architectonic articulations - the stanzaic structure of genuinely procedural forms

The quickness of matter, doped in its polyalphabetic textuality. Or: the articulation of articles, beyond prescript and postscript.

„As an example of human achievement“ John Orton maintains in his book Semiconductors and the Information Revolution. Magic Crystals that made IT happen, that semiconductors ought to „rank alongside the Beethoven Symphonies, Concord, Impressionism, medieval cathedrals and Burgundy wines and we should be equally proud of it.“ [1] Why is it, indeed, that there attaches a feeling of oddity to this demand? Of course this lack of appreciating our current form of technics owes, partially, to its abstractness and the degree of expertise it seems to demand from us. But has this not been the case for any of the above mentioned artefacts we are all holding as precious and dear, meanwhile? An understanding of how semiconductor electronics works, by what it is conditioned and to which ends we might, once, be able to cultivate it holds a promise of no lesser enjoyment: „I only hope that my attempt to explain something of its appeal will help the layman to obtain the same kind of enjoyment form an understanding of semiconductor electronics that he or she might experience in contemplation of any of these.“ [2]

This book demonstrates in exemplary manner how architecture currently sets out to explore its own quick and vibrant reality – a reality that is saturated by electronic currents and metabolising a proper, immanent kind of actual and virtual activity, an activity proper to built environments that can be coded to behave, in principle (if not, at least for the time being, altogether in practice) ad libitum. Especially in this context, I will argue, Orton’s question deserves our unbound attention. In addition to issues of abstractness and expertise, there seems to be an obstacle in guiding our ambitions, as laymen, towards learning to appreciate our most recent expressions of art and technics that seems to be more profound. There is something inherently uncanny implied in what Orton demands, which I would tentatively characterise as the waking up to a kind of neo-Babylonian confusion: as architects, scientists, economists, engineers, designers, we are learning to speak our common “language”, the language of mathematics, information, and code, in many different tongues.

Raising the topos of the Tower of Babel, and the confusion we are allegorically said to have inherited from it, would be no news in itself if the situation would concern the many manners of how people speak about the things and the realities in which they live, or if architecture were speaking about the structures and buildings they erect. In language, we are today ready to grant generously, sense can and shall be made in manifold and arbitrary manner. This generosity can be granted, we feel, because the mathematical and formal descriptions of things chemical, physical, or biological, are capable of unambiguous representation – if not yet entirely pure and perfect, so at least with an increasingly greater and greater degree of approximation. It is in regard to this, I would like to suggest, that we seem to be caught up in a Neo-Babylonian kind of situation: matter, like formerly language, can meanwhile be articulated in manifold manners, and none of their articulations can be regarded as strictly equivalent with all the others. In short: while the former Babylonian confusion meant that we have many names for the same thing, the confusion of our times inverses the situation: we now have many things for the same name. Matter that is informed can be assumed to exist in pure and original form as little or as much as this can be assumed of language.

But still, why this concern with language? Text? When our declared interest is in semiconductor electronics? In a literal (non-allegorical) manner even, and this in a time when everyone is fascinated by the activity and agency proper to objects that are networked, objects that individuate within particular environments? Our interest with this concern is in learning to obtain reflected and critically distanced enjoyment from understanding these „things in their quickness“ – an enjoyment like that which we have learnt to obtain from appreciating other cultural artefacts aesthetically. We take aesthetically thereby to mean without subjecting to the spells a cathedral (for example) casts on its visitors as long as it is „alive“ in all its not explicitly mediated symbolic corporeality. However, aesthetics since the 18th century has been much preoccupied with registers of form, formal (irr)regularity and expressions of aesthetical content in various Gestalts and Styles. With regard to our interest in these quickened pieces of matter, the emphasis comes to lie somewhat different: aesthetics, applied to the metabolism of things through their electronic circuit, must relate to the discreetness of number much more than the continuity of form. It is with this emphasis on discreetness that the „originality“ of these electronically quick things we are interested in, can be said to be more straightforwardly „textual“. Because what makes any of them possible is that the symbolic notations of algebra are the „textual“ substrate of our computational procedures: without algebra, no domestication of electricity; without electricity, no synthetic chemistry; without Boolean algebra, no coding of electrical current. In short, without algebra, no programming that comes anywhere close to the sophistication we have grown capable of. Without programming, no informing of materials in their chemical and sub-atomic consistency. It is within algebraic formulation that the mathematical quantity of „information“ complements and specifies the physical quantities of generic „matter“ and „energy“ (let us recall Norbert Wiener’s famous dictum that „information is information, not matter or energy“ [3]). It is within algebraic formulations that light can be energetized and turned into specified matter in physics that operates on a quantum level (Richard Feynman, QED – the Strange theory of Light and Matter 1985). To put it drastically: the manner in which we formulate all things being, today, is algebraic (formulaic and equational) before we can think of it as formal (functional, a specification of direction within a formula). And for this reason, algebraic text is very different from aligning words into sentences and developing paragraphs to build upon each other to manifest an argument. Algebraic text essentially means to develop an equation: to spell out a space of reciprocal transformability between two sides that we want to consider as equivalent. Algebraic text is like the constitution that makes it possible to formulate reasonable sentences in discourse. In this, we can see the structure of our new Tower of Babel, where one and the same word relates to many things (as opposed to many words referring to the same thing).

In its literal meaning, algebra signifies the re-union of broken parts. Thus, we might hold against the point this text tries to make, are we not, then, living in an era in which the legendary Babylonian confusion can finally be fixed and undone? Rather than waking up to a neo-Babylonian confusion?

Indeed, we must not look far to find all sorts of spiritualistic phantasms that nourish and prosper from the fact that we are „communicating“ today „mathematically“. In such communications, it appears, we can devote ourselves to our intellectual appetites without worrying about hubris and the illegitimate acclamation of divine power because those intellectual appetites are the appetites of reason-in-general. In the beginning was not the word, we can read in the positions of many atheist stances today, but information; not an evocation on the basis of subjectivity, but an objective quantity. Some people go as far as claiming that the physical laws of conservation ought to be subjected to the Laws of Information, which are claimed to be more comprehensively natural.

But in all this enthusiasm, there is a blind spot at work to which Jacques Derrida has, up to a certain degree, attempted to draw our consideration. General reason reasons about life in general, he claims. And life-in-general cannot possibly be alive. The problem at stake is the very nature of the units with which such reasoning proceeds, that is, the nature of information. Information, as a unit for mathematical communication, cannot have a positive identity – it is what it is precisely because it’s nature is sheer determinability without essential content. Thus, what does it mean to live, intellectually, he asks, in the scene of arché-writing rather than in the legacy of an original text? With information, communicating – literally fitting-together what is essentially disparse – spreads through and characterises all things being on the level of their energetic make up.

Text that is produced, in Derrida’s scene of arché-writing, is not anymore text that is meant to preserve passively, for times to come, a present moment that is already and forever past: rather it is completely unbiased and open for realising any kind of sense that may be made. This is because, he maintains, in the beginning we do not find self-evident presence, but „original prints“ [4]: we must learn to think, somewhat paradoxically, that everything begins with „re-production“ [5]. Rather than capturing something that is not meant to remain – a sound, a word – writing ought to be liberated from its obligations as merely representing speech and attend fore mostly to reproduce, from the stock that has already been written, and to concentrate on self-preserving as much of it as possible through repetition. Repetition proceeds in circuitous path, and in proceeding like this, it alone is capable of instituting a postponement, a deferral, which – and this is the nucleus of Derrida’s argument – is capable of giving the space a thing takes, according to whatever Gestalt it might adopt throughout each of the numerous acts of intellection in which its differential identity is being considered and appreciated. What we do in writing, Derrida argues, is not articulating a thing’s identity by voicing it, but inscribing a thing’s locus in a time and in a space that is only „there“ and „actual“ in remembering. Hence, we are literally en-scripting the possibility for a thing to remain present – intellectually. This is what he calls spacing.

In a strikingly straight-forward manner, this view seems to find its positive concretisation in the technical substrates on which our real infrastructures today run: printed electronics as a truly generic materiality which might be inscribed (coded) to perform in any manner imaginable. In an almost literal sense, printed electronics presents us a textual kind of materiality where each produced piece spaces out a possibility.

But Derridas spacing, and this is crucial for his post-structuralist thinking, is symbolic in a non-physical, non-corporeal, non-positive sense. The spacing of course inscribes itself into a kind of „materiality“ – yet it is not that of a sound or a phoneme. Derrida imagines the alphabet decoupled from its relation to the vivid bodies of actual sounds, and instead raised into an infinite and combinatorial mode. In other words, the alphabet is turned into a form that generalises all the spellings and articulations possible within it: the alphabet is considered as the alphabetical. To keep speed, movement, and hence allow for (combinatorially) new inscriptions and (combinatorially) new things, we ought to treat all things actually physically manifest as dead. In order to keep intellectual originality alive and quick, we must defend its liveliness by building stocks of the original memory-force. Derrida’s argument is a complicated one, and it would be far too ambitious to attempt to discuss it here with any amount of care that would be appropriate to it. But what I would like to take from it is its elevation of the phonetic alphabet into a more abstract and symbolical level; however, if these considerations are meant to help finding a way of appreciating algebra as language, things technical as its articulations, and its articulations (e.g. semiconductor electronics) as ranking alongside Beethoven’s Symphonies, then we have to depart from Derridas position at the point where he considers this more abstract level in reified and apparatus-like form, as the alphabetical. Instead, we can consider it as the template of a plurality of alphabets of coding, and like this we can connect his line of reasoning with our interest in the generic materiality of semiconductors.

In electronics, I would like to suggest, it is the alphabetical that is raised into an infinitary mode. Derrida’s interest is to mark out that the letters in an alphabet-apparatus are not characters properly, but cyphers that depend upon deciphering. Yet the limits of his point of view is that he relates the deciphering to the preservation of the alphabetical order which articulates units of sound, not units of energetic electrical current – his writing seeks to trace sense in its absence, as grammé. Yet electrical current circulates in symbolical inscriptions, and exchanges quantums of potentiality. Here, the means of expression is not the letters of the phonetic alphabet, but an open number of alphabets of coding.

Thus, how might we learn to make sense of such a notion of algebraic text? How might we learn to make sense of it in a manner that can be captured neither in terms of pre-scrips (formula as laws) or post-scripts (tracing a text’s sense in the absence of its originality)? If we are to learn appreciating aesthetically and critically the impressive and fascinating quickness of matter today, we ought to shift registers from representation to saturation in how we think about text, form, and quantity.

[1]  John Orton, Semiconductors and the Information Revolution. Magic Crystals that made IT happen. Academic Press, Elsevier, 2009, p. 2.

[2] ibid.

[3]  Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, MIT Press, Cambridge 1948, p. 155.

[4]  Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing” in Yale French Studies, No 48, French Freud: Structural Studies in Psychoanalysis (1972), p. 74-117, here p. 84f.

[5] ibid.

This text is forthcoming in: Manuel Kretzer, Ludger Hovestadt (eds.), Alive, adaptive architecture, from ambra Vienna (June 2014).

cf also the website of the conference which this book documents: Alive 2013, International Symposium on Adaptive Architecture


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