Bodies and weights

As you stand in the middle of an art gallery, you might want to slowly turn your head around the room, like a camera filming one long take. Each painting comes to you as a unified composition, a kaleidoscopic monolith, and all together they compose a necklace of rocks. Even if you stop your gaze on one of them, the situation doesn’t change much – at least not at first. A painting, whether from the middle ages or the baroque era, first appears to its viewer like an impenetrable mineral. The images it displays are present all together on the canvas in a state of perfect synchronicity, which is unlike our usual experience of the world. Everything in the painting happens simultaneously, thus suspending time. This temporality-beyond-time overwhelms us, reducing the image in front of us to a mere bunch of colours and shapes, more or less pleasantly arranged. This is the stage at which some viewers desist, some linger ecstatically, while others get ready to break the stillness.

In order to start ‘making sense’, the stillness of pictorial synchronicity has to be brought back into the dynamism of motion. Even though it is a passage from stillness to movement, this is far from an acceleration. The pictorial composition itself is already at such a speed, that it transcends time itself – like synchronicity transcends the present. The passage from synchronicity to diachronicity unfolds along a rhythm that is already present at the initial, synchronous stage of a picture. It is a ‘recitation’ of the composition, akin to a musician inserting time into a score by performing it. We find this same tension underlining a fundamental shift in Western art, which is seen by some as the spark that ignited Western modernity. Let us think for example about the passage from an early medieval painting to a work from the Renaissance era of perspective: even though in both cases the painting itself remains a synchronous object (open to diachronicity only through the viewer’s effort), in the former case it is content to remain in this state, while in the latter it appears eager to be set in motion. To the flat landscapes of medieval art, corresponds the monophony of medieval music – as to the new perspective of renaissance art corresponds then-emerging polyphonic melodies.

Let us now try to apply the same reasoning to our own surroundings. When I look at the table in front of me, with remnants of dinner still lying about among ashtrays and books, do I see a flat scene like a Byzantine Last Supper, or a still life in the style of 17th century Flemish art? The question is more open than it might seem at first. Of course, full-bodied perspective comes closer to our contemporary unpacking of visual stimuli, but this doesn’t mean that it comes any closer than two-dimensionality to our actual visual experience of the world. Likewise, polyphony appears to account better than monophony for the several layers of sounds that we are able to grasp and decode – yet this is not sufficient reason to declare it more faithful to our actual auditory experience. But how can this be? This issue might become clearer if we examine it through a different angle, considering the different ways in which the objects of the world can make their appearance as phenomena to our experience.

The question is whether we perceive objects and sounds around ourselves as bodies, or as weights. As bodies, the entities that populate our world present themselves to us along the lines of perspective and polyphony. Their presence is multi-layered and well-ordered across multiple lines of flight, yet it is skin-deep. Things-as-bodies condense the essence of perspective into a function of light, while ceaselessly speaking, chattering and most often giggling, like a quintet by Boccherini. Even though they take place following the strict rules of perspective, bodies in the real world are closer to Rococo follies. Conversely, if we take the entities of the world as weights, the landscape around us changes quite dramatically. Things cease to have a skin or a body – their presence is transformed into a buzzing force, pressing through space upon time. Despite their plurality, they all appear to be humming the same note, monophonically. Many a time each of us has experienced the world this way, for example when locking gazes with another person – possibly a loved one. When looking at a painting from a distance, taking it all in one glance, the feeling that we have is the same: it approaches us not as a body, but as a weight. Only later, when we manage to insufflate some movement into it, the painting’s composition reveals itself as a body.

Bodies and weights also differ in the way in which they position themselves, so to say, geographically. Bodies are entities inserted in a context, creating in turn a context for the other bodies. Weights, on the other hand, are forces ordered within a framework that at once defines and transcends them. This framework that orders entities-as-weights, is not itself a weight – it is weightless and luminous, like a body. Equally, the force that ‘weaves together’ bodies (as per the etymology of ‘context’, con texere) is not itself a body – it is a skinless, lightless weight. Bodies and weights acts as each other’s fundamental frames, the former actualising the latter, the latter existentiating the former. A painting’s whole, synchronic composition creates the context in which bodies can drape their skin across space and time, while bodies allow the composition to be more than just an architectural possibility.

The untidy dinner table in front of me right now has both aspects, as does the music coming out my laptop’s speakers. There is no pure unity nor pure multiplicity: each polyphony is a refraction of monophonies, and each monophony is a perfectly coagulated polyphony. The empty glasses surrounding my ashtray are both flat and full-bodied, two and three dimensional. My kitchen table is at the same time Ugolino da Siena’s 14th century Last Supper, and Adriaen van Utrecht’s 1642 Vanitas. Only by realising and accepting their double nature, am I able to look at the scene in my kitchen – or indeed at any scene, object or event anywhere, anytime – as a painting or a piece of music. Likewise, only separating the two natures, am I capable of looking at each painting or piece of music, truly as a world in itself. Art’s synchronic paradox offers to us a method to look at the world, while the sequential pace of worldly experience offers to us a method to look at art. Art accelerates the world, unveiling its unfathomable complexity; while the world slows down art, manifesting the complicatedness underneath its apparent simplicity. One has to be insinuated into the other, like warp and weft.

Before closing, let’s embark briefly on a detour, following the symbolism of weight. As discussed above, each entity has a body and a weight of its own. Yet sometimes it appears as if certain things had suddenly lost all their weight. They become weightless, both in the sense of being reduced to pure bodies, and in that of losing all importance. What happens to what has lost all weight? What has no weight is not attracted by any gravitational force, it is not in the orbit of anything else. The weightless is perfectly alone, without relations. If the entire existent was somehow finite, it would be weightless. Yet, as we said earlier, weightlessness is the condition of a body as such, and bodies are located within a context made up of other bodies. How can they be isolated after all? We can perhaps unravel this contradiction, if we consider the acceptation of ‘weight’ as ‘importance’. Importance is an interplay between forces sharing a common framework, where the frame itself is equidistant from and internal to each force – acting as the standard of all measure, while at the same time transcending it. The weightless thought, the noise that supports and disturbs our conscious flow, is the frame that determines the reciprocal importance of each drop of our thinking. Each sound acquires its unique taste on the basis of the specific noise over which it reverberates. It is noise that allows sounds to compose harmonies made out of passages of reciprocal weight. There can be no silence, as long as we have thoughts conversing with each other. Below them, an equidistant noise prepares the concert hall, reading musicians and audience for their debate.

What something non ha peso ('it has no weight/importance'), it is as if reintegrated into this general frame, becoming itself a frequency of cosmogonic noise. It becomes homo sacer (the 'sacred man', of Agamben’s ‘bare life’ memory), at once stripped of all rights and foundational to any right. This is the function of pure bodies towards weights, but also, more generally, of the negative towards the positive. The challenges that we put aside without hope of tackling them again, make up the framework that allows us to face those to which we remain faithful. More than our failures, it is our own kind of hopelessness that determines and enables the range of our actions. Without any hopelessness, the whole field of the achievable would collapse into an atomic point – as it happens with ecstasy, perfect contentment or death. But when I consider what I want, and particularly what I allow myself to want, I see in it the reflection of my very own kind of hopelessness. Beethoven’s later music is the manifestation of his particular form of tinnitus, like a person’s form of love is the manifestation of the particular kind of abandonment that they feel. The unique distraction that is typical to each writer shines in their best lines.

Observing our own personal noise or hopelessness, might allow us to spy beyond the screen where the spectacle of our achievements unfolds, spotting the lens of the projector in the distance. And perhaps, in a moment of terrifying grace, we might even be able to see also beyond the projector, stealing a brief glance at the projectionist – thin and curved inside their cabin. Alone beyond loneliness, since they never met anything other than their lenses and the images traversing the screen. At peace beyond peacefulness, and thus shaken restless by melancholia. This is the self to whom noise and sound, distraction and concentration, bodies and weights, appear as children equal in rights. A non-lucid dreamer who forgot if he ever was awake, if anything ever existed outside his dream. The self, seeking a way out of its slumber by sinking deeper into its own sleep. The self who ultimately writes, and about whom we cannot write.