A Daily History of Holes, Dots, Lines, Science, History, Math, the Unintentional Absurd & Nothing |1.6 million words, 7000 images, 3.6 million hits| Press & appearances in The Times, The Paris Review, Le Figaro, MENSA, The Economist, The Guardian, Discovery News, Slate, Le Monde, Sci American Blogs, Le Point, and many other places... 3,000+ total posts
This print has been hanging here and there at home for many years--it has always been amusing, and somehow warming.
"A _M of A, and Dealer in Curiosities" was "published as the act directs 30 July 1839", is an etchign which depicts,
I guess, a lettered/educated man who winds up as a seller of scientific and intellectual bric-a-brac and interesting bits, perhaps wonderful natural history/physics materials, perhaps trivialities. He seems satisfied to me, regardless of the little man over his shoulder making a face, a reminder perhaps to not take the curiosities too seriously. [There's also another face off to the right, peering into the image (see below).]
The Record of Arts & Science that our dealer is reading has some interesting parts to it:, including something on new mechanical flight and a new diving bell--it would've been more interesting historically if it had mentioned the brand-new Daguerre invention.
This is a simple tally of American patent numbers and the years in which they appeared. I've found this list handy from time to time and thought to repost it here. It is a lot easier to have this series posted here than have to wrangle he data out of the occasionally labyrinthine U.S.P.T.O.:
I cannot think of another illustration by a scientist or philosopher who attempts to explain their own, literal, view of the world and then offer what this looks like to the reader from inside his own head, looking out through his own eye. That's exactly what Ernst Mach is doing right here on page 15 of his influential book Die Analyse der Empfindungen, the fourth German edition ("The Analysis of Sensations and the Relation of the Physical to the Pyschical", published in Jena in 1903).
There is nothing in this world for Mach that is not admissible to the human brain that is not empirically verifiable--that is, the world is nothing but awash in sensation and that sensation itself forms part of the experience of, well, experience. I've actually never been interested in the philosophy of science, and this is one of the reasons why. Nevertheless I boldly break through my own prejudices to enjoy this phenomenally original image, drawn from the inside of Mach's working mind, looking out through his eye socket, over his mustache, under his eyebrow, around his nose, out across his body and then leaping into the rest of the world. I think he does make his point about the essential
nature of the observer. And much like the classic Steinberg New Yorker cartoon of the world view of the New Yorker (of course this includes only Manhattan), I know some number of people who have transposed their bodies much like Herr Mach into the Steinberg map--except that their worldview ends basically at the Hudson River (Mach's feet) with the rest of the world being the sliver out there beyond the river (Mach's window) until you go 359 degrees around the world to get back to the East River (and back inside Mach's noggin). It is an unusual world view to have, but someone has to have it so that we can at least identify it so.
I just like the picture.
(Section 10, describing this image, with translation by C M Williams and Sydney Waterlow from the blessed Dover people in 1959):
"The considerations just advanced, expressed as they have been in an abstract form, will gain in strength and vividness if we consider the concrete facts from which they flow. Thus, I lie upon my sofa. If I close my right eye, the picture represented in the accompanying cut is presented to my left eye In a frame formed by the ridge of my eyebrow, by my nose, and by my moustache, appears a part of my body, so far as visible, with
its environment. My body differs from other human bodies - beyond the fact that every intense motor idea is immediately expressed by a movement of it, and that, if it is touched, more striking changes are determined than if other bodies are touched - by the circumstance, that it is only seen piecemeal, and, especially, is seen without a head. If I observe an element A within my field of vision, and investigate its connexion with another element B within the same field, I step out of the domain of physics into that of physiology or psychology, provided B, to use the apposite expression of a friend of mine made upon seeing this drawing, passes through my skin. Reflexions like that for the field of vision may be made with regard to the province of touch and the perceptual domains of the other senses."
I've been involved in this blog at retrieving and tabulating antique images that look straight down on something. Today I imagine that we all take these sorts of views for granted, what with satellite images and Google Earth and airplanes and all. But in the pre-heavier-than-air era, seeing a published image that looked straight down from a height was quite rare. (And it needs to be strait down, not a bird's-eye view. Things are very different between looking obliquely from an airplane window onto a cityscape than skydiving directly down on top of it.)
Benjamin Franklin had long been thinking about waterspouts, going back at least to the early 1750's, though he did not have an article about them in print until the appearance of "Physical and Meteorological Observations: Conjectures and Suppositions" in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions, LV (1765). The first image that I've been able to find of the waterspout occurs in 1774, though a prettier version of it is reworked a little, but with sharper delineations, in 1818:
Here's the full image (with a magic square that related to another article in the volume):
This is a continuation of sort of this morning's post, "Massive 500-Daguerreotype Mosaic", though this one concentrates on the sumptuous ruination and decay that has occurred within and to some of these photographic images. I've looked closely at only five of these images, and within each of these five images there are five more. And, if you manipulated the largest downloadable file of these (which range up to about 150 megs), there are five more within the five within the five. And all that before you start to imagine the artistic fantasies int he non-representational forms, and that before adding color. So five is all that will be here, for the present.
DISCOURSE ON THE METHOD OF RIGHTLY CONDUCTING THE REASON, AND SEEKING TRUTH IN THE SCIENCES by Rene Descarte.
Descartes contributed a towering amount in the history of science and in establishing modern Western philosophy, all accomplished in a relatively short period of time, as Descartes for all of his massive output only lived to be 54 (1596-1650)...and most of that was completed between 1630 and 1650. Twenty years. Outstanding.
René Descartes. Engraving by Jacques Lubin, after Frans Hals (via Houghton Library blog, here).
"PREFATORY NOTE BY THE AUTHOR
If this Discourse appear too long to be read at once, it may be divided into six Parts: and, in the first, will be found various considerations touching the Sciences; in the second, the principal rules of the Method which the Author has discovered, in the third, certain of the rules of Morals which he has deduced from this Method; in the fourth, the reasonings by which he establishes the existence of God and of the Human Soul, which are the foundations of his Metaphysic; in the fifth, the order of the Physical questions which he has investigated, and, in particular, the explication of the motion of the heart and of some other difficulties pertaining to Medicine, as also the difference between the soul of man and that of the brutes; and, in the last, what the Author believes to be required in order to greater advancement in the investigation of Nature than has yet been made, with the reasons that have induced him to write.
[Detail from the title page of Natural Magic, below.]
Giovani Baptista della Porta was a magus, or a natural (science)
"magician", who searched nature for similarities that would serve to build a
broad template of forced understanding of seeming likenesses, looking for the great connector
in the exceptional and the unusual, the stuff outside of the formerly
Aristotlean world. Natural Magic is his magnum opus, an expansion of its earlier
version (Magna naturalis) published in Latin in 1558, which Porta expanded to twenty sections in 1589. The 1589 edition was a maturing of the 1558 edition, toning down the philosophical/religio-mystic basis for the ordering of the natural environment with an approach more suitable to observation and experimentation. It was an encyclopedic work of vast proportions, a
gold-mine of information and clever wishfulness, and very accessible due to
Porta’s wide inter-personal travel,
very wide reading and critical abilities, clear reasoning and deep vision: the book was hugely successful, going into at
least twelve Latin, four Italian, seven French, two German, and two English
editions in the early modern era. Natural
Magic, which first appeared in English in 1658, concerned itself with
magic, alchemy, optics, geometry, cryptography, magnetism, agriculture, the art
of memory, munitions, and many other topics, all grouped together and refined,
distilled, into a cloudy assemblage of natural knowledge—it would end up that the magical
whole was worth far less than the sum of its parts.
But the parts were pretty considerable, and much of the
information was spot-on for the time, not the least of which was a very capable
demonstration and explanation of a lensed camera obscura.
What I’m interested in right now though is the title page of
the book (pictured above).
It turns out and as we can see in the top image of the
title page, Chaos is not some subspace trajectory of cellular automata, or in
Dr. Brown’s/Einstein’s dancing dust—it is right above us. This recognition of its regular, localizable structure
probably does not support parameterization, or anything else for that matter,
except to say that it is definitely “pretty”.
The title page has nine illustrated compartments: the four corners depict the four elements,
the two opposing middles show art and nature; the bottom shows the author,
illuminated by the knowing sun. The top
center image is the element showing “chaos”, which I’ve chosen to use a map,
identifying where exactly chaos might be.
I’ve not seen an antiquarian map identifying chaos, though I have seen a
number showing lots of other non-existent places, like heaven and hell and
purgatory and Eden and the Kingdom of Prester John, to name a few. But not chaos.
It is very interesting to note that while in the process of looking at nature, and observing connections real and imagined, and creating ways of organizing and storing information in the brain, Porta conceived of a telescope, and this several decades in advance of Galileo. (The idea of the telescope stretches pretty far back, though. The idea seems ancient, though the scientific thought on the matter really weren't present until the 13th century with the work of Roger Bacon and Robert Grosseteste, and then with Nicolsa of Cusa (in 1451) doing experimental work on the properties of lenses, and then on to John Dee and Thomas Digges in 1570/1. Porta seemed right about there, just ont he edge of the invention of an instrument which would have allowed him to see farther and deeper than anyone else before him, but he didn't follow through. He mentions in the 1589 edition of Magiae:
"With a Concave lens you shall see small things afar off very clearly. With a Convex lens, things nearer to be greater, but more obscurely. If you know how to fit them both together, you shall see both things afar off, and things near hand, both greater..." (Porta would expand this section of the 1589 book (section XVII) into a complete and separate work in 1593, De refractione optices.)
I do not know what happened to this idea, or why it didn't flourish in Porta's hand like it would in those of Galileo less than three decades latter.
Porta was a very nimble and penetrating man--his Magia naturalis was a dissecting tool for the complexities that he saw around him, and his later works were in some ways continuations on this theme. The first two books following Magiae were concerned with private visions of Very Large Things: the first, De furtivis literarum notis (published in 1563) was one of the earliest works on cryptology. This looking-deeper book was followed three years later in 1566 by a book on how these thoughts could be organized in the mind. Given the spirit of the times and the difficulty of actually recording what it was you saw, Porta wrote Arte del ricordare, which addressed the very idea of memory and then the more applicable bits of mnemonic devices. He looked for more hidden messages in his next work--on the physiology of hands--but it didn't see the light of publishing day until after Porta died.
Working in the areas of pharmacology, hydraulics, military engineering, physiology, and physics, among many other areas, Porta published De aeris transmutanionbus (1609) on meteorology; De distillatione (1610), on chemistry; Coelestis Physiogranonia (1603), on a sort of "writing in the sky" and both a blast and support of astrology; and De humana physiognomonia libri IIII (1586), which was a work physiognomy and discerning function from structure. There were other books, not to mention at least 17 dramatic works. Porta was basically unstoppable.
All of this takes me back to the question of wondering about his inability (?) to see the possibilities of the telescope. In all of his books on deterministic vision, and of seeing things deeply--whether it was in the sky, or in chemical experiments, or in seeing the structure of a plant incised with its function in nature, or in the complexities of memory, and so on--it is a mystery to me how he could have left the development of the telescope along.
Could we satisfy our selves in the position of the lights above, or
discover the wisdom of that order so invariably maintained in the fixed
stars of heaven......we might abate.....the strange Cryptography of
Gaffarell in his Starrie Booke of Heaven. Thomas Browne1 (1605-1682) in his major Hermetic effort, The Garden of Cyrus, or The Quincunciall Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, naturally, artificially, mystically considered (published in 1658).
The Garden of Cyrus is a neo-Pythagorean insight weaving together all manner of visions in nature and art, and the art of nature and vice versa and so on, all tied up in universal thinking about these intersections in terms of the great quincunx patterns and the number five and it various variants in terms of latticework and the figure X.
"What is more beautiful than the
quincunx, that, from whatever direction you regard it, presents straight
lines?-- Quintillian's Institutio OratoriaVIII.3.ix
The Browne quote relate to the work of J. Gaffarel, who saw connections in art and nature quite literally in the structure of the heavens, among other places--but it is his "star-writing" that I'd like to address a bit here. His provocatively-titled Curiositez inouyes sur la sculpture talismanique des Persans, horoscope des Patriarches et lecture des estoiles ("Unheard-of Curiosities concerning Talismanical Sculpture of the Persians, the horoscope of the Patriarchs and the reading of the Stars") was published first in 1629 and then many times thereafter well into the 18th century. Garrafel (1601-1682) presented to the world a wide class of interesting subjects which had previously been thought of as being outside the normal realm of academic discussion, the subjects being mainly seen as dogmatic occultism. What Garrafel did was very interesting, writing about these areas as discussion-builders, as "curious" topics that could or should be considered to widen general inquiry. (In an interesting article, "The Use of Curiosity in Early Medieval France and Germany" the author Neil Kenny writes of Gaffarel, "Making occult knowledge into conversation rather than a dogmatic system made [his work] less likely to be universally censured")
His work definitely interesting and curious, though the use of that word didn't save him, as some of the topics were verbotten--certainly Gaffarel
was aware of this, and he tried his best to write about them in a way
that the ruling intellectual powers would not find offensive, but it
didn't work, and his book was found to be abusive and was banned by the
Sorbonne. This was such an integral action that Gaffarel succumbed to
not one but two retractions.
What is of primary interest right now with Gaffarel is his interpretation of writing systems, and how frequently they seem to exist exclusive of human manufacture. It seems that a fair percentage of the time that these appearances came in the form of agate. and that these durable micro- explorations in agate go back thousands of years,
expounded by Pliny and some of the other ancients, who followed the origins of
humanity back into the rocks. This was a
popular idea for the origin of animate beings, propounding itself for centuries,
even winding up in the bony lap of Leibniz of all people, who wrote that “men
derive from animals, animals from plants, plants from fossils, which in turn
derive from bodies that the senses and imagination represent to us as being
totally dead and formless”. Stones
therefore held the seeds of the formation of the world; all things living,
breathing, and not.
Our own Athanasius Kircher, the definition of polymathic ability and
superior imagination was responsible for many such observations and
discoveries. It seems to me that as much
as Kircher gave, he took away, keeping ahead of his critics and the rest of the
scientific community with tremendous output…people I think just couldn’t keep
up with him. He found all sorts of
things in stone: as early as 1619 he exhibited an image of St. Jerome (in no less a place than the cave of the Nativity
in Bethlehem!) that he found in
agate. His Mundus Subterraneus (1661)
is a home to a wide range of these
objects: quadrupeds of all shapes and descriptions, human full-length
portraits, hands with jewels, and even the Virgin Mary and child. AS spectacular as these are there is always
more: the magnificent cityscape
(reproduced here) and the sublime discoveries of a full set of the alphabet and
a series of 15 geometrical drawings, all naturally impressed in stone.
Gaffarel's principle and perhaps first-on-the-scene notion (though some of it may have appeared in Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy (first published in 1533)) was the elements of an alphabet--the Hebrew alphabet--was found not in stone, but actually written in the night sky. In the stars.
It was another sort of artificial language, an entire alphabet, though this was written in the sky; Hebrew letters transcribed in the stars, lines connecting them here and there. Replaceable letters from one point to another. The possibilities of the formation of actual words was present. This seems to have been the first time this idea appeared in print.
1. Browne's writing is both beautiful and difficult, or complex and impenetrable, as can be seen from the very opening paragraph of his work here.
That Vulcan gave arrows unto Apollo and Diana the fourth day after their Nativities, according to Gentile Theology,may passe for no blinde apprehension of the Creation of the Sunne and
Moon, in the work of the fourth day; When the diffused light contracted
into Orbes, and shooting rayes, of those Luminaries.
Plainer Descriptions there are from Pagan pens, of the creatures of the
fourth day; While the divine Philosopher unhappily omitteth the noblest part of the third; And Ovid (whom many conceive to have borrowed his description from Moses) coldly deserting the remarkable account of the text, in three words,
describeth this work of the third day; the vegetable creation, and
first ornamentall Scene of nature; the primitive food of animals, and
first story of Physick, in Dietetical conservation.
2. An interesting article in the blog 8vo appears here on Gaffarel's celestial writing.
This blog has long hosted a series of posts on "accidental" or "unintended" works of pre-modern modernist art found in displays of information and statistics in the sciences and mathematics, and even occasionally in art and design. One such work--a 1904 triumph of accidental art issuing from an usunal work on color theory--belongs to an aesthetician named Emily Vanderpoel. It is extraordinary in a narrower sense, and that extraordinary might not actually be positive for its original intent--the extra-intent of the book, what has come out of it for me, was something that was unintentionally accomplished by the author. The images that she used to illustrate her color theory ideas--the basis of which are not really omprehensible to me--turn out to be artwork in themselves, a found art, the artistry of the images taking over the original intention for the arrangement of their color. She had introduced (though to no one, not really) a concept of beautifully arranged spatial color, artwork without a subject that could be recognized as any sort of natural object--non-representational art, finding publication several years before what is seen as the first inentional attempt at that genre, by Vassily Kandinsky in 1911. (Images below.) And when one strolls through the history of scientific illustration it becomes easier and easier to find such things, fabulous precursors to non-represnetational art, and Dadism, and Cubism and Surrealism.
These elements seem to be most populous in the illustrated sections of early encyclopediae, and dictionaries, and even encyclopedic dictionaries, where a number of different elements are displayed on the same page, different and generally unrelated images on the same engraved sheet, references for articles found in different parts of the book.
Here is a good example of that, with unintentional Surrealist images found in the image refernce pages of Horace Benedict de Saussure's Voyages dans les Alpes....(published in Neuchatel in 1803):
[There are a number of other examples that I've written about on this blog: here, for example, in "On the Paper Sculpting of Nothing".]
And then there are examples like Vanderpoel, where the entire image from one sheet is the pre-modernist image in question--to my experience this is the more uncommon occurrence.
Which brings us to today's installment: the infographic displays found in Francis Walker's Statistical atlas of the United States based on the results of the ninth census 1870 with contributions from many eminent men of science and several departments of the government, which is the atlas of data to accompany the 9th Census of the United States, published in 1874. This is a beautiful work, and a pioneering challenge. Walker was one of the earliest to produce a statistical atlas, and was perhaps the earliest to display this huge and broad amount of data in so many different ways--it must have seemed a semi-miracle to see the information displayed so, like going froma black & white television to color, or color to infared, and so on. It may well have represented anentirely new way of looking at data.
The first image (above) in this post is from the illustration showing proportions of the white/non-white population, and the following image shows a detail of that, offset against Mark Rothko's 1959 Black on Maroon.
Francis Walker's statistical mapping, above, 1873; Mark Rotko,
[Black on Maroon (1959) by Mark Rothko, part of the Seagram mural series, via Tate Modern.]
The first and third images are details from this full-page illustration:
It is easy to see the similarities between the data display and the Rothko, though it would really not be within anyone's power to identify the Walker diagrams as "art" in the modern sense for another five decades. But it certainly seemed there, ready to be of influence and service, though I'm not aware offhand of artists being influence by these images as they were with, say etienne Marey's photographs. I'm not sure that these statistics images ever came into the service of art in the beginning of the modern era. And maybe that's the biggest question here.
[My thanks to Patti Digh for providing the idea for the Goedel part of this adventure into Playtex and Logic--she did so because (a) they fit together and (b) girdle/Goedel sounded almost identical to a woman who once lived in Munich!]
In the long history of Holding Things In, perhaps the newest of its
members was upon us only recently. In the long, deep past we have held
our breath, hidden our anger, stowed our emotions, and so on, but it was
only recently that we began to hold our bellies in. One of the masters of Holding Things In for this period turns out to be the sublime logician and re-inventor of modern mathematics (by putting one piece of the great Hilbert to sleep), Kurt Goedel, who towards the mistakenly-self-engineered end of his life, held on to everything, virtually--he organized and filed almost very piece of paper that he came into contact with at any level, became ever more reclusive, and at the end (due to his theories of people/institutions wanting to kill him) refused food and, of all things, water. Surrounded by the smartest people on the planet (including his friends Einstein and von Neumann) up there at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Goedel withered away until he had almost no shadow. It is a bad irony that he could be so inconceivably unmovable and restrained while at the same time, and in the same life, offered such incredible newness to the maths--both ends of the mountain at the same time.
1951, the year in which these girdle advertisements appeared in Life magazine, was also the year that Goedel present us with the Goedel metric, and also in which he received (with Julian Schwinger) the first Albert Einstein award (and of course delivered his famous Gibbs lecture "Some basic theorems on the foundations of mathematics and their implications").
The popular introduction of the girdle I think that
this happened at about the same time for the sexes, only these
conveniences were much more often advertised for women than they were
for men. Slender and non-existent waistlines for women were more of a cultural identifier
than a slim-hipped man, and the ads for his cheaters appeared far less
frequently than those for women.
The first widespread appearance of the girdle for the sake of vanity must have occurred during the 19th century, or perhaps a little later is my best guess--but the first time the device began to appear for the common woman must've come around the time when there was time for leisure, or shopping, or of being seen in public in short intervals. And that I believe is a Victorian-age invention.
But the binder doesn't come into fabulous presence until the distribution of mass population illustrated magazines, or I should say the advertisements that made these magazines possible: production like LIFE (from which these 1951 images come) reached far more women than the popular older periodicals like Harper's Weekly or other polite mid-19th century journals for women. The advertisements were certainly more enticing, the possibilities more rewarding, and the girdle comfort levels far higher than their predecessors, and the availability of disposable income for women far greater--and so incidentals like the girdle became more greatly commodified, and moved into the "essentials" category.
The idea of these ads seem horribly revolutionary: on the one hand, the badly-named and hyphenated Playtex product "Pink-Ice" squeezed women into new tight but malleable molds, while at the same time promised some sort of ballet-like freedom because of it. Like the creeping ("two steps forward and one step back") communism of the time, Playtex promised the possibilities of enhanced freedom through restrictive clothing (in a "peace through strength" vision). In any event, and in spite all of what I just wrote, the pictures are kind of amazing.
[I'm well aware that this may be one of the worst things ever written about Kurt Goedel--the Renault Dauphine of Goedeliana. But it doesn't matter, because in all of his powers, Goedel could absolutely prove that g_d existed, and that I don't.]
And these have smaller fleas to bite 'em, and so on ad infinitum.
--Jonathan Swift, 1733
There are a lot of triangles in this fabulous photo of the construction of the Empire State Building in 1931--a lot. At least fifty--more if you use your imagination or get your pinhole specs out. It is simply an excellent photo in which I'm seeing things of a reducible nature--not in the sense of a Sierpinski triangle/sieve/gasket, obviously--but just a simple exercise along those lines (ha!), experiencing the image by recognizing different sorts of boundaries within it.
[Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections, here.]
This of course is not a story of ancient spacecraft, but it is about Very Large Things being manipulated in space in the days of steam and pre-steam engineering. It is hard to escape the "rocketship" interpretation, as some of the images, sculpted slightly out of context and cleansed of any identifying text and viewed with a squint, look as though they might be large booster rockets being readied for flight. They are of course images of some great and famous pieces of engineering--moving massive obelisks, and moving them in the 19th century and before. And in the case of the Romans, and the original Egyptians, moving them way before our last millennium, moving 200- and 900-ton objects without benefit of very much at all.
Two of the great examples are the pair of obelisks that the Romans moved from Heliopolis to Alexandria, where they stood for another 2000 years. Over time there was only one standing, and that one wasn't doing so well by the end of the 19th century. The fallen obelsik was taken to London in 1877; the other, the standing obelisk, was given to the United States by the Khedive of Egypt two years later, in 1879. The man in charge of this second operation was Lt. Commander Henry H. Gorringe, U.S.N., who had the very tricky job of lowering the monolith, bracing it for transport by sea, fitting it out for a ship, and then transporting it to Central Park and raising it again. He was able to accomplish this feat with the "fragile" 100-ton object in just a year.
This next image is more classical and probably iconic, at least in the history of science world, and is found in the superb book by Domenico Fontana, Della Transportatione dell'Obelisco Vaticano (published in Rome in 1590 and again in 1604):
They really do have a certain modern taste for interplanetary access, at least to me. That aside, it is interesting to consider what this vastly heavy movement must've looked like to people long ago, when big machines with enormous powertrains (like this 1,200 ton capacity 300'-tall mobile crane)could be hauled into service to do their end in manipulating highly problematic and very heavy things in space. To think of moving these very heavy objects with steam (or less) was a daunting task, and to see these images showing the progression of movement of these things must have been enormosuly satisfying.
Where is the center of the Earth, of religion, of the United States, of the universe, of art, of consciousness, of seriousness, of complexity?
The center of stuff throughout history has been an almost entirely shifting matrix, a collection of vortices coming from Jupiter’s strongbox–a three dimensional representation of the location of their shifting centers over time would make an interesting Fibonacci-like display, I think.
The question may seem meaningless at first, but people have long asked it of nearly everything within their experience, trying to find the center of their world and universe, of their selves, of their religion, of their country, of politics, of art and music, and on through the Encyclopedia of Things that Could Have a Center.
Take for example the questions of where the center of the Earth, or solar system, or galaxy, or universe might be? There have been answers to these question more often than not over time, though the answers have been shifting. The center of the Earth has certainly stayed more-or-less constant over thousands of years, though the stuff in the center has been swarming with change, from being hollow, to being filled with magma, to being a solid magnetic core, to being occupied by Mole Men, to housing the seat of the Inferno, or to be simply located on the surface of the sphere at Jerusalem (as the old T-maps have shown for hundreds of years), and on and on. Working backwards, the center of the universe has drastically changed over time–for thousands of years, it was assumed that the Earth was the center of all things, until it wasn’t (that beginning mostly with Copernicus, and then challenged with Galileo’s use of the telescope and his discovery of an order of magnitude more stars, etc.). And then William Herschel beautifully represented the shape of the galaxy in 1782, placing our solar system in a far from central location. The center of the universe’s fate changed along with that of the Earth, incredibly so beginning with the Big Bang and then with the possibilities of their being a universe without boundaries. And then of course there’s multiple universe theories, and worm holes, and the space time continuum, which complicates things even further, making the discussion of a “center” pretty much nonsensical.
Simpler things can be as complicated–where is the center of the United States? If we measure the center for the lower 48 states, it will be different than if we included the two far-flung states, or protectorates like Puerto Rico. The geographical center is one thing; another might be where the population center might be–that has made a beautiful map published over time by the U.S. Census Bureau (Department of Commerce), showing the star of the center moving not-so-slowly westward into Ohio over the last 20 censuses or so. And where is the heart of the country? Where is the heart of the West? Better yet, where is the center of the West (or North, or South, or Mid-West)? To answer where the center of these places might be you’ve got to first locate where those geographical ideas begin and end, which for many is a tricky subject, making it a matter of opinion as to where the center of these places might be.
The center in art had been a findable thing for some time, though more recently people like the Impressionists and Kandinsky have shown that the center might not exist, and it might not exist along with anything that is recognizable as a form of nature, representation and the center falling away completely. Perhaps this is like finding the center of a decade or year or month, or week or day or second. The parameters keep getting both smaller and larger, the ability to measure halves of things or the center of a second growing almost incalculably small, small enough to reveal that in this Zeno-paradoxical way, that there is no center because there are no boundaries; getting half-way to something into infinity doesn’t tactually get you there.
The center of balance, the center of levity, of concern; the center of emotion–another center that has been mapped all over the human body, from the heart to the head to the limbic system to a confusion of freudian desires to an inelegant and intractable collection of stimuli and response. The center becomes more of a belief-but even there, center can have no more a constant than change. The center of Christianity may be Christ (though it wasn’t always so, witness the Mary Cults through the first few centuries of Christianity), but then you have to understand which Christ it is coming from which Bible, the center becoming more a concern of interpretation and spread over many Christian groups than one solid center. And when you spread the field to include all religions and you expand the center notion to a primum mobile or collective or whatever, then the center gets very big—and in some religions, it is nothing but the center.
It seems to me that if the issue of finding the center of big and small things alike is difficult, then why does it seem so easy for people to determine and adhere (and sometimes to believe in at all costs) to expansive ideas like “normalcy”?
A history of normalcy is one that looks at the things deemed to be “normal”, or standard, or acceptable at one time that became not so over the course of time. Buying and selling human beings, women and their children being property of the husband, Chinese immigrants in America not have (any) legal rights, classification by skin color or sex or financial status or political belief are a few good candidates (among thousands) for this history. It is an interesting proposition to think about—what things around you, or better yet, what thing you think or say or do, that look good and acceptable today might look embarrassing and unacceptable thirty years hence. In 1935 one issue might’ve been accepting the codified behavior of treating women as less than equal of men, deserving less in the workplace (if they were in the workplace), less rights in the courts, less deserving of equality in general; by 1965, this viewpoint may have well been in the minority; by 1995 it begins to look fossilized; by 2025 it might well be unbelievable. What are the issues of 2010 that could be the equivalent of the 1935 issue?
I'm just wondering why it is that even when people cannot find the center of almost everything that has ever been, that a strict and damningly judgmental regimen of "normalcy" can be so easily instituted, and enforced? This especially since part of the code of adjudicated normalcy for one generation seems mostly gone by the next, that the important becomes trite, and the socially disgusting becomes acceptable. Just as the concept of the center becomes elusive, so too does the standardized idea of normalcy become vaprorous over time.
Its easy to assume a modern prejudice regarding the interior decoration of 1910-1940 school rooms, allowing a certain conceit and picturing them in shades of gray, the images formed being "colored" by the images of those things that we have seen, almost all of which have turned up in black-and-white photographs or movies. But of course we know that this can't be true, and that Humphrey Bogart didn't always wear a gray worsted in his movies, and didn't move that gray suit through gray rooms. Its just that the image-formation is influenced by what we've seen, and since what we've seen of these rooms is mostly without color, then our images are difficult to assemble outside black-and-white. This applies to just about everything from that era, which explains why it is such a glorious shock to see motion pictures or photographs of (say) New York City street scenes from 1944. (And why is it such a jolt to the visual system to learn that police cars in Chicago during the 1933 World's Fair were orange?)