Saturday, June 13, 2009

Bacon, Spinoza, and the Straight of Hormuz

Sitting in the park today after my run I was reflecting idly on the way Sheep's Meadow fills up on a Saturday afternoon. The odd couple with blankets, the big groups having bar mitvahs or birthdays with their kids, the frisbee throwers, and the little calisthenics groups with their paramilitary discipline. This particular morning was not especially glorious, it was warm, but with a cloudy sun and grass still damp from the night before, so things were still a bit slow. But we've all seen it fill way up on the nice days. As the density increases it gradually seems to self-organize into patches alternately dominated by picknickers and players (frisbee, futbol, catch, etc ...) that is, it agglomerates into interspersed low and high energy zones. It would be interesting to have some time lapse photography of this process taken from directly above the meadow, and some visual processing software. I'm not sure what you would be looking for in this, but I'm less interested in characterizing the algorithm the system follows than in adapting it to aesthetic purposes, for example changing it into music or making all of the people into dots with trails following their movements that fade out over time, or whatever.

This got me thinking again about Bacon, partly because I went back to the Met to look at his paintings before hearing Josh Ritter (pleasant yawn) at Summerstage last night. Apparently, Bacon himself called that spatial frame thing that I mentioned last time, and which appears in every painting, his "visual machine". It seems like he must have used it as some sort of taking off point for framing the figures, but also for animating the whole motion of the painting, if you can call it that. In fact, while some sort of spatial framing occurs in every painting, it's not always rectilinear; sometimes the space is curved, or doubled back on itself, and even the rectilinear stuff is skewed at odd angles. The effect is to integrate the figure into the background, to the point where you almost confuse the two, which you can really see in the Pope paintings. There, to quote one of the Met's descriptions, the figure materializes in the middle of a sort of vertical curtain, and not in front of or behind it. In some of the other paintings it's not so much that the image and background are on the same plane as that you can literally almost feel the background reaching out to stretch and twist the figures into knots, putting the too into intimate contact.

Obviously, you wondering what the hell this has to do with poisoning pigeons in the park. To answer this, let me take one more detour through the labyrinthine connections of the intertubes, and show you a giant parking lot.

That image is taken from a Google Earth mash-up of oil tanker locations. These tankers are parked off of the coast of Singapore (which doesn't sound as good in a title as the Straight of Hormuz). What I see here is a macroeconomic version of the same thing that interested me in the park. Ignore for a moment what a giant parking lot full of oil tankers might tell us about the state of the world economy. The interesting thing in the park is the coherent collective patterns built from the interactions of the units, not the reasons why the units are doing what they are doing. And I think the interest goes beyond the wonder of an invisible-hand (per Nozick) or algorithmic explanation of some pattern.

Spinoza (and Whitehead and Deleuze as well) had this idea that these collective patterns indicated an emotion. They are the outward effects of the inward forces pushing a system towards or away from some pattern of action. This seems like a loose analogy at first, until you start to take seriously the idea that animals have no monopoly on the basic definition of life, and that what we mean by emotion could actually apply to any self-sustaining system. Joy is the expansion of something's power of acting and the sorrow its contraction. You can come, as Whitehead did, to see the rocks and the atoms as having emotions in this sense. He thought of each entity in each moment as a separate thing. The joy of today's rock lies in being here tomorrow, which expands the existence of that rock in the most basic possible sense -- by prolonging it. Before you object that the rock didn't cause itself to continue, stop for a moment and consider how difficult it is to define a rock in a completely deterministic world. The world doesn't inherently include all the divisions we normally think of it as having. Our simple habits of coping with it contribute much of the structure that separates foreground from background, but the world would continue to be what it is even if we couldn't cope. Nothing actually causes itself to do anything in a deterministic world, because that thing could not be part of the world. In fact, the closest you can get to being the cause of yourself -- which is incidentally how Spinoza defines freedom -- is to become everything. So just consider that the emotions of a rock may differ from yours only by a matter of degree. The rock doesn't do much more than persevere if it can, whereas your emotions reflect a whole range of augmentations and diminutions of your power of acting.

Anyhow, I don't imagine that I can convince anyone why this is a nice way to see the world in just a paragraph, so I won't continue to try to argue that any system holding itself together can be said to have emotions. I see it this way, and I've recently realized that this viewpoint inherently leads you in an aesthetic direction, which is why I found myself connecting Bacon to the woof and warp of Sheep's Meadow. Because every time you are looking at the behavior of a system you are seeing something with an aesthetic value, namely an emotional reaction. So in the tanker photo above, you might see something like the frustrations of the world; it could be doing so much more. Maybe in Sheep's Meadow you are seeing the idea of accommodation or domestication -- quiet domestic joy. I know this sounds like anthropomorphizing everything in the worst way, but consider that the logic is actually going in the opposite direction -- I want to see our feeling of domestication as like the meadow, rather than vice versa.

And now we are back to Bacon. If you are interested in the aesthetics and the emotions of a process maybe you can investigate this by trying to duplicate the process in paint. Painting would be like a sort of simulation in this case. It's not a duplication of the results of the processes we see in the world, not a copy of reality, but it's another version of reality that feels its way into the world and expresses the same emotions that the world is having. Bacon happens to be using paint where I imagine little colored dots on a computer monitor or notes on a keyboard, but these are working towards the same end of extracting the aesthetics from the world and of making the most abstract processes into concrete aesthetics statements.

Yeah yeah, I know, kinda delirious. And I realize that "how do you paint the global macroeconomy" is a weird question, but, hey, it's Saturday.

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