Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Butler Library through time

Butler Library
Butler Library is the largest of the more than twenty libraries and collections comprising Columbia University Libraries. It has an important number of reading rooms, while the heart of it lies in the stacks consisting in 15 independent floors of nearly 2 million books. It was opened in 1934 as the "South Hall", being renamed in 1946 in honour of Nicholas Murray Butler, president of the University from 1902-1945.

This library is a fantastic place to ramble through idea of passage of time throughout its different spaces. It is a center that remains open every day of the year and 24 hours a day. It is said there is a real Butler Culture, where students tend to stick to their own preferred reading rooms, and entire social networks develop around these after some time. It is also said that during midterms and finals some students virtually camp out in the library, leaving their belongings there.

Butler library is in fact a place where people spend hours and days, picking out favourite places to read or work with their laptops. It implies for many of them passing a number of hours in one single space, certainly experiencing diverse notions of the passage of time. It is quite remarkable that even though it is essentially a quiet space, it is full of motion. People travel in and out, sit in their usual space according to availability, go to the restroom, sit again, unplug the laptop, pack everything, walk and leave by opening the heavy entrance door as a true threshold to the exterior world.

Butler Library reading room.
The library is a whole world by itself, with different environments in which the passage of time is experienced in different ways. For instance, the reading rooms are usually open places with windows, surrounded by bookshelves, shared reading tables and individual reading cubicles, in which there is usually a fair amount of people. Spending several hours in these reading rooms allow perceiving difference in light and shadows from the outside that mark the day’s course. It is a quiet area in which every individual constitute a separate cognitive and experiential unit with little amount of interaction. However, it is possible to notice an intensive dynamic of activity and flowing bodies through space that essentially represents each one’s occupation and particular duties (governed by time).

The Stacks
The stacks are a completely different dimension in which there is no connection with the outside world, and where time passes with no other external reference but the clock. Its 15 levels are mainly filled with dark bookshelves, and a reading station with a shared long table usually in each level. The sensation of time here is given by its hermetic environment, and a distinctive old book smell. In an article from The New York Times Ben Ratliff elaborates an experiential description from this environment: “You hold the books in your hand and feel the weight and size; the typography and the paper talk to you about time. A lot of libraries smell nice, but the smell of the Butler stacks is a song of organic matter… A fantastic, pre-acidic-paper smell: burned caramel, basically. Nobody there but you” (Ratliff 2012).
Marks on main door.
Time has passed and is passing in Butler library, which is expressed through movements of its occupants. Even though some spaces seem sometimes in an abandoned or hermetic state, if determined by minutes or hours, they sure possess a constancy of movement in terms of days, weeks and days. This motion can be most easily observed by patterns of marks and wearing were the flow is intensified. This can be seen right from the beginning in the entrance door. People grab the right side of the door from the outside and inside, leaving a clear area free of bronze oxide from the constant rubbing of hands that polish the surface. Other marks can be seen in the entrance of restrooms.
Slight indentation on black marble stairs.
Detailed view of wear on the edge of black marble steps.
It is curious to notice that in the staircases where people are not usually seen, you can find the most definite trace of movement. This is expressed through a slight indentation in the black marble steps near the rail, getting even closer to the rail when the stairs turn the opposite way toward the next segment. This indentation caused by this constant movement of people, evokes the passage of thousands of steps walking up and down, dragging slightly their shoes and rubbing the black marble steps in a clear motion pattern. Small particles of dust or sand trapped in the shoe grooves act as effective abrasive agents in a constant flow through days, years and decades.

This leads us to different scales of time, in which the immediacy of seconds, minutes and hours, may not reflect long scale movements through time. On the other hand, the immediacy of identifying these long term patterns allows us to recreate an image of this long term passage and perceive oneself as part of this recreation. Suddenly the image arises of breathing bodies moving through the library’s different spaces, dragging their shoes or rubbing their hands in particular areas, creating marks that hold silent testimony of this dynamic through time.


Ratliff, Ben
“Grazing in the Stacks of Academe”. The New York Times. Published: June 26, 2012. Retrieved from the web on February 19, 2013.

“About Butler Library”. Retrieved from the web on February 19, 2013.

“Butler Library - WikiCU, the Columbia University wiki encyclopedia”. Retrieved from the web on February 19, 2013.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Dreaming and “Time-Reckoning”

I have an obsessive, recurring dream of loosing a tooth or several, swallowing it/them, and lots of light…And in the dream, it hurts excruciatingly as if in reality; or maybe the hurt is manifested in anxiety over the loss, the pain, or the feeling of responsibility for the loss…The pain and loss are the symbolic value I have attached to the interpretation of this lingering feeling in the material form of the dream, even accounting for the agony I sleep through and awaken with. 

The state of anxiety, agony, pain has been experienced, even exaggerated in such graphic ways – breaking, pulling, followed by swallowing and wailing  in the dream that persists while living in New York City over the past few years, than loosing a fourth of a tooth in reality while living in Cairo at the age of eight…Running through piles of backpacks left in front of my school church at Wednesday mass, annoyed by the secrecy of the mass and its restriction only to Christian students, I kept peeping into the church entrance…When caught (by the soeur[1]), I pretended to be chasing a friend around the churchyard, erasing any symptoms of being seduced by the foreclosure of the church and its ritual…As I tripped over a backpack arm, I fell to the ground and chipped a front tooth…At that point I felt (saw) the pain of my bleeding knee from the fall; only then realizing that something happened inside my mouth through the horrified expression on my older sister’s face and the placement of her hand on mouth…I felt around my lips and mouth for blood, finding none, instead feeling the sharpness of a jagged edge of a tooth…In horror, I ran to the bathroom staring in the mirror at this gapping hole in my set of pearly whites.

Since then, I have taken pride (and my sweet time) in obsessive cleaning habits, expecting nothing short of pure whiteness – bright as the sun…But in the dream, sunlight hurts: the sight and physicality of the feeling of breaking my teeth, loosing, and swallowing is insurmountable…In fact, I wake up feeling for my teeth, and squinting from that blinding near-white brightness that shakes me out of the physical reflexes of the dream.

What is the relationship between dreamtime and real time? Is a dream state the period (and arena) where excessive thoughts and energy are expended? If dreaming can be considered an unproductive activity in a space where the exertion of energy is unquantifiable, then it seems the general allocation of my daily energy must be leaving a remainder to be expended elsewhere. But what does this elsewhere allow for, and how does it acquire an unquantifiable, even unprofitable quality? Calling it a constructed space of imagination gives it fixity, and puts too much of its possibility in the conscious hands of the dreamer. Perhaps it is the excessive time-space that houses extra thought, experience, even (re)interpretation, or the obsessive and unresolved residue of the excess of everyday life.

Freud’s “pleasure principle” contradictorily tells us that there is no such thing as enough; that there is a built in need for excess; a flaming flamboyance exaggerating utility, necessity, and acquisition. For Freud, expenditure is a discharge of sexual energy, a closed system of economics (Brown, Dionysus in 1990 183). Does this sexual energy create a hierarchical split between desire in the mind and discharge of the body? And what is a temporality that is of the body and not of the mind? It might help here if I revisit the breakdown of some traditional categories of interpretation: for animals (monkeys and gorillas), showing teeth is a sign of aggression; for humans showing teeth while smiling is a sign of pleasantry, submission, conformity. Both are somehow reflected in the dream, and the feelings and energy attached in vividly experiencing it; but neither accounts for its time-space or unproductive capacity to exert such energy, nor what makes the two excessive.

To explore the potentiality of dreamtime, I would like to turn to Evans-Pritchard’s distinction between “oecological time” and “structural time:” the former represents people’s (specifically, Nuer’s) relationship to their environment; the latter reflects their relationship to one another in the “social structure” (Evans-Pritchard, Nuer Time-Reckoning 189). Now, I would like to apply this breakdown in time-values to the type of activity taking place in the dream state: I can exert energy to run and (unintentionally) break a tooth, which becomes the residue-base for the (intentional) breaking, swallowing, and mourning of (losing) my teeth in a dream. Here, the (failed) attempt to apply this distinction in time-values shows that the concepts of oecological and structural time do not square themselves onto real time and dreamtime. I believe one reason for this to be that the material and symbolic activity as well as time in both states is difficult to parcel out let alone measure.

Can the energy expensed by a dreamer be only an unproductive product made up of processed thought, regurgitated experience, or reconfigured possibility? Here, product seems to fall back into the closed cycle of a productive economy, and not the realm of consumption where a dream can be a possible stowage for the excessive. But is consumption – of thought, of time, of action – a form of reception whereby one looses in receiving, or gives up to get back? Here, the exchange is one of power; power then figures as the ability to loose as much as gain, the imposition of giving through return, which can create rivalry in the form of exchange.

If unproductive activity in dreamtime is the need to exceed the closedness of production time, then consumption comes to serve a creative form of destruction. Is creative potentiality or expenditure then the ridding of what has been acquired through consumption of thought and experience? But how does that account for excess in dreamtime without repeating the closedness or polarity of the production cycle? And can a sleep state that contains dreamtime still be considered part of real time? Finally, on the terms of loss, does not something stand in residue, like the creative energy or compulsion in destruction? And since there is no definition of what is of use value to individuals, is the end of production through the modes of consumption then the end of utility?

The idea of loss or (the ridding of material habit in an immaterial state) seems to best ground what an excessive time-space can do in stripping production out of an activity to yield its meaning beyond the latter’s closed system. But if meaning in (the exchanges of) our waking is always in surplus, then its residue must somehow seep into our sleep. Does the spectacle in the dream – or the spectatorship of it upon waking, possibly recollection – extract or abstract meaning from the everyday? Does it come to stand for a symbolic expenditure, whereby thoughts, experiences, and articulations are propelled by an unproductive energy to shatter their prior meanings, to manipulate their time and use values through an entirely obsolete and profitless exertion? Here, the stuff of everyday life – acquired and accumulated in waking – can be unmade, repeated, or remade in the dream state. Whatever the creative form, I find that in order for it to be expended, this leftover symbolic energy destroys, thereby retracting itself from the cycle of material value; making any of its resonating sensorial qualities (in sleep or waking) residual.

If sleep is a transgressive break with or suspension of the time of being awake, what is the connection between structural time and oecological time, (of action and imagination) more? Does dreamtime become an expended state of symbolic anxiety over the material world? In taking excess, and dispensing it into a time-space that enables energy to hover without ever reaching an end product, dreams can be understood to turn the stuff of everyday life into the stuff of imagination. The power to destroy, to loose, to give up becomes generative. But of what? Of an unproductive experience, or time-space that transform our own sense of temporality, creating a slippage between dreamtime and real time? Something else lies at (even breaks) the seams of sleep and waking: if sleep can be read as a desire to rest from, suspend, or undo the material value of waking, then one must exist on the premise of the other’s destruction. Without running a distinct line between material and symbolic values of time, I would like to speculate that the toing and froing between the state of sleeping and waking is a form of exchange. What does the sleep state accomplish by outdoing the material value of waking through its suspension, or replacement by the symbolic? Perhaps the dream state allows for a time-space where destructive and creative power can be attained, dispensed, even vanquished by waking without the loss lending itself to only symbolizing the dynamism of material production.

I do not think that consumption – of a destructive power or residue of material value – in giving up or breaking habit leads to a halting of time, but its transport. If consuming time in waking leads to its expenditure in sleep, then excess becomes a core instance of imagination. And something about consumption in the dream state comes to resemble a spiritual activity, or a consummation of spirit whereby the lines between mind and body, conscious and unconscious are untraceable. Is time in excess then the liminal state between waking and sleep, the powers conveyed between the two, or the dream itself? When dreaming, I consider the energy exerted to be lingering in a space impregnated with possibility over which I have no control or will to produce. And the unproductive activity seems to designate the dream as one instance of it. But what does it mean to do things in dreams? And what does that allow in terms of understanding (and valuing) energy, self, and the time-space between waking, sleeping, and awakening?

by Menna Khalil

View blog
Suggested Readings:
1. Bataille, Georges. 1985. "The Notion of Expenditure," in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. and trans. by Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  
2. Brown, Norman O. 1992. Dionysus in 1990.
3. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1939. "Nuer Time-Reckoning," in Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. Vol. 12(2): 189-216. 
4. Gell, Alfred. 1992. The Anthropology of Time: Cultural Constructions of Temporal Maps and Images. Oxford; Providence: Berg.  

[1] Mine was a Franciscan all girls’ Catholic school administered by nuns – soeurs. The English equivalent – sister – is still strange to me, given the familiarity and intimacy of the term soeur.   

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Art of Clock Time

The Frick Collection’s “Precision and Splendor: Clocks and Watches” exhibit features eleven clocks and fourteen watches. They date from the early sixteenth to the nineteenth century. They include table clocks in ornate cases, pocket watches with enamel cases, as well as wall clocks with sculptured cases.

Case by Charles Cressent (1685-1768)
The clock is a curious thing, for it can be classified as an appliance and a decorative object. That is to say, it belongs to the category of decorative arts. The term decorative art stands in opposition to fine art. The distinction between the two classifications being that the later is art-for-art’s-sake while the former is the beautification of a utilitarian object. The delineation rests on a notion of practicality (i.e. the arts with a useful purpose are decorative, and the arts that do not serve any specific function other than beauty are fine).
David Weber (1623/24-1704)

Interestingly, the show does not focus on the utilitarian aspect; instead, it concentrates almost solely on the ornamentation. Put simply, the interest is in the form not the function. As a result, the shift from mantle to display case entails a transformation in which the decorated utilitarian object is divorced from its function.

The hour and minute hands are at rest as are the pulleys, springs, weights, and pendulums. When one looks at the clock in the gallery it is not to read the time of day, but to admire or appreciate the outer form. What are the consequences of displaying a timekeeper in such a manner that it can only fulfill its decorative function?

Chavannes le Jeune (active c. 1650-1660)
The pieces in a fine art museum have been removed from their original contexts. The Frick provides a space for objects that fall under the rubric of fine arts to function in largely the same way that they did in their original contexts. Put another way, the items that are considered to be fine art are viewed much in the same way as they were intended. The reason being that they are aesthetic objects—intended for contemplation. In a fine art museum these items are reflected upon and examined. 

Lenoble a Paris (dates unknown)

In a fine art museum, the decorative objects are not being viewed in the manner that they were originally intended. The decorative object was made for practical everyday use—not solely for contemplation. And so, the Frick cannot provide a context in which an item such as a clock can retain its epistemological value as a utilitarian object.

Is the piece of decorative art turned into a piece of fine art? What does it mean for the three-dimensional utilitarian object with aesthetic merit to be separated from its function? Does the shift change how we view or perceive the object? Has the function changed? Can the commercial item transcend its commercial nature, and present art in its pure form? When we try to reconfigure the role of the museum clock do we take into account the creator’s intent (the function for which it was intended), the viewer’s attitude, or the nature of the thing itself?  

Author: Natasha Davis
Suggested Reading:
Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2007)


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Measured Time, Meaning, and Milk

Food is an aspect of everyday life that is, at once, totally exotic and utterly banal. You could describe time in similar terms. Pausing to think about the process of pasteurization of milk in New York City, and the debates that surround it as a standard practice of production, can bring us to the core of questions on how time is commonly conceptualized, the history of these conceptualizations, and how they structure contemporary human formations. Big stuff, I know. 

Pasteurization is, essentially, the process whereby milk is cleansed. In New York City, it is illegal to sell raw (i.e. unpasteurized) milk. The logic of this prohibition is that raw milk can carry dangerous pathogens like E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter, and it has been linked to illnesses that result in kidney failure, heart attacks, and paralysis. This list of possible side effects is by no means exhaustive though it is representative of the panoply of possible worst-case scenarios. Pasteurization involves heating the milk to specified degrees for specified amounts of time. There are different configurations of time and heat with different benefits for shelf life, cost reduction, and so on. The first part of the pasteurization process for New York City’s last dairy standing, Elmhurst Dairy, involves testing the milk for “antibiotics, bacteria, and proper temperature”. If it passes these intitial tests, milk is then sent to silos to be separated according to its prospective milkfat percentage (1%, 2%, 3.5%). The milk then pasteurized by what is called “high temperature, short time” pasteurization. That is, the milk is run through pipes that are heated on the outside by water; the milk is then kept at 171 degrees Fahrenheit for exactly 27 seconds; and then, it is “immediately” cooled back down. 

What is noticeable as one peruses Elmhurst Dairy’s website is the shift in register, or narrative voice, when it comes to pasteurization. The rest of the statements on the website are made on vague terms that tap into the imagined consumer’s positive feelings regarding treatment of animals, locality, environmentalism, and so on. However, these vague and feel-good discussions, as product claims, rest on the ability to make claims that are rooted in brute material realities. These "brute material realities" are the time milk spends travelling from farm to processing center to store, the time milk spends being heated to ensure that the pathogens picked up from contact with fecal matter or infection on the udder, for example, are expunged. They are times that can be precisely specified, and in this possibility of specification, times that can be aligned with abstract state and national level laws regarding public health. This alignment can subsequently be turned into product claims that align with the cultural ethos of a particular moment. In this case, that ethos is a focus on purity cum nutrition. 

The clock times used to measure valid pasteurization have not always existed. Neither was the invention and systematization of measured clock time natural and inevitable. Rather, it was a shift that required much effort by states, factory owners, and the church. What is more, it took place over several decades and often in contexts of punishment (Dohrn-Van Rossum 1996). The clock times used in pasteurization can be thought of as demarcations laid over a material reality (milk) undergoing fluid changes. There are innumerable moments of biochemical metamorphosis comprising the larger, threshold change of state of raw to pasteurized. Dan Berber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill Stone Barns, and advocate for raw milk, is cited in the New Yorker stating, “I think milk has a superior flavor when it’s not pasteurized […] And I love the challenge of working with something that’s changing constantly” (Emphasis added). The status of pasteurized milk, as commodity and food, begs the question of what kind of social temporal consciousness is relied on and being reiterated in the way time is used in the science of product claims? Further, what is the relation of present to past in terms of conceptualizations of time, and the projects to which these conceptualizations are being put to use?

Dohrn-Van Rossum, Gerhard. 1996. History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.