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Ribbon of Darkness

Inferencing from the Shadowy Arts and Sciences

Ribbon of Darkness

Inferencing from the Shadowy Arts and Sciences

Over the course of her career, Barbara Stafford has established herself the preeminent scholar of the intersections of the arts and sciences, articulating new theories and methods for understanding the sublime, the mysterious, the inscrutable. Omnivorous in her research, she has published work that embraces neuroscience and philosophy, biology and culture, pinpointing connections among each discipline’s parallel concerns. Ribbon of Darkness is a monument to the scope of her work and the range of her intellect. At times associative, but always incisive, the essays in this new volume take on a distinctly contemporary purpose: to uncover the ethical force and moral aspects of overlapping scientific and creative inquiries. This shared territory, Stafford argues, offers important insights into—and clarifications of—current dilemmas about personhood, the supposedly menial nature of manual skill, the questionable borderlands of gene editing, the potentially refining value of dualism, and the limits of a materialist worldview.

Stafford organizes these essays around three concepts that structure the book: inscrutability, ineffability, and intuitability. All three, she explains, allow us to examine how both the arts and the sciences imaginatively infer meaning from the “veiled behavior of matter,” bringing these historically divided subjects into a shared intellectual inquiry and imbuing them with an ethical urgency. A vanguard work at the intersection of the arts and sciences, this book will be sure to guide readers from either realm into unfamiliar yet undeniably fertile territory.

232 pages | 54 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Art: Art Criticism

Cognitive Science: Neuroscience

Media Studies


"Stafford is one of the great figures of the late twentieth century who has brought rigorous historical methodologies to bear on a critical engagement with visual culture. As a conventionally trained art historian, her books have tackled the big subjects in the arts and humanities of the body, medicine, science and consciousness in ways that are quite distinct from the generality of loosely moored speculation based on flimsy or highly selective evidence that characterised much that was published on those topics at the time. Her books carefully arranged material with a dogged precision in a way that insisted on the careful attention of the reader. Her formidable range and intellectual style were such that the reader became a collaborator in an enquiry at the very edge of current understanding."


"If you enjoy swimming in a psychedelic soup of glittering ethereal ideas while panning for your own personal gold, then you won’t be disappointed in this book, which contains insights from a life’s work of interdisciplinary imagining. . . . there is a lot of room for interpretation when art and science collide and that, perhaps, is the joy of it."

Times Higher Education

"It’s wonderful to see another book from the always-brilliant Barbara Maria Stafford"

David Auerbach | Waggish

"The ideas that are sewn into the textile of her writing like a multitude of small mirrors give her essays their many sided appeal. The mirrors--of the art she looks at, the writers she quotes, ideas from her other books--are worth exploring; the complexities rewarding."

Roald Hoffmann, Cornell University

Ribbon of Darkness is at once an account of the intellectual quest and of the invisible thread running through the author’s entire oeuvre and a thought-provoking account of the epistemic challenge to the arts and sciences by the ‘veiled behavior of matter.’ True to style, Stafford has directed a bright light to blend out the future of arts and science. Hugely readable, sharp in observations and penetrating in its account of contemporary images, the essays are the essential tooling for the arts and science of our time.”

Susanne Kuechler, University College London

"This book is required reading for all of us who are reinventing the arts and sciences for the 21st century. Stafford, offering both a deep scholarly look back and a thoughtful look forward, calls for the resurgence of 'an artful experimental science.' She argues for those working in the arts and humanities to find common ground with those in the sciences, engineering, and medicine. This is a must read for revitalizing transdisciplinary scholarship."

Roger Malina, The University of Texas at Dallas

“Within the many brilliant facets of this crystalline text, the authorial flame illuminates a cavern of conceptual riches, casting shadows from the aesthetic heights, to the deepest, darkest burrows of mind, technoesis, and biosensibility. I was entranced, challenged, and enlightened.”

Roy Ascott, artist

“Stafford has given us fascinating new insights into the histories of art, science, and media—again enlightening for the understanding of our times. Ribbon of Darkness is excellent research, a great read, and a must on the bookshelf."

Oliver Grau, Danube University

Table of Contents

Preface: The Bottom of the Garden
Introduction: On Being Struck: Hitting the Eye/Arousing the Mind


1          “Black and Glittering”: The Inscrutable Sublime
2          Lying Side by Side: Fitting Color to Eros
3          The Ultimate Conjuncture: What Shadows the Brain-Mind Merger?
4          Reconceiving the Warburg Library as a Working Museum of the Mind


5          From Communicable Matter to Incommunicable “Stuff”: Extreme Combinatorics and the Return of Ineffability
6          Impossible to Name: Performing the Ineffable
7          “Totally Visual”? Op Art’s Neural Iconography and the Engineered Picture
8          Dark Wonder: Belowness, or the Ineffable Underground
9          Still Deeper: The Non-Conscious Sublime or the Art and Science of Submergence


10        Strange Shadows/Marred Screens
11        Thought Gems: Inferencing from the Impersonal Crystalline
12        The Jewel Game: Gems, Fascination, and the Neuroscience of Visual Attention
13        From Observant Eye to Non-Attentive “I”: The Camera as Cognitive Device
14        Seizing Attention: Devices and Desires

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