The Corona of Care
Attention, Aura, History
Regular readers will by now be aware of the new book I have out this fall, In Search of the Third Bird, co-edited with my colleagues D. Graham Burnett (Princeton) and Catherine Hansen (University of Tokyo). On the occasion of its official release in the US this week, I thought I might present some related material, so I am ceding this space today to a pair of longstanding friends and collaborators, Cisco T. Laertes and Eigil zu Tage-Ravn, both associated with the research collective known as ESTAR(SER), with which I too have worked for some years. Briefly, the scholars of ESTAR(SER) study the history of “attention” (in a general sense), and often focus on the history of “attentional practices” — formal ways of structuring and coordinating our attentional capacities. But I’ll let Cisco and Eigil sketch the work in more detail here below. The big book (to which both of them contributed, and which is an ESTAR[SER] compendium) is a 768-page thing of beauty, buyable here. And for a taste, the UK-based TANK Magazine just ran a spread on the introduction to the volume. —J.E.H.S.
THE WORK OF ESTAR(SER): A general introduction
The Esthetical Society for Transcendental and Applied Realization (now incorporating the Society of Esthetic Realizers) is an established body of independent scholars known universally by its felicitous acronym ESTAR(SER), an abbreviation that, in invoking the two Spanish verbs of being, speaks, perhaps, to the inevitable and enduring tension between the essential and the contingent, between, if you like, Dasein and “situatedness.” But put that aside. Fundamentally, ESTAR(SER) concerns itself with ATTENTION. With the history of attentional practices of all kinds — but particularly with visual attention to works of art, consistently a dominant “scene of attention” for those who have theorized problems of aesthetics, presence, and “experience.”
The larger history of the organization goes beyond the scope of this brief introduction, but it is sketched in some detail in several of the essays reprinted in In Search of the Third Bird, and we direct interested readers to that source, which offers sixteen of the very best essays published in ESTAR(SER)’s journal, The Proceedings, over the last twenty years. (In addition, since 2014, the Society has maintained an informal “Notes and Queries” blog, known as Communiqués, which is publicly accessible, and gives a feel for recent work in the community).
What is most relevant here is that, practically speaking, much of ESTAR(SER)’s work on the history of attention finds its origins in a single remarkable archive, the so-called “W-Cache,” which came into our possession in the 1960s (largely through the imaginative labors of the charismatic Leonard [aka Learned] “Hogfoot” Milcom [1928-1972]; this éloge remains the standard work on his contributions, and briefly discusses the acquisition of the archive). This diverse body of materials appears to have been collected by a person or persons attempting to compose a definitive history of the Avis Tertia or “Order of the Third Bird” — an evasive and anarchic community of “radical attentionauts” who, in various ways and in various locations across history, have engaged in more-or-less extreme collective acts of durational and extravagant attention (often, though not exclusively, to works of art in a traditional sense).
While these “Birds,” as they are often known, seem to have been (and to remain, for they are still active) notably private about their doings, their history can be thought of as a remarkable point of access to the changing character of attentional practices in the modern period. It is thus on the history of the Avis Tertia, broadly construed, that the scholar-amateurs of ESTAR(SER) have, on the whole, come to focus.
(It should perhaps be mentioned, briskly, that the Birds’ active opposition to their own historicization has presented ongoing challenges to ESTAR[SER]’s work, in ways that are best passed over in a swift introduction like this one, but these are detailed in several of the articles reprinted in In Search of the Third Bird. We will also omit discussion, for now, of a related problem that has dogged the codification of the research community of which we are a part: for many years, especially in the early days of the Society, various “defections” and acts of [presumed Avian] sabotage compromised the integrity of scholarly work on the Birds; only with time has it become possible rigorously to maintain the autonomy of ESTAR[SER] as a body that is firmly without taint of actual Birdishness. Birds proper are not welcome within our research community, and whatever our very real curiosity, as historians, about the active usages of current “volées” of practicing associates of the Order, we do not “Bird.”)
Our aim in what follows below will be to present some work-in-progress on a hitherto under-examined aspect of the history of attention — the problem of “attentional auras” (meaning a number of different efforts to theorize and discern in objects some kind of signature or legible index of the cumulative attention they have received in the course of their existence). As we will try to show, this notion has a lengthy history, and it surfaces some interesting problems. Because major lines of preoccupation with such mystical “emanations” of accrued attention can be demonstrated to have Birdish links, it will be worth taking a moment to offer a very basic orientation to the Avis Tertia, for those perhaps unfamiliar with its evolution and doings. We’ll confine ourselves here to a bullet-point summary of what can be said with some certainty.
The Order of the Third Bird is now, and has been for some time, a community of like-minded individuals (together with a penumbra of splitters and apostates) who concern themselves with formal practices of attention — in general, to works of “art,” but also to various other culturally significant objects.
Members of the Order have traditionally cultivated, transmitted, and refined such formal practices — in the form of quasi-liturgical protocols of what is sometimes called “practical aesthesis.”
Which is to say, the Order — which, as noted, has tended to be cagey about its history and membership — creates occasions collectively, ritually, and infra-performatively to “attend” on objects.
The theoretical framing of such Bird activity, like its history, is difficult to unfold concisely, and remains perhaps intentionally somewhat obscure.
On this last matter, there is perhaps no document of greater value in suggesting the core preoccupations of the Order than the brief Plinian paratext from which the Avis Tertia evidently derives its name. Though there are multiple derivations (and a detailed variorum edition usefully consulted by specialists), we will reproduce a serviceable version here:
Among the fragmentary epyllia ascribed to the fourth-century Latin rhetorician Ausonius, we find an embellished retelling of Pliny’s well-known story of Zeuxis and the painting of the child carrying grapes (Natural History, Book 35, section 36). There, recall, Pliny recounts the great painter’s frustration that birds pecked at the fruit in the picture, since he takes it as proof that the boy is less well executed than his harvest: “if I had done a better job on the figure, the birds would have been too frightened to approach,” declares the old artist disgustedly. The pseudo-Ausonian version of this classic episode in the history of mimesis goes as follows (in prose translation):
“It is said that Zeuxis went back to work on the painting, in the hopes of improving the child, and that when he put this new work outside to dry, he hid himself in the bushes to watch. And we are told that he saw three birds approach. One, making for the grapes, seemed suddenly to notice the boy and flew off with a squawk. The second, similarly drawn to the fruit, disregarded their guardian entirely, and pecked furiously at the illusory meal. But the third stopped before the tablet and stood in the sandy courtyard, looking fixedly at the image, and seemingly lost in thought. “What a curious bird!” mumbled Zeuxis, but the bird did not move.”1
We are to understand, then, that associates of the Avis Tertia conceive of this “third bird” as exemplary of the proper mode of address to the “work” — though precisely how remains a matter of considerable debate (indeed, the nearly 800 pages of In Search of the Third Bird could be said to represent the “state of the field” on this very question).
At a minimum, there would seem to be some sense that a “recognition” of the status of the work as a work is required and desired; that presence to the work may itself be an end in itself; and that silence and attention characterize the optimal conditions of “practical aesthesis.” One senses, in the suspended fixity of the “Third Bird,” something of the characteristic “suspension” associated with an aesthetic judgment in Kant’s Third Critique, and there are those (including Justin E. H. Smith himself) who have pursued this matter in some detail. But let us put such philosophical speculation aside, and turn to some very concrete sources, and the fascinating matter of “attentional auras.”
THE “CORONA OF CARE”: Discerning attentional auras, 1750-1930
What follows summarizes the current state of ESTAR(SER) research into this notion of the “Corona of Care” — or, more generally, different forms of “attentional vision.” Our sources, as we will show, suggest that these auras or “signatures” have been pursued by various persons interested in the history of attention, and especially preoccupied by the problem of how attention (itself a paradigmatically fleeting and ephemeral sensory/cognitive mode) has been “archived” in the stuff of the world. This is, in effect, the study of the inherence of attentive acts, what might be thought of as their “residue” or legible traces.
So what are we really talking about? We use the term “Corona of Care” to refer to a spectral aura or “field effect,” apparently perceived (or at least claimed to be perceived) by adepts — a kind of scintillating aurora borealis that, it has been asserted, indexed the total quotient of attention that a given object had received in the course of its existence. The best analogy within our contemporary technologically mediated sensory experience might be something like modern thermal-imaging systems. The idea seems to have been that the amount of attention an object had received was literally visible as a kind of “signature” or “glow” emanating from within the object, or in some accounts registering upon its surface as an indicative hue or blush.
At present, we can address three “moments” in the history of this preoccupation, two of which fall in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, and appear to be related; the third can be placed in the early twentieth, and its genealogical relationship to the earlier material is a matter of pure speculation at present. In each case, we are working from materials that have surfaced in the W-Cache collections, as we will detail where relevant.
A. Attentional “Dousing”
A sense that some, many, or perhaps all objects carry these legible traces of the attention paid to them in the course of their existence appears to have been shared widely among associates of the Order of the Third Bird for some time. Neither the origin nor the historical development of this notion are known with certainty, and a full account of its evolution may be unrecoverable. Nevertheless, a small group of artifacts and documents in the W-Cache shed light on the matter. The earliest and perhaps most significant in this regard is the “Douce Virgula” — an unusually formed metal rod, which (according to the accession record accompanying it) was acquired from the estate of eccentric English antiquarian Francis Douce (1757-1834).
The claim cannot be verified with certainty, but the provenance is not improbable. Douce, who held an unsuccessful tenure as the “Keeper of Manuscripts” at the British Museum at the start of the nineteenth century, had a strong interest in history, aesthetics, and magic, and was an intimate of the notable English society sculptor Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823), from whom he (Douce) inherited a small fortune. Nollekens was obsessed with his own fame, and the fame of his works, and rumors have long persisted that he sought out the assistance of a Galloway “cunning woman” who assured him she could use dousing rods to determine whether his works were receiving more or less attention than those of his arch-rival, the notable Georgian sculptor John Bacon (1740-1799).
Nollekens is not thought to have been associated with the Order of the Third Bird, but his heir, Douce, almost certainly was. It stands to reason that the latter picked up the notion of “attentional dousing” from Nollekens. But whereas the conceited Nollekens seems to have been interested exclusively in using the device pictured above as a kind of silent “applause meter” for his own creations, Douce activated it for quite the opposite purpose: to locate marginal, ignored, or forgotten works of art (“Birds” having, as is well known, a longstanding special interest in what Gregory Sholette has more recently called the “Dark Matter” of the art world; the Birds’ intensive attentional ministrations are sometimes figured as a kind of paramedical response to the attentional “emergencies” presented by disregarded works).
The Douce Virgula initially surfaced in the notorious “Bequest Trunk” left by Douce to the British Museum under the constraint that the lock remain sealed until 1900. As is well known, the trunk, when opened, proved to be filled with what looked like rubbish, together with a cover note reportedly denouncing the museum and its staff for their historic inability to discern works worthy of attention. If the surviving W-Cache documentation is correct, it was members of the Order — perhaps in solidarity with this indictment of traditional museology by one of their own — who saw to it that these materials, including the Virgula, were preserved.
B. The “M’Ghie Sight”
To this point, you will note, we have not spoken at all of any kind of “Vision” of attention, but have rather demonstrated an early sense that an aura of attention might be “legible” by some instrumental means in the objects of the world. But our earliest sources on visible “attentional landscapes” (wherein every object is said to give off a kind of luminosity or spectral radiation indexing the sum total of regard, devotion, and/or visual scrutiny it has ever received) are also closely associated with Douce.
While the dominant source-tradition has it that the contents of Douce’s “Bequest Trunk” were immediately discarded upon its disappointing ouverture in 1900, we have reason to believe that the full contents of that trunk have come to reside in the modern W-Cache, through aforementioned channels of Birdish association. And it is in those bundles of clippings, notes, and published materials that we find evidence of Douce’s more extensive researches into the problem of attentional dousing, and, thereby, traces of his contact with a community of conjurers and scriers who claimed skill in the art. Signally, we discover that Douce appears to have established contact with several women who claimed to be capable of entering into trance-like states in which they could SEE the traces of attention in the world around them. Known as “the M’Ghie Sight,” apparently after an Irish cunning woman named Isabel “Bell” M’Ghie, this “attentional vision” is attested in a handful of period sources. It will be worth citing several of these in full, as they provide fascinating glimpses of the premodern “visibility” of attentional signatures. We cite these fragments from Douce’s notes:
Bell M’Ghie, sometimes known as the “last of the Ayershire Witches,” was said to have the uncanny power of a “second sight”, as “whatever she did see did appear unto her as a kind of sunset, wherein the colors of orange and light did mark those things that had been much subjected to the care of human hands and the scrupling of natural eyes.”
In the indictment of Jean Maxwell, tried in 1805 in Kirkbright, Ireland, for “pretending to enchantment and conjuration,” we read that she allegedly did “claim to Francis Scott, of County Teith, that she could see clearly that Miss. Scott had been doting most irreverently on the lock of hair of one Sergeant Doyle of the Cuddy Lancers for that said lock did to Jean Maxwell’s eyes “glow as an ember with the heat of Miss. Scott’s attentions.”
In a report to the Society of Antiquaries in 1821, Douce described three experiments with “Elsie-Dame” a fortune teller of County Kells, “who did see the past of things with a second sight,” and who had been imprisoned in the Tollbooth of the Kells Way for “a contumely haranguing of the Rev. John Raffles, parson of the parish of Saint Giles, as she did, one Sunday after service, while raving, denounce him most impudently before the congregation as a hypocrite, saying he hath never looked into his Bible whereof he speaketh much, this Bible appearing unto Elsie-Dame as a cold thing and dark, whereas books many times read she did see as like unto moons in the night sky.”
Interestingly, Douce’s report on the case and his experiments hypothesized that “it may be that she and others do possess a faculty uncommon, whereby she may perceive an emanation or electrical charge proceeding from certain objects subject to much handling, in the manner of a static discharge arcing forth from a galvanic wire, or in the fashion of a dog which heareth a whistle not heard by its master.”
These texts would seem to establish that some form of auratic “Attentional Vision” was indeed known to Douce in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and that experiments with such visions were part of a subculture of aesthetes in the period — a community either actually part of the Avis Tertia, or so much like it to make any distinction a matter of indifference. In fact, we have some evidence that Douce himself tried to get “Elsie-Dame” to teach him how to see the M’Ghie Sight, and that he recorded fragments of a kind of “spell” or invocation, a set of phrases that were supposed to endow the sayer with a glimpse of the attentional landscape. We do not know if ever persuaded himself, or others, that he was in possession of the power (though a number of us have ourselves experimented, in a purely speculative way, with these source materials, and can say on the basis of personal experience that they are highly suggestive, and can induce memorably trance-like effects under certain conditions).
At this point, however, our trail goes cold for the nineteenth-century history of attentional vision. And indeed, until recently, the ESTAR(SER) “Working Group on Practical Auratics,” which had initially taken up this material in 2014, thought it had exhausted the W-Cache source base on the phenomenon.
But then, in late 2018, in the course of reorganizing our archival holdings during the installation of the Milcom Memorial Reading Room and Attention Library, a peculiar Manila envelope surfaced, and the items within it seem to have served as tinder by which to spark up our cold case.
C. “The Corona Annotation Envelope”
This tattered envelope contains, in addition to a few scraps of paper, eleven undated photographs of rooms, domestic objects, and streetscapes all of which have been overpainted with versicolor daubs and spectral streaks loosely correlating with specific elements within the scenes. Internal evidence permits us to date the sources to the 1920s and ’30s, and to attribute them, with high probability, to London and its environs.
Let’s take a look at one of these images, which we will treat as exemplary, and which has penciled on its verso the actual phrase “Corona of Care” — the first appearance of this precise wording that we have encountered.
What we have here is a somewhat aged black-and-white photograph of a what might be a dormitory or institutional bedroom, likely British or conceivably North American, and probably the sleeping accommodations of a female occupant. The image, like the others in the “Annotation Envelope” is striking for its colored overpainting, which are washy films of graded hue that often conform to — though at times depart from — the contours of the depicted objects in the room. So, for instance, in close-up (below) we can discern that the homely clippings and prints affixed to the right-hand wall have each been daubed with a bit of orange.
With the exception of a suite of three barely identifiable cut-outs to the right of the window on the far wall. These (two of which seem to show birds, interestingly) have received a brighter treatment, with pluming yellow splats that seem to throw off little spumes of lava-like intensity.
Perusing the left side of the image, we find what is surely a “scale,” which would seem to correlate the wash hues with graded degrees of intensity. And beside this, a singularity within the image: a zone that would appear to correlate with the location of yet another of the wall decorations, but where the underlying picture or clipping is entirely obscured by a kind of irruption of hot, thick gouache, which forms a bloom of white-yellow and red. Something is very definitely going on here. The region would seem to mark an apex in the topography of depicted intensities.
Which, however, rather invites the obvious question: intensity of what?
It is our contention that this image, and the others like it in the “Corona Annotation Envelope,” amount to an effort, by a cohort of early twentieth-century Birds, working in Anglo-American theosophist circles in the 1920s and 1930s, to discern and to document, by means of photographic overpainting, experiences of the “attentional vision” like those attested above in connection with Francis Douce and the M’Ghie Sight.
We will concede that we have relatively limited textual material at present to buttress this claim, which must (pending further archival discoveries) hinge almost entirely on visual and contextual analysis. But we believe the argument is nevertheless compelling. And it receives significant support from the fact that the “Annotation Envelope” was found intercalated with some highly suggestive materials — signally, a copy of Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater’s remarkable and well-known work of theosophist phantasia, Thought-Forms (1901), and a loose article by the French healer-spiritualist Hippolyte Baraduc, who worked to document auras by photographic means in the same period.
At this time, we cannot say anything definitive about actual genealogies, but the formal and thematic links will seem immensely suggestive to those familiar with these works.
While the familiar and compelling Thought-Forms images are freehand representations, and do not make use of a documentary photographic substrate, one discerns a palpably parallel effort graphically to represent highly individual “visions” — luminous transcriptions of synaesthetic/hypergogic threshold experiences. If, as we contend, a volée of Birds working in the early twentieth century resurrected the “M’Ghie Sight,” and used it to investigate a world of attentional landscapes, it stands to reason that they would have attempted to attest to their visions in forms exactly like what we find in the “Corona Annotation Envelope.”
Another exemplar from the collection may be of interest:
In this image, and its pendant (shown below) a staged array of ceramic knick-knacks and table-furniture appear to have come under the scrutiny of the M’Ghie Sight, but the seer here seems to have had a relatively un-ostentatious experience. If we transpose the “Attention Intensity Scale” from the margin of Photo #6 (depicted above), and apply its color key here, we would interpret these objects as all having received relatively little attention in the course of their modest existences, and thus offering a rather cool hue to the attentional eye — with the exception of the small putto (?) in the lower left, which we might suggest served as a centerpiece or central mantle-accoutrement in a way that sets its accrued attentional “radiant energy” in a slightly higher key.
A good deal more dramatic, however, is the next image in this series:
Evidently photographed at the same site, and perhaps even on the same day, this scene seems to have “popped” for the unknown attention-seer (who may or may not have been the same individual to have annotated image #2 above). What we can say for certain is that we here again spot a genuine attentional “hot-zone” on the top shelf — the object in question has been entirely obscured by a veritable supernova. Whatever it was, we are to understand that it had “absorbed” a quotient of visual —or perhaps haptic? we do not, as yet, know how these auras were understood to register different attentional modes— attention entirely unlike that of its neighbors. One of our colleagues is convinced (on the basis of evidence we consider too speculative) that the overpainted object here was in fact a funerary urn — which might at least explain its uncanny “heat” on a thermal attention-image. It is certainly possible. Regardless, it is perhaps affecting to note that moments like this in these images (e.g., the flaming glow hanging over the bed in the first of our depicted Corona Annotation Photographs) seem inadvertently to body forth something deeply true about the layering “weight” of accrued attention across time: the density of such historically-compounded miasmas often ultimately makes it quite impossible to “see” the object (or person) in question.
Our sources are fragmentary and sparse. Questions of provenance, as ever, leave doubts — even concerns. More work surely remains to be done. But we hope we have not been premature in presenting our material for reflection at this early stage in our investigations. Our central contention — that attention leaves real traces; that these are available for contemplation (under special conditions of… attention) — strikes us as being, whatever the empirical or veridical status of the M’Ghie sight, profoundly true, and even “important.” Training ourselves to “see” attention, to “attend” to it, this has come to feel like a matter of some actual urgency for those of us who have spent time on this inquiry.
Indeed, in the course of our research we have again and again found ourselves drawn into something like the “slipstream” of our subject matter, and perhaps have, at times, drafting on our sources, lost some measure of the distance upon which proper historical reflection is predicated. The idea that there might be some way to experience, in everything around us, the discernible stratigraphies of care has, we might say, crept into our own eyes and ears and fingers. And left us staring vacantly at streetscapes. Or listening to the detritus on a storm sewer. Or leaving a hand on the old clothes racked at the thrift shop.
Everywhere, attentional landscapes. Everywhere, history; the topography of accrued care.
First, we’d like to express our appreciation to Justin for his invitation to write up a preliminary report on some of our recent research. It will be good to get this material into wider conversations than the specialist journals permit. Second, it feels important immediately to acknowledge the contributions of two iterations of “The ESTAR(SER) Working Group on Practical Auratics,” which have been instrumental in sourcing and interpreting the materials we’ve presented here. Contributors to these working groups have included Gabriel Pérez Barriero, Sonali Chakravarti, Joanna Fiduccia, David Richardson, Hermione Spriggs, and Lane Stroud. Lecture versions of this research have been presented over the last several years at the Reina Sofia (Madrid), Le Confort Moderne (Poitiers), Mildred’s Lane (Beach Lake, PA), and RISD (Providence, RI), and we and our collaborators are grateful to audiences at those institutions for critical feedback, as well as practical insights. Finally, without the archivists of the “W-Cache” repositories, and the bibliographic help and general support of folks at the Milcom Memorial Reading Room and Attention Library (at the Monira Foundation & Mana Contemporary) this work would have been impossible.
And once again, if you would like to learn more about ESTAR(SER)’s work, please order our new book:
Fertur Zeuxis operi manum retulit ut pueri figuram melius pingeret et, pictura siccari foras exposita, sese in virgultis abscondit atque respexit. Etiam dicitur aves tres appropinquantes vidit: una, uvas petens, puerum repente agnovit et stridenter evolavit. Secunda, a fructu pariter attracta, custodem ex toto ignoravit et epulas rabiose becco carpsit fictas. Sed avis tertia ante tabulam pictam cessavit et in atrio harenato stetit, imaginem constanter tuens, cogitatione sicut perdita. “Curiosula avis!” murmuravit Zeuxis, sed volucer haud movebat.