Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Daumier's Gargantua

Bakhtin in his famous study of Rabelais did the most to clarify the larger, metaphysical implications of the return of Rabelais in Bohemian Paris. Bakhtin argues that Rabelais is the exemplar of a folkloric, popular attitude that he names the laugh. The chronotope or time-space figure anchoring this world view and serving as its measure is the material, even grotesque, human body, the body in all of its corporeal vulgarity of copulation, defecation, the processes of living and dying. This time-space image is profoundly affirming in its embracing of the organic cycle of life, from birth to death and around again. “The extraordinary force of laughter in Rabelais, its radicalism, is explained predominantly by its deep-rooted folkloric base, by its link with the elements of the ancient complex – with death, the birth of new life, fertility and growth. This is real world-embracing laughter, one that can play with all the things of this world – from the most insignificant to the greatest, from distant things to those close at hand. This connection on the one hand with fundamental realities of life, and on the other with the most radical destruction of all false, verbal and ideological shells that had distorted and kept separate these realities, is what so sharply distinguishes Rabelaisian laughter from the laughter of other practitioners of the grotesque, humor, satire and irony” (Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination).

Julia Kristeva, who was one of the earliest and closest readers of Bakhtin, took her cue from this metaphysical laugh to characterize the French avant-garde writers (Lautreamont and Mallarme in particular) as accomplishing this transformation of laughter as device and method into a logic and ontology. “The practice of the text is a kind of laughter whose only explosions are those of language. The pleasures obtained from the lifting of inhibitions is immediately invested in the production of the new. Every practice that produces something new (a new device) is a practice of laughter: it obeys laughter’s logic and provides the subject with laughter’s advantages. When practice is not laughter, there is nothing new” (Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language).

Friday, August 13, 2010

Bureaucracy of the Imagination


There is an arresting statement deep within the 9/11 Commission Report, that makes explicit an organizing theme, suggesting an opening for attitude adjustment.  It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing the exercise of imagination (p. 344).  The immediate context is concern that security experts had not foreseen the scenario of the hijack attacks, despite many contextual signals. The comment is made in a chapter entitled "Foresight -- And Hindsight," in which imagination is listed, along with the categories of policy, capabilities, and management, as the four categories of failure demonstrated by the surprise attack.  We may be witnessing the creation of an addition to the list of oxymoron jokes:  military intelligence, jumbo shrimp, bureaucratic imagination.  The wording in the Report suggests a misunderstanding about imagination, as if it were a way to eliminate surprise, when the reality is just the opposite. The desired effect might be the same, which is to say that there is strategic value in imagination.  To admit this truth is already a proposal for a transformation in American education.  Our project is to take this sentiment at face value, and take up the challenge of constructing a concept of Routine that includes a capacity (an ability, a virtue, a power, a faculty) of auto-surprise:  surprisability.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


The principle of "version" is central to concept creation.  Philosophical concepts are dynamic, enabling an orientation on the plane of immanence, in relation to the problem (the disaster) that motivated the concept design.  Orientation refers to direction, directedness, and more fundamentally to attitude of the conceptual persona (of the one who thinks).  This principle has its corollary in graphic design, especially in architecture, in the practice of "transformation" of an open-ended image during the design process.  The most common transformations are topological, ornamental, reversal, and distortion.  The grammar of ornament has been studied in these terms, describing the basic manipulations of a geometric unit used to generate a pattern:  translation, rotation, reflection, and inversion.  The rhetoric of Routine includes image as well as text versions.