We went to the art book fair here yesterday. Art book might conjure up visions of the oversized book of impressionist paintings that graced the table in your folks’ living room, accruing over time a light surface of dust. There weren’t those. These were small press and zine books, with a fair amount of arty and not so arty porn, poetry, artist collaborations, essays, and dozens of mags; among the latter we came upon the table for Cabinet.
Cabinet is, no contest, the best magazine in America. Don’tbelieve me? Check out their archive, which is mostly free.
We decided to increase our media load and buy a year’s subscription. It was a great bargain – less than 30 bucks. Reader, go and do likewise.
The first thing I read in the new issue, which we took home with us, was a wonderful essay with Michael Witmore about his book, Culture of Accidents: Unexpected knowledges in Early Modern England. In spite of the air of solecism around “knowledges” in that title, Witmore is an impressively articulate interviewee. His thesis is that, broadly, the notion of accident changed in the 17th century. At the beginning of the century, and for centuries past, accident was, in normal, educated circles, an Aristotelian thing:
“… the idea of an accident as an event was essentially the idea that wo independent causal lines could meet in a given place at a given moment and produce something that could not have been foressn by either of those causal agents. So Aristotle’s example would be two people go to the marketplace, one goes to buy olive oil, the other goes to buy grapes, and they meet accidentally in the marketplace and settle a debt on that ocassion. “
As a good little derridean, I hold no example is innocent, and that an example of the accident that sticks in a marketplace and debt is something that can be gone into muchly. But I’ll put a brake on my inner Jacques and go on to Witmore’s sense of how this notion changed in the 17th century.
“Calvin’s sense is that there is a theater of God’s judgment in the world, that God communicates through theater, and that accidental events – things that just seem to happen – are precisely those sttartling events that get a rise out of the spectator and in fact engage the conscience in unusual and startling ways.”
Now, those origin-mongers out there would probably say that Calvin didn’t just come up with this, and we can go back and back all the way to the Vedas for similar views. Anthropologists used to claim that, universally, all human death is looked upon as murder of some sort in “savage” society. I am not sure that this factoid is still upheld in contemporary anthropology, but it surely did have backing in many societies far away from Calvin’s Geneva (although let me butt in here and say that I don’t think those cultures were all that far away – the idea that the European cultures were different, were civilized, were where the progress was, is a faith-based claim, which any survey of European societies – from Galician peasants in the twentieth century to Parisian voyou – would put to flight. The West is just savages with video games, as far as I can see).
Still, Witmore might be on to something here, some further fracture in the order of things.
Myself, I confess to having a high regard for what Pierce called tychism – the idea that coincidence underlies the physical structure of the universe, and that it is irreducible to physical law. I’ve always found the calculations about the probability of there being a big bang, or there being life on earth, etc., curiously blind to the fact that this probability must also encompass the probability that probability calculations can be made. Tychism, as I see it, means that all things swim, as the accident of that particular moment, in a sea of accidents. From this viewpoint, the extended phenotype of an event – say, the waves in the sea –includes the sound of the waves in a seashell cupped to an infant’s ear. That sound is really, of course, the throbbing of our common blood, but its recognition as the sound of waves is wrapped up with what waves are. Though we can erase the contingent factors around the wave – there could be no seashell, there could be no infant – we cannot erase the possibility of seashells and infants.
Which is another way of saying that we grope in the unknown as variables of that dark element, in all worlds and at world’s end, amen.