A Singular Object Brian Dillon

In a passage of his Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), the Irish philosopher and bishop George Berkeley entreated his reader to imagine an unlikely fictional character, a pure ‘intelligence, or unbodied spirit’ who, despite a perfectly adequate sense of the visual field before his gaze, was wholly unable to conceive of the realms of extension, touch and movement: a mind confined to a single plane of perception. Thus debilitated, writes Berkeley, ‘he can have no notion of those parts of geometry which relate to the mensuration of solids, and their convex or concave surfaces, and contemplate the properties of lines generated by the selection of a solid; the conceiving of any part whereof, is beyond the reach of his faculties.’1 The unfortunate individuals who people the world of The Art Atom are curious cousins to Berkeley’s notional persona: the object which fractures their gaze is the strangest of visitors, the advent of a new vision.

The tetrahedral oddity descends from the upper void of their ignorance and rests enigmatically at their feet, subject at first to the most timid of approaches. The young man’s foot probes it uneasily; he is perhaps dimly aware that the singular peculiarity of its appearance conceals an explosive plural reality. In his Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell tells how the good Doctor, in boisterously slapstick mood, announced his refutation of Berkeley with a furious kick to a large stone, ‘till he rebounded from it’: a blunt reminder of the object’s resistance to metaphysics.2 The art atom demands a more tentative, but in the end no less brutal, treatment. Its misrecognition is the unfolding of a comically misguided philosophy; hence the intervention, later, of that diminutive figure with his hat, cane and squinting countenance: none other than a metaphysical Mr. Magoo, the myopic little philosopher who here enacts his revenge on the painful facticity of his lifelong nemesis, the three-dimensional object.

The Art Atom is a veritable taxonomy of disparately proper and improper physical attitudes adopted to the object, an anatomy of possible gestures to be acted out in the presence of a thing so alien and unknowable. Everything occurs as if bodily address were itself a form of investigation, of confident or appalled knowledge: the angle of the body is all. The attack, flexure and recoil of the limbs suggest a succession of philosophical approaches, subtle or crude. Downcast eyes, tethered to the plane pf a two-dimensional universe, are thrown into panicked or sinister movement by this thing which sets the gaze adrift from all familiar coordinates. One gesture proliferates: the act of pointing is perhaps, in the end, the only adequate response to an object so novel and mysterious. In Berkeley’s Essay, the pointing hand of the philosopher is literally, as here, present on the page: a svelte typographical symbol which announces a real concrete example, an eruption of the everyday into the realm of abstract reflection. The hand of the thinker longs to grasp its object, but finds it can only point in mute astonishment at the strangeness of things.

The art atom, this object which is both singular monad and serial artwork, is the purest kind of scandal (literally, a trap or a stumbling-block). Its appearance is that of the most solid, undifferentiated substance, a thing so terrible itself that it must be made to vanish from the world it calls into question. But the clue to its real nature (mathematically, a purely fictive ‘truth’) lies in the vague doubling of the young man’s features as he approaches it: its singular presence sets in motion a whole series of such exquisite shadowings and tremblings at the edge of each figure’s presence. The rigorous delineation of gesture (of contemplation, questioning, pointing) dissolves at the moment the object reveals itself in all its myriad plurality. The atom (the artwork) is an explosion of lapidary facets and colours. This is what the falling woman learns, a lesson taught long ago by Leibniz: ‘each portion of matter can be conceived as a garden full of plants, and as a pond full of fish. But each branch of a plant, each limb of an animal, each drop of its humours is still another such garden or pond.’3

1. George Berkley, A New Theory of Vision and Other Writings (London; J.M. Dent, 1910), p. 84.
2. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Vol. 1, (London; J.M. Dent, 1906), p. 292.
3. G.W. Leibniz, "The Monadology" (1714), in Discource on Metaphisics and Other Essays, trans. Daniel Garber and Roger Ariew (Indianapolis; Hackett, 1991), p78.

Brian Dillon is a freelance writer and critic whose work appears regularly in Frieze, The Independent, The Irish Times and Time Out. He is working on a book about private and public memory.

Essay copyright, Brian Dillan, 2003