metaphysical & metaphorical musings : art, architecture, and arithmetic

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


"...It's the absence of presence, nothing more...the endless time of never coming back...a gap you can't see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound...
...There must have been a  moment, at the beginning, where we could have said--no.  But somehow we missed it." - Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Photo courtesy of Kay Vickers

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Last One - Ulmerisms

“School is built on the sweat of the idiots.”

“Literacy is really hard.”

“I invented Electracy.  It’s in Wikipedia.”

“Part of my creative secret is I misunderstand my own notes.”

“We are some stupid animals—on the fringes of nothing.”

“Theory is what you do when you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“I don’t want anyone having more fun than I am.”

“I got retirement; you all are doomed, though.”

“We each bring our own little grain of sand to the pile…to prevent beach erosion.”

“If that’s your problem, you’re not doing it right.” (on rocketships to heaven)

“Wikipedia’s got a pretty good thing on pepper.”

“The apes are sitting around asking ‘what are we going to do with junior?  He doesn’t have any hair, he’s walking upright, asking a lot of questions, won’t eat his bananas.’”

“See that?  See what happens?  You got all uppity and became unheimlich.”

“…old people, its part of their operating system.” (on the sacred)

“…doing physics like you’re three months old.” (on memory and emotional association)

“I can spend fifty years meditating, or I can just take a hit off the bong.”

“…mathematic procedure and madness comes down to the same thing in practice.”

“Will you just walk out of Walmart, right now?  Just put down the blender.”


Advance Praise

“I don’t speak Greek” – Epimenides, paradoxician [translated from the original Greek]

“…the least factual, most accurate account.” – Frank Mankiewicz, journalist

“…soft and spongey—like a Twinkie.  Like a Twinkie.” – Morgan Freeman, narrator

“Your film…one thing in two words: fucked up…very fucked up.  Okay three words, four words, who the hell cares…very very fucked up.  What I’d call a bad trip…I was so upset I even threw my friend’s fishtank at their china cabinet.  Ugly, very ugly.  Salt water, dead fish everywhere, me screaming ‘so very very fucked up.’  Five words.”
- Hunter S. Thompson, doctor of divinity [interview with Karen Green, qtd. in Danielewski]

“It’s like a koala bear crapped a rainbow in my brain.” – Hazel Murphy, captain

“surprisingly adequate” – Harold Bloom, logorrhetic sesquipod

That’s Numberwang.” – Bertrand Russell, human

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


[strophe - a turn or division]

It finally happened.  There I was, minding my own business (well, my own beer), when I finally had an epiphany of my very own.  It was bound to happen—it’s fatality, after all.

I’ve been agonizing for days over my Prezi.  (Todd can attest—he’s seen me sulking around top floor of Rolfs like the ghost of Hamlet Sr.)  I just couldn’t make the damn thing come together, find the logic of the immanent trope.  So there I was, hunched in agony (competition with the object—who will prove more resourceful?) over my computer, when I finally found a tropic tangent.

In the later days of Pruitt-Igoe, broken glass was a conspicuous feature: cascades of shattered beer bottles filled the ground that originally promised ‘a river of trees’; more significantly, one of the buildings’ most prominent features was its busted-out windows.  Broken windows—a sign of fatality.  We’re all intimately familiar with this phenomenon.  It’s the scourge of the personal computer—the fatal error—a sign that Microsoft Windows has tripped over its own formality.  Pruitt-Igoe as a signifying accident is the very same as the blue screen of death.  This, of course, leads marvelously into Lev Manovich’s theorization of the new media screen, providing a convenient inroad into digital technology, a persistent parallel to modern architecture in my blog.

I hypothesized, early on, that the disaster was the organization of space.  The notion that suspicion and defection were emergent properties of the layout seem to corroborate this.  Pruitt-Igoe promised the American Dream of the mid-century.  The project arose as a result of flight to the suburbs, to the white picket fences of middle-class America.  Pruitt-Igoe was an urbanized version of the white picket fence neighborhood—‘vertical neighborhoods for poor people’, to quote Architectural Forum (and the scary thing is, these were words of praise).  The social disintegration seems to me a form of mass brinksmanship; if this barren, inhospitable space masquerading under a human metric was the best that the American Dream was going to offer up, the only option was to call its bluff.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Going Modulor

The search for science has led me back to Le Corbusier's Le Modulor.  The standard scale of modern architecture, this is the metric of Pruitt-Igoe, the science behind the space.  In the pursuit of a "living-machine" that takes the human as its measure, Yamasaki created an unlivable-machine.

We get a break on this one; the science already shows its fabrication.  The standard for modulor was changed ex post facto, from 1.75 metres to 6 feet, from the height of the average Frenchman to the height of good-looking policemen in English detective novels.

As previously noted, modulor is homophonous with modular, synonymous with infinitely repeatable design, like the homogenous blocks of Pruitt-Igoe.  Modular housing itself is prefabricated structures that can be moved; in the case of Pruitt-Igoe, the buildings weren't modular, but the design (based on the Modulor) assumed that its residents were--that humans can be picked up and deposited into prefabricated spaces and philosophies.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

'As if' al Azif

One thing that play and ‘pataphysics have in common is the ‘as if’; in play, this is the creative paithia, play without formal rules but organized by the principles of an imaginary world.  ‘Pataphysics is founded on this principle, creating an imaginary science of the world constituted by ‘as if’.  Both paithia and ‘pataphysics willfully forget history and experience in favor of constructing their own reality.  ‘pataphysics has certain rules, making it more ludic in nature, but ‘pataphysics maintains its playful character by developing the rules of its own methodology, granting greater freedom and creative latitude than in normal science.

I return to Danielewski’s House of Leaves as a point of intersection for a variety of themes I’ve been following.  The book, as noted before, uses the trope of recursion, and it does so in two ways.  First, the book represents itself as a diegetic object, as a book that the protagonist finds and reads.  Moreover, the impossible architecture of the house (unbound by space and time—an impossible physics, an imaginary physics, a ‘pataphysics—see also Turlington Hall) is reflected in the impossible architecture of the book itself (the house of leaves).  The book is the house that is the book.

Moreover, House of Leaves presents itself as a found manuscript, like Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. (The book also contains various other found manuscripts en abyme.)  This seems significant in light of Todd’s enlightening lecture, wherein he suggested the possibility of the hoax, pure simulation, as a route for our projects.  We want the realer than real to expose its own constructed-ness as well as that of the cultural doctrines we take for granted.

One example is The Blair Witch Project, another ‘found manuscript’, that needs no introduction.  An important, but little-known, paratext is the Sci-Fi Channel special “Curse of the Blair Witch”, presented as a documentary about the making of, and events surrounding, the found documentary (and aired in advance of the release of the film itself).  This was in the days before Sci-Fi switched to all-camp-all-the-time and still ran shows like “Sightings” which took a very serious approach to parascience.  A documentary about the weird circumstances surrounding a group of missing students, complete with dated news segments and interviews with Burkittsville locals, was indistinguishable from an actual documentary report.

Another example of the found manuscript is the Canadian “pataphysicians’ approach to reading the natural features of the landscape as interpretable signs—similar to reading accidents as signs, reading natural history as an accidental text—or perhaps accidentally reading it as a text.

Which brings me to the point that started me thinking about found manuscripts.  HP Lovecraft is famous for his universe of impossible physics (like non-Euclidean architecture and forms), and a key component of this world is the Necronomicon, adapted from the original title al Azif.  A popular prank amongst Lovecraft aficionado, back in the days of analog libraries, was to sneak cards for the book into official catalogues.  Several versions of the Necronomincon have actually been printed, among them a version edited by a man called Simon, which also presents itself as a found manuscript.  Despite the fact that Lovecraft himself averred that the book was pure invention, there are readers who legitimately practice magik with the book’s symbols and spells.

‘As if’, a la al Azif.

An Imaginary Science of Poetics

As noted, Ault’s is a critical approach, not an artistic one.  Reading it as a ‘pataphysics is a willful misprision, but one that gestures toward developing an imaginary science of poetics—that is, a creative empirical methodology that looks for certain tropes. (The two can be thought of as parallel constructions, roughly analogous natural carbon-based life and NASA’s arsenic-based life.)  Not a science in the essentialist mode, but as suggested by the word’s etymology: the scientist is the knower, dividing a portion of chaos into meaningful order.  It becomes an essentialist science when the knowledge is divided from the knower, it informs rather than inspires.  This is the difference between theory and criticism (hermeneutic and heuristic): theory explains an independent object, criticism provides an individual understanding of it.  Creativity is not a means of revolution, but a constant imaginative activity.

My goal is to outline certain tropes that will allow us to identify complex texts that are self-aware, ‘objects’ in states of ecstasy.  (A shortlist is given at the end /Part 1, some of which are used as examples here.)  I have previously explored how this sort of self-awareness is both the holy grail and Achilles’ heel of techno-scientific enterprise: the respective myths of the Singularity and Aronofsky’s Pi.  This exploration will hopefully contribute to my ultimate goal of developing a trope for the Pruitt-Igoe accident.

Self-Reference:  Direct, immediate reference of something to itself. “This statement is self-reflexive.”  Key to the Epimenides paradox, “This statement is false.”

Reflexivity:  Awareness or reflection of medium or embodiment within a medium.  Scott McCloud’s narrator-persona is reflexive of his imagetextual environment, which makes Understanding Comics a self-reflexive text. (As a comic book about comic books, this is an example of Coleridge’s organic form, which is married inseparably to content.)

Recursion: Self-representation of a text or  -reproduction of an image.  Fractals are probably the most well-known example.  The infinite regress is (in my own experience) frequently interpreted as either a mysterious eternity or an existential abyss.  Text constrains recursion from falling into infinity because such a text would itself have to be infinite.  Recursive representation in text usually involves representation rather than reproduction; embedding is more functional as mise en abyme. 

Mise en Abyme: Embedding a form within a form, without the paradoxical content-repetition of recursion.  It is similar to reflexivity, as it is also a self-reflection, but of metaphysical rather than physical form.  Differences expose similarities, relations, forces at work in the meta- and embedded texts.  In South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, the embedded film Asses of Fire and its relation to the dominant narrative mirrors the reception of South Park into its own cultural metanarrative.  Shakespeare is also frequently noted for his plays-within-plays, which can range from formal theatre to general playfulness.  (Yes, Hamlet and South Park have something in common.)

Some Tropic Fugues
Blake’s Book of Urizen blends recursion and mise en abyme by representing itself and briefly recapitulating (a transformed version of) itself as an embedded narrative.  Joyce’s Finnegans Wake reverses this blending by representing itself under transformation, as Shem’s manuscript.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

'Pataphyics: Fun with Blake and Jarry

Thought I’d try an experiment for today: presenting the basis for a holograph(em)ic ‘pataphysics based on the work of Don Ault.My hope is that it might foreground some significant features that we can work with.

This ‘pataphysics draws on now-defunct holographic model of science espoused by physicist David Bohm and neuroscientist Karl Pribram.In holographic technology, lights are bounced off an object at intersecting angles, and the patterns of interference are recorded; when the recorded pattern is similarly illuminated, it reproduces an image of the object.One of the weird and wonderful things about holographic recording is it is distributed or interspersed.Unlike a scratched record, which loses a particular bit of information, a scratched holographic plate loses overall definition; the more information is lost, the ‘fuzzier’ the image becomes, but no specific segment is lost entirely.Even a fragment of a holographic recording will produce some image, albeit deformed.Pribram suggests that the brain records experience in a similar manner; memories are dispersed throughout the brain so that a particular memory cannot be removed, let alone isolated.Bohm’s theory is that the material universe works like a hologram.

Enough about holographics—back to holograph(em)ics.The (em) stands for em-space, a standard typographical unit.In addition to punning on ‘grapheme’, it indicates the intrusive nature of anomalies, which he suggests are frequently accompanied by conspicuous punctuation (and which conspicuously punctuate the textual field).

This ‘pataphysics breaks from the tradition Bok outlines by situating itself outside the tradition all together; I don’t think that Ault is particularly well-acquainted with the ‘pataphysical tradition, and his writing on holograph(em)ics does not directly mention Jarry, et al.Further, this ‘pataphysics was developed as a critical project, rather than artistic one, radically reorienting its values as an imaginary science.Rather than focusing on the ‘pataphysical tropes, Ault’s tactics affects them in its critical environment. In swerving away from traditional and popular critical approaches, it establishes an intentional syzygy in its unique approach to anomalous textual and narrative phenomena, internally (within a text) and externally (across fragmented and variable texts).

Ault’s ‘pataphysics additionally chooses alternative tropes, much like Oulipian ‘pataphysics’ revision of Jarry’s tropes.These tropes seem to be interference (incommensurability), interconnection (dispersal), and singularity (self-reflexivity /-reference).Interference is the idea that poetic details and aspects can contrast and conflict with one another.Such paradoxes aren’t reconciled; rather, interconnection suggests that every instant or detail in a poetic work connects with every other, and the value is in understanding their development and interaction.Singularity provides an inroad: these are points that concentrate textual forces, making them more visible against a relatively less intense ground.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Dreams, Fatality, & Omens in Twin Peaks

Achtung: spoilers


Moving through Caillois and away from a rational understanding of games and play, we can get a better understanding of the social instability that the Pruitt-Igoe projects exhibited.

The social vertigo is a major point in most discussions of PI; in areas of 20 or more families, residents had difficulty distinguishing fellow residents from intruders--cooperators from potential defectors.

Such space itself is disorienting, but in a specific way.  Turlington Hall, with its multiple entrances, twists, turns, double-backs, and no windows, is a complex and disorienting space because of its lack of repetition; PI is disorienting precisely because of its total repetition.

The quantification that invariably accompanies grids, and the process of gridding, rationally compensates for this--we know that number 312 will be on the third floor, and between 311 and 313.

Now, lets imagine a grid without numbers--a grid without the very thing that makes it rationally comprehensible.  The space would have to take on qualitative features as a means of facilitating navigation.

A Turlington without numbers: navigation would involve spatial direction and identifiable landmarks.  "Go in through the north stairwell to the top floor, turn right through the double doors, look for the door with William Blake and Donald Duck posters."  Relatively simple in a space that is qualitatively heterogenous.  But how would one navigate extremely homogenized space like PI without recourse to simply counting off floors, doors, and corridors?

A Savage Journey

Pruitt-Igoe was part of a response to the mass homogenization of St. Louis.  The response to this widespread and aggressive degradation ('slumification') was a similar the homogenization of lower class housing and an inverse condensation into housing blocs consisting of homogenous, bare-bones units and landscapes.

The embodied experience here is comfort without excess.  For the residents, it was the pursuit of the American dream.  This isn't the contemporary American dream, of making it big with a minimum of effort; it's an older, more modest one, the American dream of Horatio Alger: of achieving success through hard work, and receiving a commensurate and relatively modest reward.

The initial degradation of St. Louis is a result of this--people fled the city for the suburbs, an ideal realm of comfortable homes with well-kept lawns behind the archetypal white picket fences.  Pruitt-Igoe was an attempt to urbanize the dream.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

/Part1 : Fatal Strategy

“We’re living in the future.” – Orlando Cordero, roommate
“You need to be rich to live in the future.” – [yours truly]

The accident, as the sight of a new ontology, shows us something of the real—it shows us our own agency, removed from us, coming back to haunt us.  We give up our own agency in the form of our creativity in favor of technoscience and the better, more convenient, more comfortable future that it promises.  Investment in ‘objectivity’ promises that this future will be the same for us all.

In the case of Pruitt-Igoe, we want the future—an elegantly geometric future that expresses how far the old ontology of science has taken us.  Unfortunately, that metaphysics is no longer relevant; we have to figure out a new future, and come to grips with the fact that the object will lead us there, co-opting our agency to bring itself & ourselves out of the present and further into the new metaphysics.

“Some called him a ‘pretext’.  Others said he was a point-for-point microcosm.” – A Spokesman for the Counterforce
“That could be a building, that was so general.” – Ian Roberts, improv comic

In Pruitt-Igoe, the infinite exchangeability of the object—the commodity relationship of living in futurity, the desire for technoscientific utopia—breaks down and bites us like a carnivorous coffee table.  Or, rather, it bit the lower-class residents who lacked capital and thus the capacity to consummate (after all, it is seduction) a range or variety of commodity relationships with different objects.  The infinite repetition of living space fills in for the (missing) infinite exchangeability of capital.

The grid shows us a certain ideal, a world wherein everything is calculable and placeable, but this disregards the bending or deformation that is the grid’s force.  This deformation is the accident—in Pruitt-Igoe, in Game Theory, the logical approach hits a breaking point.  Instead of imposing the subjective logic of literacy’s metaphysics onto the object, we have to let the object dictate our new strategy.

En abyme, the grid subdivides itself into smaller and smaller increments, like the fine calculation of a curve, infinitely expandable and contractible.  The golden spiral of Modulor is more poetic, and though we find this pattern in nature, Le Corbusier’s scale makes man the measure of all such objects.  But what happens to these at Planck scale, when time and space purportedly break down?

“Man’s desires are limited by his perceptions; none can desire what he has not perceived.”
“He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God.  He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.”
- Blake, “There is No Natural Religion” [a&b]

The case of Watson, of Wolfram|Alpha, is the desire to bend the object to our will.  Instead of letting the object speak in its own way, we want the object to speak to our own understanding.  This seems like it will take us further from being able to ‘speak machine’ and grasp the accident as a sign, from being electrate.  Not the fatality we’re looking for.

The image of graffiti on the bare walls of Pruitt-Igoe keeps coming back to me; the logical zero-sum game of funding left a blank canvas for inhabitants (not necessarily residents).  If human and technological enetelchies are intertwined, this is the object co-opting us to bring it to ecstasy, to make it what it already is.  Pruitt-Igoe replaced St. Louis slums with a vision of the future of architecture-as-human-habitat that came to be worse than what it replaced—more slum than slum.

The task now is to find the poetics of space.  To liberate the image from the aqualitative grid and let it become artistic.

“…in Eternity the Four Arts: Poetry, Painting, Music,
And Architecture which is Science: are the Four Faces of Man.
Not so in Time & Space: there Three are shut out, and only
Science remains thro Mercy: & by means of Science, the Three
Become apparent in time & space, in the Three Professions
Poetry in Religion: Music, Law: Painting, in Physic & Surgery:”
- Blake, Milton

Of course, the only way out (past limit) is through (and on into ecstasis--abyme, Eternity, infinity).

I've come across poetic renderings of self-referentiality (the cultural archetype or myth I've found) more than a few times: Blake does it obliquely on several occassions, and Mark Danielewski depicts it explicitly in House of Leaves when his protagonist finds a copy of the book itself; Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde make a similar gesture when they make play the subject of the play (in Shakespeare's case, it's usually overtly metatheatrical; Wilde is subtler).  Being placed en abyme is what breaks mathematics (Godel and Principia) and machines (Euclid and the 216-digit number).

Mise en Abyme en Abyme : ^n+1 ?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Deformation & Fetish Objects

Deformation’s been on my mind all semester.  A big part of this chronic fixation is my puppy-love for Jerome McGann’s book radiant textuality: literature after the world wide web.  (It’s a spectacular book.  Really.)  Deformation is McGann’s instruction; he advocates precisely the sort of image manipulation we started our semester with, and shares his experience messing around with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s art that lead to new insights on his own part.  His dictum is that no text (or image, I suppose) is ever self identical—so why not bring the image (or text, I suppose) into its ecstasy by helping it along?  McGann uses the term deformation to foreground the function of criticism and interpretation.  Transformation works equally well, and sheds any negative connotations that deformation might carry.

In a response to one of Wendy’s emails earlier this semester, I wrote a little about the deformation of the accident as an event into the static, flattened image of the accident, the sign; and about the deformation into pixilation (which allows us to make all those fun transformations).  This is implicit in McGann, particularly his discussion of how a high-powerd scanner never produced the same facsimile twice.  ‘Pixelation’ is also implicit in Newton’s calculus, which divides a curve into numerous discreet segments that resemble the original curve, and the same with Cartesian arithmetic, which transforms an algebraic statement into a geometric form mapped onto a grid—my figure for the Pruitt-Igoe disaster.  The design of the buildings was heavily influenced by Le Corbusier’s philosophy of architecture (thanks, Todd!) which relies heavily on formal properties and geometric space.  Le Corbusier is a pseudonym, a transformation of the identity, which corresponds with Le Corbusier’s Modular scale, a transformation of the physical body—the human form—into a mathematical exemplar, a harmony of ratios.  Even the name, Le Corbusier, suggests the force of bending and deforming.

I’ve looked briefly at the fetish-object, the relation between dominoes and punched cards.  Part of that examination was the difficulty of deciding just how far back to trace in pursuit of the object.  Both of these are, of course, cases of transformation/deformation, but the dominoes seem more interesting to me as a transformation of aleatory play.  Dominoes were, allegedly, derived from dice; in a physical sense, the dice are flattened out in the transformation to dominoes, but the luck of the throw is transformed into the luck of the draw, which seems like a sort of flattening out (maybe Caillois will be able to help me with this).  Dominoes also have the added feature of physical extension, of creating an emergent structure, form from number just as Le Corbusier’s architectural philosophy extols.  The difference between the domino-structure and the Pruitt-Igoe grid is the difference between liberal-aleatory and conservative-utilitarian deployments of space.

What’s the difference between Pruitt-Igoe and a stack of dominoes?  The stack of dominoes has a better chance of staying upright.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Self-referentiality is the ecstasy of the object, the passing of a rational limit—math becomes more logical than logic can accommodate, Euclid becomes more intelligent than its systems can sustain.  Baudrillard’s dimension collapse.

The allure of the object in this case is the promise of the future; it seduces us with the possibility of becoming futurity.

These themes come together in the theoretical Singularity—the belief that technoscience’s exponential growth of capacity, and the diminishing time needed to achieve this growth, will culminate in a radical historical event that will usher in a new type of technology and civilization.  One possibility is that computers like Euclid would no longer have to worry about self-referential meltdowns; artificial intelligence would be the new standard of electronic technology.

[In physics, a singularity is a similar impossible event.  The event of technology reaching a point of infinite improvement at infinite speed is much like the time-space event of the black hole, a point of infinite density and infinite gravity.  Nature abhors a vacuum, but she abhors infinites even more—at least, according to physics, which does not allow for infinite values, unknowable quantities.  A popular theory is that a singularity was the source of our universe; or, in its ecstatic form, that singularities are the wombs of universes.]

All of this, of course, relies on acceleration, speed, a greater or even qualitatively new condition of circulation in the dromosphere.  At the moment, we still have the luxury of critical thought, but after the singularity (if it does indeed happen), unpredictability will be the condition of the moment; we’ll have no choice but to think at the speed of light.  We’ve got to be faster than Watson.

The principles of the International school of architecture gave Pruitt-Igoe this shine of the future.  Theorizing the singularity and attending the inauguration of Pruitt-Igoe are both anticipations of the future.  The commodity relationship in a techno-utopic culture, reliant on science and mathematics, is the promise of the future, today.

The end of duration?

But what if the myth holds?  Could the singularity turn out to be π all over again? 

No Shinola, Sherlock

Objects communicate with us in at least two ways: through the accident as a sign, at the site of the new ontology, the place where reality reveals something of itself; and in the commodity relationship, showing the consumer a sympathetic version of him/herself.  Our task is to learn how to understand these signs, translate for our technology, understand what it is ‘saying’.

IBM’s Watson, the electronic champion of Jeopardy, seems like a step in the other direction.

Two of Watson’s processes are significant here.  One is the search-retrieve function, a massive undertaking with Jeopardy.  This is a function we’re all familiar with.  Before it can do this, however, Watson has to parse, read and interpret the language of the question.  Wolfram|Alpha interprets and searches rather well, provided that the user is inputting simple, straightforward language.  Watson’s task is trickier.  Sometimes, Jeopardy’s language is relatively straightforward, but we’ve all seen the twisted puns and wordplay, the very essence of riddles.  How can a computer, with its brutal simplicity, understand poetic language? 

That’s the challenge for Watson.  And apparently, he did pretty well.  KurzweilAI suggests that the machine had a significantly faster reaction time than the human players—but then, we already knew that computers are quicker than we are, but supposedly at the price of versatility.  Watson shows that this isn’t an insurmountable divide.

Our technologies are capable of reading us faster than we can read them.  Do machines that communicate more efficiently with us, on our terms, mean less incentive to understand how the object communicates in its own way?

What does this mean for the personal computer—hell, all personal electronics—in a commodity relationship through which the object secures our help to further its own entelechy?

Is technology becoming more organic, while we become more mechanical?

What could this mean for a Max & Euclid relationship?

The Ecstasy of the Fetish?

Punched cards and dominoes; presence and absence.
Some Dutch sailors playing dominoes.  Each domino represents the outcomes of throwing two dice.
A set of Hindu dominoes.  Eastern culture adapted thrown dice into static tiles.
The work of Indian scholar Pingala is the first known description of binary, as a description of metre.  Leibniz discovered binary in the West more than a few centuries later, not too long before dominoes made their way to Europe.

Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Punched Cards

In 1811, Lord Byron went before the House of Lords in defense of the ‘frame breakers’, textile workers who lost their jobs to mechanical looms and retaliated by smashing the offending machines.  A decade earlier, these Jacquard looms were developed from a more primitive design.  A crucial improvement in the Jacquard loom’s design was its method of input: the punched card.  This was the first machine to operate on binary, a language of presence and absence, like the modern computer.

Augusta Ada King, Countess Lovelace, is credited as the first computer programmer, working with Charles Babbage’s designs for his analytical engine capable of mechanically performing complex calculations—a major leap forward in efficiency and speed toward our modern electronic computers.  Of course, Ada wasn’t using keyboard—she was using punched cards.

Punch(ed)line: Augusta Ada King was born Augusta Ada Byron, and we remember her precisely because of her relationship with a technology that her father politically opposed.

‘the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves’ – Lady Lovelace, qtd. in Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach

John von Neumann revolutionized computing after World War II.  Impressed by the complexity and slowness of calculations conducted by hand and counting machine at Los Alamos.  Also during the war, he was able to study the ENIAC computer.  Based on these, von Neumann proposed a digital, binary, stored-program computer.  His wife, Klara, became one of the first programmers of this new type of computer—a sort of female-line descendent of Ada.

“I like the lucidity of mathematical world and the mathematical feeling that there is only one right answer to a problem.” – Klara von Neumann, qtd. in Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma

Punch(ed)line: According to Poundstone, von Neumann's brother speculated that John was inspired to use punched cards in his computer by childhood conversations about the Jacquard loom factory that their father's bank financed, rather than descending directly from the design of Babbage's early mechanical computer.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Corbusier & Corbusier

"Le Corbusier 
adopted his pseudonym in the 1920s, deriving it in part from the name of a distant ancestor, Lecorbésier. But in the absence of a first name, it suggests a physical force as much as a human being. It brings to mind the verb courber, to bend, and, of course, Le Corbusier was a great bender of townscapes to his own will. It also brings to mind le corbeau, the crow or raven, not a conventionally beautiful bird in plumage or song, but one that is simple and unornamental in both and therefore, metaphorically speaking, honest and undeceiving, as Le Corbusier claimed his architecture to be. In French, le corbeau has a further meaning: that of a bird of ill omen—and perhaps that is the architect’s little joke upon the world."

Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man
Le Corbusier's design was informed by his Modulor, a scale of proportions based on the ratios of the human body, a continuation of Da Vinci's project in the Vitruvian Man.  It relies on the golden ratio, another irrational mathematical constant like pi, and the Fibonacci sequence, an exercise in vertigo which produces the golden spiral whose growth is related to the golden ratio.  Da Vinci and found this ratio inherent to the human form, and it can be seen in other natural phenomena.  Le Corbusier's ambition was to use this ratio to create architecture and design suited precisely to human proportions, possible through the mathematical order of the universe.
Le Corbusier's Modular Man

The first Modulor Man was based on the height of the average Frenchman, but was later revised to accord with the standard height of attractive men in English detective novels.  At least in the second case the base was a professedly fictional standard.  The very name, "Modular", evokes "modular", or interchangeable, the very image of Pruitt-Igoe, the design of which was inspired by Le Corbusier's architectural principles.  He considered the Modulor scale to be one capable of uniting the Metric and Imperial scales, creating universal equivalency.

One of Le Corbusier's early projects was the Domino House.  It is a very simple, practical design, but also one in which interior layout is customizable within the overall form.  The name evokes the image of dominoes stacked and arranged to build a small structure, but also recalls the variety of ways dominoes can be combined and recombined within the overall structure or rules of the game--the very essence of modularity.

Perhaps we've found the fetish-object?

Curiouser & Curiouser

I found a nice archive of Pruitt-Igoe photos hosted by UM-St. Louis, in their Western Historical Manuscript Collection.  Here are the more peculiar ones.

In the final days of Pruitt-Igoe, even the trees tried to flee...

Why is the barbed wire facing inward?  No, seriously--wtf?

A Walk through Pruitt-Igoe

St. Louis was under siege from itself.  Decentralization, the flight of city dwellers to the suburbs, caused an expansion of the city’s slums that officials feared would engulf the entire city.  The solution was urban renewal in the image of the major metropolis.

Le Corbusier’s highrise design synergized with federal housing guidelines that only allowed for high-rises to be built.  Yamasaki’s intention was to maximize the efficiency of the space.  But these innovations that were initially praised became the sources of Pruitt-Igoes problems.  Skip-stop elevators began to break down, and the deferred traffic led to the congestion and deterioration of the stairways.  Common recreational areas, called galleries, became known as gauntlets where residents dodged hoodlums and criminals.  The projects’ reputation was so bad that messengers and delivery workers refused to enter the buildings.

Storage rooms were burglarized.  Halls and stairwells were vandalized—but that’s all right, since paint in the common areas was one of the ‘luxuries’ that budgetary constraints eliminated.  Others included landscaping (outdoor common areas became wastelands of trash), insulation on exposed pipes (in common areas where children played), screens on windows (at least two girls fell from upper-level windows), and ground-floor public toilets (coupled with skip-stop elevators, an utter nightmare).

Pruitt-Igoe was an exercise in utility.  Modernist architectural principles eliminated, or at least minimized, secondary and superfluous features at the same time that it maximized occupant capacity.  The projects’ refusal of excess returns as its nemesis—the projects were a complete waste.  They never reached full capacity, and were completely demolished after an astronomical expenditure over a relatively brief period of time.

Friday, February 11, 2011


The myth shows itself in the incompatibility of formal with informal (irrational) systems.  The human mind, in dealing with pure formal logic, will break down; and the machine, when grappling with self-reference, will do the same.  The search for absolute truth in mathematics will break the human mind, and it will also break mathematics.

Dangerous Knowledge, or, the prehistory of π.  The myth is not a new one.

Metamythics: a step outside of the myth, the level-jumping of self-awareness so important to the constitution of the math-myth.  Mise en abyme – the story within the story; here, the inner is also the outer.  The figure is also its own ground—math en abyme.  Turtles all the way down.

The figure of the accident is self-reference, the point where logic is pushed into convulsion and refraction, overflows its bounds into a new logic.  The problem of infinite repeatability, the figure of the grid; there’s only space for metastatic extension, not for overflow past limit at the point of logical hemorrhage.

The figure of self-reference doesn’t directly present itself at Pruitt-Igoe.  This is appropriate, since the problem here is the formalism of mathematics; it shouldn’t be expected to supply a solution, especially since it’s a key component of disaster in the myth.  Pruitt-Igoe was a disaster of formalism and mathematics, but applied formalism and mathematics; self-reference, in π and Gödel incompleteness, arises out of more abstract mathematical endeavors.  Nonetheless, disaster arises from the application of mathematics to problems of human beings.  I feel like this will probably be useful in approaching the myth-logic as a contrast.

As seen in Mythematics III, the human and the technology are intertwined at Pruitt-Igoe; the mathematical architecture requires human agency to achieve its self-destruction.  We can see this also in Max’s relationship with Euclid.  In pure mathematics, we’re seduced into thinking that the problem is inherently there; but it took incredible acts of human creativity to set the conditions and bring the accident about.  Technology’s entelechy progresses toward disaster, with our help it finds its limit.

Focusing on the object’s circulation is too ego-centric; rather, shouldn’t we be paying more attention to how things circulate around the object?  Does Max’s number circulate amongst the characters, or do the characters circulate through the number?  Isn’t the Pruitt-Igoe disaster defined, not by the circulation of objects, but the circulation of the social relative to the object, supplying the all-important speed?  Didn’t Gödel allow mathematics to circulate within itself, and leave us to figure it out?

The voice of the object: “You’re all egotistical—that’s ok, I can work with that.  Here’s something shiny.  Isn’t that nice?  Life can be shiny too—you can live in the future, just stick with me.  Say, have you ever heard of Plato?”

The accident shows us ourselves.  (Achtung, baby: spoilers.)  A preference for applied research over pure research, practicality over creativity for creativity’s sake.  The humanistic study is self-destructing.  Cultural studies, theory, aims at elucidating and improving the cultural clusterfuck in which we find ourselves.  But here, we fall back on infinite repeatability—let’s apply Marx the same way we apply Newton—turtles all the way down, stripped of qualitative novelty, ready to slip quietly into the archive’s grid. 

Plato and Play-Doh: the persistence of consistency versus the fun of essential mutability.  Wouldn’t you rather sculpt than use a mold?

Mythematics III - Pruitt-Igoe

Pruitt-Igoe expresses the infinite exchangeability of housing as a commodity—little boxes in a row, each interchangeable with the next, all meant for similar residents.  Resident and architecture, as ideally undifferentiated, strike back with speed.  Pruitt-Igoe lasted only 22 years, from first habitation to final destruction.

Modern architecture is seductive because of its mathematical utopianism—the elimination of individual quality in favor of mass homogeneity.  The commodity needs us, but doesn’t care about us.  Pruitt-Igoe, as an object, seduced residents to act as its self-destruction.  The object isn’t capable of self-reference, but the mathematical design of the projects expresses its self-destruction in its effects on the inhabitants.  Or, as two undifferentiated masses, residents and architecture become a single object.

The mathematical principle invaded sociality—the massive population prevented residents from being able to discern intruders.  This stems from literacy’s metaphysical fascination with math and science, permanence and stability.  The metaphysics of electracy—wellbeing, pleasure and pain—are at work in the social workings, but toward the opposite end from what Yamasaki expected.  The anticipated outcome was mass cooperation; mass homogenization instead produced the opposite result, a predisposition to defect from the social good.  It acted as a strange attractor for the organization of mutual defection, rather than cooperation.  More rational than rational, it slips into irrationality and disaster.

The projects would have eventually decayed on its own, especially thanks to shoddy building materials (a defection in the zero-sum game of finance).  Humans intensified its degradation, increased the speed—and this resulted from the same conviction in mathematics, scientific technology, the children of literacy, that powers the apparatuses of electracy.  The object resists knowing through the intervention of the subject.  It foregrounds the obscenity of mathematics, where it overflows its boundaries, in trying to order human life according to aqualitative logic.  If electracy is about entertainment value, math fails because it seeks to eliminate all quality, all possibility of novelty and entertainment.

Mythematics II - Gödel Incompleteness

In the early years of the 20th century, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead set about axiomizing mathematics—boiling math down to its fundamental principles, modeling Euclid’s geometry.  One of Russell’s main concerns was eliminating the paradox of self-reference.  Toward this end, he and Whitehead penned their Principia Mathematica in three imposing volumes.  A few decades later, Kurt Gödel showed up and ruined everything by showing that any formal system at a certain threshold of power can, in a sense, self-destruct.

Gödel’s proof has two key points: that certain mathematical statements can be interpreted as statements about mathematics itself (which should only be possible in meta-mathematics), and that these statements can be condensed into a single statement which speaks about itself.  Thus, any formal system of a certain sophistication carries the potential for self-reference, the very thing Russell was so eager to eliminate.

Don Ault likes to say that the Principia was a turning point in the respective careers of Russell and Whitehead:  Russell was only able to think before the Principia, and Whitehead was only able to think afterward.  Whitehead penned his major philosophical works, and Russell became the doddering old man we see in Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Mythematics I - Daren Aronofsky’s π

Aronofsky’s film follows a search for an unknown quantity, the 216-digit constant in the equation of the universe.  Max, like von Neumann, is looking for the key to the stock market.  Unlike the science of game theory, the approach is through mathematics—he doesn’t want a theory, he wants an equation with the ability to exactly predict the movements and fluctuations of the stock market.  Max believes that the stock market, as a system, operates organically, and understanding this microcosmic process will open up the logic of the universe.

Like Baudriallard says, “there is nothing worse than to utter a wish and to have it literally fulfilled” (152).

Max’s donor is Euclid, his computer; Max and Euclid both operate on a formal etiquette, an exchange of language, that of mathematics.  Euclid is like the Tit-For-Tat program in Prisoner’s Dilemma: it can only communicate through its actions.  Sol and Max can communicate to each other through language and math, but Euclid only communicates through math.  Max proves himself worthy through his manipulation of formal systems; Max’s benefactor is a machine because Max is a virtuoso of machine language.

We can see this better in contrast.  Max is not a social being; his interactions with other people are typically standoffish, even abusive.  Max has his neighbor, Devi, as a social donor, though after Max throws her out of his apartment, she disappears from the narrative.  He insults her, violates etiquette, just as he does with Sol, who also exits the narrative following a quarrel with Max.  Max is better with machines than with humans; none of the people in the story become Max’s donor because he has very little regard for symbolic and contractual relationships.  These characters do compete for Max, like potential donors—they each try to offer something to Max that will aid him.  Marcy and Lenny become violent, seem like antagonists, but this is too superficial; this is simply the nature of Max’s sociality.    Sol, Marcy, Lenny seem like competing donors; calling Marcy and Lenny antagonists seems overtly superficial.  It seems more likely the number is the antagonist—but it is also the gift object of symbolic exchange.

Euclid “spits out” the number near the start of the film.  The number accumulates value as it circulates amongst the characters: Sol confirms the significance of the number, Marcy verifies its efficacy when her attempts to deploy it cause a stock market crash (which Euclid predicts, showing that the number is self-aware and capable of accounting for its own influence), Lenny and the Hasidic Jews elevate the number to the spiritual realm and grant it transcendence as the true name of God (Max secularizes and immanentizes the transcendent qualities, abstracts the pure science from the economic applications; for him, the number is the key to understanding the chaos of nature and creation).

But the gift is also the source of accidents.  It is the product of an accident—Euclid crashes immediately after printing the number.  Sol thinks that this number allows computers to become self-aware, but only briefly, because this knowledge is fatal—a formal system cannot handle functioning at that level.

Max doesn’t fare much better.  The number seems woven into Max’s unconscious—he’s capable of using it, but never articulates exactly how to use the number.  Marcy and Lenny can’t do it, at least not properly—that’s why they need Max (and in this sense, the potential-donor relationship inverts).  Max’s comprehension of the number is a bit like saying that the human brain does a sort of natural calculus: when a baseball player dives for a ball, his brain naturally ‘calculates’, accounts for all the variables of the situation, and the player ends up with a solution that will put the ball firmly in his glove.  But a ball player couldn’t tell you how to do all those calculations—it comes naturally.  Max, once he’s comprehended the number’s value, performs this sort of mental math that allows him to see the hidden patterns.

Fiona Apple : (aside) “If there were a better way to go then it would find me /… Be kind to me or treat me mean / I’ll make the most of it”. Max is an extraordinary machine.

But Max eventually begins to break down.  His brain can’t handle this function; it exacerbates an existing mental condition caused by staring at the sun as a child—staring at the number too long has the same disastrous effect.  Sol suffers the same fate—he retired from his work after a stroke, and when he returns to it after his fight with Max, he shares Euclid’s fate.

It’s not about the number, but knowing how to use it.  Marcy attempted to use the number to play the market, resulting in financial disaster.   She knows the number, but Max understands it.  Max says that the key is not the number, but its “meaning, syntax”.  The Jews have an inappropriate hermeneutic—transcendence isn’t the answer.  “You’ve calculated every 216 digit number, you’ve intoned all of them, what has it gotten you?”  Utility isn’t the answer either—Marcy crashes the stock market when trying to control it.  The pursuit of pure understanding leads only to non-comprehension.

Max and Sol try to accommodate a formal system, while Euclid attempts to accommodate a removal from that system, an awareness of itself as constituted by the workings of its own formal system.  The only solution is to unknow quantity.  Sol and Euclid auto-terminate; Max self-trephinates, structurally deprives himself of the ability to deal with numbers, and is left only with the expression of the grand equation: the surface aesthetics of the natural pattern, that which arises from the numbers but is not the thing itself.

The universe as a fractal organic system.  The price for perfect knowledge, however, is disaster—pain, madness, fatality—for Max and the system, the stock market.  Euclid’s self-awareness gives us an insight object-cognition in the midst of an accident: that is, how does the object experience the disaster?  What is the object’s point of view?  In this case, how does the mechanical, the purely formal, react to the organic and irrational?  It self-destructs. (So does the organic when experiencing the pure insight of perfect mechanical logic—poor Max.)

The mechanical is purely formal, but the organic is irrational.  The organic circle, an undifferentiated unbounded curve defined by an irrational constant— π.


Myth – “A traditional story…which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something…” In this case, a cultural conviction; an archetype.

Mytheme – after Lacan’s matheme; a symbolic representation of ideas and analyses.  In this case, the archetype or myth expressed in culture.

Thematic – “The subject of discourse, discussion, conversation, meditation, or composition; a topic.”

Mathematics – “Originally: (a collective term for) geometry, arithmetic, and certain physical sciences involving geometrical reasoning, such as astronomy and optics; spec. the disciplines of the quadrivium collectively. In later use: the science of space, number, quantity, and arrangement, whose methods involve logical reasoning and usually the use of symbolic notation, and which includes geometry, arithmetic, algebra, and analysis; mathematical operations or calculations.”

[Quoted definitions are taken from Oxford English Dictionary Online.]

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Silent Insurrection Begins

It won’t be televised.  It will be in your living room.

After an eight-hour jam session with Baudrillard, “meat-eating furniture” was probably the last phrase I wanted to hear.  But that didn’t stop reality:

This is just plain weird, but it seems like a useful sort of weird, at least for our purposes.  I don’t think this is quite the rebellion of objects that Baudrillard has in mind, but there are (at least) two factors at work here that seem relevant to our purposes.

First, the epithet alone screams “Consumer Accident!”, in every sense of the term.  A writeup from the Baudrillard-Virilio ad agency would probably read something like:

“Tired of just circulating signs?  Now, you too can enjoy the spectacle of the accident in your own home!  Hours of fun, and utility!  Works great with children and most pets! (Children and pets not included.)”

Second, this is self-professedly art.  Strange, even morbid, but still art—fatal art.  Art depicting the consumption of organic bodies by mechanical objects.  An obscene excess by our standards—greener than green?—but this excess is made essential to the thing itself (and isn’t this, in itself, really the condition of art?)—the power of the mouse-eating table is the fact that it eats mice when no table really has to do so.  Fatality is function, and accident is essential.  The amalgamation of practical objects yields an art which draws its power from the accidental, develops a material poetics of the accident.  In skipping the entire fossil-fuel cycle—fatal speed, terminal velocity?—it also extracts sacrifice from symbolic exchange and grants it pure utility.  I don’t think this is obscene yet, but what if we were to start encouraging rodent populations as a power supply?

“Our electricity bill has gone way down.  Not only do the appliances power themselves, but on Saturday nights, which used to be family TV night, we bet on whose chair will catch the most spiders.”

The dual-utility object is seductive: it is not overtly terrifying, but maintains its fatality as enigma.  Baudellaire’s seduction—“vertigo of obscenity”—shocking and disquieting (149).  The fatal strategy forces the subject into the paradoxical political position: subjectivity is a breakwater against change, emblematized by death, and now the fatal art-object forces this into the most mundane part of our lives—our furniture and appliances—as a means of showcasing our obscene position, “returns the subject to mortal transparency” (144).  Instead of being haunted by the excrescent body, the art-objects use them as energy.  Instead of trying to suppress accidents, this art actively welcomes them.  The utopia of the accident, embracing the thing itself and bringing it into our very lives.

“Camping’s a breeze with my new grill.  The scorpions add a little zing of flavor.”