Thursday 25 February 2010

Wonder and Floating Signifiers

"We do not find [something] marvelous … [ that] forms part of our everyday experience, but if we were told that [something in an unfamiliar context] behaved in exactly the same way, we would either dismiss the story as incredible or be ‘stupefied with wonder.’"
Wonder (and, more specifically the wonders in the face of which people experience wonder) is the topic of Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park's 1998 treatise Wonders and the Order of Nature. Examining the uses of wonders in the period 1150-1750, Daston and Park demonstrate a fascinating trajectory of a crisis of credibility, as the politics of wonder collide with the politics of reason. Such an exploration of wonder is perhaps particularly salient in an era of conflicts over legitimacy determined by whether something feels right in the gut or resonates with the intellect.

Daston and Park describe wonder in a way that continually reminds me of the way that my environmental science and activism colleagues often promote normative perspectives via the invocation of particularly cool features of the natural world. "Have you ever seen," one of them will begin, "that amazing phenomenon when..." and proceed to outline a wonder of nature that is so complex and so compelling as to command respect and compliance with whatever the management regime may be that they have devised to respect and comply with the wonder of nature in question.

And this wonder is powerful, indeed. For one thing, such wonder appears to be a significant motivator of the careers of many scientists -- not to mention the system and symbolisms of cultures and arts and religions. Wonder, however, plays a fascinatingly slippery role in rhetoric. In significant ways, wonder is a response to that which is unknown, or inadequately knowable. In the passage above -- Daston and Park (p.23) talking about Gervase of Tilbury talking about Augustine -- we can read two tensions: one between the everyday and the unfamiliar, and another between being captivated or attracted by the marvelous and being stupefied with wonder.

I bring in the idea of 'floating signifiers' here -- the category of things for which the 'there, there' is not pinned down by agreed upon meaning -- because I am interested in the bivalent possibility in this tension in wonder. Wonder is so often used to attract, to enchant -- but, for example, from a pedagogical perspective, when is this enchantment an attraction into exploration and when is it an obscuring bewilderment? Wonder may be a tonic response to things we can not know with certainty, but are there indicators of a wonder -- or a wonder-inducement -- more open to exploration (one can see here how reason spelled the doom of wonder, for a time) or more ready to simply let wonder itself stand in for the unknown explanations of the signified.

Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park (1998). Wonders and the Order of Nature. New York: Zone Books

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Jim Murdoch said...

Because of the nature of the word I think it’s possible to make wonder something mysterious when all it is is curiosity, a process of deciding what something means in the context we find it. That it is pleasurable is neither here nor there. It’s like inspiration. Inspiration is a good idea. People have ideas all the time but only occasionally will one jump out. When we’re looking for inspiration what we’re doing is quality testing ideas, we’re wondering about them, what to make of them.

Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

Thanks for this reflection, Jim. I do like this idea of 'quality testing ideas,' and I'm not sure that wonder is so much mysterious as it is an indication of something perhaps, in your words, not fully decided. Wonder may mean that we're affectively motivated by something without quite being able to decide what it means. And this may not be quite mysterious, but like inspiration, it seems likely that whatever the idea in question is, when we're interacting with it in these modes (of inspiration or wonder), there may be aspects of these ideas that palpably exceed our apprehension (as there might always be, but perhaps these modes are marked by being able to notice this phenomenon more).

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