metaphysical & metaphorical musings : art, architecture, and arithmetic

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.