducibility,’ ‘downward causation,’ ‘information theory,’ and other musings from scientists that assert, to quote the physicist Philip Anderson, that ‘more is different’ — that ‘the ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe.’
“These challenges have unknowingly echoed Aristotle. For Aristotle’s science was concerned primarily with the difficulties that arise when we try to discern the causes of beings, of wholes. A return to his ideas, then, is no mere conceit of the fusty halls of academic philosophy, but a clamor coming from science itself. Seen in this light, the claims in Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science do not seem quite so radical. Indeed, one could claim that the authors are attempting to make more explicit what many scientists have been dancing around for a century.”
Photos: Holloways of Dorset
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