A short text that articulates our interest in “writing” as a key topos of research:
(published in Manuel Kretzer, Ludger Hovestadt, Alive: Advancements in Adaptive Architecture, ambra 2014 (forthcoming))
“As an example of human achievement,” John Orton maintains in his book Semiconductors and the Information Revolution: Magic Crystals That Made IT Happen, the semiconductor ought to “rank alongside the Beethoven Symphonies, Concord, Impressionism, medieval cathedrals and Burgundy wines and we should be equally proud of it” (Orton 2009, p. 2). Why is it, indeed, that this demand feels odd? Of course this lack of appreciating our current form of technics is owed partially to its abstractness and the degree of expertise it seems to demand from us. But has this not been the case for any of the abovementioned artifacts we all meanwhile hold as precious and dear? An understanding of how semiconductor electronics works, what it is conditioned by, and to which ends we might be able to cultivate it, hold a promise of no lesser enjoyment: “I only hope that my attempt to explain something of its appeal will help the layman to obtain the same kind of enjoyment from an understanding of semiconductor electronics that he or she might experience in contemplation of any of these [achievements]” (Orton 2009, p. 2).
Alive: Advancements in Adaptive Architecture demonstrates in exemplary manner how architecture currently sets out to explore its own quick and vibrant reality—a reality that is saturated by electronic currents and metabolizes a proper, immanent kind of actual and virtual activity, an activity proper to built environments that can be coded to behave, in principle (if not, at least for the time being, altogether in practice) ad libitum. Especially in this context, I will argue, Orton’s question deserves our unbound attention. In addition to issues of abstractness and expertise, there seems to be an obstacle in guiding our ambitions, as laypeople, toward learning to appreciate our most recent expressions of art and technics that seems more profound. There is something inherently uncanny implied in what Orton demands, which I would tentatively characterize as the waking up to a kind of neo-Babylonian confusion: as architects, scientists, economists, engineers, designers, we are learning to speak our common “language,” the language of mathematics, information, and code, in many different tongues.
Raising the topos of the Tower of Babel, and the confusion we are allegorically said to have inherited from it, would be no news in itself if the situation would concern the many manners of how people speak about the things and the realities in which they live, or if architects were speaking about the structures and buildings they erect. In language, we are today ready to generously grant that sense can and shall be made in manifold and arbitrary manner. This generosity can be granted, we feel, because the mathematical and formal descriptions of things chemical, physical, or biological are capable of unambiguous representation—if not yet entirely pure and perfect, so at least with an increasingly greater and greater degree of approximation. It is in regard to this, I would like to suggest, that we seem to be caught up in a neo-Babylonian kind of situation: matter, like language formerly, can meanwhile be articulated in manifold manners, and none of their articulations can be regarded as strictly equivalent with all the others. In short, while the former Babylonian confusion meant that we have many names for the same thing, the confusion of our times inverses the situation: we now have many things for the same name. Matter that is informed can be assumed to exist in pure and original form as little or as much as this can be assumed of language.
But still, why this concern with language and text, when our declared interest is in semiconductor electronics? Even in a literal (non-allegorical) manner—and this in a time when everyone is fascinated by the activity and agency proper to objects that are networked, objects that individuate within particular environments. Our interest with this concern is in learning to obtain reflected and critically distanced enjoyment from understanding these “things in their quickness”— an enjoyment like the one we have learned to obtain from appreciating other cultural artifacts aesthetically. We take aesthetically thereby to mean, without being subjected to the spells a cathedral (for example) casts on its visitors, as long as it is “alive” in all its not-explicitly mediated symbolic corporeality. However, since the eighteenth century, aesthetics has been much preoccupied with registers of form—formal (irr)regularity and expressions of aesthetical content in various gestalts and styles. With regard to our interest in these quickened pieces of matter, the emphasis comes to lie somewhere different: aesthetics, applied to the metabolism of things through their electronic circuit, must relate to the contractual discreetness of symbolized quantity much more than the regular continuity of form. It is with this emphasis on discreetness and distributedness that the “originality” of these electronically quick things we are interested in can be said to be more straightforwardly “textual.” Because what makes any of them possible is that the symbolic notations of algebra are the “textual” substrate of our computational procedures: without algebra, no domestication of electricity; without electricity, no synthetic chemistry; without Boolean algebra, no coding of electrical current. In short, without algebra, no programming that comes anywhere close to the sophistication we have grown capable of. Without programming, no informing of materials in their chemical and subatomic consistency. It is within algebraic formulation that the mathematical quantity of “information” complements and specifies the physical quantities of generic “matter” and “energy” (let us recall Norbert Wiener’s famous dictum that “information is information, not matter or energy” [1948, p. 55]). It is within algebraic formulations that light can be energized and turned into specified matter in physics that operates on a quantum level (Feynman 1985). To put it drastically: the manner in which we formulate all things, today, is algebraic (formulaic and equational) before we can think of it as formal (functional, a specification of direction within a formula). And for this reason, algebraic text is very different from aligning words into sentences and developing paragraphs to build upon each other to manifest an argument. Algebraic text essentially means to develop an equation: to spell out a space of reciprocal transformability between two sides that we want to consider as equivalent. Algebraic text is like the constitution that makes it possible to formulate reasonable sentences in discourse. In this, we can see the structure of our new Tower of Babel, where one and the same word relates to many things (as opposed to many words referring to the same thing).
In its literal meaning, algebra signifies the reunion of broken parts. Thus we might hold against the point this text tries to make: are we not then living in an era in which the legendary Babylonian confusion can finally be fixed and undone, rather than waking up to a neo-Babylonian confusion?
Indeed, we must not look far to find all sorts of spiritualistic phantasms that nourish and prosper from the fact that we are “communicating” today “mathematically.” In such communications, it appears, we can devote ourselves to our intellectual appetites without worrying about hubris and the illegitimate acclamation of divine power, because those intellectual appetites are the appetites of reason-in-general.In the beginning was not the word, we can read in the positions of many atheist stances today, but information; not an evocation on the basis of subjectivity, but an objective quantity. Some people go as far as claiming that the physical laws of conservation ought to be subjected to the Laws of Information, which are claimed to be more comprehensively natural.
But in all this enthusiasm, at work is a blind spot to which Jacques Derrida has, to a certain degree, attempted to draw our consideration. General reason reasons about life in general, he claims. And life-in-general cannot possibly be alive. The problem at stake is the very nature of the units with which such reasoning proceeds; that is, the nature of information. Information, as a unit for mathematical communication, cannot have a positive identity—it is what it is precisely because its nature is sheer determinability without essential content. Thus, what does it mean to live intellectually, he asks, in the scene of archi-writing rather than in the legacy of an original text? With information, communicating—literally fitting-together what is essentially disparate—spreads through and characterizes all things on the level of their energetic makeup.
Text that is produced, in Derrida’s scene of archi-writing, is not anymore text that is meant to passively preserve, for times to come, a present moment that is already and forever past: rather, it is completely unbiased and open for realizing any kind of sense that may be made. This is because, he maintains, in the beginning we do not find self-evident presence, but “original prints”: we must learn to think, somewhat paradoxically, that everything begins with “re-production”(Derrida 1972, pp. 84ff). Rather than capturing something that is not meant to remain—a sound, a word—writing ought to be liberated from its obligations as merely representing speech and attend mostly to reproduce from the stock that has already been written, and to concentrate on self-preserving as much of it as possible through repetition. Repetition proceeds in a circuitous path, and in proceeding like this, it alone is capable of instituting a postponement, a deferral, which—and this is the nucleus of Derrida’s argument—is capable of giving the space a thing takes, according to whatever gestalt it might adopt throughout each of the numerous acts of intellection in which its differential identity is being considered and appreciated. What we do in writing, Derrida argues, is not articulating a thing’s identity by voicing it, but inscribing a thing’s locus in a time and in a space that is only “there” and “actual” in remembering. Hence, we are literally in-scripting the possibility for a thing to remain present—intellectually. This is what he calls spacing.
In a strikingly straightforward manner, this view seems to find its positive concretization in the technical substrates on which our real infrastructures run today: printed electronics as a truly generic materiality that might be inscribed (coded) to perform in any manner imaginable. In an almost literal sense, printed electronics presents us a textual kind of materiality where each produced piece spaces out a possibility.
But Derrida’s spacing—and this is crucial for his post-structuralist thinking—is symbolic in a non-physical, non-corporeal, non-positive sense. The spacing of course inscribes itself into a kind of “materiality”—yet it is not that of a sound or a phoneme. Derrida imagines the alphabet decoupled from its relation to the vivid bodies of actual sounds, and instead raised into an infinite and combinatorial mode. In other words, the alphabet is turned into a form that generalizes all the spellings and articulations possible within it: the alphabet is considered as the alphabetical. To keep speed—movement—and hence allow for (combinatorially) new inscriptions and (combinatorially) new things, we ought to treat all things actually physically manifest as dead. In order to keep intellectual originality alive and quick, we must defend its liveliness by building stocks of the original memory-force. Derrida’s argument is a complicated one, and it would be far too ambitious to attempt to discuss it here with any appropriate amount of care. But what I would like to take from it is its elevation of the phonetic alphabet into a more abstract and symbolical level; however, if these considerations are meant to help find a way of appreciating algebra as language, things as technical as its articulations, and its articulations (e.g., semiconductor electronics) as ranking alongside Beethoven’s symphonies, then we have to depart from Derrida’s position at the point where he considers this more abstract level in reified and apparatus-like form, as the alphabetical. Instead, we can consider it as the template of a plurality of alphabets of coding, and like this we can connect his line of reasoning with our interest in the generic materiality of semiconductors.
In electronics, I would like to suggest, it is Derrida’s alphabetical that is multiplied and raised into an infinitary mode. Derrida’s interest is to mark out that the letters in an alphabet apparatus are not characters properly, but ciphers that depend upon deciphering. Yet the limit of his point of view is that he relates the deciphering to the preservation of the alphabetical order that articulates units of sound, not units of energetic electrical current—his writing seeks to trace sense in its absence, as grammé. Yet electrical current circulates in symbolic inscriptions, and exchanges quantums of potentiality. Here, the means of expression is not the letters of the phonetic alphabet, but an open number of alphabets of coding.
Thus, how might we learn to make sense of such a notion of algebraic text? How might we learn to make sense of it in a manner that can be captured neither in terms of prescripts (formula as laws) or postscripts (tracing a text’s sense in the absence of its originality)? If we are to learn to appreciate aesthetically and critically the impressive and fascinating quickness of matter today, we ought to shift registers from representation to saturation in how we think about text, form, and quantity.
Derrida, Jacques (1972) “Freud and the Scene of Writing.” Yale French Studies, “French Freud: Structural Studies in Psychoanalysis,” no. 48, pp. 74–117.
Feynman, Richard (1985) QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Orton, John (2009) Semiconductors and the Information Revolution: Magic Crystals That Made IT Happen. Elsevier: Academic Press.
Wiener, Norbert (1948) Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.