Spinoza with Wordsworth: substance and “the life of things”


Like many readers of this blog, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Wordsworth lately. As all who’ve read the “The Prelude” know, “nature” is really important to the developmental trajectory that Wordsworth traces in recursive manner throughout the various versions of the poem. It’s hard to say, however, what exactly Wordsworth’s concept of nature is. The relation between the speaker’s mind and “nature” is configured in different ways, and “nature” is continually being lost, subordinated to the poet’s creative impulse, and recovered. Continue reading “Spinoza with Wordsworth: substance and “the life of things””

Great Balls of Fire: Lightning Storms in Emma Courtney

This week, I was inspired by Arden’s posts of “brief cuts” from her dissertation to go back through ideas I’ve had in courses but have set aside for the time being. I stumbled onto one nugget of research that I found for a class on “Romanticism and Thing Theory,” taught by Prof. Jill Heydt-Stevenson in 2014, in which we were asked every week to identify a “thing” in the texts assigned and dig up historical research on it. Personally, I found the assignment fascinating as a way to learn more about some of the obscure cultural shorthand on the Romantic period (seriously, who knew there were so many different kinds of carriages?). For Mary Hays’s The Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), I looked into classifications of lightning to better understand one pivotal scene between Emma and Augustus.
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Ancient Pedigrees, Old Trees and Numinous Rocks

Theodore Rousseau, The Great Oaks of Old Bas Breau
Theodore Rousseau, The Great Oaks of Old Bas Breau

In Edmund Burke’s attack on the “metaphysic rights” (152) of men that inspired the French Revolution, he urged Britons to look to their “breasts” rather than their “inventions” for the source of liberty. Burke deployed the language of sensibility to naturalize a political system organized around the idea of heredity. The argument goes that inheritance binds English citizens to their constitution with the instinctive force of a bond of kinship. But Burke has to admit that the awe-inspiring aspects of the state –its “pedigree and illustrating ancestors” (121)—are just so many “pleasing illusions” that make “power gentle, and obedience liberal” (171). Psychologically, however, Britons need these institutions because they have so thoroughly internalized the principles that they represent that those principles have become second nature. What keeps property and political representation in the hands of the few is what ties Britons to a shared past and future. Burke’s logic would be like Foucault’s if Foucault had wanted to celebrate the panopticon. Continue reading “Ancient Pedigrees, Old Trees and Numinous Rocks”


This is a sketch I did a number of years ago. It was published originally on my blog White Tower Musings, but I wanted to share it since it was inspired by one of the most, possibly overused but still brilliant poems, Ozymandias by Percy Shelley.
The poem has always been one of my favorites because of its ability to really convey the ephemeral nature of Mankind’s creations.  Men build egos and empires, and in the end it all fades.  Nature is the only force that lasts.
Here’s a link to the original post:

Poem: Canadian Romanticism

This final poem is one I’ve been working on over the last year – the first thing I started thinking about when I joined this project was the (inescapable) connection between colonialism and Romanticist relationships with “the land.” There is a long tradition in Canadian poetry (and American, to an extent) of writing about the settler/pioneer’s emotional connection to the land, one which seems to involve a battle between being controlled by the land (and ultimately driven insane) and being the one in control.
Of course, what is not so much lost as outright ignored in this kind of writing is the existence of other peoples and cultures with their own relationships with the natural world, most obviously in this context the aboriginal peoples of Canada. “The Canadian poets” (by no means an indictment of all Canadian poetry! rather, the name is meant to underscore how unaware the speakers are of other kinds of Canadian poetry) literally gloss over other voices speaking their own relationship between themselves and the landscape around them.
Some of the poems I had in mind in particular, drawn from different time periods and genres, are Earle Birney’s “Bushed,” Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “Dark Pines Under Water,” and Margaret Atwood’s “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer,” all of which are beautiful poems and well worth reading.
Continue reading “Poem: Canadian Romanticism”

Power Over the Land

One major aspect of Romanticism that draws me to it over and over is the deep and ever intense experience of we feel at the vast and powerful places in our landscapes that leave us feeling in awe of nature and – perhaps – at the whim of it. This quality is called the sublime, and is a feeling of some perpetual study in aesthetics and, whether it be spiritual or artistic, I find myself returning to works over and over that tangle with the immensity of nature.

John Pfahl Crystal River Nuclear Plant, Morning, Crystal River, Florida (January 1982)
John Pfahl
Crystal River Nuclear Plant, Morning, Crystal River, Florida (January 1982)

Continue reading “Power Over the Land”

Poem: Tulip Festival

Spring came almost shockingly fast to Ottawa this year, and the annual tulip festival has been going on for the past week. I walk past it on my way to and from work every day and can’t help feeling a little overwhelmed, although not quite willing to be as effusive as a real Romantic would be. Line 12 of this poem is referencing a bit the poem “Tall Tales” by one of my favourite poets, Gwendolyn MacEwen: “Poets and men like me who fight for something/contained in words, but not words” (ll. 15-16).
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The Art of the Book and Romanticizing Landscape

For several months now, I have had the pleasure to work on a project with my friend and fellow artist Cat Snapp. On a Texas summer evening, we discussed over dinner our overlapping interests in the outdoors and the influence it has on our work. Through connection to the geological past or ties to personal culture, we each use print media to speak about the personal, historical, and psychological relationships we have with the world around us. At a certain point, we realized that the project that would best unite our voices and express the feeling we wanted was a letterpress printed artist’s book. It has the power to be intimate with the reader, yet it transcends the starkness of simple text on a page – it can reach into places travelled and landscapes desired.
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Why Franklin's Ship Matters to Romanticists

I was excited to learn, earlier today, that a Canadian marine expedition has located one of Sir John Franklin’s ships on the Arctic seabed, after a 160-year search for material evidence of the ill-fated Victorian voyage to find, chart, and claim the Northwest Passage. One archaeologist, William Battersby, has described the recent find as “the biggest archaeological discovery the world has seen since the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb almost 100 years ago.” The ship, now resting on the sea floor, seems to have been preserved in fairly good condition, and the searchers hope to find artifacts from the voyage — perhaps even photographs — on board.

Franklin's ship -- either Erebus or Terror -- on the ocean floor (photo: Parks Canada)
Franklin’s ship — [UPDATED: Erebus] — on the ocean floor (photo: Parks Canada)
Continue reading “Why Franklin's Ship Matters to Romanticists”

What I Learned About Truth in Pursuit of Reality

In response to Deven’s post regarding her journey toward archaeology via the pursuit of reality, I wanted to use the resonance I felt in her story as a jumping off point for my own post about the nature of reality. While I am compelled by approaches to understanding defined by logic and reason, I find myself sometimes working against both in my role as an artist. I make work in a system that allows for the full creation of possibility and ideas – a world that ascribes to sets and grouping but also readily casts them off in order to make great leaps and bounds of the imagination. Contemporary artists, unfettered by traditional labels that have served much of western art history (though still enriched by that history), move about from media to media, always seeking the best solution to visual questions. Art of the mind is valued as well as art of the hand, and at that juncture, pragmatic fixes need not be applied. As a printmaker interested in geology and compelled by the scientific method, I was searching for artistic solutions that had practical, empirical answers.  I wanted to find the place where art and science met. Perhaps after one too many philosophy papers, I decided to close the book on abstract ideas and go out into the field.
Much of my work deals with narrative and the quest for the truth in that space. Truth, for me, was about getting to the heart of what really happened on a cold day in December that has long since passed and can now only be accessed through memories. I have no observable data or evidence. The reality of each moment is a driving concern, and if I can create output of those moments, perhaps they will be easier to analyze and interpret. The prints that I create deal with specific times and places, and I can correlate that nicely with rocks in the field that I learned about through geological field exploration. For instance, pick a memory from your childhood, say, around fourth grade. Were there other people there?
What kind of day was it?
Can you recall what you were wearing?
In the epochs of the history of this earth, that blink in your existence could be akin to a river flooding in the Late Cretaceous. Perhaps some plant matter is trapped in with the sediments rushing over the banks, a picture of that day in the memory of the earth, now lithified. Literally, set in stone.
People will remember things differently, and focus on separate parts of events. Humans get details wrong and let their emotions dictate how they feel about certain memories. The earth, however, could only ever tell you the truth.  It records events as they happen, and if you wanted to find out the story – “the reality” – all you need to know is how to read the rocks.

Nicole Geary, Wonders of the Rocks, detail, Exhibited 2013. Granites, Gypsum, Limestones, Prints. Dimensions Variable.
Nicole Geary, Wonders of the Rocks, detail, Exhibited 2013. Granites, Gypsum, Limestones, Prints. Dimensions Variable.

Going forward with this proposition, in late 2012 I set about making an installation titled Wonders of the Rocks: Passages I – IV. It is a collection of various hand-collected granites, gypsum, shale and limestones, placed onto shelves of varying widths. Each shelf contains a set of rocks meant to signify some narrative or implied story amongst the grouping. Some of the rocks used in the piece were covered with my own interpretation, or memory, of that rock so that you could no longer see its real story underneath. The piece is hung low on the wall and arranged in a linear format, meant to be “read,” as one literally reads rocks in the field, looking ever downward. I wanted the viewer to come to this piece and kneel down or bend over as one does when searching for samples. If the meaning of some small passage was lost to the passerby who did not fully engage with the piece, to me this is symbolic of the geologist who loses sight of the details and fumbles even the smallest of notes. A misinterpreted strike and dip of strata could change how one reads a formation entirely, much the same with small intonations in the translation of a foreign text.
Nicole Geary, Wonders of the Rocks, Passages I-IV, Exhibited 2013. Granites, Gypsum, Limestones, Prints. Dimensions Variable.
Nicole Geary, Wonders of the Rocks, Passages I-IV, Exhibited 2013. Granites, Gypsum, Limestones, Prints. Dimensions Variable.

I am still working on the idea here between what is meant by the signs and signified, but now I am incorporating cues from language. Maps still play a role to me as guides in making meaning for geological work, but the idea that these rocks can transcend that and become a new language interested me. I’d attempted to construct a meaning, a language, and a truth from reality – actual pieces of the geological record of the earth. I specifically thought of the work One and Three Chairs, executed by Joseph Kosuth in 1965. He gives us an artifact, documentation, and an explanation, but wherein lies the truth?  At one point, a member of my committee had to tell me, “You need to let go of this idea of the truth.”  I had become stubbornly attached to the idea that each rock was telling me a true story. It is okay to walk away from a set of rocks and misunderstand them, as their language is multifunctional, in a constant state of change (literally from sedimentary to metamorphic to igneous), and open to vast interpretation. There is no one set of passages that can equal one meaning, much the same in language.
But the question persisted: What do we hold the most important? The thing or the idea of the thing?
Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965. MOMA.
Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965. Wood Folding Chair, Mounted Photograph of a Chair, and Mounted Photographic Enlargement of the Dictionary Definition of “Chair,” Chair: 32.38 x 14.88 x 20.88 in. (82.00 x 37.80 x 53.00 cm.), Photographic Panel: 36.00 x 24.13 in. (91.50 x 61.10 cm.), Text Panel: 24.00 x 24.13 in. (61.00 x 61.30 cm.), Museum of Modern Art, New York, URL Link to Artwork

Along the way I began to think of reality and truth as the same. I could hold a rock physically in my hand, inspect it under a microscope, classify it, and make a very good estimation about how it was formed. Touching a rock was, to me, like picking up a page from the history book of the world. Each rock was a true statement, and if I collected enough of them, I would start to have an alphabet from which to begin a new language.
If these minerals and rocks are important to me as signs, so is what is signified. When I look back at Kosuth’s Chairs, I am reminded of a print that brings this entire endeavor back around again for me. Blue Print, 1992, by Abigail Lane is one of a series of inked chairs that has a felted inkpad in the seat. The placement of the chair so near the wall, the print of the bodily mark hung nearby, almost as evidence but more as connection, calls forth the Kosuth as an artistic antecedent. The print in this artwork acts on several levels: as a record of an action, as a tie-in to the sculpture, and as an image for visual consumption. There is a language beginning to take shape in the print, which is made directly from the body. Almost like a trace fossil found near an outcrop, you can safely guess that one came from the other.
Abigail Lane, Blue Print, 1992.  http://abigaillane.co.uk/
Abigail Lane, Blue Print, 1992.

I wanted to tell the story of place and of memory with 100% accuracy, but here’s the rub – even in geology you cannot do that. You can make very educated statements and qualified guesses, but there will always be some unknown factor. In the sciences, they warn of “observational bias” tainting your results, but in the art world, observational bias is the most important thing you’ve got.