metaphysical & metaphorical musings : art, architecture, and arithmetic

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.”

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Space Policy

The International Style of architecture emerged in the formative decades of the Modern movement in architecture.  The International school believed that architecture is a matter of aesthetics rather than politics.

The failure here is to see the political dimension of aesthetics.  Modern architecture may not be socially political, but it still participates in a politics of knowledge.  We can see this in

Modern architecture's foundation in the derivation of form from the intended functionality and the inherent expressiveness of the constitutive materials.  Ornamentation is either drawn out of the essential form (constrained by function and material) or else eliminated from design, simplifying form and eliminating unnecessary (accidental) details.  As a result, Modern architecture embraces a machine aesthetic of functionality, laid out rationally according to horizontal and vertical lines.

Modern architecture wears its Platonic metaphysics on its sleeve: it seeks the essential and the functional.  It goes about it in a fashion exemplified by

Le Corbusier’s architectural theory, which is undergirded by the idea of the plan, a telos that guides an architecture’s entelechy according to the intended function and the medial constraints imposed by construction materials.  The architect must become engineer, embrace simplicity and functionality.  This new aesthetic is founded on mathematical calculation of pleasing geometric form, and the use of regulating lines to rationally delimit and indicate the features of a building.

The architect becomes engineer; mathematics and science masquerade as art.

A lesson from Pruitt-Igoe: eliminate the accident in design, it will express itself in function.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

P(ruitt-)I(goe): A Typographical Architecture

The sharp, hard, enclosing lines of Modernism; a reflection of metaphysics founded on distinction, stability, repeatability.

Bibliographic and digital textuality are both laid out according to grids.  Everything has its own apportioned space.

page layout
the digital page
page folds
type fount
radiant medium

Visual and material expression doesn’t fit into nicely delineated units.  Marinetti’s At Night, In Her Bed breaks free from the normalized typographical matrix, embodying tumultuous affect:

The poetic experimentation of Marinetti, Tzara, and others laid the path for typographical manipulation.  The  Helvetica font is a movement in a more rational direction; it is a face for the form; Helvetica and its derivatives (like Arial)  are uniform, clean-line typefaces intended for all uses and purposes (evidenced by its predominance in contemporary culture).  The drive to create an organic typeface backfires into infinite repeatability, the same flaw of Pruitt-Igoe.

Helvetica, est. 1957

Pruitt-Igoe, est. 1954

We can put pi into a clean, neat shape, but that doesn’t make it any less irrational; you can’t quantify the unbound; a squared circle isn’t a circle anymore.  “On the grid, there is no room to grow.”  Grid as anti-rhizome?