In Search of The Third Bird: Exemplary Essays from The Proceedings of ESTAR(SER)
(Strange Attractor Press, 2021)
In Search of The Third Bird (edited by D. Graham Burnett, Catherine L. Hansen, and Justin E.H. Smith) is a book dedicated to those who attend. Going through the more than 750 pages that compose this anthology requires that you, as a reader, in fact do so—that is, attend. First, it requires that you pay attention to the object at hand and, second, that you remain present while engaging with it. Perhaps, the dedication is also signaling to the verb’s etymology and constitutes an invitation to remember the Latin attendere, meaning “to stretch one’s mind toward something.” And there is no better way to stretch one’s mind than through questions—In Search of the Third Bird has plenty of those. The first couple of which arise just by looking at book’s the cover.
For starters: what/who is this third bird we are searching for? The answer, we learn, goes back to Pliny’s Natural History, more specifically to the passage where we read about Greek master draftsman, Zeuxis, and his painting of a boy carrying a bunch of grapes. According to the story, the grapes were executed in such a skilled way that several birds, mistaking the image with the world, pecked furiously at the painting, attempting to eat the fruit. Zeuxis, instead of admiring his skilled depiction, reproached himself for his failure to properly portray the boy as real enough that the image would scare the birds away. But the third bird we are searching for is not to be found in Pliny. It seems to come from a coda to Pliny’s story, penned by Latin poet Ausonius.
According to Ausonius—or, better, according to scholars of the Third Bird that cite Ausonius as a foundational source— Zeuxis came back to the painting after the bird incident. He devoted himself to perfecting the boy and, when finally satisfied with the image, he set his painting outside and hid to watch the birds’ reactions to it. Three birds came. The first saw the boy and flew away in fear, deceived by Zeuxis’s creation. The second ignored the boy and pecked at the grapes, just as other birds had done before. 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 to fly.”
In Search takes this third bird as its object of study—but certainly not from an ornithological standpoint. The book, the cover also informs, is a collection of “Exemplary Essays from The Proceedings of ESTAR(SER),” hence spurring the following two questions: What is ? And, what are these Proceedings about?
Partial answers are to be found on the copyright page. ESTAR(SER) —The Esthetical Society for Transcendental and Applied Realization (now incorporating the Society of Esthetic Realizers)—is an international research collective concerned with the history of attention and attentional practices, in particular those considered “sustained.” The Proceedings, in turn, are the venue for the publication and distribution of the results of ESTAR(SER)’s scholarly pursuit, typically in the form of solid, thoroughly researched, and cogently written academic essays.
The introduction to the volume notes that, for years, the Society’s central concern has been the so-called “Avis Tertia,” or “Order of the Third Bird.” This fact, naturally, prompts the next question: what is this “Order of the Third Bird” that so potently captures the attention of reputable scholars and insightful researchers?
Taking its name from Zeuxis’s “curious bird,” the enigmatic and often obscure Order is, we learn while reading In Search, a loose community of people who practice attention according to a protocol—typically composed of four distinct phases: encounter, attending, negation, and realization. An eminently applied group, the Order’s practice is characterized by a very intentional bracketing of judgment, actively avoiding meaning and expertise, and suspending interpretation. This evanescent community, also known as Avis Tertia, constitutes for some, rightfully so, a fascinating object of inquiry—and it is precisely this fascination that characterizes the work of ESTAR(SER).
The reader of In Search encounters an exemplary sample of ESTAR(SER)’s scholarly pursuit of the Order and its practices. The anthology is divided into six sections, featuring three essays each (except for Section VI, “Remains,” that includes only one text). The essays on Section I (“Preliminaries”) serve as an introduction to both The Order and the work of ESTAR(SER)—a triad of texts that address their history, their connection to other disciplines, and the saliency of the W-Cache, the archive that grounds ESTAR(SER)’s enterprise and whose access is (alas!) restricted to dues-paying members. Section II (“Attention and its Objects”) is concerned with the things that Birds look at and the different kinds of objects that have merited the Order’s attention. Section III explores a phenomenon that is permanent elsewhere and, consequently, requires death, but that only occurs in a temporary fashion when engaged in birdish activity: metempsychosis, or the motion of a subject to an object. Section IV, under the title “Rogues and Renegades,” is dedicated to cases that illustrate the Order’s tendency to schism and boundary-crossing, visible, for instance, in its desire to detach from (and even despise) erudition. Section V, the last one featuring three essays, is dedicated to birdish gatherings and explores the ways in which desire structures the relationships between birds themselves and the objects of their attention. Finally, Section VI, “Remains,” works with the residue of the W-Cache, as if presenting material for new work and reminding us that there is some sort of entrancement available for those who truly attend.
Which brings me to another question, one that accompanies the entire reading of In Search and, perhaps more importantly, one that is at the core of the mind stretching that attending necessitates: is this all true? Is the Order real? Does it matter?
As a reader attending In Search, I often felt like I was witnessing a volée—an active cohort of members of the Order that coalesce to pay attention. There is something fascinating and beautiful about the volée that is hard to pin down. Part of it has to do with the communal yet individual power of attentiveness that implies looking at the world to come back to the self and then return to others for sense-making (some have seen here a very Kantian influence in the Order)—birds observe in groups, then retreat, and later come back together in the “Colloquy,” where they try to rebuild their experience, engaging in “a joint narrative reconstruction of the states of mind and senses across the span of their active attention.”
Given the secrecy of the Order, catching a glimpse of a volée (for all of us non-birds) is quite a peculiar experience: you find yourself paying attention to those who are paying attention (it matters little whether or not you know they are members of the Order) and, while doing it, you want to understand, partake, see what they are seeing, see how they are seeing. You want to join them, to be part of their community and you realize that lack of attention (to the world, to others) erodes being together.
This was partly my impression when reading In Search. When approaching these highly erudite essays, often written collaboratively, one cannot help but feel a little overwhelmed. “The Literature of Amphibious Ecstasis in the Americas, 1948–1968” (Part III, Essay 7) is emblematic of this effect:
The “short-lived” Kansas-based Green Review […] would seem to belong definitively and eternally to the capacious crypt of unborn literary quarterlies. And yet, a hitherto unknown body of correspondence and manuscripts, recently surfaced in the “W-Cache,” shed new light on both the peri-history and undead afterlife of this unusual non-publication. In what follows, we will argue that properly interpreted, these documents—known as the Greer Papers—offer compelling evidence of Pan-American migrations within the Order.…
As readers, our trust in the veracity of the research is summoned from the first lines of almost every essay—if only by the sheer impossibility of confirming the obscure findings that ground the arguments. The essays mimic a more traditional scholarly argumentative arch that promises access to some type of knowledge. Readers familiar with academic prose will identify the resonances: an unexpected, obscure discovery related to an even more opaque object of study that comes to contradict commonly held beliefs; the acknowledgment that the finding sheds light on multiple directions; the explicit articulation of the argument that follows; etc. A couple of lines later, the authors of the essay avow to “go further,” to “grant unprecedented access into a veritable black hole of wrapping density at the center of the Birdish cosmos.” And, to close the introduction and take the academic promise home, before actually developing it, the reader gets a taste of what is to come—an indication of the essay’s original contribution to the field:
It will be the contention of the present article that the Greer Papers secrete a set of jewel-like allegoric depicting this most essential Birdish dynamic [metempsychosis]. The sharp and exhilarating strike of a perfectly pitched gong will mark our conclusion: Julio Coratázar’s great tale of amphibious transport, “Axolotl” (1956), should, we propose, be read as a Third Bird conte-à-clef.
The cycle of academic inquiry is finalized: the information becomes available, it is studied by erudite minds, and used to reinterpret an object of study in order to enlarge or correct former approaches to it.
Such academic cadence informs the entirety of In Search of the Third Bird. The texts feel, look, and read very scholarly—they nail the jargon, the footnotes, the rhetoric—yet their strangeness prevents you from fully “getting it.” You really want to, but you don’t. So you keep reading. And that is, precisely, its power. In Section V of the book, we learn that an important characteristic of the volée, and of the Order in general, is its reliance on desire. Not necessarily sexual desire but eros—the impulse that pulls us towards others. And a fundamental characteristic of desire is mystery. There is something about the object of desire that, like birds, recedes from view, that remains somewhat opaque. For, of course, if the desired entity was easy to grasp and figure out, it would no longer be desirable.
The Order remains opaque for ESTAR(SER), and both The Order and ESTAR(SER) remain opaque for the average reader of their proceedings (you and I). It is precisely this opaqueness and uncertainty that guarantees the stretching of the mind so central to those who attend. And if this were not enough, the texts that compose In Search actively refuse closure, clarity—constantly denying our desires for truth and completion, and actively defying verifiability. Most of the essays have an “open ending,” as if warning the reader that their search for answers only prompted more questions (just like happens in real life). As part of the closing lines of many of the essays in the anthology, we read: “this is the topic of a different essay” (“‘Birds’ as a Historical Problem”); “more research is needed,” (“The Eads Sublation”); “we have only reached aporetic or, at best, tentative conclusions,” (“The Vorkuta Antinomy”); “further research is in order” “Met-Him-Pike-Hoses”); “The larger complexity of […] requires, I fear, a different study” (“The Vater Legacy”); etc.; etc.…
So, what does one do as a non-bird, non-ESTAR(SER)ian reader? How does one approach this very strange and overwhelming book? My suggestion would be to do as birds do: to pay attention to this odd object (a work of art, perhaps?) but bracket judgment, resist interpretation, and refuse isolated sense-making.
On the copyright page, we read an unusual disclaimer that alerts us to several negative peer reviews of In Search that, “unfortunately,” arrived too late to halt the book’s production. The reviews (available here) severely condemn the project, revile it adamantly, judging it, refusing to adopt a birdish attitude. After reading them with doubt, a part of me is left with the impression that, if those reviews were real, “they just didn’t get it.” However, in all honesty, neither did I. Not fully, for sure. And, as I said, I think that this is precisely the point.
In Search may be a game, but it is undoubtedly a serious one. As such, it participates in a larger tradition of practices that use fiction as a tool to convey thoughtful epistemological queries, while resisting a binary understanding that would oppose fiction to fact, or to truth. Contemporary manifestations of this tradition abound—the performances of The Yes Men, the International Necronautical Society, or Augusto Boal’s technique of Invisible Theater quickly come to mind, as well as a plethora of “unruly experiments with the untrue” that art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty has termed parafictional: a tribute to Safiye Behar, the Atlas Group, or Aliza Shvarts’s pieces on being labeled a fiction.
In Search is in dialogue with these experiments—it is a game that most of the time we watch others play (a game that plays with certainties, with scholarly knowledge, with postmodernist dread, with the fantasy of making the world fully intelligible…). It is also, of course, a comment on our attention-less contemporaneity, on the illusion of having the world accessible in time, space, and knowledge; of having endless answers to all our questions, just a click away.
By returning us to a space of unanswered questions and sustained contemplation, In Search reminds us that uncertainty is part of the game of being alive and that forgetting this very fact only makes for stiff minds—minds that are incapable of stretching, of truly attending. Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the anthology is not necessarily the information it provides but the context it creates. A context that alters our practices of reading, which are, of course, practices of knowing, and, consequently, of doing.