Aesthetic Theory / Aesthetics / as if / Layers / Philosophy / Recommended Blogs / Thoughts

The Patina of Reality

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The world as we imagine it to be is more well-ordered than reality. The order of the imagined world is the order of our concepts, the order of what ought to be, the order of the functionality as we intended it. Our concepts and functional systems, however, are implemented in terms of real physical systems that have more properties than what our concepts require. And often the implementations are only just good enough to work, more or less.

If we look into the side-streets and backyards and if we look consciously, with open eyes, we will discover the real complexity, the emerging and lurking chaos beneath the thin layer of technology and functionality. Rusty sheets of corrugated iron are nailed together with pieces of tar paper to implement the idea of a house. Cracks in blotchy plastering implement the surface of a wall. Buildings begin to be covered in a cocoon of cables that in some places starts to resemble the mycelium of a fungus.

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What is really there is a mass of sand and cement, metal sheets and copper cables, plastic tubes and bricks, panes and dirt and paint and other things, arranged in such a way that the whole structure can serve a certain function, at least for some time. As long as it does not deviate from its intended function too much, we can pretend it is actually a house, a window, a wall, a door knob, a light switch, a passage, a staircase.

If we look at it with the eyes of a stone age man, a small child, an alien, or somebody who has suffered amnesia, without all our knowledge and all our concepts, we would see it as what it is, a pile of minerals and metals and plastic. Just as we only perceive “bar bar” if we listen to a foreign language whose grammar and words we do not know, we would see the structures of our civilization only as some dingbats. The “grammar” of our everyday knowledge enables, even forces, us to see meaningful structure instead. Many of us will then either stop seeing the cracks and blotches and only see walls and houses and staircases, or will perceive those “imperfections” and “deviations” as disorder and dirt, as something that has to be cleaned and refurbished away. They will perceive the house in terms of its use and usefulness. When we hear a language we know, we separate noise from language, we hear the sounds of the language as instances of a sound system, we hear words and clauses and sentences according to a grammar and we understand them. In a similar way, we perceive not a cracky plaster surface but a wall, a wall of a house, maybe of our house or workplace.

The real physical system does not know anything about being a wall or a staircase. There are grains of sand and little stones, glued together by cement crystallites, there are rods of steel, particles of rust, cracks filled with water, algae and bacteria.

These piles of things are houses just in our imagination. They are houses also because we use them as such, but the actions of this usage, our bodies performing those actions and our brains planning and observing them, are in turn, systems of molecules that become human beings and their actions only by us perceiving and conceptualizing ourselves that way. All of these things are implemented in terms of the material things on one hand and of our perceptions and thoughts on the other. I am not saying they are not real, but the houses and tables and chairs and staircases are an emulated reality.

And if we look into the backyards, if we look at the patina of our world and at the structures behind that patina, we can see that below that emulated world, there is an incredibly rich world of unnamed and undescribed things. That patina is a message bubbling up from the depth of that underlying reality. By looking at those undescribed details and by describing them, we can lift some of them into our emulated everyday world, or lower ourselves into that fascinating world of undescribed and often functionless detail. This is a meditation-like exercise that is worth the effort.

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Inside our shiny world, where doors function perfectly and walls are smooth and even and monochrome and the world consists of ideal implementations of platonic forms, this underlying level of reality seems to be ugly and imperfect. But if we stop viewing these real things as noise and dirt, if we try to perceive them as what they are, stepping out of the world of functions and concepts we normally unconsciously inhabit, we can suddenly discover a hidden beauty, a glimpse of the true richness of reality as it really is.


(All pictures courtesy of Jacqueline M. Hadel. On her fascinating blog Tokidoki, you can find countless more examples of what I mean, showing how incredibly complex the underlying layer of reality is, and how “thin” and “rattly” the layer of conceptualization that we put on top of it by means of our imagination. The examples chosen here are from her recent stay in Japan, from the following posts:,

17 thoughts on “The Patina of Reality

  1. This is lovely. The photographs exhibit a kind of order in a way, or maybe it’s just the fact that they are encapsulated in a photo? In any case, I was instantly drawn in by them. They’re just the sort of thing I like to photograph, a kind of chaos or unsightliness, but they tell a story, they’re alive.

    Perhaps off topic, I’m not sure: I’ve been ruminating on the idea of phenomenology as a study of reality without theorizing, and you may be right that there’s no way to get around theorizing (at least not by the ordinary sense of the word) but I suspect that the kind of seeing you’re talking about here is similar to what I think of when I think of phenomenology. It’s trying to see things as they are without those preconceptions we use to get on in life, but of course we may never be able to achieve it, strictly speaking. We can eliminate certain aspects of theorizing, such as scientific, or teleological (functional) theorizing, and make motions toward that original diversity of phenomena that we like to so neatly package up.

    Strangely, even in thinking about how we “package things up” we come closer to seeing that diversity. The act of drawing attention to ourselves and our theorizing processes brings about a juxtaposition, a contrast.

    Or maybe I’m totally off-base and don’t understand phenomenology at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case!

    Okay, I may have gone off the deep end here. I apologize. I’m a bit fuzzy headed lately due to a crazy persistent lightheadedness…hopefully I made a modicum of sense!

    • I dont think this is off topic.
      I think what I am trying to formulate here (with more or less success) does have a lot to do with phenomenology. However, that is a gut feeling. I cannot say if you are understanding phenomenology or not, since I am not sure I understand it. I have not read Husserl yet, you have 🙂
      “The act of drawing attention to ourselves and our theorizing processes brings about a juxtaposition, a contrast.” I think so. Entering a meta-level of reflection is one way out of the normal processes of thinking and perceiving.

      • It’s funny, I’ve read Husserl, so you would think that puts me at an advantage when it comes to understanding phenomenology, but I’m not sure. I’m more comfortable just saying I don’t know. 🙂

        Yes, “meta-level” is a good way of putting it!

  2. Beautifully written. In looking at it as a “whole”, one can perceive the chaos:

    “I am not saying they are not real, but the houses and tables and chairs and staircases are an emulated reality.”

    But stopping to look at the segments of what I call ‘biodegradable beauty’, there is beauty indeed; for everything that has been built by humans, have been emulations from nature. Staircases, windows, structures shown in these images from the wonderful photographer you have showcased here.

    You write beautifully.

    • Thank you.
      An interesting point.
      When using the term “emulation”, I mean it in a sense derived from computer science (see I have a computer science background.
      In an emulation (in this technical sense), there is an underlying system (e.g. a computer of a certain type, with a certain operating system A) running an emulation of another computer, B. A programm written for B-Type machines may run in this emulator although the real underlying system is a system of type A.
      In a comparable way, the objects of our familiar everyday world (cars, houses, tables etc.) are “running” on top of a different reality. Unlike the computer-examples, however, the “processor” that makes this possible is the human brain. So the meaning of the term “emulation”, as I meant it here, is different from the use of the word you have in mind.

  3. I often think that my artwork is my attempt to make order out of thoughts or things I have seen or felt. And I am sometimes surprised when the painting seems so clear to me, but others don’t see what I thought I was making. We do impose our own order, each one of us.

  4. This seems to be a discussion regarding the layer of non-natural, non-adaptive, non-evolutionary, human excrescence that has become a cancerous growth upon the adaptive, evolutionary, natural reality of a non-judgmental, dispassionate and unbiased universe.

    When humans stopped evolving (during the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic – the “Neolithic Revolution”), the species became non-adaptive. Humanity began to see itself as separate from Nature and to seek dominance over it. In this pathological quest to arrogantly transform “reality” instead of adjusting and adapting to it, Homo sapiens has become self-exiled from the processes of Life and evolution and self-condemned to probable near-term extinction.

    This scabrous “patina“, imposed upon reality by humans, will be utterly erased in a geologic second by forces beyond the control and, in some cases, even the comprehension of the puny would-be gods that imagined themselves masters of the universe.

    Just my misanthropic opinion

    • Well, the pictures are Jaqueline’s so the thanks have to be passed on to her 🙂
      What I mean is actually simple: the things we make have more properties than our plans and descriptions about them. I use the word patina here as a metaphor for that. A bronze pot, for example, has a shape that was determined by the person who designed it, but then it takes on a life of its own as its patina develops.
      In abstract art of the type you make, this is maybe intended since such paintings have some random elements, so this richness and randomness of reality is taken into account. But in most parts of our culture, people are trying to control things and suppress these random elements. If they reappear, they are often perceived as dirt and decay, but in fact there is a lot of beauty in them.

      • I suppose, as long as one can externalise the cost of that “beauty” and observe the “patina” in a thoroughly detached and clinical manner, one can find beauty in virtually anything.

        The mushroom cloud resulting from a nuclear explosion for example.

        The precisely terraced wound of an open pit mine. The iridescent colours of toxic wastes floating on the surface of a dead pond. The decaying ruins of a “civilisation” that smothered the land in a “patina” of “progress“, self-defeating “technology” and unsustainable “industry“.

        Sorry. I seem to have misplaced my “ability” to externalise the horror that “civilisation” has visited upon Life.

    • Well, this article is actually not about what you are talking about in your comment. You may develop these thoughts into such a direction and you are free to do so, but this is not an article about any of the topics you mention in your comment. I think you are maybe reading things into this article and maybe some others on this blog that are not there.

      The term patina here does not refer to what humans impose upon reality but to reality breaking through. The things we make have more properties than are described by our theories about them. E.g. a bronze pot does not only have the designed shape but many other hidden properties in its microstructure. As a result, it develops an irregular patina. I use that as a metaphor for a general phenomenon.

      But I mean that in an entirely non-judgmental way. It applies as well to the first stone tool made by somebody over a million years ago. If that blade brakes, it will break in an unpredictable and uncontrolled way because it has properties not controlled by its designer and maker.

      I am not writing here about civilization in the sense of a destructive evil, although you can apply these thoughts into such a direction.

      What I write here about can even be applied to the genetically predetermined world-views of animals, although they are not able to reflect on their views. But the underlying reality is always richer than the animal’s view of it.

      The basic topic of this blog is not the same as the basic topic of your blog. I am not writing about the imminent collapse of civilization here, although that topic has appeared in some articles and will appear in some again. It is not the central topic of this blog. A reader mainly interested in that topic should go to your blog.

      I am writing here instead about the relationship between cognition, language, perception and concepts on one side and reality on the other. The main focus here is theoretical philosophy, not practical and political philosophy. And it applies to paleolithic hunter-gatherers just as well as to neolithic farmers or modern industrial workers.

      You might find such thoughts irrelevant or pointless, but these are the thoughts I am having.

      • And you are most certainly free to have whatsoever thoughts you may desire. I don’t seek to fault you for either having or expressing them, which you do with fine skill and admirable erudition.

        I often enjoy reading your work as it tends to be thought provoking in a manner more intellectual than emotive. That said, I cannot help responding in my own way, which oft times is more emotional than academic.

        It is never my intention to offend and if I have done so I offer my most sincere apology.

  5. What a wonderful post. Patina is such an excellent word for what you describe here. I’ve got Benjamin’s historical materialism on the mind right now, but I think you’ve captured the richness of the historical ruin so beautifully here. I also love the notion of reciprocal emulation you build in this post. It’s really thought provoking.

  6. Pingback: On the Relationship Among Objects, Self, Conceptualization and The Path | bloggingisaresponsibility

  7. hmmm, Fantastic photos, thanks Jacqueline M Handel, also love the word patina and what I usually understand it to mean, eg on paintings or antiques, and fascinating to see it in this context of layers, I’m left, luckily, wuth the final image if hidden beauty, luckily, as I’m an image sort of person, else I’d be all at sea 🙂 thabks Nannus

  8. I linked to this through Linda Grashoff – I’m glad! It’s always good to have a strong reminder about our constructs. The photos are lovely – now I need to link again! – and they illustrate your essay very well. And it’s time to look around here some more.

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