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Month: October, 2014

The Aesthetics of Early Computing- Object 1

This computer's aesthetics are fascist (spoilers)

The IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (aka Harvard Mark I)

The ASCC’s debut in 1945 was something of an event. Norman Bel Geddes, a theatrical and industrial designer made famous by his 1939 Futurama exhibition at the New York World’s Fair, oversaw the design (or at least his company did). What was, in IBM’s lab, a heap of re-purposed machines and cables, became under Geddes’ hand a visually striking cabinet with streamlined corners, luminous surfaces, and an imposing presence once installed at Harvard. The design specifications even extended to the room itself, including special lighting and a reflective tile floors.

These early aesthetic choices achieved several ends. It ensured that IBM, who footed the bill for the device, presented an appealingly modern object before the flashbulbs of the newspaper reporters (that IBM failed to gain much mention in these headlines, however, is another story altogether). The glass enclosure, moreover, helped damped the acoustic racket of the calculator’s electro-mechanical switches, which achieved their binary computation through physically toggling on and off in a great feat of coordinating clattering. In the process, however, access to the machine was greatly restricted to both its operators and public. Thirdly, the connotative power of the design’s sleek surface and tapered corners endowed the device with a powerful sense of futurity. The visually apparent complexity, cloaked in temporal ornament, seemed startlingly out of place in 1940s Harvard, if not also out of time.

The press conference at its unveiling, orchestrated by Harvard rather than IBM, helped instantiate the electronic calculator as a science fictional object. As with the prior publicity afforded to the ENIAC, newspapers expressed a nervous excitement in the face of the “electronic superbrain” of the new, seemingly cognitive, machine. Its autonomy was scrutinized in equal measure as its speed and applications were celebrated. Despite the repeated corrections of scientists and engineers, the brain proved to be an enduring metaphor to describe the early computers of the 1940-1960s. In this way, the computer entered into discourse as a worryingly powerful individual, haunted by the Gothic sense of something animate lurking behind the implacable glass exterior that both revealed and concealed the mechanisms within.

This term I seek to understand how these associations may have been conditioned by the aesthetic choices and media spectacle of IBM’s early computers. How was futurity gathered in these objects, and to what end?

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Madness and Writing

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Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason addresses Europe’s history of mental illness with a curious goal. As with many of his other texts, Foucault begins by troubling progressive narratives of modernity. Just as the presumed triumph over sexual repression produced unanticipated consequences, Foucault alleges that shifts in the definition of madness (from an inhuman force to merely an illness) have lost, rather than gained, categories of human knowledge and possibility. Instead of celebrating the ascendency of reasoned and compassionate care over the barbarism of confinement, Foucault contends that the construction of madness into the category of mental illness is, to the contrary, “evidence of a broken dialogue” (x) in which madness or unreason cannot speak. Psychiatry, consequently to Foucault’s eyes, was founded “only on the basis of such a silence” (xi). The author endeavors to repair this very absence by writing an “archaeology of that silence,” (xi) of the limit conditions and institutional mechanisms that constrict the speaking power and traces of madness in Western culture over time.

However, the task of writing a silence, or an archeology for that matter, is a key puzzle to Foucault’s text and method. The scholar’s medium, rather than merely accepted as a default means to organize and disseminate his work, takes on a newfound criticality and self-scrutiny in the context of his task of paradoxical authorship. I contend that the literary structure of Foucault’s book, in addition to the mediality of his research, complicate the task of writer and reader alike, but ultimately serve to further underlie the objective of this archeological project, situating writing’s deficiencies and transformations as an integral tool to the ethical project of subaltern scholarship. Writing silence, whether restoring its voice or tracing the outlines of its absence, depends on a critical interrogation of writing itself.

From the outset Foucault’s text evinces many stylistic flourishes and literary gestures that inhibit the straightforward reception of the book as neutral or dispassionate knowledge. As an author, Foucault structures his prose with mimetic intent, mirroring the diagrammatic forms through which his ideas are argued. His chapters unfold like an archeological dig site, with a systematic excavation of historical narratives, assumptions, and ideological debris. The second chapter, for example, ultimately aims to examine the synthesis of morality and politics in the establishment of the classical age. In order to write this history, however, Foucault begins with the founding the Hôpital Général in Paris in 1656, then systematically negates the contemporary values of medicine and charity that adhere to this institution today until, ten pages into the chapter, its economic motivation is revealed. The role of labour and the converse problem of idleness in necessitating confinement are subsequently disinterred from the sediment of history, any Marxist patina that may have accrued over the years is scrubbed clean, until finally the synthesis of government and religion can be more plainly analyzed as an original artifact of the period. The act of reading retraces this reverse chronology of discovery and the scholar’s multiple negations towards this end.

Similarly, the Ship of Fools takes on diagrammatic importance in the text, shaping the form and mood of Foucault’s feverish reflections on visual and literary art. Like the stultifera navis, he collects maddened authors and artists from ports across Europe, removing them from their proper context in time and place so that they might together constitute a collective voice of madness and take up a position against the ascendant rationality of Western culture. Foucault traffics in the possibilities of aesthetic concentration and transportation in constructing these affective anthologies, with all its invasive peril. Bracketing the historical content of the book’s interior, these chapters constitute a porous border around its historicism, suggesting the potential of unreason to move in and out of the reasoned civilization that otherwise reigns in the text and in the modern moment of its writing.

These evocative techniques enjoin the reader to Foucault’s own process within and against history, revealing through their artifice the methods and aesthetics consciously nurtured by the author. As has been argued in the context of the development of scientific writing, Foucault’s textual idiom can be understood as a form of “literary technology.” It is cultivated towards cultivating its reader with a degree of measured self-awareness which one might easily expect from an author on the subject of authorship.

And yet, for all the gains writing offers Foucault in creative and critical forms of self-presentation, the medium also appears at times to hinder him in his problem of revitalizing the silenced forms of history to present understanding. This silence, if it yet exists, is to be apprehended in the author’s careful excavation and rearrangement of the volumes and archives of European written history. These texts and their arrangements, however, are plagued by their own deficiencies, and rehearse the perennial critiques of Foucault’s writing. He can be careless or obfuscatory in his research; archives are scantly cited, while the veracity of historical practices of as the ship of fools are questionable. On occasions such as Foucault’s invocation of Descartes, moreover, the antecedants and preambles to his discussion do not lie in his text or even its references, but rather in an intertextual conversation specific to Foucault’s milieu: the exterior curriculum of classical books and hallowed texts that structure French education. Because of these deficiencies this book (or any book for that matter) is never quite able to assert its autonomy; it rather depends on a prior network of citations, and is easily weakened when these links are underdeveloped or called into question.

At other moments, conversely, the components of this textual web can become excessively burdened with meaning such that an analysis of madness’ forms can come to subtly resemble Foucault’s own. Just as Foucault observes that gothic symbolism over time will “grow silent, cease to speak, to remind, to teach anything but their own fantastic presence” (18) as it accrues multiple and contradictory significations, so too can the scholar’s inquiry broaden to the point of incoherence as it passes through heterogeneous historical moments; “if madness is the truth of knowledge, it is because knowledge is absurd, and instead of addressing itself to the great book of experience, loses its way in the dust of books and in idle debate; learning becomes madness through the very excess of false learning” (205). In this way, Foucault’s epistemic parallax, in which he compiles a great contradiction of meanings and truths over the course of madness’ history (refusing all the while to concede any authority to the discursive victor), can confound the reader with a paralyzing form of relativism. So too can the ongoing compilation of nihilistic qualities afforded to madness, be they unreason (68), animality (74), non-being (115), social failure (259), or void (288), effectively overwriting the substance of the experiences of those possessed by this category.

These difficulties and contradictions in the text suggest that Foucault’s orientation towards historical silence, contrary to contemporary expectations for a scholarship of the oppressed, is not made with the ultimate goal of recuperating the speaking powers of a subaltern position or appealing to a universal humanity underneath the extreme experiences of his subjects. He expressly does not concern himself with questions of individual or group agency, nor does he linger on any documentation of counter-examples or doubts within the classical program of reason. The dialogue he seeks to restore is ultimately revealed to be that of reason and unreason abstractly, whose voices are spoken through practices and institutions of confinement rather than between specific human beings through testimony, relation, or gesture (262). His textual archeology again lives up to its metaphor; he is searching for technologies and structures of organization under conditions that obliterate the possibility of individual lives gaining human coherency or perhaps even meaning.

Key to this distanced perspective towards his historical subjects, and perhaps even the final product of this research, is Foucault’s concept of discourse. The term is first elaborated in this book in the context of the classical period’s theoretical investigations into the causes and mechanisms of madness. Rather than being merely subject to the presence of hallucination, being mad required the active acceptance of the presumed truth and totality of its illusions, in short “a discourse which sustains and at the same time erodes the image, undermines it, and distends it in the course of a reasoning, and organizes it around a segment of language” (94). This “delirious language” is ultimately a form of deviant reason, a method of justifying and cohering a complete but erroneous worldview (100). This was precisely the dangers explored earlier by Cervantes and his public, Foucault contends, whereby an author’s fantasy would risk taking up residence in the reader, possessing them and rewriting their identifications along wholly imaginary lines (29-31). It is no wonder, then, that writing and divisional assertions concern Foucault so completely. “Language is the first and last structure of madness” (100).

In the larger scope of Foucauldian thought, however, discourse returns full circle and brings the programmatic nature of classical reason under scrutiny. As a comprehensive epistemological condition structured in relation to language and definitional images, madness is not an inherent property of discourse but is rather defined in relation to its contestations. Through the mechanism of classical reason, in the texts of Descartes or the cures and confinements of doctors and gaolers, the knowledge and science of reason constituted a discourse of its own right, established through the negation and management of an externalized unreason (107). These evolving techniques, texts, and practices, with their ordering and administration of the world, produce their own epistemic fantasies and limitations, visible through the distance of history and their dissonance with any contemporary forms of “delirious language” that may hold sway over the reader. We may scoff at the absurd treatments designed to regularize the movements of the passions through music or mechanics, yet this humor is followed by a degree of doubt in one’s immunity from future readers repeating this very action on one’s own beliefs and principles.

The problem of discourse, both that of madness and of reason, is precisely the problem of writing as a media form. Deeply allied to deception and the limits of possibility, writing’s perversely communicative powers have been suspect since the time of Socrates. As the ancient philosopher contends, there is something limiting and damaging about writing; as an externalization of voice and thought it exists only as the illusory “semblance” of a prior intentionality, typically a mere repetition of knowledge without its own productive capacity or potential for instructive dialogue (Plato 1961, 521). Its citations contain the potential for possible ill-effect, furthermore, as it can travel past sensible borders to invade the bodies and minds of those without the context or lineage of the idea’s origins (Peters 1999, 46). Writing is possessive, moreover, demanding the passivity of its reader in an asymmetrical relation between bodies and the queer object of the book (Peters 1999, 40). Finally, once instantiated it becomes a pervasive condition of knowledge in history. This is particularly evident in the ironic ghost writing of writing’s greatest critic. Plato, Socrates’ student, appears to have defied the edicts of his teacher by putting words into his literary mouth, even as Socrates embarks on a vain effort to refute this very operation.

Foucault, unlike Socrates, does not cling to a retrograde faith in the superiority of media forms such as speech or dialectics as a curative to the pervasive and troubling effects of writing and the discursive field. Instead, his objective in tracing shifts in discourse is rather to loosen the grip of the regnant discourse in order to restore something of the conditions of possibility for a dialogue between reason and unreason which had been so thoroughly lost over the course of the great confinement and the asylum’s subsequent and strict disciplining of language and display (246). While discourse’s techniques and limitations can be equally witnessed in the justifications of both madmen and their keepers, Foucault leaves no doubt as to which discourse has won its historical contest to define the criteria by which speech can register as anything other than silence.

It is therefore on these grounds, an excavation of the practices and texts through which one discourse came to obviate legibility of the other, that the book’s self-reflective structure achieves its final effect. By drawing attention to itself as writing, as a rationally-argued critique of reason’s monopoly on speech, the text’s own peculiarities, contradictions, and weaknesses are positioned such that they only serve to further Foucault’s intellectual goal. Troubling the strength of writing’s grip, be it in a regnant discourse or the mystique of a book’s structure, serves a constructive purpose in Foucault’s moral program whether or not these moments of self-reference or self-sabotage are carefully cultivated or unintentional. If the authorial authority of Foucault, like the moral and juridical prestige of a classical doctor, is revealed to be an act of thaumaturgy, requiring complicit or unknowing participation of a reader (273-6), then the critic has only served his role in full. Critique cuts both ways, and in so doing, cuts twice as deep.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. 1988. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Vintage Books. Originally published 1961 by Librairie Plon.

Plato. 1961. “Phaedrus.” In The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Including the Letters. Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Translated by Hugh Tredennick. New York: Pantheon Books. Originally composed c. 370 BCE.

Peters, John Durham. 1999. Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.