Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Grid Book

I recently finished Art historian Hannah B. Higgins's interesting monograph: The Grid Book.  It's a fun quick read with a wealth of historical details about humanity's use of grid based forms over the years.  She takes her tour of the grid in the broadest possible sense, so the book ranges from the ancient to the modern, with the ten chapters spanning grids from 1) the humble brick all the way up to 10) the modern day computer's origin in the punchcard system of mechanical looms.  In between, we find discussions of 2) the evolution of writing from pictograms to cuneiform to the modern alphabet where every letter fits nicely in its module (before you can get a complex society with a legal regime, you have to standardize written language, and this problem becomes really pressing if you want to build a far flung empire), 3) the use of the gridiron to lay out cities (urban planning actually goes back much further than I realized), 4) the invention of latitude and longitude and the use of the grid to make accurate map projections (with an interesting aside about the T,O maps from the middle ages that were a stylized projection of the known world with Jerusalem at the center), 5) the history of musical notation and its role in the evolution of composition (with, strangely, no mention of how modern computer music is so tied to the grid that one practitioner sees fit to call himself Squarepusher), 6) the role of credit-debit accounting ledgers and eventually double entry bookkeeping and excel spreadsheets in facilitating larger business ventures (I'm always amazed when people don't list double entry book keeping and the joint stock company amongst the top ten technologies that changed the world), 7) the development of perspective in art and the way this resonated with the Cartesian philosophy of the era (with some informative stuff about how to use a hanging screen and some graph paper to make perspective drawings), 8) Gutenberg's ill-fated invention of the modular grid for printing pages (after that the rabble got hold of the word of God in their own barbaric idiom), and, finally, 9) the influence of the simple box, with its attendant ability to stack goods, containers, or people or atop one another as well as its way of breaking up pictorial space (along the way she made mention of this interesting sounding book about the history of the shipping container, as well as some perceptive remarks on Mondrian's boxes that echo Morton Feldman's "frozen but vibrating" comments).

The focus throughout is on the way the grid forms evolved to organize the solutions to certain collective action problems and on the way these solutions, once standardized, influenced the way new problems were dealt with and even what was considered a problem.  Technology is never neutral, and the grid is no exception.  Throughout history it has created its own reality as much as it has been a tool for approaching the existing one.  Higgins does a good job of illustrating how this happens by tracing how each grid leads to some advance in our ability to coordinate our actions and control and understand the world, how the grid form, once established, becomes a sort of straight-jacket for our thinking into which everything is made to fit, and finally how people begin to break open the grid and make it more flexible, to adapt it to new uses or construct new forms on top of it.  The concrete narratives she tells of each of grid's history, and the range of different forms she discusses, are the book's strong points. 

Where it doesn't quite measure up, in my opinion, is in the theory department.  The overall theoretical background she is working from is very French, and when she looks for a more abstract narrative to draw some moral from her stories she reaches for all the usual suspects -- Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Virilio.  This is fine.  Their ideas are absolutely relevant here, and she doesn't misrepresent them.  But somehow it doesn't feel like she's deeply understood what I take to be the main message of the thinkers, namely that society is a huge machine, that the products of human society are best understood by reference to the processes that produced them, and that explaining these as the products of the ideology of some political "they", or explaining the reworking of those products as the rebellion of an ideological "us", isn't even an explanation at all.  As Deleuze put it, "the abstract doesn't explain, but must itself be explained".  This tentative grasp on the theory, together with her repeated bluffing on some of the more technical aspects in the book (there are a lot of vast but un-spelled-out implications when it comes to things like relationship of pitch to rhythm in musical notation, the way accounting works, and what relevance of fractals and special relativity have for our artistic conceptions) as well as some of the just generally wanky commentary she occasionally proffers, leads me to conclude that ... well, she is an art history professor after all, so what do you want?  She just doesn't have the analytical chops to tackle some of the more abstract questions. 

What she really wants to say is that the grid is one of the first forms produced by the self-organization of humans societies.  It is a visible marker of the spontaneous organization that we use to cooperate with one another; a regular, modular, predictable yet flexible structure that is one of the basic building blocks of human social existence.  In other words, the grid is at the same time the byproduct and organizing force of civilization, in the same way that a vortex is the byproduct and organizing force of a hurricane.  The grid is the first rule that everyone can grasp and use to orient themselves, no matter where they want to go.

Once you have this basic idea clearly in mind, the questions start to get easier I think.  Clearly, you need to try and figure out what kinds of machines produces grids, just as you would wonder what forces the bees to make hexagons.  It becomes a question of social algorithms.  The histories of the grids that she narrates provide a lot of clues as to the conditions under which humans organize grids -- density, connectedness, and the rough equality of standardized building blocks are some of the obvious places to start -- but she doesn't try to isolate these variables and think of it in these machinic terms, and this is what I found myself wanting after hearing about all of the history.

Along these lines, I started wondering a while back about the complexity of some of the basic shapes like circles, squares, etc ...  Naturally, we consider something like a grid to be a very simple form.  And yet, it doesn't seem to arrive in nature all that frequently; if you look around, all the grids that meet your naked eye will have been built by humans.  The same would be true of prefect circles or spheres.  If these shapes are so simple, why aren't there more of them?  I don't see quite to the end of this argument yet, but I have discovered the first objection only reinforces my sneaking suspicion that the circle is actually really complicated.  One of the places you can find prefect geometric forms that have nothing to do with humans are in the orbits of planets or the regularities of crystals.  Those aren't simple machines at all though!  If you need half the bloody cosmos to draw a circle, you can't very well call it simple.  Similarly, you need a lot of atoms to get a crystal formation.  The grid may be an apparently simple pattern that actually requires an enormous machine to produce it.  Humans may finally have been around long enough to truly become the salt of the earth.

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