Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Turing instabilities in biology, culture,and consciousness? On the enactive origins of symbolic material culture

"Turing instabilities in biology, culture,and consciousness? On the enactive origins of symbolic material culture"          

Tom Froese, Alexander Woodward, and Takashi Ikegami

Adaptive Behavior 21(3) 199–214   The Author(s) 2013  Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1059712313483145

It has been argued that the worldwide prevalence of certain types of geometric visual patterns found in prehistoric art can be best explained by the common experience of these patterns as geometric hallucinations during altered states of consciousness induced by shamanic ritual practices. And in turn the worldwide prevalence of these types of hallucinations has been explained by appealing to humanity’s shared neurobiological embodiment. Moreover, it has been proposed that neural network activity can exhibit similar types of spatiotemporal patterns, especially those caused by Turing
instabilities under disinhibited, non-ordinary conditions. Altered states of consciousness thus provide a suitable pivot point from which to investigate the complex relationships between symbolic material culture, first-person experience,and neurobiology. We critique prominent theories of these relationships. Drawing inspiration from neurophenomenology, we sketch the beginnings of an alternative, enactive approach centered on the concepts of sense-making, value, and sensorimotor decoupling.


"The prevalence of certain geometric patterns in the symbolic material culture of many prehistoric cultures, starting shortly after the emergence of our biological species and continuing in some indigenous cultures until today, is explained in terms of the characteristic contents of biologically determined hallucinatory experiences. However, we argue that the correlation between the first artistic motifs and typical hallucinatory experiences is not sufficient to serve as a full explanation. In particular, there is a lack of consideration of the value associated with altered states of consciousness, both in terms of phenomenology and function. What is it about these nonordinary visual patterns that made them more attractive for artistic expression than most others of an almost infinite set of possible patterns, both physical and imaginary?1 Given that humans appear to be in principle capable of arbitrarily associating any kind of stimulus with any kind of meaning, as epitomized by language as an open-ended symbol system, there is a need to explain the shared selective biases that are in evidence across prehistoric cultures. In other words, we need to account for the cross-culturally shared value of these specific kinds of geometric patterns."

Enaction, sense-making, representation, hallucination, Turing patterns, human cognition...

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Hypnagogia: The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep Andreas Mavromatis
Thyrsos Press, Feb 23, 2010 - 384 pages Dr Mavromatis argues that this common, naturally occuring state may not only be distinct from wakefulness and sleep but unique in its nature and function, possibly carrying important evolutionary implications. He explores and analyzes the relationship between hypnagogia and other states, processes and experiences - such as sleepdreams, meditation, psi, schizophrenia, creativity, hypnosis, hallucinogenic drug-induced states, eidetic phenomena and epileptic states - and shows that, functioning in hypnagogia, we may gain knowledge of aspects of our mental nature which constitute fundamental underpinnings to all human thought. In addition functioning in hypnagogia is shown to play a significant part in mental and physical health.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Interview with David Linton on The Cortical Degausser

Interview with David Linton on The Cortical Degausser
by Tuce Yasak for PLSN, 12.31.2011

David Linton's sound and video installation entitled "the Cortical Degausser", at Clocktower Gallery* in New York City, employs synchronous and proportional sound and colored light pulsation delivered via video signal and viewed from special stations. As a result of the frequency of pulsation closed eye visions of spontaneous geometry is experienced by most individuals while their eyes are open. While Linton’s work exteriorizes and socializes flicker phenomenon, it leads to an unusual interactivity that occurs in the neurologic chain of each viewer.
TUCE YASAK: Firstly, how would you describe your work?
DAVID LINTON: My work deals with time, perception, social space and music. Coming out of certain traditions in experimental film and video, hopefully I explore perceptual clues to how consciousness works. As an artist, a musician and a designer, I find evolutionary psychology to be a good place to locate my work.
Most of my work up to date has been performative. The systematic of my work is that all the elements have direct analogic effect on the other elements. Video is created by sound being turned into video. I use a box that takes audio and produces analog video from three separate inputs which let me blend colors in the same way that can be done with a monitor. I work with a rescan monitor, a camera and a physical space in between those two where I make interventions with objects that are inserted in real time into the image chain and also the processing chain between the audio and visual feedback . So, an object held in the foreground and sharply focused effects the image and sound in a certain way, whereas an object out of focus in the background effects it in a different way. I work in any space that has a certain projection architecture built in. I really like large scale cinema environments where I can sit facing a big image, often times with my back to the audience, and my tools on the table. Audiences can see both the large image and what I do in order to create the real time flow of sound and image which forms the performance.
TY: Could you describe your most recent work “the Cortical Degausser” which is an audio visual installation that is currently on view in Clocktower Gallery in New York City?
DL: The Cortical Degausser departs from the rest of my work as for the space is occupied only by media that the visitor enters in to and has to explore without too much guidance or direction. When I was given the opportunity to make a room in Clocktower Gallery, I decided to concentrate on the non-pictorial part of my work -that has to do with fluctuation in sound and light- and present it in a context where it would be on in a room and people could come to interact with it no matter if I was there or not.
The fluctuation in sound and light causes brain and visual cortex feedback so that people see typical geometric forms that appear to hover in space, in an oscillating field of color and light. We all see similar forms which can be compared via verbal description or drawing brought on by the same stimulation. You definitely know that it is happening, you see and feel it. It appears to be in the space before you but of course it is not. You wonder where the threshold to be experienced really is.
The stimulation is merely a fluctuation in light in the range starting with 10 vibrations per second and the sound in this case actually derives from the same basic fluctuation transposed up into the audible range. So, it is a harmonic system where the actual fluctuation in the video image that is starting at 10 cycles per second is a low frequency audio wave. That low frequency audio wave is transposed up many octaves so you can hear it as well. I built several octaves of a sound to make this oscillating tone cloud that is an appropriate accompaniment for the pulsation of light. In other words, I have maintained the harmonic relationship between the light pulse and the sound pulse. The two frequencies are not identical; they are the harmonics of identical frequency.
TY: You also host guest musicians in Clocktower for the weekly live performances within the Cortical Degausser.
DL: Guest musicians just respond to the environment in an improvisational and also a distinct vibrational sense. So, they need to tune harmonically to the system that is oscillating in this installation. If you perceive the visual space that you enter into as a temporary experience in the way that film is ,the sound that is accompanying it now with addition of the musicians becomes a kind of score to escort you on that temporal path.
TY: How would you define the interactivity that is involved in the Cortical Degausser?
DL: Interactivity is happening somewhere in the neurologic chain. It is a symptomatic response of your nervous system and visual cortex to this certain kind of stimulation, flickering, and it has something to do with what the brain’s operating frequencies are. Once you are immersed in this flood of pulsating imagery and geometry, it quite often triggers associations for people. These associations actually effect what you think you are seeing and the imagery becomes more literal and representational and that is the stage where the mind is acting. The actual experience happens ahead of the mind. The audience is invited to find their own perspective and relax enough to experience their own perceptions.
TY: Does the amount of time that is spent in the room effect the experience?
DL: There is an initial period of adjustment that can take a minute or two. If you get through this initial period, then time falls away and you can stay with it for a long time, and then walk away as if nothing has happened. It has no lasting fatigue. Actually, I think it helps you relax your eyes because this particular frequency -10 vibrations per second- is very peaceful. If it were any slower it would make you sleepy. If it were any faster, it would speed you up. I am interested in the full range. I would like to make modulated pieces that could take you from sleep through to high level of stimulation. I can create many works by focusing on just frequency, chroma and brightness of fluctuation. For example, change of color creates a complete shift in what the geometry is and this would be something to explore. Right now I am changing the colors just with feeling.
TY: What type of equipment are you using for this installation?
DL: I am using video as a light and color source in this installation. I am using old fashion cathode ray tubes with diffusion screens in order to allow viewers to enter through a cinema frame and be actually inside the picture. Also, I wanted to manifest a way that you could get the effects of flicker stimulation without having to close your eyes. When you close your eyes under flicker -like in most of the works exploring flickering- your eyelids become an ambiguous screen, a screen somewhere in space between your eyelid and infinity and it can change where you think it is. I wanted to take this largely isolated experience to a more attainable place. So ,even though you enter into the installation alone, you are in a room full of other people. This makes the threshold experience seem more tangible because it can be shared socially. In this manner, the diffusion screens create a different kind of eyelid. They provide a neutral canvas so that your eyes can search within the rhythm and make a decision about how it orients the phenomena to see it in space. There are four viewing stations to approach the same phenomenon from different perspectives. The accumulative effect of all these stations being given the same media feed and pulsing at the same rate creates an environment of its own. Even if you are not immersing in the geometrical effect, everyone is bathed in the pulsating sound and light. In this sense the whole room becomes a sculptural entity; and each station within it becomes an individual piece. Part of the richness of this experience is that you feel as if you are floating in an infinite space and that shapes are appearing constantly right before you; either you are moving through them or they are coming towards you. Even though this ephemeral experience is on the threshold of physicality whether it is there or not at all, the way to navigate and negotiate with that is very relational and architectural.
ty: Can you compare this installation to your performative works?
DL: I kept some contours of real time performance and tried to make them fit circumstances in a more natural way. The biggest departure is that, in this installation, people actually see a recorded media -a 58-minute cycle in terms of sound and changes in rhythm and color- running eight times a day. Though, it would not be essential for someone to experience the entire 58 minutes. A visitor who stays in the room for 5-10 minutes can take away an impression of the work.
In my performative works, when I work with an image and ask people to look at this composed image, I use an object. I put an object it in the foreground and have it go through a recursive process where it is repeated, mirrored and oscillates in and out of negative. By this, I create mandela like geometric displays which are usually triggered by flicker and seen when your eyes are closed. These objects quite quickly decompose and recompose into a pattern. In this installation, there is no image. I wanted to see how fluctuation stimulates your own visual cortex. Though, little abstract kernels of illumination and shadow that you see and is caused by the flickering in this installation are quite literally similar to the patterns in the performances.
I reintroduce the higher harmonics of sound back into the picture in my performative works, whereas in this installation, I don’t do it in order not to flatten the flickering effect.
My performative projects tend to be gestural and abrupt, where this installation has a slow solidness. I have a sense of real performative time which is different than receiving perceptual time. Performative time is usually motivated with effecting audience in mind. In this installation, I am asking the audience to let the light generated from video dance over their eyes. It is similar to having your TV on and putting a piece of paper in front of the screen so that you can only see the fluctuation of light.
TY: How do you relate your works to technology?
DL: This is being done very simply, very primitively and it is effective that way. I could imagine a kind of work like this being done with brainwave sensors that would have more digital generation field of interactivity added on top of what is already there. I think that there is still a lot to do just on this level and get people to notice things and experience them in time. One of the symptoms of the post digital world is the cutting away of time; everything exists in a disembodied, on demand zone. Attention span is grown very short and selective as a result of that. People are giving up their sense of phenomenological anchors in time, or experiences anchored in time. To me it seems like it is a question of health to be able to be present real experience in real time. It is a centering concern in my life and it really worked itself into my work in a very essential place.
TY: How do you relate your background to your current works?
DL: Since I was a kid growing up in 1960s and 70s, the music culture was everything to us. It was the place of your significant social interaction, it became an identity zone where people made the choices that led them to become who they became. It was particularly interesting in America in that time period. We always wanted to make a communal space that was available to everybody to explore what your senses had to offer. These were all hippie ideals. I was not old enough to be a hippie but I was certainly influenced by them. They turned the whole world upside down and we stepped into a new place. Psychedelic culture has something to do with all of these. The psychedelic movement in the West was an extremely real and valid departure from status quo and it started a chain of values being transformed that is still in effect. It is mostly sustained through technology culture now. I heard a quiz on the radio the other day: What famous person that died in the past year who’s last words were “Oh wow, oh wow..”? It turned out to be Steve Jobs. There is an attitude about what life means, what it means to explore it. That really was altered by the psychedelic door being opened. It even altered in people who did not go through that door themselves, but as a cultural effect. I do not think the jury is quite in about what the ultimate verdict is on the important significance of what it meant to reintroduce psychedelic experience starting in the West in technological culture. In my generation music was always the motivator. Technology itself is the motivator now and provides the frontier of imagination to people. As a result of this however, they have lost the ability to use their imagination in other aspects which is a downside. Similar to the critique that people have about obsessive gaming of young people, how it seems to be destroying some parts of their personality and brain. I believe at the same time it is enhancing other parts. I believe that technology is an evolutionary force. If there is one thing positive in the universe, one has to believe that it is evolutionary. We have to put faith in the fact that things are not static.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

D.A. Levy - The Tibetan Stroboscope

On this and several other later books, levy worked extremely fast, putting together some of the collage at the print shop. For some people this may make the book look sloppy, but there's nothing sloppy about it: levy's spontaneity and deliberate avoidance of neat layouts were informed by more careful work done previously, and by a complete sureness of craft and informed trust in intuition. At this stage, anything else would have worked against the constant invention which levy worked into every page, and often not just once per page, but in multiple ways in each page.

In the late work, levy had integrated a strong sense of the necessity and interdependence of polarities on many levels. Most important perhaps is the absolute mutual dependence of destruction and creation. Throughout the book, he constantly works out new strategies to destroy or subvert or negate a text, from such simple devices as mirroring text to blotting it out. Even in the blotted passages, however, there is great variety. On the graphic level, the blotted texts range from heavy, dense, uneven lines with clear edges to lines or individual letters with many thin, spidery strands moving out from them. As you gain more familiarity with these pages, it becomes questionable whether the strands are thin drains off the image or forms of radiance. Some texts can be deciphered, and should be deciphered even though it takes some time to do so. Others work as support mechanisms: that is, they cover parts of a text as a means of creating a new one or bringing out significance in the old one that the original writer of publisher would not have understood. This emphasizes clearly legible passages, often brief phrases or mirrored or lightly typed or half erased lines that gain force by their isolation.

The images, too, abound in contradictions, paradoxes, opposition, and the kinds of flipping polarities that at times attract and repel each other. Thus a photo of a devotional sculpture occupies the same forcefield as a clip from a pornographic magazine; passages from the Karlgren or Wade-Giles Chinese dictionary form a margin for gossip; coarse, runny erasures balance against delicate etchings, images of propriety and elitism face clumsy cartoons; a south Vietnamese soldier in western uniform sits in something like lotus position at a time when monks were burning themselves alive to protest the infiltration of western commercialism in their ancient land, whose Buddhism predates the northern variety more familiar to people in the west.

On the simplest level, this is levy's recension of the Buddha's "Fire Sermon," perhaps the most eloquent statement of the ephemerality of the material world. On another level, it makes a wheel of Tantric statements of boundless energy and possibility.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hollis Frampton (1936-1984)

"...A counter machine for the machine of language..."

"I suspect that the intellect of the west (at least) has been struggling for quite some time to invent a natural counter balance for language as a way of accounting for the world - a way of doing it through images." HF interview 1978

"I began to make it when I had no money for raw stock and only several rolls of colored leader but nevertheless (had) the need to make or work on a film. As I first conceived the film, I intended it to be a kind of revenge done with the bare hands against - first of all animation - or cell animation in particular and secondly, against abstract film with a capital A as they were practiced in the late 40's and 50's as a kind of engine cooler for the art houses where I first saw serious foreign movies. As I thought about the film, I wanted it to have a very open, resilient kind of structure with the maximum possible amount of rhythmic variety, both in terms of count, beat and variety in the rhythmic changes of shapes and the rate of the rhythmic change. I used a debased form of matrix algebra to make up, in advance, the structure of the film, and tried out several arithmetic models for that structure... with very short film pieces, before I found one that seemed to suit me. As I came to make the film, it consists entirely of 240 feet of black leader into which are welded about 1,000 separate events. Each consists of one frame, and there are 40 kinds of frame, ranging from a frame that consists entirely of red or green or blue to a frame which may consist of red leader with a triangle of blue leader welded into the middle of it. I say welded because the film was put together using three colors of leader and 3 ticket punches - a square, a circle and a triangle - which I felt to be constantly recognizable and also impersonal shapes - and where one color is let into another, or where a color shape is let into black leader, it is literally welded in with acetone. I was doing all of this under a magnifying glass with tweezers and brushes and so forth... they're disposed along the continuous line of film by a scheme roughly the following: in order to avoid a scheme in which certain types of frames would, by rhythmic recurrence, fall at the same spot in the film, or in the same exact frame, I decided to use prime numbers, that is, numbers divisible only by themselves and as a starting-point since they begin to share harmonics extensively only in their very high multiples - I further decided I could use no prime numbers less than 40, because 40 is the number of frames in a foot and didn't want any single type of event to occur any more often than once every one and two/thirds seconds, and then I subjected my list series of tests that involved the sums of their digits-casting out those that didn't meet the tests so that as it turned out the, commonest event, a frame that is entirely red, occurs every 61 frames in absolutely regular repetition throughout the film; and the least common event, a red triangle on a black ground, occurs every 2,311 frames - all of this necessitated an amount of arithmetic which I did over a period of 6 weeks - reduced it to a large stock of 3X5 cards and collated them, and sat down with my rewinds and splicer and simply put the thing together - altogether on the level of personal logistics, it tied up my time and need to be making a film for about three months at the end of which I found myself with a little more money for raw stock and I could go on and make other kinds of films." - Hollis Frampton

Adele Friedman Interviews Hollis Frampton (1978)

Historic interview between Adele Friedman and Hollis Frampton in Chicago, 1978.

Cortically speaking, we are of distinct and separate minds .... Generally, it would appear that, in right-handed persons, the left hemisphere is concerned with language and with linear and analytic language-like deductive activities. The right hemisphere is concerned generally with synthesizing nonlinear inductive activities ....

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Len Lye

“The idea that the revolution in modern art had still scarcely influenced the medium of film-making was very much in Lye's thoughts when he arrived in London in 1926.” (5) Tusalava was completed a few years thereafter with the aid of a London Film Society grant. (6) Shot with a 35mm animation camera, Tusalava was inspired by the indigenous art of Australian, Polynesian and Maori cultures. The film, extremely cryptic, about “the beginnings of organic life,” develops slowly over 9 minutes. Throughout its duration, over 4000 drawings of cellular forms continuously generate new shapes that grow and interact with one another across two distinct vertically formatted panels (one black, one white), evoking themes of birth, death, sex, and transformation. Tusalava (a Samoan word meaning “just the same”) concludes with a pulsating spirographic pattern that, upon penetration by the tongue of an animal-like figure, elicits bolts of electricity before advancing upwards (towards the viewer) and consuming both halves of the frame.

(The Len Lye Foundation)

The film's fascination with biological, genetic and symbolic imagery presages Lye's 1968 lecture “The Absolute Truth of the Happiness Acid”. According to Arthur Cantrill, this “complex three-hour presentation was in two parts: 'Art and the Body' and 'Art and the Genes.' It used films, slides and audio tapes, and needed the aid of three assistants. It was a performance as much as a talk.” (7) The main focus of the lecture-screening was Lye's idiosyncratic theory of DNA, which he saw as the wellspring and pattern of artistic creation. In his formulation, quoting the art critic Clive Bell, “art lies in the genes”. Aesthetic ideas are generated by our genetic make-up, which Lye illustrated by comparing images of Le Corbusier and Henry Moore's work with their respective facial structures. This indexical relationship between the essence of “selfness” and our corporeal reality accounts for Lye's creation of imagery and forms that represent bodily feelings and motion, as well as his keen interests in music (especially jazz) and dance. Lye's sense of movement was rooted in the physical, “the kinetic of the body's rhythms”, not purely a matter of visual patterns. (8)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Edmund Husserl

The elaboration of phenomenology

Some years after the publication of his main work, the Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations; first edition, 1900-1901), Husserl made some key conceptual elaborations which led him to assert that in order to study the structure of consciousness, one would have to distinguish between the act of consciousness and the phenomena at which it is directed (the objects as intended). Knowledge of essences would only be possible by "bracketing" all assumptions about the existence of an external world. This procedure he called epoché. These new concepts prompted the publication of the Ideen (Ideas) in 1913, in which they were at first incorporated, and a plan for a second edition of the Logische Untersuchungen.

From the Ideen onward, Husserl concentrated on the ideal, essential structures of consciousness. The metaphysical problem of establishing the material reality of what we perceive was of little interest to Husserl in spite of his being a transcendental idealist. Husserl proposed that the world of objects and ways in which we direct ourselves toward and perceive those objects is normally conceived of in what he called the "natural standpoint", which is characterized by a belief that objects materially exist and exhibit properties that we see as emanating from them. Husserl proposed a radical new phenomenological way of looking at objects by examining how we, in our many ways of being intentionally directed toward them, actually "constitute" them (to be distinguished from materially creating objects or objects merely being figments of the imagination); in the Phenomenological standpoint, the object ceases to be something simply "external" and ceases to be seen as providing indicators about what it is, and becomes a grouping of perceptual and functional aspects that imply one another under the idea of a particular object or "type". The notion of objects as real is not expelled by phenomenology, but "bracketed" as a way in which we regard objects instead of a feature that inheres in an object's essence founded in the relation between the object and the perceiver. In order to better understand the world of appearances and objects, phenomenology attempts to identify the invariant features of how objects are perceived and pushes attributions of reality into their role as an attribution about the things we perceive (or an assumption underlying how we perceive objects).

Meaning and Object in Husserl

From Logical Investigations (1900/1901) to Experience and Judgment (published in 1939), Husserl expressed clearly the difference between meaning and object. He identified several different kinds of names. For example, there are names that have the role of properties that uniquely identify an object. Each of these names express a meaning and designate the same object. Examples of this are "the victor in Jena" and "the loser in Waterloo", or "the equilateral triangle" and "the equiangular triangle"; in both cases, both names express different meanings, but designate the same object. There are names which have no meaning, but have the role of designating an object: "Aristotle", "Socrates", and so on. Finally, there are names which designate a variety of objects. These are called "universal names"; their meaning is a "concept" and refers to a series of objects (the extension of the concept). The way we know sensible objects is called "sensible intuition".

Husserl also identifies a series of "formal words" which are necessary to form sentences and have no sensible correlates. Examples of formal words are "a", "the", "more than", "over", "under", "two", "group", and so on. Every sentence must contain formal words to designate what Husserl calls "formal categories". There are two kinds of categories: meaning categories and formal-ontological categories. Meaning categories relate judgments; they include forms of conjunction, disjunction, forms of plural, among others. Formal-ontological categories relate objects and include notions such as set, cardinal number, ordinal number, part and whole, relation, and so on. The way we know these categories is through a faculty of understanding called "categorial intuition".

Through sensible intuition our consciousness constitutes what Husserl calls a "situation of affairs" (Sachlage). It is a passive constitution where objects themselves are presented to us. To this situation of affairs, through categorial intuition, we are able to constitute a "state of affairs" (Sachverhalt). One situation of affairs through objective acts of consciousness (acts of constituting categorially) can serve as the basis for constituting multiple states of affairs. For example, suppose a and b are two sensible objects in a certain situation of affairs. We can use it as basis to say, "a<b" and "b>a", two judgments which designate different states of affairs. For Husserl a sentence has a proposition or judgment as its meaning, and refers to a state of affairs which has a situation of affairs as a reference base.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Victor Burgin

Geometry and Abjection

by Victor Burgin

abstracted from "Geometry and Abjection", published in the AA Files # 15

Space has a history. In the cosmology of classical Greece, as F. M. Cornford writes, ‘the universe of being was finite and spherical, with no endless stretch of emptiness beyond. Space had the form of . . . a sphere with centre and circumference.’ This classical-space essentially survived the biblically derived ‘flat earth’ of early Christian doctrine, to re-emerge in the late Middle Ages. In medieval cosmology, supercelestial and celestial spheres encompassed, but did not touch, a terrestrial sphere - the space of human action - in which every being, and each thing, had a place preordained by God and was subject to His omnivoyant gaze. Foucault has termed this medieval space the ‘space of emplacement’; this space, he observes, was effectively destroyed by Galileo: ‘For the real scandal of Galileo’s work lay not so much in his discovery, or rediscovery, that the earth revolved around the sun, but in his constitution of an infinite, and infinitely open space. In such a space the place of the Middle Ages turned out to be dissolved ... starting with Galileo and the seventeenth century, extension was substituted for localisation.

The vehicle of this changed cosmology was Euclidean geometry. Euclid wrote the Elements of Geometry around 300 BC. Husserl, in The Origin of Geometry, supposes that this system arose out of practical activities, such as building. However, the classical conception of space seems to have been based upon visual evidence rather than technique the horizon appears to encircle us, and the heavens appear to be vaulted above us. In the Renaissance this conflict between observation and intellection, between hyperbolic and Euclidean space, wa.4 played out during the early stages of the invention of perspective. (The absence of a necessary connection between knowledge of Euclidean geometry and the development of perspective is evident from the example of the Islamic world.) In the West, the primacy of geometry over perception was stressed by St Augustine, who wrote: ‘reason advanced to the province of the eyes ... It found ... that nothing which the eyes beheld, could in any way be compared with what the mind discerned. These distinct and separate realities it also reduced to a branch of learning, and called it geometry.’

Although dependent upon Euclid’s Elements, Renaissance perspective took its most fundamental concept from Euclid’s Optics. The concept is that of the ‘cone of vision’. Some two thousand years after Euclid, Brunelleschi conceives of this same cone as intersected by a plane surface - the picture-plane. By means of this model, something of the pre-modern world view passes into the Copernican universe - a universe which is no longer geocentric, but which is nevertheless homocentric and egocentric. A basic principle of Euclidean geometry is that space extends infinitely in three dimensions. The effect of monocular perspective, however, is to maintain (he idea that this space does nevertheless have a centre - the observer. By degrees the sovereign gaze is transferred from God to Man. With the ‘emplacement’ of the medieval world now dissolved, this ocular subject of perspective, and of mercantile capitalism, is free to pursue its entrepreneurial ambitions wherever trade winds blow.

Entrepreneurial humanism first took liberties with, then eventually replaced, theocentric determinism, according to a model which is implicitly Aristotelian. and in a manner which exemplifies the way in which spatial conceptions are projected into the representation of political relationships. In Aristotle’s cosmological physics it was assumed that the preponderance of one or other of the four elements first posited by Empedocles (earth, water, air and fire) would determine the place of that body within a continuum from the centre to the periphery of the universe. This continuum of actual and potential ‘places’ constituted space. Analogously, the idea that a human being will find his or her natural place within the social space of differential privileges according to his or her ‘inherent’ qualities has remained a corner-stone of humanist-derived political philosophies. Newton disengaged space per se from Aristotelian ‘place’, and Newtonian physics was in turn overtaken by the physics of Einstein, in which, in the words of Minkowski, ‘space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality’. More recently, the precepts of general relativity have themselves come into question in ‘quantum theory’. The cosmology of modern physics has nevertheless had little impact on the commonly held world view in the West, which is still predominantly an amalgam of Newton and Aristotelianism - ‘places in space’, a system of centres of human affairs (homes, work-places, cities) deployed within a uniformly regular and vaguely endless ‘space in itself’.

In the modernist avant-garde in art, references to a mutation in the apprehension of space and time brought about by modern physics and mathematics are not unusual. Thus, for example, in 1925 El Lissitsky wrote: ‘Perspective bounded and enclosed space, but science has since brought about a fundamental revision. The rigidity of Euclidean space has been annihilated by Lobachevsky, Gauss, and Riemann. Nevertheless, modernists more commonly ascribed the changed apprehension of space not to scientific concepts per se, but rather to technology. Thus Vertov wrote: ‘I am the cinema-eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, can show you the world as only I can see it . . . I ascend with aeroplanes, I fall and rise together with failing and rising bodies.’ Constrained by mechanical metaphors, Russian futurism, like cubism, ultimately failed - notwithstanding El Lissitsky’s pronouncement - to abandon Euclidean geometry. The mirror of perspectival representation was broken only in order that its fragments, each representing a distinct point of view, be reassembled according to classical geometric principles - to be returned, finally, to the frame and the proscenium arch.

In the modern period, space was predominantly space traversed (by this token we judge that the prisoner has little of it). In the ‘postmodern’ period, the speed with which space is traversed is no longer governed by the mechanical speed of machines such as aeroplanes, but rather by the electronic speed of machines such as computers and video links, which operate at nearly the speed of light. A mutation in technology therefore has, arguably, brought the technologism inherited from the spatial perceptions of modernist aesthetics into line with the perceptions of modern physics. Thus, for example, Paul Virilio writes that ‘technological space ... is not a geographical space, but a space of time’. In this space/time of electronic communications, operating at the speed of light, we see things, he observes, ‘in a different light’- the ‘light of speed’. Moreover, this space seems to be moving, once again, towards self-enclosure. For example, David Bolter, a classics professor writing about computer programming, concludes, ‘In sum, electronic space has the feel of ancient geometric space.’ One of the phenomenological effects of the public applications of new electronic technologies is to cause space to be apprehended as ‘folding back’ upon itself. Spaces once conceived of as separated, segregated, now overlap: live pictures from Voyager II, as it passes through the rings of Saturn, may appear on television sandwiched between equally ‘live’ pictures of internal organs, transmitted by surgical probes, and footage from Soweto. A counterpart, in the political sphere, of the fold-over spaces of information technologies is terrorism. In the economic sphere it is the tendency of multinational capitalism to produce First World irruptions in Third World countries, while creating Second World pockets in the developed nations. To contemplate such phenomena is no longer to inhabit an imaginary space ordered by the subject-object ‘stand-off’ of Euclidean perspective. The analogies which fit best are now to be found in non-Euclidean geometries - the topologist’s Mobius strip, for example, where the apparently opposing sides prove to be formed from a single, continuous. surface.

Space, then, has a history. It is not, as Kant would have it, a product of a priori, inherently Euclidean. categories. It is a product of representations. Pre-modern space is bounded; things within it are assigned a place along a predominantly vertical axis - ‘heaven-earth-hell’, or the ‘chain of being’, extending from God down to stones. Modern space (inaugurated in the Renaissance) is Euclidean, horizontal, infinitely extensible, and therefore, in principle, boundless. In the early modern period it is the space of the humanist subject in its mercantile entrepreneurial incarnation. In the late modern period it is the space of industrial capitalism, the space of an exponentially increased pace of dispersal, displacement and dissemination of people and things. In the ‘post-modern’ period it is the space of financial capitalism - the former space in the process of imploding or ‘unfolding’; to appropriate a Derridean term, it is space in the process of ‘intravagination’. Twenty years ago Guy Debord wrote about the unified space of capitalist production, ‘which is no longer bounded by external societies’, the abstract space of the market which ‘had to destroy the autonomy and quality of places’, and he commented: ‘The society which eliminates geographical distance reproduces distance internally as spectacular separation’. Such ‘internal distance’ is that of Psychical space. Nevertheless, as I have already remarked, psychoanalytically inspired theories of representation have tended in recent years to remain faithful to the Euclidean geometrical-optical metaphors of the modern period.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Walter J Ong

`Orality and Literacy:

The Technologizing of the Word'

Writing is a technology

Plato (thought) of writing as an external, alien technology, as many people today think of the computer. Because we have by today so deeply interiorized writing, made it so much a part of ourselves, as Plato's age had not yet made it fully a part of itself (Havelock 1963), we find it difficult to consider writing to be a technology as we commonly assume printing and the computer to be. Yet writing (and especially alphabetic writing) is a technology, calling for the use of tools and other equipment: styli or brushes or pens, carefully prepared surfaces such as paper, animal skins, strips of wood, as well as inks or paints, and much more. Clanchy (1979, pp. 88-115) discusses the matter circumstantially, in its western medieval context, in his chapter entitled 'The technology of writing'. Writing is in a way the most drastic of the three technologies. It initiated what print and computers only continue, the reduction of dynamic sound to quiescent space, the separation of the word from the living present, where alone spoken words can exist.

By contrast with natural, oral speech, writing is completely artificial. There is no way to write 'naturally'. Oral speech is fully natural to human beings in the sense that every human being in every culture who is not physiologically or psychologically impaired learns to talk. Talk implements conscious life but it wells up into consciousness out of unconscious depths, though of course with the conscious as well as unconscious co-operation of society. Grammar rules live in the unconscious in the sense that you can know how to use the rules and even how to set up new rules without being able to state what they are.

Writing or script differs as such from speech in that it does not inevitably well up out of the unconscious. The process of putting spoken language into writing is governed by consciously contrived, articulable rules: for example, a certain pictogram will stand for a certain specific word, or A will represent a certain phoneme, B another, and so on.

The most remarkable fact about the alphabet no doubt is that it was invented only once. It was worked up by a Semitic people or Semitic peoples around the year 1500 BC, in the same general geographic area where the first of all scripts appeared, the cuneiform, but two millennia later than the cuneiform. (Diringer 1962, pp.l2l-2, discusses the two variants of the original alphabet, the North Semitic and the South Semitic.) Every alphabet in the world - Hebrew, Ugaritic, Greek, Roman, Cyrillic, Arabic, Tamil, Malayalam, Korean - derives in one way or another from the original Semitic development, though, as in Ugaritic and Korean script, the physical design of the letters may not always be related to the Semitic design.

Hebrew and other Semitic languages, such as Arabic, do not to this day have letters for vowels. A Hebrew newspaper or book still today prints only consonants (and so-called semi-vowels [j] and [w], which are in effect the consonantal forms of [i] and [u] ): if we were to follow Hebrew usage in English we would write and print 'cnsnts' for 'consonants'. The letter aleph, adapted by the ancient Greeks to indicate thc vowel alpha, which became our roman 'a', is not a vowel but a consonant in Hebrew and other Semitic alphabets, representing a glottal stop (the sound between the two vowel sounds in thc English 'huh-uh', meaning 'no') . Late in the history of the Hebrew alphabet, vowel 'points', little dots and dashes below or above the letters to indicate the proper vowel, were added to many texts, often for the benefit of those who did not know the language very well, and today in Israel these 'points' are added to words for very young children learning to read - up to the third grade or so. Languages are organized in many different ways, and the Semitic languages are so constituted that they are easy to read when words are written only with consonants.

When this is all said, however, about the Semitic alphabet, it does appear that the Greeks did something of major psychological importance when they developed the first alphabet complete with vowels. Havelock (1976) believes that this crucial, more nearly total transformation of the word from sound to sight gave ancient Greek culture its intellectual ascendancy over other ancient cultures. The reader of Semitic writing had to draw on non-textual as well as textual data: he had to know the language he was reading in order to know what vowels to supply between the consonants. Semitic writing was still very much immersed in the non-textual human lifeworld. The vocalic Greek alphabet was more remote from that world (as Plato's ideas were to be). It analyzed sound more abstractly into purely spatial components. It could be used to write or read words even from languages one did not know (allowing for some inaccuracies due to phonemic differences between languages). Little children could acquire the Greek alphabet when they were very young and their vocabulary limited. (It has just been noted that for Israeli schoolchildren to about the third grade vowel 'points' have to be added to the ordinary consonantal Hebrew script.) The Greek alphabet was democratizing in the sense that it was easy for everyone to learn. It was also internationalizing in that it provided a way of processing even foreign tongues. This Greek achievement in abstractly analyzing the elusive world of sound into visual equivalents (not perfectly, of course, but in effect fully) both presaged and implemented their further analytic exploits.

It appears that the structure of the Greek language, the fact that it was not based on a system like the Semitic that was hospitable to omission of vowels from writing, turned out to be a perhaps accidental but crucial intellectual advantage. Kerckhove (1981) has suggested that, more than other writing systems, the completely phonetic alphabet favors left- hemisphere activity in the brain, and thus on neurophysiological grounds fosters abstract, analytic thought.

The reason why the alphabet was invented so late and why it was invented only once can be sensed if we reflect on the nature of sound. For the alphabet operates more directly on sound as sound than the other scripts, reducing sound directly to spatial equivalents, and in smaller, more analytic, more manageable units than a syllabary: instead of one symbol for the sound ba, you have two, b plus a.

Sound, as has earlier been explained, exists only when it is going out of existence. I cannot have all of a word present at once: when I say 'existence', by the time I get to the '-tence', the 'exis-' is gone. The alphabet implies that matters are otherwise, that a word is a thing, not an event, that it is present all at once, and that it can be cut up into little pieces, which can even be written forwards and pronounced backwards: 'p-a-r-t' can be pronounced 'trap'. If you put the word 'part' on a sound tape and reverse the tape, you do not get 'trap', but a completely difrerent sound, neither 'part' nor 'trap'. A picture, say, of a bird does not reduce sound to space, for it represents an object, not a word. It will be the equivalent of any number of words, depending on the language used to interpret it: oiseau, uccello, pajaro, Vogel, sae, tori, 'bird'.

The alphabet, though it probably derives from pictograms, has lost all connection with things as things. It represents sound itself as a thing, transforming the evanescent world of sound to the quiescent, quasi-permanent world of space.

by Walter J. Ong. (1982) Copyright Methuen, London.

Parts of Chapter 4 `Writing restructures consciousness'
(pp. 77-94, 113-114 in 2002 edition)