The Chernobyl Herbarium


Some images in Anaïs Tondeur’s Chernobyl Herbarium are the explosions of light. Others are softly glowing, breathing with fragility and precariousness. The explosive imprints are, in effect, reminiscent of volcanic eruptions at night, hot lava spewing from the depths of the earth. Even assuming it is not an actual trace of radiation (which the specimens in the herbarium have received from the isotopes of cesium-137 and strontium-90 mixed with the soil of the exclusion zone) that comes through and shines forth from the plants’ contact with photosensitive paper, the resulting works of art cannot help but send us back to a space and time outside the frame, wherein this Linum usitatissimum germinated, grew, and blossomed.

The images are the visible records of an invisible calamity, tracked across the threshold of sight by the power of art. The literal translation from Greek of the technique used here, photogram, is a line of light. Not a photograph, the writing of light, but a photogram, its line captured on photosensitive paper, upon which the object is placed. In writing, a line is already too idealized, too heavy with meaning, overburdened with sense, nearly immaterial. In a photograph, light’s imprint is further removed from the being that emitted or reflected it than in a photogram, where, absent the camera, the line can be itself, can trace itself outside the system of coded significations and machinic mediations. The grammé of a photogram imposes itself from up close. Touching… It endures: etched, engraved, engrained, the energy it transported both reflected (or refracted) and absorbed. Much like radiation, indifferently imbibed by whatever and whoever is on its path – the soil, buildings, plants, animals, humans – yet uncontainable in any single entity whose time-frame it invariably overflows. Through her aesthetic practice, Tondeur detonates, releases the explosions of light trapped in plants, its lines dispersed, crisscrossing photograms every which way. She liberates luminescent traces without violence, avoiding the repetition of the first, invisible event of Chernobyl and, at the same time, capturing something of it. Release and preservation; preservation and release: by the grace of art.

The Chernobyl Herbarium


Conjuncted: Demise of Ontology


The demise of ontology in string theory opens new perspectives on the positions of Quine and Larry Laudan. Laudan stressed the discontinuity of ontological claims throughout the history of scientific theories. String theory’s comment on this observation is very clear: The ontological claim is no appropriate element of highly developed physical theories. External ontological objects are reduced to the status of an approximative concept that only makes sense as long as one does not look too closely into the theory’s mathematical fine-structure. While one may consider the electron to be an object like a table, just smaller, the same verdict on, let’s say, a type IIB superstring is not justifiable. In this light it is evident that an ontological understanding of scientific objects cannot have any realist quality and must always be preliminary. Its specific form naturally depends on the type of approximation. Eventually all ontological claims are bound to evaporate in the complex structures of advanced physics. String theory thus confirms Laudan’s assertion and integrates it into a solid physical background picture.

In a remarkable way string theory awards new topicality to Quine’s notion of underdeterminism. The string theoretical scale-limit to new phenomenology that makes Quine’s concept of a theoretical scheme fits all possible phenomenological data. In a sense string theory moves Quine’s concept from the regime of abstract and shadowy philosophical definitions to the regime of the physically meaningful. Quine’s notion of underdeterminism also remains unaffected by the emerging principle of theoretical uniqueness, which so seriously undermines the position of modest underdeterminism. Since theoretical uniqueness reveals itself in the context of new so far undetected phenomenology, Quine’s purely ontological approach remains safely beyond its grasp. But the best is still to come: The various equivalent superstring theories appear as empirically equivalent but ‘logically incompatible’ theories of the very type implied by Quine’s underdeterminism hypothesis. The different string theories are not theoretically incompatible and unrelated concepts. On the contrary they are merely different representations of one overall theoretical structure. Incompatible are the ontological claims which can be imputed to the various representations. It is only at this level that Quine’s conjecture applies to string theory. And it is only at this level that it can be meaningful at all. Quine is no adherent of external realism and thus can afford a very wide interpretation of the notion ‘ontological object’. For him a world view’s ontology can well comprise oddities like spacetime points or mathematical sets. In this light the duality phenomenon could be taken to imply a shift of ontology away from an external ‘corporal’ regime towards a purely mathematical one. 

To put external and mathematical ontologies into the same category blurs the central message the new physical developments have in store for philosophy of science. This message emerges much clearer if formulated within the conceptual framework of scientific realism: An extrapolation of the notion ‘external ontological object’ from the visible to the invisible regime remains possible up to quantum field theory if one wants to have it. It fails fundamentally at the stage of string theory. String theory simply is no theory about invisible external objects.

Knowledge Within and Without: The Upanishadic Tradition (1)

All perceptible matter comes from a primary substance, or tenuity beyond conception, filling all space, the akasha or luminiferous ether, which is acted upon by the life giving Prana or creative force, calling into existence, in never-ending cycles all things and phenomena – Nikola Tesla

Teilhard de Chardin:

In the eyes of the physicist, nothing exists legitimately, at least up to now, except the without of things. The same intellectual attitude is still permissible in the bacteriologist, whose cultures (apart from substantial difficulties) are treated as laboratory reagents. But it is still more difficult in the realm of plants. It tends to become a gamble in the case of a biologist studying the behavior of insects or coelenterates. It seems merely futile with regard to the vertebrates. Finally, it breaks down completely with man, in whom the existence of a within can no longer be evaded, because it is a subject of a direct intuition and the substance of all knowledge. It is impossible to deny that, deep within ourselves, “an interior” appears at the heart of beings, as it were seen through a rent. This is enough to ensure that, in one degree or another, this “interior” should obtrude itself as existing everywhere in nature from all time. Since the stuff of the universe has an inner aspect at one point of itself, there is necessarily a double to its structure, that is to say in every region of space and time-in the same way for instance, as it is granular: co-extensive with their Without, there is a Within to things.

Both Indian thought and modern scientific thought accept a fundamental unity behind the world of variety. That basic unitary reality evolves into all that we see around us in the world. This view is a few thousand years old in India; We find it in the Samkhyan and Vedantic schools of Indian thought; and they expound it very much on the lines followed by modern thought. In his address to the Chicago Parliament of Religions in 1893, Vivekananda said:

All science is bound to come to this conclusion in the long run, Manifestation and not creation, is the word of science today, and the Hindu is only glad that what he has been cherishing in his bosom for ages is going to be taught in more forcible language, and with further light from the latest conclusions of science.

The Samkhyan school uses two terms to represent Nature or Pradhana: Prakrti denoting Nature in its unmodified state, and Vikrti denoting nature in its modified state. The Vedanta similarly speaks of Brahman as the inactive state, and Maya or Shakti as the active state of one and the same primordial non-dual reality. But the Brahman of the Vedanta is the unity of both the spiritual and the non-spiritual, the non-physical and the physical aspects of the universe.

So as the first answer to the question, ‘What is the world?’ we get this child’s answer in his growing knowledge of the discrete entities and events of the outer world and their inter-connections. The second answer is the product of scientific thought, which gives us the knowledge of the one behind the many. All the entities and events of the world are but the modifications or evolutions of one primordial basis reality, be it nature, space- time or cosmic dust.

Although modern scientific thought does not yet have a place for any spiritual reality or principle, scientists like Chardin and Julian Huxley are trying to find a proper place for the experience of the spiritual in the scientific picture of the universe. When this is achieved, the scientific picture, which is close to Vedanta already, will become closer still, and the synthesis of the knowledge of the ‘without’ and the ‘within’ of things will give us the total view of the universe. This is wisdom according to Vedanta, whereas all partial views are just pieces of knowledge or information only.

The Upanishads deal with this ‘within’ of things. Theirs in fact, is the most outstanding contribution on this subject in the human cultural legacy. They term this aspect of reality of things pratyak chaitanya or pratyak atman or pratyak tattva; and they contain the fascinating account of the stages by which the human mind rose from crude beginnings to clear, wholly spiritual heights in the realization of this reality.

How does the world look when we view it from the outside? We seek an answer from the physical sciences. How does it look when we view from the inside? We seek an answer from the non-physical sciences, including the science of religion. And philosophy, as understood in the Upanishadic tradition, is the synthesis of these two answers: Brahmavidyā is Sarvavidyāpratishthā, as the Mundaka Upanishad puts it.

क्षेत्रक्षेत्रज्ञयोर्ज्ञानं यत्तज्ज्ञानम् मतं मम

kṣetrakṣetrajñayorjñānaṃ yattajjñānam mataṃ mama

“The unified knowledge of the ‘without’ and the ‘within’ of things is true knowledge according to Me, as Krishna says in the Gita” (Bhagavad-Gita chapter 13, 2nd Shloka).

From this total viewpoint there is neither inside nor outside; they are relative concepts depending upon some sort of a reference point, e.g.the body; as such, they move within the framework of relativity. Reality knows neither ‘inside’ nor ‘outside’; it is ever full. But these relative concepts are helpful in our approach to the understanding of the total reality.

Thus we find that our knowledge of the manifold of experience the idam, also involves something else, namely, the unity behind the manifold. This unity behind the manifold, which is not perceptible to the senses, is indicated by the term adah meaning ‘that’, indicating something far away, unlike the ‘this’ of the sense experience. ‘This’ is the correlative of ‘that’; ‘this’ is the changeable aspect of reality; ‘that’ is its unchangeable aspect. If ‘this’ refers to something given in sense experience, ‘that’ refers to something transcendental, beyond the experience of the senses. To say ‘this’ therefore also implies at the same time something that is beyond ‘this’. This is an effect as such, it is visible and palpable; and behind it lies the cause, the invisible and the impalpable. Adah, ‘that’, represents the invisible behind the visible, the transcendental behind the empirical, a something that is beyond time and space. In religion this something is called ‘God’. In philosophy it is called tat or adah, That, Brahman, the ultimate Reality, the cause, the ground, and the goal of the universe.

So this verse first tells us that beyond and behind the manifested universe is the reality of Brahman, which is the fullness of pure Being; it then tells us about this world of becoming which, being nothing but Brahman, is also the ‘Full’. From the view of total Reality, it is all ‘fullness’ everywhere, in space-time as well as beyond space-time. Then the verse adds:

पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवाशिष्यते

pūrṇasya pūrṇamādāya pūrṇamevāśiṣyate

‘From the Fullness of Brahman has come the fullness of the universe, leaving alone Fullness as the remainder.’

What, then, is the point of view or level from which the sentiments of this verse proceed? It is that of the total Reality, the Absolute and the Infinite, in which as we have read earlier, the ‘within’ and the ‘without’ of things merge. The Upanishads call it as ocean of Sachchidānanda, the unity of absolute existence, absolute awareness, and absolute bliss. Itself beyond all distinctions of time and space, it yet manifests itself through all such distinctions. To the purified vision of the Upanishadic sages, this whole universe appeared as the fullness of Being, which was, which is, which shall ever be. In the Bhagavad-Gita (VII. 26) Krshna says:

वेदाहं समतीतानि वर्तमानानि चार्जुन ।
भविष्याणि च भूतानि मां तु वेद न कश्चन ॥

vedāhaṃ samatītāni vartamānāni cārjuna |
bhaviṣyāṇi ca bhūtāni māṃ tu veda na kaścana ||

‘I, O Arjuna, know the beings that are of the past, that are of the present, and that are to come in future; but Me no one knows.’

That fullness of the true Me, says Krshna, is beyond all these limited categories, such as space and time, cause and effect, and substance and attribute.