top of page

EmPrismed! or, Prismatic Freedom of the Multivalent Mind

My students have noticed it; my colleagues have noticed it; my friends have noticed it. It is only a matter of time before my enemies and critics notice it: I can't stop using the words "prism" and "prismatic."

First, the prism is best known to beginning science students and fans of Pink Floyd, for its ability to take that which is unilinear and lacking in color, and turn it into a multi-linear rainbow:

So, first layer of love for the prismatic

  1. Multi-linear transformation of the unilinear

  2. A given in the nature of light and surface itself

  3. It creates a rainbow - symbol of the LGBT movement - and (see 2.) does so without external divine intervention

  4. It is connected to an excellent work of music

Recall the subheads of my blog - Nature, Philosophy, Feminism, History, Music. I've got four of them already here, eh? But what of history?

Too many people confuse Marxist-Hegelian dialectics with predictive determinism. This mistake shows the problem with simplified heuristic devices like thesis/antithesis/synthesis, which is frankly nonsense when trying to explain Hegel's Phenomenology or Marx's analysis of the fetishism of the commodity. Because what Marx articulates about revolution - especially the ones he witnessed, like the Paris Commune - is the ability of change to refract into many directions and possibilities. It is precisely the unpredictability of people making their own history (albeit not under conditions of their own choosing) that he wanted to note and express, and to contrast with the single-minded (and therefore unilinear) despotism of governments and industries. So, dialectics - as a practice, as a way of observing the world and noting possibilities and trajectories - is prismatic. It just looks way more complex than the basic prism/light experiment referenced in the Pink Floyd cover art.

And since history is not of our making, the number of prism shapes through which the light of human striving is refracted are also manifold.

Each of these shapes - which are still regular, rather than being "truncated prisms" or "twisted prisms" will refract light - or human history - or sound - differently.

I think that has unified history and philosophy with the prismatic. But there's two more angles for me that make the prismatic irresistible.

The first comes from the world of literature. One of my favorite books is George Eliot's Middlemarch. Like all young women with ambition, upon first reading Middlemarch at about the age of 12 or 13, I fell in love with Dorothea Brooke.

The end of Chapter One in that magnificent novel, features a scene between Dorothea and her younger sister Celia, concerning a cache of jewels that had belonged to their late mother. Celia is eager to see and wear them; Dorothea is more abstemious, and even contemptuous, of the social valence of jewels for women. In fact, as the scene opens, Dorothea is working on an architectural sketch, and appears (at best) to be disinterested in the jewelry box. But in flash - a specifically prismatic flash - that changes:

"The complete unfitness of the necklace from all points of view for Dorothea, made Celia happier in taking it. She was opening some ring-boxes, which disclosed a fine emerald with diamonds, and just then the sun passing beyond a cloud sent a bright gleam over the table.

“How very beautiful these gems are!” said Dorothea, under a new current of feeling, as sudden as the gleam. “It is strange how deeply colors seem to

penetrate one, like scent. I suppose that is the reason why gems are used as spiritual emblems in the Revelation of St. John. They look like fragments of heaven. I think that emerald is more beautiful than

any of them.”

“And there is a bracelet to match it,” said Celia. “We did not notice this at first.”

“They are lovely,” said Dorothea, slipping the ring and bracelet on her finely turned finger and wrist, and holding them towards the window on a level with her eyes. All the while her thought was trying to justify her delight in the colors by merging them in her mystic religious joy."

“You would like those, Dorothea,” said Celia, rather falteringly, beginning to think with wonder that her sister showed some weakness, and also that emeralds would suit her own complexion even better than purple amethysts. “You must keep that ring and bracelet—if nothing else. But see, these agates are very pretty and quiet.”

“Yes! I will keep these—this ring and bracelet,” said Dorothea. Then, letting her hand fall on the table, she said in another tone—“Yet what miserable men find such things, and work at them, and sell them!” She paused again, and Celia thought that her sister was going to renounce the ornaments, as in consistency she ought to do.

“Yes, dear, I will keep these,” said Dorothea, decidedly. “But take all the rest away, and the casket.”

(Full text here, emphasis mine, check out Jean Arnold's scholarly article on the discourse of jewelry in the novel)

Aside from the overwhelming brilliance of George Eliot's perceptions about human beings, note how prismatic this brief exchange is - social mores, gendered structures, the materiality of the jewels, the sudden play of the light, the aesthetic/spiritual rhapsody, brought crashing down (but not eradicated) by the remembrance of labor injustice. Everything is in there, dense and with (emotional) jagged edges between the sisters (not unlike a gem...). Jean Arnold reminded me that it is only a few pages later, in Chapter Three, that Eliot herself articulates this principle: "Signs are small measurable things, but interpretations are illimitable, and in girls of sweet, ardent nature, every sign is apt to conjure up wonder, hope, belief, vast as a sky, and colored by a diffused thimbleful of matter in the shape of knowledge." (chapter three).

I share the "ardent nature" of Dorothea Brooke, and also the overly optimistic embrace of every thing I encounter. But the errors that inevitably occur with this prismatic method are worth it, because the interplay of many trajectories and interpretations enables me to engage the many possibilities that emerge in a glint of sunlight.

In fact, to get to my second additional angle, the use of the word "prism" is my way of updating ontology so that that much maligned word can be responsibly discussed by both secular and religious people. This ties into my enduring (if not endearing) desire to clarify immanence, and defend it against its manifold transcendent discontents. I can't develop all of that now, in this blog post - it is a longer project requiring a much higher degree of philosophical rigor than I can unfurl in an afternoon. But the prism is three-dimensional, it is solid, material - and yet sparks these changes in light, in sound, in experience. Its use as a metaphor is as limitless as its shape-shifting. I think that the current discourse of intersectionality is rife with prismatic possibilities, which I try to articulate in my historic work around the Crandall and Canterbury narratives. Likewise, since precise denotation of musical meaning never has been possible, the connotative potential of thinking prismatically when discussing music seems to me to already by "best practice," at least in intuiting that "all you touch and all you see, is all your life will ever be."


bottom of page