Particulate arising from study

Category: Queer Looking Practices

Clocks for Deep Time

The Long Now Foundation, founded by Whole Earth Catalog editor and technoculture entrepreneur Stewart Brand, seems on its face to be a working example of Jussi Parikka’s call to conceiving of time and space more deeply. Among its archival projects and TED-Talk like seminars, the foundation has conceived of a few strategies for how to conceptualize a future that extends for 10,000 years rather than merely that of the human lifespan or a market cycle. While many of its endeavors fall blatantly short of that goal, the organization’s central public face is that of a clock, to be built inside a mountain in the Nevada desert, which will (it is supposed) endure for ten millennia producing occasional and ever-changing music.

There’s something conceptually beautiful about the idea, even though I have difficulty imagining it as anything but a eulogy for the sixth mass extinction event or an apology to whatever form of life might emerge in that timescale to apprehend it. Perhaps its something about the remoteness of the desert that primes the mind to think of dirges, or it’s the fact that the clock is designed to run with the assistance of its human visitors, or without them. More fundamentally, it might be rigidity at which the clock is set to mark time that disturbs me, the holding of the second and the hour firmly in hand far in advance of what might well be the end of these concepts’ utility. The clock thus seems to embody an optimism for the conditions of the present that implicitly limits the imagination. Deep time isn’t clock time, at least not in the sense of the steadily ticking second hand.

I wonder if a different clock, the doomsday clock that came out of the nuclear crises of the Cold War, might provide the better tool with which to think and act. Maintained since 1947 by a consortium of scientists, the clock advances and retreats relative to midnight. Time here is plastic and responsive, equally full of a vast past and a dire present. This equation seems to me to balance the tension between the unthinkable scales of human history and the decisive capacities of present action. Perhaps we need a deep time with a deadline.

Klein vs. Klein -> Queer perspectives on ecology

These themes culminate in the last full chapter of the book, “The Right to Regenerate”, in which Klein draws parallels between her own fraught attempts to conceive a child amid the stress of modern urban life, and humanity’s wider inability to value nature or emulate its gift for life. “As a culture,” she claims, “we do a very poor job of protecting, valuing, or even noticing fertility—not just among humans but across life’s spectrum.” This conviction leads her to ask: Is “it even possible to be a real environmentalist if you d[on]’t have kids?” While many environmentalists in fact fall into a similar, opposite, trap by morally abjuring natalism, this argument of Klein’s expresses reproductive futurism—a myopic focus on producing (proper) children and thus a (proper) future for humanity—a politics of the baby’s face.

Reproductive futurism devalues the queer and the now, including the potential desire to refuse to reproduce—or at least, to have a conversation about how and what is reproduced. It denies the intrinsic and equal worth of, as minor Klein puts it, “exiles from nature.” Major Klein’s reproductive futurism leaves the private form of the family largely unquestioned, the essentialism of the term “Mother Earth” almost unscathed, and the primacy of “fertility” intact.

Major Klein’s reproductive futurism also reflects a romanticism hinging on a “natural” life-domain somehow separate from capitalism. But capitalism is not, unfortunately, purely a logic of “short-term economic growth” that has been imposed by some (predominantly) middle-aged white men upon a separate, rich biotic world whose fundamental logic is long-term growth, circular regeneration, or life. In fact, in so many ways both capital and reactionary thought are premised on forms of “regeneration”; from razing public housing under the guise of “urban renewal,” to “right-to-life” activists opposing abortion, to the UN-led “carbon offset” forests that Klein critiques, where indigenous people are driven from their homes so that industrial activity elsewhere can be counted as “sustainable.” Capitalism is not something antithetical to nature but, to steal a phrase from Jason Moore, a way of organizing nature. Nature cannot express, in any unsullied way, what we are fighting for. We cannot simply affirm life, but must always ask: What forms of life? For whom?

Again, there is a minor Klein who is on the cusp of exploring such a “monstrous” conception of a nature by naming a “kinship of the infertile,” which we read as solidarity with non-reproductive lifeforms. This Klein’s openness to the complex desires of the dispossessed—including the desire for consumption, collective luxury, safety, “development,” and freedom from “shitty” work—show an occasional attunement to the already technological, entangled, human-nonhuman character of nature: a cyborg Earth. Recognizing the cyborg Earth does not condemn us to technofixes like geoengineering, but instead decenters maternity and makes room for the “unnatural,” the technological, and the nonfertile among the “we” coming into being in the struggles in Blockadia.

Cyborg Earth is not a foregone concession to evil technoscience but a site of struggles over the “commons” just like any other. A cyborg everything-ism reorients us towards practices that repurpose existing technologies and organisations of nature through bricolage—the art of making do with what is at hand. The minor Klein hints at a more hybrid, anti-austerity sensibility of this kind, that does not recoil from these “monstrous” entanglements of human, nonhuman, and technological natures. This Klein is doubtful about her desire for pregnancy and implies that if ecological crisis changes everything, surely it changes the institution of the family too. Disappointingly, the priority of incorporating a non-reproductive politics into the “regenerative” struggles of anticapitalism vanishes at the very moment in the narrative when Klein, at last, conceives a viable baby.

– an excerpt from the Out of the Wood collective’s review on Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, over at the New Inquiry. Please do read the whole piece. It is perhaps the best analysis on contemporary ecological thought that I’ve encountered, and happily avoids the whole lite/bright/dark green categorizations.

Observations on Photography

stereoscope observer

Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (1990) presents a distinctly Foucauldian notion of visuality. Refusing to take the intellectual history of sight and visual culture as biologically given or solitarily evolving over time, Crary instead argues for an approach to vision at the intersection between historically-determined epistemological imperatives and technological forms of bodily discipline. Formed through a “set of relations between the body on one hand and forms of institutional and discursive power on the other” (3) Crary argues that vision’s changing significance and fields of possibility may be best examined through different intellectual models and accompanying corporeal techniques rather than a narrow focus on the content and style of representation, as evinced in more traditional forms of art history. Crary’s model of breaks and ruptures in historically-constituted visualities is thus also a departure from the norms and objects of his discipline, creating a novel and highly productive approach to the study of sensory modalities within media and history. However, this innovative step towards new methods and analytic tools arrives neither without fault nor precedent. As suggested by a deeper examination of the implications of Crary’s claims, his ideological model of photography and its observer stands to contradict much of the force of his own argument. By returning to the earlier thought of Roland Barthes an important supplement can be found to expand and enrich Techniques of the Observer’s claims. Barthes provides to Crary’s work a model of individual photographic observation through which the process of subjectification and its exceptions can be better perceived.

Key to both author’s accounts of visuality is an insistence on the primary importance of the present possibilities for the viewer rather than a complete survey of the minutia of the viewed. In Crary’s work this takes the form of an analysis of the “observer”: a visual subject who is already an effect of discourse and is thus also “the field on which vision can be said to materialize” (5). Methodologically, this object of analysis is thus assumed in Crary’s text as the instigator and result of philosophic, scientific, and medical attempts to define the mechanisms and imperatives of vision, more precisely located through discursive analysis than journalistic or diaristic accounts of mass sensory practices or deviant cases. Crary’s observer, described somewhat abstractly in the language of ideal types, thus presents a rather hegemonic model of visuality, a limitation that Crary himself freely admits (7). What it allows the author in exchange, however, is the means to conduct a sweeping account of the changes within European visuality between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This historical scope is characterized in terms of two oppositional models for vision and subjectivity, with a rupture occurring in the first half of the nineteenth century that marks the switch. The first, or classical model of visuality is explored through the exemplary technology of the camera obscura, described by Crary as an assemblage of material techniques and enunciations through which philosophers and scientists explained both the optical mechanics of vision and the rational, interior model of the self (27-33). Crary parallels the body’s marginalization within the dark camera with the era’s larger “metaphysics of interiority” (39) by which thinkers such as Descartes described the transcendent rationality of the mind over the foibles of the exterior and embodied world (48). This model of the “individuated” self (39) expresses a heavily juridical orientation towards phenomena, whereby the observer, secure in his own reason and self-discipline, may pass judgment on the validity of perceptions  as they appear within the mind’s camera, ascertaining truth on the basis of the security of his own interior fact (42-43).

This model of sight and subjectivity is to be contrasted in the latter half of Crary’s book by the emergence of new discourses that brought interiority and optical truth into question. Rather than a passive, disembodied process of sensory perception, the new observer of the nineteenth century found themself an inexorable and corporeal participant in the production of visual effects, eroding any claims to objectivity or self-discipline they might have previously enjoyed. Such qualities, if they were to be secured in the age of “uprooted” vision (113), were to be won through emerging technologies and techniques that worked on the observer’s body, rendering it docile in the Foucaldian sense (15). These discursive operations, wrought in part through the ascendancy of the science of physiology (81) and the emergence of perceptual toys (116), allowed for a greater scrutiny of both the senses and the self’s efficacy and embeddedness within material and technological structures (16). Such efforts coincided with and served the needs of an industrializing Europe, whose burgeoning productive requirements provide Crary with the epistemological engine to drive this discursive shift (85). “A more adaptable, autonomous, and productive observer was needed in both discourse and practice—to conform to new functions of the body and to a vast proliferation of indifferent and convertible signs and images” (149).

The stereoscope is Crary’s prime candidate as the nineteenth century’s equivalent to the camera obscura’s organizing metaphor. This new form of visual entertainment, with its demand for bodily participation, was isomorphic to developing philosophical and medical understandings of sight and self. By disciplining the disparate images of the stereoscope’s display, observers ordered their own bodies, regimentally focusing their gaze and postures through the device (129). “Correct” vision in this assemblage was achieved through the immanence of eyes and apparatus working jointly to compensate for each other’s deficiencies (129). Despite this arrangement’s apparent artifice to Crary’s present-day reader, to contemporaries of the stereoscope such as Hermann von Helmholtz its visuality was one of exemplary verisimilitude (124). This implies that at its ascendant moment, the experience of vision through the stereoscope may have been radically dissimilar from our own, suggesting the pervasive reach of discourse’s bodily and perceptual conditioning.

Given both the stereoscope’s potent sensory and explanatory power as well as the persistence of much the same economic pressures of modernization throughout the subsequent century, it is thus puzzling that this paradigmatic technology should suffer a decline. Consequently, the close of Crary’s title chapter is perhaps the most unsatisfactory of the book, for it faces the challenge of explaining how stereoscopy met its end and how photography was left holding this particular smoking gun. Rather than the epistemological force that drove technological and philosophical developments in all instances within Crary’s prior narrative, this blow appears to have been struck through guile; “photography defeated the stereoscope as a mode of visual consumption…because it recreated and perpetuated the fiction that the ‘free’ subject of the camera obscura was still viable” and “preserved the referential illusion” of the image’s signifier and signified (133). Crary’s account seems to imply that tired observers, overwhelmed by the visual and subjective challenges of modernity, longed for their own deception and successfully obtained it through the photograph’s chicanery.

The validity of this interpretation is suspect for numerous reasons. First and foremost is the tenuous independence of stereoscopy from photography. Writing in a field overwhelmingly populated by teleological histories of photography and cinema, Crary’s focus on the stereoscope is quite exceptional, and thus it follows that he would need to defend a claim that “its conceptual structure and the historical circumstances of its invention are thoroughly independent of photography” (118). Even if this is the case (and photography’s differing provenance is nowhere investigated in the book)[1] the stereoscope’s use and forms cannot be easily extracted from that of photography since the former technology is inexorably a mediation of the latter, older form. Consequently, the chronology of Crary’s account is questionable and this reveals a significant downside to his retreat from visual content as a site of analysis. A thorough examination of stereoscopy’s photographs would be useful to this end.

Additionally, further questions can be raised by scrutinizing photography’s alliance with the same bodily forces manifest in the rise of stereoscopy’s nineteenth century observer. After all, daguerrotypes, with their luminous surfaces and monochromatic palettes, required their own perceptual techniques for observation as well as newly disciplined and durational modes of appearing before the camera. Photography, moreover, historically evinces a deep involvement with the history of physiology, both as a disciplinary prosthesis to human vision and as a tool for spanning greater stretches of time and space. From Muybridge’s serial photographs of motion to anthropological records of physiognomic samples, the technology powerfully worked on the discursive production and circulation of bodily types, often through a colonial logic of surveillance and productivity. In such cases, even as the visual apparatus for production effected a retreat from the perceptual fusion of the stereoscope’s techno-corporality, the photographic gaze was nevertheless felt in the reproduction of observer’s corporeal signs long after the fact. If, as Crary suggests, the photographic camera succeeded in inheriting the camera obscura’s relationship to mimetic indexicality, this was also accompanied by a metonymic function through which the image of any person could stand in relation to the observer. Composite photography, advertising imagery, and pedagogical aids are just a few examples of these invitations for visual extension and comparison.

Photography, by consequence, cannot be so easily excluded from the study of the nineteenth century observer, though its integration does present several mutations to Crary’s original framework. To this end, and in an effort to benefit from the fruits of methods excluded from Techniques of the Observer, Roland Barthes Camera Lucida (1980) provides an excellent supplementary account of being an observer of photography. While the philosopher’s modern and deeply subjective meditation on his own fascination with the medium lacks the historical richness of Crary’s analysis, the two books are not so dissimilar in their core ambitions. As Barthes writes, “I want a History of Looking” (12) and he provides an excellent case study to attach to Crary’s own.

Initially, Barthes book does give credence to Crary’s suspicion of the photographic camera’s continuities with older models of organizing the self and sensory experience. The camera obscura’s mimetic powers persist in the photograph’s strange capacity to confuse representational object and referent, and indeed it is this very quality that so appeals to Barthes and drives him to conduct his investigation (7). This referential power, however, proves also be a site of perpetual frustration for Barthes-as-observer, for his sense of interior subjectivity, “my (profound) ‘self,’” (12) fails to be satisfactorily captured through photographic means (12). The camera, in operating on the body and providing its subject the opportunity to gaze upon their own image, continuously erodes the security of an interior sense of self by objectifying and alienating those that it captures. Barthes’ description of his ontological transformation through the medium is rife with images of violence and death, allegorizing the workings of photography on his sense of subjectivity and the security of his body over time (14). This profound disturbance, to both the observer and to a larger history of visual practices, may be dulled through the photograph’s visual monopoly. “The… means of taming the Photograph is to generalize, to gregarize, banalize it until it is no longer confronted by any image in relation to which it can mark itself, assert is special character, its scandal, its madness. This is what is happening in our society, where the Photograph crushes all other images by its tyranny” (118). One thus arrives at a similar outcome as Crary’s Foucauldian path, though Barthes’ emphasis on ongoing mechanics of circulation and control would suggest that this visual discipline is not quite the fait accompli Crary ascribed to the nineteenth century. As an epistemological struggle, Barthes’ characterization of photography’s maddening effects on subjectivity attest to the fact that the metaphysics of interiority did not end as abruptly as Crary’s account might imply. Instead, photography can be seen to continually facilitate the subjectification of observers in tandem with modernity’s intensifying circulation of images.

Even when outside of the camera’s viewfinder, when merely taking stock of its products, the observer is still affected by the continuance of disciplined modes of looking. Reflecting on the many thousands of photographs he has seen, Barthes describes his observation as one of polite attention, a form of cultural participation that he calls studium (26). This observational mode is formed from as a result of both the medium’s ubiquity and its forms of practiced looking as he notes “what I feel about these photographs derives from an average affect, almost from a certain training” (26). Like Crary’s suggestion of the nineteenth century’s “rebuilding of an observer fitted for the tasks of ‘spectacular’ consumption” (19) Barthes describes the traces of his own visuality in terms of the ongoing outcome of a discursive discipline.

Yet, to both Bathes and earlier commentators on the regimentation of vision, the estrangement and dulling of the senses may still produce dissenting ambitions. Just as the twentieth century philosopher longs “to be a primitive, without culture” in his investigations into his own visuality (7), Crary notes how the nineteenth century art critic John Ruskin quested after “a kind of primal opticality… a purified subjective vision, of an immediate and unfiltered access to the evidence of this privileged sense” (95). What Ruskin would partially uncover in greater visual abstraction, Barthes locates in his own immanent emotional response to certain photographs, in the experience of an unexpected poignancy in excess of his cultural training that he describes as punctum (27).

This mode of affective observation, occurring on a highly personal level by way of evocative details and their Proustian remembrance (45), brings the observer into renewed participation with the image. Rather than the kinesthetic and perceptual activity of Crary’s stereoscopic subjects (120), Barthes’s emotional and personal histories enliven the photograph (“it animates me, and I animate it”) (20). The resulting experience, curiously, appears to be in excess of the visual and all its cultural technologies; “once there is a punctum, a blind field is created (is divined)” (57).

In addition to blindness, punctum is often described through the language of wounding and unmaking. To Barthes, the experience that of “an intense immobility” (49); “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (27).  Given that Barthes’ first person, as extended from his reflections on the disorientation of being photographed, speaks from a fragile but ongoing assumption of interiority, one can assume that the subject that is violated by punctum, that is unmade through the affective intensity of memory, is this vestigial classical self. Punctum’s immanence and intensity of experience would thus foreshadow the same Deleuzian subjectivity that Crary will later return to in his book as a mode of thinking through the loss of sensory autonomy in the nineteenth century (66). Despite these initial similarities, however, Barthes’ punctum is more alive with possibilities outside of hegemonic discourse or an economic imperative than Crary’s disciplined masses. Photography, as a site of interpersonal meaning, mourning, and presence, cannot be wholly inscribed within a disciplinary rationale or even the specificity of sensory perception.

It can thus been seen that, through his attentive study of coexisting modes of regimentation and affect, Barthes’ highly subjective account of observation stands to further an understanding of both the hegemonic power Crary attributes to visuality in the nineteenth century and photography’s supposed independence from this trend. While a certain form of studium or subjectification conditions the visuality of a particular time and place, the individual experience of images abounds with multiplicities and exceptions. Barthes’ exploration of affect as an essential component to photography challenges the allegiance the medium supposedly holds to classical epistemological models, while also suggesting a space in which imperatives and deviations from the modern may arise. Barthes is thus correct to associate photography more with the camera lucida than the camera obscura, for despite all its hegemonic powers, in the minutia of individual consumption and experience it stands to frustrate the clear or constant delineations between interior and exterior, mind and body, or self and other in any secure permutation of sense and subjectivity.


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. 2010. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang. Originally published 1980 by Éditions du Seuil.

Crary, Jonathan. 1990. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[1] Geoffrey Batchen’s Burning With Desire: The Conception of Photography (1999) provides one such account from a similarly Foucauldian perspective that situates photography in much the same role as Crary’s stereoscopy: a historical effect of timely epistemological crisis.

From Your Valentine, the SSEC

curiouser and curiouser

Popular sources, including Columbia who were so intimately involved with the history of the device, identify the SSEC as the titanic computer in the February 11th 1961 New Yorker cover. I’m not so sure; by this time the SSEC had been long decomissioned to make way for faster IBM machines in the company showroom. The proportunes of the calculator, its colour scheme, and the architecture of the interior, moreover, are off. If there’s anything SSEC-ish about the image, it’s the visual vocabulary-cum-hyperbole that the device seemed to set into motion for cartoonists and set designers across the country.

Behemouth towers of tapes, blinking lights, and reels filled the popular imagination of the American 1950s and 60s, and the SSEC was arguably a primary source for this aesthetic. In addition to the sleek photographs that followed it successful media debut, IBM consented to cameo the computer in the 1952 noir film Walk East on Beacon!, a cold war spy-thriller that I’m very much looking forward to watching. A further appearence of a sort can be found in Desk Set, a Katherine Hepburn rom com from 1954 that reportedly used the SSEC as a model from which to design the film’s major plot device, the EMERAC: a corporate computer set to productivize a broadcast company and antagonize all its employees in the process.

It’s curious, then, that the New Yorker selected such an intimate moment to display between the giant, futuristic machine and its aged worker (the rest of the office presumably made redundant in its wake?). Young women were far more germane to the promotional imagery of the computer, moreover, such as Betsy Stewart’s deft handling of the SSEC in secretary-like fashion during its public debut.


The New Yorker cover, conversely, seems to take us into the future of this image. The computer secretary, now wizened with age, receives a token of affection back from the machine that she has attended to for so long. In contrast to the vivid anxieties at play at the time concerning the thinking power and autonomy of the emerging technology, one in which through sheer rationality and super-human speed electronic calculators would come to subordinate their keepers, the valentine shows a rather different capacity for thoughtfulness. The warmth of the woman’s desk lamp and smile do much to humanize the electronic brain. IBM, however, would not begin to realize the importance of such gestures until later in the decade.

The Aesthetics of Early Computing- Object 2

ssec- columns edited out

The IBM Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator

IBM probably built the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC) in part due to revenge. Their lack of control over the public relations generated by the ASCC soured T. J. Watson to Harvard, and soon after the debacle he ordered that a better, more electric calculator to be built within a year. The resulting machine, fusing experiments with vacuum tube and mechanical relays, made its debut in 1948 under tightly controlled conditions.

The SSEC was housed next to the IBM headquarters in New York, taking over a building that had formally housed a shoe store. The renovated show room, visible from the street, was designed to cultivate the curiosity of chance spectators, who were wholly welcome to enter and engage with the behemoth through a ever-present tour guide. The press, moreover, was given no room for chance reaction. A carefully crafted press-release, pamphlet, and news conference supplied the papers with the correct superlative quotes and figures to frame the machine and the company.

Strangely enough, IBM seemed to cultivate the brain metaphor in this coverage, acting antithetical to the non-corporate actors of the early American computers. The IBM tour guide, while giving caveats as to the limits of the machine’s cognitive autonomy, nevertheless referred to it as a brain and would walk individuals through its surprisingly human-like thought process while they circled the room.

Like the ACSS, the SSEC’s aesthetics served to reinforce the futurity and otherworldlyness of the science-fictional calculator. Extraneously streamlined peripherals and corners graced the exterior of the device, giving its a future-modern appearance, while much of its machinery remained hidden unseen behind the quasi-nave of the device’s U-shaped architecture. Conversely, the SSEC’s colourful lights and knobs, dancing in quadrants behind its lengthy glass panels, might suggest the stained glass windows of a Gothic cathedral. The computer was designed to simultaneously be seen without being fully present to understanding; a raised floor concealed the wiring between different components, while the moving patterns of tape and switches provided clear auditory and visual signs of life, if not in a meaning.

Perhaps the most evocative aspect of the calculator was the set of problems selected to debut the machine, both as a test of its capacities and as a key component of the image it would present in the news cycle of its release. In a highly poetic vein, the SECC set about determining the exact position of the moon, every six hours, 100 years in the past and 100 years in the present. This cosmic beginning, out-doing the scope of a human lifetime in its span and exceeding the globe in its reach, further enmeshed the computer in a strange untimelyness. Beneath the incomprehensible flight of lights and paper tape, the public was told, lay the movements of celestial bodies. Yet this too concealed much: after the lunar cycles came simulations of the hydrogen-bomb. Added to the mystique and menace of the computer, then, we can add the role of mediator over mass death, oblivion made available with devestating scale and ease. As a super brain, and the gateway to the incomprehensible terror of the atomic age, the computer was indeed a Gothic space to bottle anxiety and ambition in equal measure.

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?

Liquid Intelligence


Week 1) [Sept. 4] Introduction: Fluid Origins

Jeff Wall, “Photography and Liquid Intelligence,” in Jeff Wall, eds. T. de Duve et al (London: Phaidon, 1996), 90-93

Genesis 1:1-32 (Creation); Genesis 6:1-8:19 (Noah and the Flood); Exodus 32:1-35 (The Golden Calf)


Week 2) [Sept. 11] Liquid Intelligence

Jeff Wall, “Photography and Liquid Intelligence,” in Jeff Wall, eds. T. de Duve et al (London: Phaidon, 1996), 90-93

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980) [Not in Coursepack]

Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter [1942], trans. E. R. Farrell (Dallas: Institute of Humanities and Culture, 2006), 1-18

Zygmont Bauman, “On Being Light and Liquid,” in Liquid Modernity (Malden: Polity Press, 2000), 1-15

Film: Solaris (1972, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky; Criterion Collection, 2002) [Not in Coursepack]

Week 3) [Sept. 18] Reflection or Stain?

Richard T. Neer, “Poussin, Titian, and Tradition: The Birth of Bacchus and the Genealogy of Images,” Word & Image18, 3 (2002): 267-281

Philip Sohm, “Maniera and the Absent Hand: Avoiding the Etymology of Style,” RES 36 (1999): 100-124

Shepherd Steiner, “Ritual and the Space of Morris Louis: Unlocking ‘Openness’ via the Studio Door,” Chicago Art Journal 11 (2001): 45-56

John Milton, Paradise Lost: Book IV: 395-535, in John Milton: The Complete Poems, ed. J. Leonard (New York: Penguin, 1998)

Week 4) [Sept. 26, 2-4:30 PM; location TBC] The Unctuous Image: Master-Class with Michael Cole (Columbia)

Karel van Mander, “Preface” and “The Lives of the Brothers Jan and Hubrecht van Eyck”, in The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and the German Painters [1603-4], trans. and ed. H. Miedema (Doornspijk: Davaco, 1994), 45-71

Joseph Koerner, “Not Made by Human Hands,” in The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 80-126; 463-472

Michael Cole, “Cellini’s Blood,” Art Bulletin 81, 2 (June 1999): 215-235

Michael Cole, “Salt, Composition, and the Goldsmith’s Intelligence,” in Cellini and the Principles of Sculpture(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 15-42

Oscar Muñoz, Re/Tratohttp://thedissolve.net/video/11-re-trato-2003 [Not in Coursepack]


Week 5) [October 2] The Slow, Phlegmatic Image

Thomas Willis, “Of the Parts or Members of the Soul of the Brutes,” Two Discourses Concerning the Soul of Brutes, trans. S. Pordage (London, 1683), 22-29

Robert Hooke, Extract from Lectures and Discourses of Earthquakes, in The Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke, ed. R. Waller (London: S. Smith and B. Walford, 1705), 323-328

Nehemiah Grew, Musaeum Regalis Societatis: Or, A Catalogue & Description of the Natural and Artificial Rarities belonging to the Royal Society and preserved at Gresham Colledge (London: W. Rawlins, 1681), 253-4; 265-270

Walter Benn Michaels, “Photographs and Fossils,” in Photography Theory, ed. J. Elkins (New York: Routledge, 2006), 431-450

“An Experiment of a Way of Preparing a Liquor, That Shall Sink into, and Colour the Whole Body of Marble, Causing a Picture, Drawn on a Surface, to Appear Also in the Inmost Parts of the Stone,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 1 (1665-6): 125-127

William Cole’s correspondence with Robert Plot on shell-fish dye; in Early Science in Oxford, ed. R.T. Gunther (Oxford, 1939), Vol. XII: 230-235; 242-245; 261-265; 283-286


Michael Cole and Larry Silver, “Fluid Boundaries: Formations of the Painter-Etcher,” in The Early Modern Painter-Etcher, ed. M. Cole (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2006), 5-35 [Not in Coursepack]

Further Reading:

Martin Rudwick, The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985)

Week 6) [October 9] Liquid Power

Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall, Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 51-99 [Not in Coursepack. Available on Course Reserves]

Meredith Martin, Dairy Queens: The Politics of Pastoral Architecture from Catherine de’ Medici to Marie-Antoinette (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 68-113

James Thompson, “Money as Sign,” in Models of Value: Eighteenth-Century Political Economy and the Novel (Durham: Duke UP, 1996), 40-86

“Perceval Meets the Fisher King,” in Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and the Post-Vulgate in Translation, ed. N.J. Lacy (New York: Garland, 1996), Vol. V: 107-109

Film: Chinatown (dir. Roman Polanski, 1974) [Not in Coursepack]

Further reading:

Cesare S. Maffioli, Out of Galileo: The Science of Waters 1628-1718 (Rotterdam: Erasmus Publishing, 1994), 37-89

Domenico Bertoloni Meli, “The Equilibrium and Motion of Liquids,” in Thinking with Objects: The Transformation of Mechanics in the Seventeenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 166-189

Week 7) [October 16] Industrialization, Color-Culture and the Blushing Picture

William Hogarth, “Of Colouring,” in The Analysis of Beauty [1753], ed. R. Paulson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 87-93, and Plate II

Theresa Fairbanks Harris and Scott Wilcox, Papermaking and the Art of Watercolor in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Paul Sandby and the Whatman Paper Mill (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 61-110 [Not in Coursepack. Available on Course Reserves]

Angela Rosenthal, “Visceral Culture: Blushing and the Legibility of Whiteness in Eighteenth Century British Portraiture,”Art History 27, 4 (September 2004): 563-592

Thierry de Duve, “The Readymade and the Tube of Paint,” Artforum (May 1986): 110-121

Richard L. Hills, “James Watt and Bleaching,” in Natural Dyestuffs and Industrial Culture in Europe 1750-1880, ed. R. Fox and A. Nieto-Galan (Canton: Science History Publications, 1999), 259-282


Frances Willmoth, “Surveying the Fens,” Sir Jonas Moore: Practical Mathematics and Restoration Science (Rochester: Boydell Press, 1993), 88-120 [Not in Coursepack]

Week 8) [October 23] Risky Business

Film: Eaux d’Artifice (dir. Kenneth Anger, 1953): http://youtu.be/630lqsc-Evs [Not in Coursepack]

Jennifer L. Roberts, “Copley’s Cargo: Boy with a Squirrel and the Dilemma of Transit,” American Art 21, 2 (Summer 2007): 21-41

Jennifer L. Roberts, “Failure to Deliver: Watson and the Shark and the Boston Tea Party,” Art History 34, 4 (September 2011): 675-695

Edmund Burke, “Part II,” A Philosophical Enquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful: Second Edition (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1759), 95-160

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. W. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 97-101; 114-140

Jonathan Levy, Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 1-59 [Not in Coursepack]

Video: Francis Alÿs, Watercolor (2010): http://www.francisalys.com/public/watercolor.html [Not in Coursepack]


Ian Kenneth Steele, The English Atlantic, 1675-1740: An Exploration of Communication and Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 1-18 [Not in Coursepack]

Oct. 25-6, “Liquid Intelligence and the Aesthetics of Fluidity Conference” (McCord Museum)

Week 9) [October 30] Ingenuity, Chance and the Temporally-Evolving Chemical Object

Joshua Reynolds, “Discourse VI” and “Discourse XIV,” in Discourses on Art, ed. R.R. Wark (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 93-113; 247-261

James Northcote, The Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds (London: Henry Colburn, 1810), Vol. II: 1-40

Alexander Cozens, A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (London, 1785) [Not in Coursepack. Available as E-Book]

Neil de Marchi and Hans Van Miegroet, “Ingenuity, Preference, and the Pricing of Pictures: The Smith Reynolds Connections,” in Economic Engagements with Art (Durham: Duke UP, 1999), 379-412

Peter J. de Voogd, “Laurence Sterne, the Marbled Page, and ‘the use of Accidents,” Word & Image 1, 3 (1985): 279-287

Robin Kelsey, “Of Fish, Birds, Cats, Mice, Spiders, Flies, Pigs, and Chimpanzees: How Chance Casts the Historic Action Photograph into Doubt,” History and Theory 48 (December 2009): 59-76


David Bjelajac, “The Venetian Secret as the Philosopher’s Stone,” in Washington Allston, Secret Societies, and the Alchemy of Anglo-American Painting (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 32-65 [Not in Coursepack]

Week 10) [Nov. 6] Fluxing and Fixing

Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (Cambridge: MIT, 1999), 24-102 [Not in Coursepack. Available as on Course Reserves]

Thomas Wedgwood and Humphry Davy, “An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings upon Glass, and of Making Profiles,” in Art in Theory, 1648-1815: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. C. Harrison et al. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 1064-66

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (London: Longman et al, 1844) [Not in Coursepack. Available as E-Book]

Charles Lock Eastlake, Materials for a History of Oil Painting (London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1847), Vol. 1: 538-546, Vol. II: 272-296


Michel Foucault, “The Limits of Representation,” in The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences [1966] (New York: Routledge, 2002), 235-271 [Not in Coursepack]

Week 11) [Nov. 13] Oceanic Feelings

Michael Fried, Courbet’s Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 53-84; 111-147; 209-223

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick: or, The Whale [1851] (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1996), Chapters 1-3 (“Loomings” through “The Spouter-Inn”), 35 (“The Mast-Head”), 44 (“The Chart”), 55-58 (“Of the Monstrous Pictures …” through “Brit”), 74-78 (“The Sperm Whale’s Head …” through “Cisterns and Buckets”), 85 (“The Fountain”), 87 (“The Grand Armada”), 133-Epilogue (“The Chase—First Day” – end)

Levy, Freaks of Fortune, selections [Not in Coursepack]

Michel Serres, “Turner Translates Carnot,” in Calligram: Essays in New Art History from France, ed. N. Bryson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 154-165

Bonus Session/TBC: The Cold, Black Deeps

Walter Pater, “Leonardo da Vinci,” in The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (The 1893 Text), ed. D.L. Hill (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), 77-101

Arthur Rimbaud, “The Drunken Boat,” in A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat, ed. L. Varèse (New York: New Directions, 1961), 91-103

Bachelard, “Violent Waters,” in Water and Dreams, 159-185

Peter Parshall, “Darker Side of Light: Prints, Privacy and Possession,” in The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy 1850-1900 (Burlington: Lund Humphries, 2009), 2-39

Further Reading:

Lena Østermark-Johansen, “Serpentine Rivers and Serpentine Thought: Flux and Movement in Walter Pater’s Leonardo Essay,” Victorian Literature and Culture 30, 2 (2002): 455-482

Good Point, Brian Massumi

There is a certain hubris to the notion that a mere academic writer is actually inventing. But the hubris is more than tempered by the self-evident modesty of the returns. So why not hang up the academic hat of critical self-seriousness, set aside the intemperate arrogance of debunking- and enjoy? If you don’t enjoy concepts and writing and don’t feel that when you write you are adding something to the world, if only the enjoyment itself, and that by adding that ounce of positive experience to the world you are affirming it, celebrating its potential, tending its growth, in however small a way, however really abstractly- well, just hang it up. It is not that critique is wrong. As usual, it is not a question of right and wrong- nothing important ever is. Rather is its a question of dosage. It is simply that when you are busy critiquing you are less busy augmenting. You are that much less less fostering. There are times when debunking is necessary. But, if applied in a blanket manner, adopted as a general operating principle, it is counterproductive. Foster or debunk. It is a strategic question. Like all strategic questions, it is basically a question of timing and proportion. Nothing to do with morals or moralizing. Just pragmatic.

– Brian Massumi, Parables of the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, p. 13.


“On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge.” – WENDY HUI KYONG CHUN, PEOPLE!

A Rape in Cyberspace

“To participate, therefore, in this disembodied enactment of life’s most body-centered activity is to risk the realization that when it comes to sex, perhaps the body in question is not the physical one at all, but its psychic double, the bodylike self-representation we carry around in our heads… Small wonder, then, that a newbie’s first taste of the slippery terms of MUDish ontology, recognizing in a full-bodied way that what happens inside a MUD-made world is neither exactly real nor exactly make-believe, but profoundly, compellingly, and emotionally meaningful.”

– Julian Dibbell, “A Rape in Cyberspace,” 203-204.

(For the record, I thing that the psychic homunculi thing that Dibbel suggests is still pretty embodied).