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Wonderments of Cosmos Seminar 4: Andrew Gregory

By Lucy M J Calder, on 2 May 2014

This, the final seminar in our fascinating series, took place on 18th March 2014   . The talk was given by Andy Gregory (Science and Technology Studies), with respondents Michael Scott ( LSE Anthropology) and Jane Grisewood (Central St Martins).

You can download the audio file HERE.

The seminar took place one day after BICEP2 announced the first credible evidence for gravity waves, which in itself is indirect evidence for cosmic inflation. Donnacha Kirk kindly gave us a summary of this news before Andy began his talk. I am posting the notes from this talk below:


Notes by Andy Gregory (Science and Technology Studies)

Wonderment & Cosmos

How do ideas of world/ cosmos/ universe change over time?
Do we wonder at the same things in the same way? What exactly do we say we’re wondering at and why are we wondering?
Do we all ask the same questions in cosmology and expect the same kinds of things from the cosmology we propose?
Ask those questions of cultures and of disciplines.

Picture3Cosmos & Cosmology?

Cosmos, verb cosmeo, to order or arrange, with strong sense of good.
Cosmology, cosmogony, cosmetic all derive from this root.
A Greek cosmos is:
Physically well ordered
Aesthetically good
Morally good/indicative of a political system

Is this a change from the cultures prior to and around the Greeks?

Yes. Cosmos and invariance – in a well ordered world, the same things happen in the same circumstances.
Contrast this to mythologies with arbitrary, capricious gods – interfere with the running of the world.
In one sense this is a beginning of cosmology? Before this people didn’t have the same sense of Cosmos, where everything happens in a natural way, without Gods interfering.


In Greek cosmology there’s a shift from wonder at gods to wonder at the cosmos.
In particular, there is wonder at regularity of the heavens.
Wonder at what their cosmological models can do.

Plato wrote his dialogue Timaeus circa 360 BC, which speculates on the nature of the physical world and human beings. He describes the the sun, moon and planets moving in regular circular motions around the Earth. This model isn’t contradicted until about 1609 when Kepler introduces ellipses. However, it doesn’t explain retrograde motion. Eudoxus managed to combine four regular circular motions to give something like this pattern. Surely this is something to be in wonderment at?

Eudoxus came up a geometrical explanation for retrograde motion

Eudoxus came up a geometrical explanation for retrograde motion

Modern cosmology?

Does Greek philosophical cosmology differ from modern empirical cosmology?

Yes, but this contrast can get overdrawn.

Empirical aspects to Greek cosmology.
Philosophical aspects to modern cosmology?


Have we lost a form of wonder as cosmology has generated scientific explanations of phenomena?

Have we become ‘disenchanted’ with the world around us?

One can argue that there’s a movement from a notion of Cosmos to a notion of Universe. We think there is order in our universe, but we tend to think of it as brute order. We have, perhaps, lost the sense of an aesthetically beautiful universe, and the idea of a morally and politically good Cosmos.

John Keats, 1795-1821.

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –

Unweave a rainbow…

Interesting semantic shift: to Keats, awful (full of awe!) meant awesome. The terms we use to describe wonder are subject to semantic drift.

For Keats, to understand the universe by rule and line meant to take away its wonder.

On the other hand, I find Descartes’ analysis of the rainbow awesome and worthy of wonder.


Explanation of the rainbow, from Descartes’ ‘Meteors’


This process has been going on science antiquity.

Xenophanes has an explanation for the rainbow (no longer a portent).

Produces a natural explanation for St. Elmo’s fire.


Xenophanes says that “the star-like phenomena which occurs on ships, which by some are called Diaskouri, are small clouds that glimmer on account of a special agitation.”

Another divine/ magical phenomenon explained…

Ubiquitous questions?

Some questions addressed by ancient Greeks are still addressed by modern cosmology.

Ubiquitous to all cultures?


Do we explain the origins of the cosmos as:

A unique event, unlike anything we see happening now?

OR An ongoing process, similar to processes we see happening around us today?

Big Bang & Steady State

Mid-20th century cosmology debate between:

Steady State cosmology – continuous production of matter.

Big Bang – a single generation of matter.

SS held ascendency (late 1940s through to the 1950s)  until observations went the way of BB.

Hoyle etc. claimed various merits for steady state cosmology





Fred Hoyle










‘Big Bang’

Has gone from being a term of abuse ( Hoyle: 1949) to a term of wonder in under 50 years?

Greeks & others

Debate on this among Greeks.

Similar debate about zoogony, anthropogony.









Some more Greek questions.

What is outside the universe?

Is the universe finite or infinite?

Can there be generation from nothing?

Archytas Paradox.

The cosmos cannot be finite because I can always imagine standing close to the edge of the cosmos and poking a stick into what is beyond the supposed limit.

As I can imagine doing this at any supposed limit, the cosmos must be infinite.


Ancient answers:

Physically you can’t do this.

There is nothing beyond to poke your stick into: no time or space.

Why would you even want to do this?

Earliest lambda (cosmological constant)?

Einstein, static universe with gravity –  lambda introduced to prevent collapse.

Newton, static universe with gravity – worry about conflagration of stars as they came together: has to be something which holds these stars apart.

Derveni Papyrus (4th or 5th century BC), fire is the dominant element in the cosmos and is properly spread around the Cosmos. However like is attracted to like, such that fires tends to gather together. This would lead to a universal conflagration. As we don’t see this happen there must be something which prevents this.

The Ancient Greeks also move away from a flat Earth and from a supported Earth.

Cultures prior to and around the Greeks typically posit  hemispherical cosmologies: a flat Earth and a hemispherical vault e.g. ancient Egypt and Babylonia.

The idea that the Earth is not supported but because its at the centre of the Cosmos it has no reason to move in any direction. If we have a limited Cosmos, that too has no reason to move in any direction.

Picture16Negative space?

If we have nothing to begin with, how can Cosmos grow from that?

“What birth will you seek for it? In what way, from what source did it grow? I will not allow you to think or say from not being, for it is not to be thought or said that it is not; and what necessity would have driven it later rather than sooner, beginning from nothing, to grow?”

Parmenides Fr. 8, 5 -10.

Conclusion that nothing can be produced ex nihilo – has worried theologians ever since.

(Cats of course can be created ex nihilo!)

Is wonderment knowledge relative?

Euler’s identity:

e^iπ +1 = 0

The base for natural logarithms, multiplied by itself π times the square root of -1 times, + 1, = 0.


I wonder at this, three such fundamental and irrational numbers fit together in this elegant way.

Gauss – ‘anyone who does not see immediately why this relation has to be so will never be a first rate mathematician’.

Did Gauss/ do real mathematicians wonder at Euler’s identity?

Once we know much more about something, does our wonderment cease to be?

Another example is the Friedmann equation of cosmology: simple premises and deep consequences.

Picture19Wonder – Art & Artefacts

Does wonderment at the cosmos get expressed in painting?

Can art tell us anything about the history of astronomy/ cosmology?

Is there wonderment in, and at, the artefacts of astronomy and cosmology?

In the early 17th century there was a debate over three cosmological systems:

Ptolemy (ancient world); Tycho Brahe; Copernicus

Black and white illustration: Tycho Brahe’s system is weighing more heavily in the scales. The eyes on the man’s body signify that he is the spirit of observation. Hand of God – all stems from Him.


Meno’s paradox (from Plato)

“How will you search for this thing, Socrates, not knowing at all what sort of thing it is? For what sort of thing that you do not know will be proposed in your search? Or even supposing that you should meet with this thing, how will you know that it is this thing which you do not know?”

Plato, Meno 80d


Astrolabe – from islamic-Arabic tradition – for determining the position of heavenly bodies.


If you want to learn, either you know something, in which case there’s no point in learning; or you don’t, in which case, how are you going to know when you’ve come across the thing you’re looking for?

Science seems to have solved this problem practically, in the sense that, in a great deal of science we know exactly what we’re looking for and what sort of answer we should be given.

But have we solved this issue in relation to the origins of the Cosmos? Do we know what sort of answer we would like??

I don’t think we have. It’s a major issue within cosmogony. What sort of explanation do we want?

If there is neither space nor time prior to the big bang, the standard causal explanations are not appropriate.

It’s an open question.


The Athens Metro has this warning sign:

Prosoche Ton Kenon

Prosoche means ‘Beware’

Ton Kenon, to anyone who has studied ancient philosophy, means ‘the infinite void’.

Sartre? Existentialist void?

Greek Orthodox slogan? Absence of god?


Actually it means:

Mind the gap (between the train and the platform)!

There is a moral here about over interpreting the Greek text and over interpreting ideas of space, but what it is, I leave to you…

Wonderments of Cosmos Seminar 3: Allen Abramson

By Lucy M J Calder, on 1 May 2014

xtreme sports1The third Wonderments of Cosmos seminar took place on 11th March 2014 and the main speaker was Allen Abramson, a senior lecturer in the Anthropology Department, who gave us a brilliantly entertaining and thought-provoking talk which really requires listening to in order to fully appreciate. The entire seminar (audio) can be downloaded HERE.

The talk was followed by responses from Donnacha Kirk (UCL Anthropology) and Klaas Hoek (Slade School of Fine Art), and then a general discussion. I am sharing Allen’s notes below.



(Notes by Allen Abramson)


  1. Thank you to all, audience included. People from different faculties. Great! It is my theme: cosmos as unifying, and unifying today. In what way is cosmology unifying today? Does scientific cosmology hold a privileged cultural place in this processs?
  2. Ofer took the opportunity to smuggle into his presentation pub-talk that he wouldn’t normally present to colleagues. In this talk, I want to end up by speculating in a way that I might only get away with at an interfaculty assembly: and indeed I may well not get away with these speculations even here: an exercise in speculation
  3. In particular, Ofer brought in from the pub the suggestion that it might have been better if the Cold War hadn’t ended, if the internet hadn’t intensified contact between East and West, and if instead, independently of each other, scientific cosmologists were still beavering away within the sheltered confines of their own traditions. So that we might see a broader band of theoretical possibility rather than an emerging consensus amongst scientists on what the cosmos is.
  4. In this talk, I want to address the question of unity and diversity in cosmological thinking and social practice broadly conceived. And, in particular, to assess the extent to which a consensual contemporary cosmology is likely to extend consensus outside of itself into a divided cultural world.

I’ll be talking about:

  •  Scientific cosmology but also…
  • Practices that are not cosmological per se but which are quasi-cosmological or are ‘becoming-cosmological’
  • That technically orient  towards intimations of infinite space-time (in ‘big’ or ‘smooth’ space –Deleuze and Guattari. A project in the anthropology of ‘big space’)
  • where they intersect and hybridise with explicitly cosmological models and narratives.

I start with some characters who you may not have heard of but who deserve a mention.



  •  Giordano Bruno’s martyrdom (burnt at the stake) in 1600 (Dilwyn Knox spoke about him during the first seminar)
  •  Dominico Scandella (‘Menocchio’)- a miller, and leader of the town council – burnt to death in 1599

Declared that Creation emanated from a chaotic mix of the primary elements

Menocchio was here “…that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels…and among that number of angels there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time…”

Many think he was a fore-runner of our modern cosmological views.

  • David Birnbaum 1998-2008

– Jewish jeweller from the Bronx.  Has published 2 books on cosmology: Summa Metaphysica Vol I God & Evil; Vol II God & Good; 2010 Cosmic Womb of Potential)

Unified the fields of science and religion through “the Quest for Potential theory”:  Q4P or  Q4P∞

David Birnbaum “The universe is itself potential, actualising itself” in a process called ‘extraordinariation’…The cosmic trajectory is from the bottomless VOID to the limitless EXTRAORDINARY.”

There are many other mavericks presenting different types of cosmology – anthropologists find this interesting.

E.g. Jim Carter  2012 The Living Universe. A New Theory for the Creation of Matter in the Universe

“..rejects quantum physics, arguing that the universe is actually composed of minuscule doughnut-shaped particles called circlons



In Cosmologies in the Making 1990 – more mainstream for modern cosmologists – Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth showed how in Mountain OK societies in Papua New Guinea, some men were continually involved in elaborating different cosmologies.

fred barth


The significance of these amateur/maverick world-makers and their cosmologies:

The grassroots are cosmologically charged up and active/vibrant

The grassroots are normally eclectic and contradictory but periodically irrupt and ‘purify’.  Anybody can become a system builder – the concepts are there, waiting for us to burst through.

The grassroots always contains trends towards heterodoxy

The grassroots and official canopy together indicate the likelihood of cosmological pluralism. Surplus cosmology.

Doesn’t bode well for Primack & Abrams’ argument in The New Universe and the Human Future  2011


P and A 2007

2011primack and abrams2011


The main points that Abrams and Primack are making are:

  1.  Double-Dark scientific view of the cosmos is not only scientifically accurate, but it
  2.  Inaugurates a radical unification of fact & value, science & meaning, theory and morality (healing the rupture brought about around the time of Newton, between science and human meaning). Cosmological model in an ivory tower. The end of what Latour calls ‘the War of the Worlds (between different cultural values).
  3. Tends to transcend cosmological, religious and moral division, globally speaking.
  4. Will spread outwards to become popular culture as well as dominant science

5 reasons why P & A think Double Dark Theory can be unifying:

It’s true: coherent; explanatory; evidential; predictive

Subsumes elements of many previous cosmologies (energy; infinity; invisible forces) and is the best variant of them therefore (Einstein/Newton; Newton/the Bible/Ancient astro-religion). It subsumes pluralism inside itself.

Produced transnationally by a cosmopolitan community of scientists and cosmologists

Emerges at a time of increasing splintering and ethno-religious war –the world needs it, functionally speaking

Continues to de-centre the universe and demote human beings BUT makes the species central in other ways

Half way through the life of the universe; half way between the sun and the far edge of our galaxy; the only known place where the cosmos becomes aware of itself: only at this cosmic point the place where universe ‘chose’ to make itself amenable to the cosmic form that could think it in its entirety

What is the evidence that people find redemptive properties in scientific cosmology? Some research from the internet:

Mathew Fox, theologian of Creation Spirituality reviews The New Universe…

“As a theologian, I hear this as a clarion call to rediscover the apophatic Divinity, the God of Darkness…A transcendence that is not “up” so much as deep down, into the depths of things where all is dark and all is silent and beyond naming but where creation and new birth gestate in the invisibility of the cosmic womb, where all that dark sea and dark energy and dark matter dwells. A call to silence. A call to depth; a call to divine Nothingness. No-thingness. Only relations.” http://theinterfaithobserver.org/journal-articles/2013/5/15/a-review-of-the-new-universe-and-the-human-future.html

Menocchio? Birnbaum? Double Dark Theory (DDT)? Converging as P & A say?

Modern cosmology seems to be a perfect paradigm to merge with our own religious trajectories.

I want to argue “Yes”: but for different or supplementary reasons

DDT becomes critically persuasive as part of a culturally unifying tendency larger than itself.



Mini-analyses of recent transitions in Euro-American social contexts: religious, economic, playful and cinematic

Each is a fundamental break in the sense of where human social being is spatio-temporally located

Each transition

  • is a different scene of practice & different cultural point of departure
  • is a transmitted repertoire of possibilities defining the field of the practice against other fields (‘institutional memory’)

Two scenes are frankly cosmological, the others imply weakly conceptualized notions of the new space-time


The sacred is becoming:

Less a power that can be figuratively personified and ritually incarnated as a distinctive figure e.g. Catholicism

Less of an embodied dialogue between conscience and personalised manifestations of god (soul) e.g. Protestantism

More of a significant ‘becoming’ within an infinite cosmic sphere

Spirit (charismatic Protestantism; prevalently secular religiosity; Theos; work of Lorna Mumford and Galina Ustinova in the Anthropology department) 70% of people who say they don’t believe in God, do believe in Spirit of some kind.

‘Energy’ (‘New Age’ religion),  including astrology



Religion has broken out of its in-worldly carapace

No longer a Heavenly enclave on Earth

remaining in-worldly but turning outwards towards big space – high on abstract energy, low on discernable figures (god) – that is infinitely sacred.  De-deified.



Before: High modernity where Capital

  • primarily invested in machines, industries, factories, plants, companies
  • Assembled, organised, integrated, processed…
  • Nationally encompassed by nation states; infra-structurally national
  • extended its reach outwards as empire
  • Concentrated as monopoly
  • embodied by ‘captains of industry’ (Weber), directors, managers, foremen

pyramid capitalismPrevalent mode of economy punctuates, folds and involutes the flow of Capital ->

Quasi-militarised self-enclosed economic spheres

Popularly conceived as a complex machine or body that self-encloses to bring about production even as it opens to the environment to absorb (raw materials) and excrete (waste-product)

industry1Weber’s view: this modern economic machinery is spectrally underpinned by a model of reformed religiosity in which individuals abandon the ritual manipulation of a finite god, turn inwards from his other-worldly infinity, and partake of his infinite grace in the rationally instrumental completion of a finite Creation (viz. instrumentality is displaced from ritual to techno-economy)

industry2In the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins’ view, the mechanistic holism of modern economy is underpinned by the poignant imagery of The Fall in which the incompleteness of god-created human being in exile is economically reflected in perpetual ‘need’ and addressed by the capitalist promise of capitalist growth, abundance, prosperity and human satisfaction/completion

Now: late-modern Capital:

Morphs through the dominance of finance capital

Dividends are accrued (or not!) along long ‘lines of economic flight’

Complex chains of under-written debt

Seemingly stretches outwards to infinity

Economic space of increasingly undecipherable complexity (mathematicians and physicists)

Capital becomes virtual, fleeting, spectral: known only by its traces

Iconic images (cinematic and ethnographic) of The Trader as edge-workers peering fearlessly towards implosion & black-hole http://www.edge.org/response-detail/23825 “The Black Hole of Finance” Seth Lloyd 2014

(Sexual) Master of the Universe, Lord of the Abyss

In the wake of ‘Electronic Big-Bang’

F-Capital and F-Trading suffused by cosmic images of void, chaos, inflation and infinity

From The Fear Index  Robert Harris

From The Fear Index Robert Harris



Image for review article about The Fear Index

Image for review article about The Fear Index



Before: High modern play

Dominant ludically and culturally

Simulates war and turns competition, conquest and subordination into primary social relations of high modernity

Aims for sovereignty over human opponents

Finds a popular Champion (analogy with Carnival)

Expands the range of championship and sovereignty over increasingly distant opponents

Played out in confined and controlled spatial environments (arena; stadia)

Telescopes historical process in both calendrical and recreational space and time to…

create pure (popular) sovereignty within a strictly enclosed (recreational) space-time

Norman Foster et al 2007  Wembley Stadium

Norman Foster et al 2007 Wembley Stadium


Zaha Hadid’s design for 2020 Japanese Olympics

Zaha Hadid’s design for 2020 Japanese Olympics







Now: Late modern play

Edgework becomes dominant ludically and culturally

Simulates survival in extreme and/or precarious environments: primary social relation of late-modernity

Aims for increasing and repeated mastery of body and technology (not opponents) on the edge of death and expiry

Quasi-heroic agents (not champions)

Pushes limits outwards along external non-human environmental lines (rather than towards the opponent’s inner weakness)

Played out on a continuum stretching from the ‘natural’ to the artificial: abolishes their binary opposition

Typically unconfined or tending towards (e.g. climbing walls break out; marathons break out; surfing breaks out onto cement & snow)

Telescopes historical process in space and time but breaks out of calendrical cycle

Merges more with the space-time of its symbolised primary relation than ‘traditional’ sport: (is more realistic; more dangerous)!

Creates variable body/technology/environment relations of survival on the controllable edge of chaos

All this suggests that it’s in play that the new future exists.











 Before (in high modernity): POWs were (majorly):

‘Out there’ separated by distance and ideally sea or (outer) space (Journey to the Centre of the Earth; ‘primitive societies’ – anthropologists such as Malinowski. Anthropology, while studying difference, was also studying our origins.

Valued for harbouring some lost knowledge, lost relation, lost relative

Left behind or stolen

Quest to retrieve, bring to the centre and unite Self & Other

Journey outwards to retrieve and complete what is lost

Shamanic or divinatory (e.g. Astrology)

Primordially distant space-time to be retrieved & re-integrated

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Journey to the Centre of the Earth







Malinowski in The Trobriand Islands c.1917

Malinowski in The Trobriand Islands c.1917




Star Wars 1977 -

Star Wars 1977 –










Now: POWs

Spring from the grounds of the here-and-now. Fantastic other worlds are accessed in the here and now.

Entered through or with common objects (e.g. Pokamon playing cards; Bey-Blade spinning-tops; BenTen’s omnitrix; The Subtle Knife in His Dark Materials).

“Infinity and Beyond” (Buzz Light-year   Toy Story I)

Toy Story

Toy Story

Are contained within the space-time of the here-and-now as virtualities/potentialities

Anthropology enters these worlds with ethnographic method now an objectified technique rather than a talent or ‘personal touch’

Retrieve nothing or only the means of exploring outwards

The present as an opaque container of many possible futures

 The banal here-and-now itself as a rich cosmic opacity capable of being opened out into space-times that stretch ordinary being outwards


His Dark Materials Philip Pullman 1995

His Dark Materials Philip Pullman 1995





Ben Ten’s omnitrix 2005-2008

Ben Ten’s omnitrix 2005-2008



Bey-Blade 2000-2003

Bey-Blade 2000-2003













  • break-out from cosmic enclave of ‘iron cage’

opening out of hierarchically enclosed organisation

cessation of discontinuity within itself and with external environment


City in Iron Cage

City in an iron cag



‘Our caged world’

‘Our caged world’

Instead the former cosmic enclaves:

  • Turn ‘inside-out’ onto big space that is infinite, continuous, smooth…the iron cage has melted…
  • Uncontrollable, precarious, de-stabilising….
  • Distinct in each cultural instance (spirit; energy; void; chaos)…
  • Only weakly elaborated & defined…
  • Tending towards the same image of smooth space… tend towards infinity..
  • Without actually reaching the point of actual identity



How are we to understand this generalised break-out onto the cosmic continuum? The similar trope of big space and big time. What contributes to its generalisation?

How might it speak to the persuasive power of scientific cosmology?  And to P & A’s anticipation that SC will culturally unify?

What might it tell us about ‘wonderments of cosmos’?


Q. How are we to understand this generalised break-out onto the cosmic continuum?

  • Spreading out of a zeitgeist, (‘spirit of perfect integration’ replaced by ‘spirit of infinite unboundedness’)  ->  ramifying isomorphism  (mystical!)
  • Coincidental convergence of culturally particular scenes upon the common space-time of the infinite (unlikely!)
  • Common image (of break-out into smooth space) permeating & interfering with singular scenic unfoldings…
  • Supplied by deep presence of neo-liberal state -> perennially break-apart, detach & cut loose -> media-scape

A: As decomposition & break-out channelled through the body-politic to component levels/scenes


Q. What might the observation say about the persuasive power of scientific cosmology?

Bears upon the cultural traction of its discourse

High Modernity: post-Copernican cosmology contemporary but not of its time

Elevated but cloistered/marginalized, weak cultural influence

Usurped by philosophies and biologies of earthly Nature

Late Modernity: Post-Copernican cosmology strong cultural influence i.e. Hadron Collider; most recent telescope pictures from outer space; Mars mission; God Particle; Gravity; Sexy presenters: Brian Cox and …; Paralympic opening ceremony)

Metaphorically widespread

A.    Scientific cosmology both contemporary & of its time


Sexy Presenters of Scientific Cosmology

Brian Cox

Brian Cox




Jon Butterworth

Jon Butterworth


Ofer Lahav

Ofer Lahav


Opening ceremony of the Paralympics – Stephen Hawking








Scientific Cosmology (DDT):

Persuades & unifies because it is scientifically accurate? Yes.

Persuades & unifies because it resonates with the cosmic ‘infinitization’ of Society? Yes.

Metaphorically ramifies, hybridizes, becomes hegemonic as a conjunction of the above

P &A: right and unlikely

Increasingly engages not because it is scientifically right – it may be! – but because it culturally connects

What might it tell us about ‘wonderments of cosmos’?

I prefer the word ‘enchantment’..

people are re-oriented, re-born and grown

  • precarious realm of infinite becoming (rather than of complete & finite being). We look out onto the terrifying enormity of cosmos, from the position of the terrifying smallness of ourselves, and from that position we grow.
  • from a cult of Society, agency & the making of History to…
  • a culture of life on the edge, self-mastery and cosmic becoming



Here are some notes from the 2 very fabulous respondents:

First respondent: Donnacha Kirk – researcher in the Astrophysics Department

Says he was already aware of David Birnbaum because their department is constantly bombarded with material from maverick cosmologists. He thinks it would be wrong to be cynical about this, as many scientists are. Even within the university there are too many divisions. It is better for scientists to be open-minded. However what we have to do with all of these theories, if we want to take them seriously, is to subject them to the same rigorous tests as scientific cosmology. This is where, he thinks, the work of people like Birnbaum  falls down. It attempts to be a replacement cosmology, rather than a quasi cosmology, and it just cannot explain the evidence. He’s quite shocked that the theories we have manage to do so well, considering how simple the ingredients are.

However, these theories are perhaps more deserving of the term ‘cosmology’ than the theories in the astrophysics group. A more human and spiritual orientation. Although science has developed in leaps and bounds, there has actually been a huge retrenchment in the ambition of the scientific Cosmologists, since the Renaissance or the scientific revolution. As working scientists we should be happy that our ideas are appropriated and taken out of the sphere of scientific cosmology. We shouldn’t be proprietorial about these concepts. The ideas are going to be taken out in the wider world and applied literally, associatively, metaphorically and imaginatively in the fields of philosophy, religion, literature, art and even music. We can’t get defensive about that, and worry about people getting the physics wrong. But when you step outside and apply these ideas more metaphorically, you have to accept that there’s more than one way to do things. It’s not like an equation where you can derive step 1 from step 2 etc. You have to make an argument.

Because Allen sent him a copy of his notes, he read the Abrams and Primack book and he found it frustrating on many levels, on every page [general laughter from the audience]. it’s well worth reading! They make these ‘arguments’ about the modern description of the universe, and then on the next page they make an ideological or political argument as if it follows directly, and it doesn’t follow directly. It’s an interpretation, which is fine, but they don’t put it like that – they assume that this is the only interpretation from modern cosmology. What they recommend, after all their thinking, are sustainable growth and spending more money on renewable energy – it’s uncanny! A civil rights lawyer and a liberal academic come up with this: it’s almost as if that’s what they believed before they set out and did the exercise! Really it’s just a warmed up version of Carl Sagan’s ‘pale blue dot’ idea.

He shows the famous picture of Earth Rise. The idea is that once we step outside and see our planet from the outside, we should realise we are all in the same situation, on a tiny rock flying through space, and we should get on. he quotes Sagan. Admirable sentiments – Sagan was a political activist – a liberal man in the ’60’s. however Sagan and P&A do not convince that an understanding of the cosmos will radically re-orient you away from the ideas you already had in the first place.

He actually disagrees with Allen’s idea that ideas from modern Cosmology help give rise to a more unified human race  – in fact he thinks the opposite and is more persuaded by the heterogeneous responses. Of course cosmological ideas will have a wider influence on society, but they seem to be used by the wider society as much as changing it. Is the current dark energy/dark matter revolution in cosmology really as significant as the Newtonian revolution (the clockwork universe idea) or the Darwinian revolution? They actually fit quite well within the physics we already have: dark energy can fit within Einstein’s theory. Dark matter looks much like ordinary matter. so it’s an open question whether they’re going to have such a profound influence. But Allen does have quite a strong argument that one way cosmology could permeate the wider consciousness is the idea of ‘big space’ or ‘smooth space’. Capitalism as infinite – the logic of the bubble. Not necessarily a new idea, even if perhaps it is more resonant. We should recognise that this is empty rhetoric – that these economic theories are standing in for real people and real material reality. He believes in these constraints and boundaries -the city in the cage  – whether financial or personal. Can you even afford to participate in extreme sports? Play time for the rich and probably not relevant for the majority of people.  The P and A book have a very frictionless idea of the way we view the world. there’s no violence in the book – no friction, no competition. That is where the ideas of Birnbaum etc fall down – they meet the reality of evidence and they fail, he thinks think mainly because they’re trying to do real cosmology and say how we should live, but they’re restricting themselves to scientific cosmology – ultimately sterile. If you don’t actually engage with fundamental realities then you’re not going to resonate. When a scientific concept is applied to bolster or persuade in a wider cultural sense, it’s going to work best when it respects reality. Working with the constraints.  He thinks modern cosmology will  eventually be brought in to our political and social systems, but we haven’t worked out how to do that yet.


Second respondent: Klaas Hoek, Slade School of Fine Art

The pale blue dot image is still up and he is glad because this is at the centre of one of his own interests in cosmology. When he started coming to the Slade, he found himself in a completely different situation than in Holland, because there the art schools are very separate from other academic disciplines. This is like a playground for him. He began to investigate the role of imagery within the sciences and soon he found out that the question was far too broad, so he narrowed it down to the role played by images in the production and dissemination of knowledge. Sent out a call to all specialists in all fields to make 2 drawings: one about something they make for themself to get their head around something – a problem they’re facing, and the other to show the problem to someone else. Inspired by seeing Watson and Crick’s models of DNA – scientists using similar tools to those used by artists.

He bought a copy of the New Scientist because the headline was ‘New map of the Universe,’ but he was utterly disappointed by this map because it didn’t appeal to his imagination, so he thought he would make his own map. Then he realised that making a map of the universe is first of all mapping the mappers. A map is always a portrait of those who map and their interests. Began to ask people around the university if they were interested in making a map of the universe – collaborators. He likes to think of an art school as a universe in itself, because it covers so many different areas of research. One of the things that intrigues him most is related to the terrifying infinite – what is lacking in most of the images he finds is the ‘horror’. What are the ways of dealing with the horror of this terrifying infinity? Could these quasi-cosmologies  be ways of trying to comfort us against the thought of being completely lost and meaningless and insignificant?

Allen: In truth the terror of infinity lies at the very heart of modernity. These new scenes he’s been talking about are beginning to produce ‘enchanted’ relationships to the terror  .The terror is only terrible to those breaking down in various ways, and they will experience it in different forms. Extreme sport is something he is serious about because people are experimenting with space, time and precariousness. They find the proximity to oblivion enchanting, and the cultural importance is that these ideas spread metaphorically. Scientific cosmology also spreads metaphorically e.g. the black hole of debt within economies. It seems natural for people to think culturally about these things, borrowing these images. Using  quasi-concepts – trying to say something but haven’t quite put their finger on it. Actors playing on the border of infinity – this is where we are now.


There followed more intriguing discussion but you will have to listen to it on the audio – as during the previous 2 seminars we were left with a mind expanding number of ideas to think about later.

Negative Space in the diagrammatic imaginary of science and art. By David Burrows, Slade School of Fine Art

By Lucy M J Calder, on 12 April 2014

Download the audio file HERE.

My presentation addresses objects or events known as black holes. Here, at the outset of this talk, I must stress that my understanding of black holes is gleaned from lectures and books produced to popularize science and astrophysics, and that my knowledge of science and mathematics is limited to say the least.  Rather than attempt to enter into scientific discourse, I will approach black holes from the perspective of art and its related discourses, and concern myself with the representation and presentation of black holes: images and figures that, I suggest, mark out a diagrammatic imaginary, at least in the attempts of scientists to present or translate data for non-specialists but also for each other. By this, I do not mean that a black hole is a work of fiction, I believe they are real enough; rather, black holes are events that force thought into producing a diagrammatic imaginary.

Black hole

Black hole

In this, I follow Michelle Le Doueff’s ideas explored in her book The Philosophical Imaginary. Le Doueff argues that even the most abstract systems of thought can produce an imaginary, her example is Kant’s warning to other philosophers about the dangers of illusion – of venturing beyond the horizon of what is known. Kant issues this warning through the metaphor or allegory of an island surrounded by an ocean. He calls this island, described as having firm ground and unalterable limits, the ‘Land of Truth’; a territory surrounded by a stormy ocean traversed by fog banks and icebergs, the ocean being the natural home of illusion. Importantly, even Kant admits the ‘Land of Truth’ is an enchanting name, a declaration that, as Le Doueff points out, announces seduction to denounce it, while nether-the-less letting the seductive image of the ‘Island of Truth’ continue its enchanting work, as a territory for Kant’s critique of metaphysics and support for his argument for science and philosophy to dwell in the ‘land of understanding rather than wandering of elsewhere’.

It could be debated whether images are necessary for the popularization of ideas and should be paid little attention, as Kant argues; or whether, as Le Doueff suggests, an interest and use of images coupled with a denial of their importance is a negation of the role of an imaginary in critical or scientific thought. But it could also be that certain problems require or solicit images or a diagrammatic imaginary. It could be that islands and oceans, invisible objects or zones with event horizons, spinning accretion discs and astronauts turning into spaghetti are productive images for human thought, that help tie a Real to abstract data or a formal or symbolic language.


Island of Truth and Ocean of Illusion

It could be asked here, why black holes rather than other objects are relevant to a discussion of a diagrammatic imaginary? My answer would be that black holes are only perceived and present to us through a diagrammatic imaginary. Firstly, humans encounter black holes in the mind rather than space (through thought experiments). It is generally accepted that the first recorded appearance of a black hole is in a letter written by John Michell in the 18th century. Michell, after studying the work of Newton, speculated on the existence of a heavenly body, so dense, that not even light could escape its influence, a proposal made a couple of centuries before the instruments to detect the effects of black holes were developed; secondly, singularities such as black holes are not visible to the eye or other optical instruments, or indeed any instrument – they are invisible save for their effects on surrounding matter and space-time; lastly, black holes as singularities, are points where mathematics and physics falter and time-space collapses; and the presentation or representation of such a point, in time and space (on a screen or page of a book), forces a diagrammatic image on the mind I think, if not impossible figures. Western art, a practice I would define as being concerned with the presentation of presentation (that’s my definition of art), may have something to contribute to this discussion but artists may also be confronted and challenged by the speculations of astrophysicists concerning space-time too. In this a tension can be explored between mathemes (lessons in structure or relations, that which can be taught) and pathemes (the affects of structures and relations). This is a tension relating to the different orientations of science and art. But before addressing black holes directly, and by way of expanding on the matheme-patheme relation, I will give a brief introduction to my interest in the wonderments of the cosmos.

Wonderments of the cosmos: A negative view

From the outside, astrophysics seems to be equally a speculative and positivistic sphere of Enlightenment Accelerationism (both in terms of its logical positivism – reality is verified data – and in terms of the thought experiments forced on astrophysicists through contradictions, gaps in knowledge and singularities). More recently though, a number of artists and philosophers have valued science for different reasons; in what has been termed the speculative turn in philosophy and art, or identified as a new materialism or object-orientated-ontology, some have valued science for what they perceive to be its negative or humiliating affects for existing Western values, beliefs and aesthetics. It is the work of Copernicus – his thesis that the Sun does not orbit the Earth, displacing humans from the centre of the universe – that speculative realists draw attention to, as an event that first punctures Western traditions that place humans at the centre of all things. What is of interest here is that science is thought of as a means of thinking an ‘outside’ to human knowledge and experience, a sphere where the finite human encounters an ‘outside’. This is not a Romantic train of thought, at least it is a philosophy declared as realist with designs to collapse or warp subject-object hierarchies or human values and beliefs, or as Reza Negarestani suggests – a philosophy which advocates making oneself a good meal for the universe.

Picture21In the past, space travel produced new ‘off-planet’ perspectives or horizons. Today, I think the problems of astrophysics rather than space travel pose the greatest challenge to human intuitions and habits of thought, not least because astrophysicists continue to popularize the not yet reconciled theories of general relativity and quantum physics, producing strange and counter-intuitive worlds. This is especially true of the realm astrophysicist Kip Thorne calls the warped side of the universe – objects such as black holes that are not exactly matter but singularities consisting of warped and compressed space-time. The questions I have, concern whether a knowledge of the warped side of the universe, like the spectacle of an ‘off-planet’ perspective forty five years ago, engenders 1. new forms of presentation, and 2. new (non)-human orientations.

Beyond the horizon, the diagrammatic imaginary of black hole theory

Black holes are important for contributing to an understanding of the formation our universe and for having the potential to reveal the secrets of matter, space and time. My interest in black holes as already stated is somewhat different, in that black holes register negatively for humans, as limit points, as an outside, as absolute collapse. And I have been interested in what astrophysicists think about the presentation of collapse. Some have a lot to say about this matter.

Picture3Most accounts of black holes in popular science explanations give similar histories for the development of black hole theory, and similar descriptions of singularities. These narratives often offer accounts of orbiting rocket ships observing the fates of astronauts, TVs, kitchens and light-bulbs being swallowed by black holes. Phenomenological and optical affects often being prominent in these accounts.

Many will know that a rotating black hole is thought to be circled by an accretion disc – matter positioned far enough from the collapsed star to escape being dragged to its centre but not far enough away to escape its influence. To any observer outside the black hole, anything falling into the singularity appears to become frozen (in time) and then disappear from the view, the unlucky object or person will have crossed the event horizon of the singularity, beyond which light cannot escape the pull of the collapsed star’s gravity. The astronaut, TV or light-bulb fades to red through the effects of redshift, caused by the object falling towards a star collapsing to near infinite density, a space-time so compressed that the known laws of physics are replaced by quantum gravity laws; laws that are, as the experts say, not understood (yet?).

John Wheeler, who is often credited with coining the term ‘black hole’ asserted that any matter, any information crossing the event horizon of a black hole is lost forever. He famously stated that black holes do not have hair; that is, the only details retained by a black hole about the morsels that cross their event horizons are the mass, charge and angle of the object’s rotation. Not only this, black holes were thought to never decrease in size (Hawking’s law of area increase). I must admit that the idea of a silent, cold monster that receives information without any feedback is a compelling image. However, since the 70s, astrophysicists have accepted that black holes may be white hot, leak radiation and can eventually evaporate, returning information to the universe. Black holes are not so black then. More recently, Stephen Hawking has suggested that there are no event horizons, only apparent horizons, and therefore no black holes (as they were previously understood). Hawking suggests that singularities and their horizons ebb and flow, and change like the weather. Even so, the diagrams of black holes produced by astrophysicists continue to present singular, if ever changing diagrammatic imaginary forms. To be enveloped by the influence of a singularity is to be embraced by a point where space-time does not exist, where a distance from the singularity is impossible, your fate is to be pulverized and possibly returned to the universe in pieces, to become the material for clouds of gas or new bodies.

Picture4Astrophysics, and its popular literature produce vivid images. Very few accounts address the problems of registering invisible events though. The best example I have come across is John Wheeler’s essay Beyond the Black Hole (1978). (I may be ignorant of a great many popular texts, or more up-to-date texts that non-specialists can engage with and that also address this problem, but Wheeler’s text serves to make clear some of the important challenges of registering black holes and quantum events.) Wheeler begins his short essay by drawing an analogy between Einstein and the Duke of Wellington; the latter could guess well enough what the lay of the land was beyond a hill or horizon by observing the surrounding landscape. For Wellington, like Einstein, the increasing strangeness of a landscape indicated that a new terrain lay beyond.

Picture5Wheeler follows this discussion of fathoming horizons with two paradoxes (or horizons) for physics: 1. black holes, in being the most accessible example of the bounds (or limits) of time, is where physics (the eternal laws of matter, space and time) stops, but where physics continues too. 2. In every elementary quantum process the act of observation or registration – the act of observer-participancy – plays an essential part in giving “tangible reality” to that which we say is happening. ‘Paradox number two is this. The universe exists “out there” independent of acts of registration, but the universe does not exist out there independent of acts of registration’.

These paradoxes provoke many questions, not least: what is reality? John Wheeler’s answer is a diagram depicting the letter R, Wheeler explains this diagram through the following statement ‘What we call “reality,” is symbolized by the letter R in the diagram, which consists of an elaborate papier-mache construction of imagination and theory filled in between a few iron posts of observation.’ Wheeler presents a second diagram that compounds this problem. He presents the letter U with an eye perched on one its arms observing the other arm, of which Wheeler writes: The universe viewed as a self-excited circuit – starting small (thin U at upper right), it grows (loop of U) and in time gives rise (upper left) to observer-participancy — which in turn imparts “tangible reality to even the earliest days of the universe.’

Picture6Are we left here with a problem of (tangible) reality for humans being nothing but productions and constructions, or the realization that it is not possible to pass beyond certain horizons, beyond the black hole. Wheeler suggests that there is no prediction that lends itself to a more critical test than that every law of physics, pushed to the extreme, will be found to be statistical and approximate, not mathematically perfect and precise. This principle of uncertainty that is quantum physics gift, leads Wheeler to ask how to proceed with a law without law. A preposterous position, he says, until we remember Einstein becoming a photon, and his thought experiment concerning a man jumping from a building with two cannon balls, all in free-fall. It seems that for Wheeler, the answer to the problem of a law without law – and to the problem of understanding the singularity at the heart of black holes – is not more finely tuned observation but a diagrammatic imaginary. While I have little to offer concerning the theory of quantum physics and general relativity, I have some observations about what I have been calling a diagrammatic imaginary, and diagrams in general.


Towards a negative diagrammatic imaginary

I suggested earlier that Western art can be defined as a practice concerned with the presentation of presentation, and I would add this is one definition of diagrammatic practices too. Furthermore, I suggest that diagrams are common throughout all university disciplines: diagramming is a trans-disciplinary practice.

My understanding of diagrammatology is developed in part from reading Francois Chatelet’s book Figuring Space: Philosophy, Mathematics and Physics (1993, 2000) in which Chatelet defines diagrams as gestures that invite further gestures. In such gestures, Chatelet finds violence; he argues that all diagrams involve a cutting of some kind. Diagrams are the productions of cut-outs, markings or the drawing of zones placed in relation to each other. Chatelet asks, is it possible to strip things of their mobility, to cut them out, circle them, isolate and name them, without leaving a scar?  (An observation could be made here that the singularity of a black hole is precisely a mass stripped of mobility – time and space – a point that very much punctures understanding.) And then, Chatelet asks, after producing cut-outs, can we just add determinations to these figures? Can we add fixed purposes or meanings and functions to abstract figures, (through a second violent gesture) so as to force figures to register with the world of mobile things or rather, our ideas about the world and existence? (A second observation could be made here that black holes resist the attachment of fixed purposes and functions, in that they are governed by a law without law). And Chatelet has a problem with those who would elide or who have contempt for the violence and art of these gestures. (His main target here is set theory.)


Importantly, for Chatelet, diagrams are platforms for thought experiments in which the gestures of diagramming are free of the limitations of the physical world, free to explore what might exist, as a potential or virtual reality. (Here we could think of Hawking, unable to write or draw, producing impossible, multi-dimensional objects in his head.)  A diagrammatic gesture produces motion that not only evades the deadness of abstraction and limitations of extension, but is inexhaustible. He suggests that diagrams are like metaphors but that unlike metaphors, diagrams do not wear out. Chatelet presents four-dimensional diagrams as devices that allow for ambiguity, motion, change; in this, Chatelet’s diagrams are allusive devices, staging spatial negativity.

Spatial negativity is a positional term that attacks extension or actual space; spatial negativity is born by allusive devices described by Chatelet as dialectical balances that become unstable through carrying, in thought, more than ample space. These destabilizing devices produce multiplicity. For dialectical balances do not produce a synthesis of two or more points or dimensions, there is a dialectical immanence rather than synthesis that Chatelet describes as a discovery of an articulation of points, which opens out to (new) dimensions, to which points surge ‘like taking sides’.

Picture9Lastly, before moving on from Chatelet’s discussion of diagrams, I would mention that he has a lot to say about horizons and vanishing points, diagrammatic gestures that allow for an articulation or presentation of objects in space. For Chatelet, horizons are not boundary markers or dotted lines. Once decided upon, they carry everything- they decide everything. Although diagrams with horizons and vanishing points are limited by spatial clichés (to draw a horizon is to master space), Chatelet points out that a metric count of elements deprived of a horizon or vanishing point is trivial (once more, the target is set theory/topology)  – without a horizon, a poor diagram might be produced as a series of units not in space or time – a difference without real difference he writes. Again, when discussing vanishing or horizon points, Chatelet finds violence in these gestures: the problem is that the horizon or vanishing point can never be the point of looking or a viewpoint (it is a blind-spot). It is an inaccessible, densely compressed point, line or surface; a point that is necessary for things to be presented in time and space but a point that remains outside this presentation.  Chatelet suggests that a horizon point is a delicately balanced device, one that creates a pact between 1. an image and its limitations and 2. the forces that can explode the image into multiple dimensions and perspectives. Chatelet then suggests something seemingly impossible, he suggest we place ourselves, not in time and space but in the blind-spot, the horizon point, and explore all possible perspectives. For Chatelet, it was Einstein, among others, who confronted this problem by perching himself on a photon at the horizon of velocity, to accelerate his mind to infinite velocity and therefore understand photons (though he was, Chatelet suggests, still captured by the clichés of mechanics).

Picture11Here, in Chatelet’s call too occupy a vanishing point, we might find a basis for the non-human orientations I introduced earlier, orientations demanded by the warped and condensed side of the universe; that is, viewpoints not outside any event, as a master viewpoint, but at the vanishing point within the event. Chatelet’s challenge demands new art-science assemblages.

Object-orientated-ontology or recent speculative thought and art have similarly sought to occupy this blind spot, this vanishing point. Rather than contemplate that the Real escapes presentation, or that all humans can mark is that which is real for us – a position often called correalationist – they have echoed the sentiments of Wheeler, and attempted to go beyond the black hole, beyond the horizon of human sense and limitations, in a number of ways. But in this, unlike Chatelet, they are not so concerned by the art of the diagrammatic imaginary.

Picture10This seems strange in that an important influence, at least on a number of the protagonists of speculative thought, is Bruno Latour, advocate of actor network theory and critic of modern or enlightenment traditions. Latour’s approach to the subject-object relation (and the social production –natural object relation) is helpful for any discussion of diagrammatic thought. In We have never been modern, Latour argues that the separation of the study of the non-human and the human (a separation of the sciences studying natural object from disciplines concerned with society and its political and cultural representations) produces a ‘modern constitution’ (founded on the purification of objects of study); but that a blind spot is produced too. For in between the two poles of natural objects and societies and subjects, a number of quasi-objects and quasi-subjects are produced: hybrids! Latour gives many examples – including the measurements of Antarctic ice and the ozone layer that mix chemical reactions with political reactions, and cyborgs (noting a debt to Donna Haraway) that might be the quintessential human/non-human – object/subjects. One could add to this list, radiation and gravity waves from the early formation of our universe that have the potential to stir atheist and religious feeling.  More than this, Latour writes of hybrids that have influence – Latour’s famous concept of actor network theory is that objects are actors too. Latour writes that objects that transport information from object to subject sometimes do more than this; they may translate or mediate between object and subject. Latour calls these subject/object hybrids mediators. This does not mean the mediations are false, just that they point to and translate things rather than capture or deliver an event or information.

Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory

Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory

Is it possible then, to see optical telescopes, radio dishes and Laser Interferometer Gravity Wave Observatories (LIGOs) as mediators rather than intermediators (Latour’s term for mere vehicles for information)? In relation to the diagrams of black holes, I am wondering too whether diagrams transport or translate data, carrying or mediating information between object and subject, and subject and subject.

This question becomes even more pertinent with the recent use of computer simulations by astrophysicists. Kip Thorne has suggested that numerical simulations, computer programmes running simulations, count as one of the most important recent developments for astrophysics, resulting in diagrammatic digital animations and figures. (An example is the diagrammatic animation of the event of two black holes.)

Still from digital animation of two black holes colliding

Still from digital animation of two black holes colliding

It seems to me, that in this, black holes are given a positive and optical presence (for obvious reasons, to engender ‘lessons’ on time and space). But, even if, as Thorne suggests, the viewpoint for these figures is from a higher bulk brane dimension – the hyper space that our finite universe without beginning and end might be moving through, a whole new territory opened up by the diagrammatic imaginary of astrophysics – the negative charge of a black hole as a blind-spot (or the art of the mediation of the black hole event) is elided.

Picture16In an essay titled How to be Iconphilic in Art, Science and Religion, Latour offers a provocative, if somewhat unfair comparison to explore this problem. He writes of a group of soil scientists huddled around a map of the Amazon Rain Forest, one points to the centre and says – there it is. Latour compares this photograph with a painting by Fra Angelico (1440). In the painting an angel speaks to the followers of Christ looking into the empty void of Christ’s tomb and says, ‘do not look for the living amongst the dead.‘ Latour is not interested in deconstruction here, among other things he is advocating that images should be understood as pointing to, rather than capturing or representing something. We could ask here, does Latour want us to look at mediators (the map or diagram) as a negative or indexical mark of something, like the space in the empty tomb, the place of the dead? But we could also ask whether he wants mediators to become flesh, to un-pause the image, to press play. To explore this, instead of looking at religious painting we need to look to modern and contemporary art.Picture17

Negative Space: diagrams become flesh!

At the beginning of this talk, I raised the question of whether art had anything to contribute to the problems of presenting black holes or the absolute collapse of the firm ground of the Island of Truth. In conclusion, I will attempt to answer this question – and whether art can contribute to a diagrammatic imaginary and matheme-patheme diagrams for the warped side of the universe. In introducing the pathemic, or indeed visual art that is often made in relation to human senses and concerns, into a discussion about singularites there is a danger that the non-human perspectives of science will be diluted. So this is not a confident move on my part. My gamble is that in modern and recent Western visual art, there is a concern for anti-vision (or at least a negative spatial dialectics that Chatelet calls for): such art attempts to occupy horizon points. Indeed, what draws me to black holes, and to Chatelet’s thought, is that they are concerned with Negative Space in some way – a concept introduced to me in my first week at art school.

Pablo Picasso.  The Studio

Pablo Picasso. The Studio

Negative space is a term used in art relating to the abstract or negative shapes made when drawing figures or positive shapes in a composition. Negative shapes exist in between the positive shapes. In that figurative compositions can be abstracted, negative and positive shapes can change place very quickly. In the first decade of the 20th Century, Cubists demolished Renaissance or master-point perspective (the window on the world perspective) and used their knowledge of negative space to present what they claimed to be four-dimensional images. There is no evidence that the Cubists knew anything about Einstein’s theory of relativity. What is known is that the Cubist discussed the mathematical works of Henri Poincare (important for developing theories of relativity and topology). Poincare was one influence among many for the Cubists who were discussed as producing a new four-dimensional way of seeing. As art historian TJ Clarke points out, the cubists did nothing of the sort but that matters little. The idea of four-dimensional presentations transformed Western art and a formalist approach developed out of the experiments of Cubism that produced figures similar to the allusive devices that Chatelet describes in scientific diagrams. Perhaps the best example is the architectonic works of Luibov Popova.

Lyubov Popova

Lyubov Popova

Her abstract paintings present shapes that appear solid and void and that like particles in quantum superposition theory are fixed only at the point of registration. A decision is called for by such compositions, as the various elements open out to different dimensions and states, to which minds surge, as Chatelet suggests, as if taking sides.

In the 60s and 70s, contemporary to the work of Wheeler, Hawking and Penrose, artists continued to play with the collapsing of figure and ground. In the 60s, Yoyoi Kusama developed her cosmic dot paintings into installations and performances.

Infinity Net.  Yayoi Kusama

Infinity Net. Yayoi Kusama

All her dots, she suggests, are like Suns and Moons, creating a movement and denying the possibility of choosing a horizon point or attaining distance from her work. Her idea is simple, if everything is covered with dots – you, me, others, animals, furniture, buildings and environments – it becomes possible to lose sense of where everything starts or ends in the resulting collapse of figure and ground gestalt. Kusama produces something haptic (a zone where the eye feels rather than sees), akin perhaps to quantum foam. Quantum foam is an invention of John Wheeler to explain the fabric of the universe and the affects of turbulence in particles at the level of sub-atomic time and space. At this incredibly small scale where the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg is thought to rule, energy decays and becomes particles and antiparticles, which cancel each other out. Kusama, as self-proclaimed Priestess of the Church of Obliteration aims to turn us all into quantum foam.

Picture23Contemporary to Kusama, Robert Smithson too staged scenes and performances that play with figure and ground. In Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan (1969) he describes driving through America and never reaching a horizon line – the point where the sky and Earth meet – and then he describes the unusual procedure of cantilevering 12 mirrors in the ground, an act that manifests the sky side by side with the earth (the horizon) at his feet. This mirror displacement was performed many times and the resulting mirror images are described as both timeless and instantaneous. Smithson writes of mirror travel as a collapse of vision and conceives of an anti-vision that registers unconsolidated views that surround a work. Tellingly, Smithson writes that his art practice is a de-creation that could be understood as a presentation of collapse.

Robert Smithson. Mirror Travels in the Yacutan

Robert Smithson. Mirror Travels in the Yacutan

Of his most famous work, Spiral Jetty, (1970) constructed in a Great Salt Lake in Utah, Smithson wrote, ‘To be in the scale of the Spiral Jetty is to be out of it.’ The spiral echoes not just the irregular horizon and landscape but the individual salt crystals that advance along the Spiral Jetty ‘in the manner of a screw.’ In such a way, Smithson contends, the spiral reverberates through space. There is a film that records Smithson running to the centre of the spiral, a performance of which he writes, ‘following the spiral steps we return to our origins, back to some pulpy protoplasm, a floating eye adrift in an antediluvian ocean.’ He describes the red algae, which saturates the Great Lake, as bleeding streaks that merge with the crimson of the Sun burning through his closed eyelids. His eyes became ‘combustion chambers’. He declares that he was on a fault-line that groaned within him. In the film Spiral Jetty Smithson advances towards a vanishing point, before being pulverized and then slowly retracing his path back along the spiral to return to the universe.


Robert Smithson - Spiral Jetty.

Robert Smithson – Spiral Jetty.

(Clip 30 seconds) More recently, Haroon Mizra produced The National Apavilion of Then and Now for the Venice Biennale in 2011. Mirza places the viewer in an echo free chamber with a circle of light that grows brighter as a drone gets louder, only to then plunge the viewer into complete silent and darkness, placing the viewer literally in a vanishing point that ebbs and flows, like an apparent horizon.

(Clip 59 seconds) Lastly, I would like to finish with some thoughts about the diagrammatic imaginary in the digital age. Two former Slade and UCL Graduates, Ed Atkins and Patrick Ward, who are interested in digital imagery, made a film titled Defining Holes and issued something that could be taken as warning for all those hoping to use digital simulations to present singular events and objects, (In this warning there is an echo of both Kant’s and Le Doeuff’s concerns for images). In a statement about the project they wrote:

‘A hole is a parasite from the void… (holes are) negatively charged paradoxes whose nominal existence disguises an essential un-being… Within the (analogue) moving image, holes define the presence of the medium. Those dividing lines that lie between every discrete frame… (are) traversed via an illusionary bridge: the persistence of vision. This impression of movement is an analgesic of ideological potential… Digital video is something else. The appearance of movement is no longer predicated on the recurrence of absence (digital video is not indexical) …there is no movement because there is no matter. The digital is entirely hole, (H-O-L-E) bordered and defined by its own dreamed-of, vacated representations.’

Haroon Mizra.  The National Apavilion of Then and Now

Haroon Mizra. The National Apavilion of Then and Now

To Atkins and Ward perhaps, Kip Thorne’s digital presentations of singularities are themselves holes (presentations absent of any material or indexical trace) circled by a digital diagrammatic imaginary and mediated by software.

To conclude, Chatelet, quoting Schelling, argues that thought is not in the brain or in scientific figures or words but in the morning dew. Just as likely, thought is in the black holes and singularities that force a diagrammatic imaginary, that sends minds racing to an outside beyond visible and human horizons. In this the diagrammatic imaginary and non-human orientations of science might be placed in productive relation with the art that seeks new forms of presentations through a concern for the artifice of mediations, and a feel for negative space.

Wonderments of Cosmos Seminar 2: David Burrows

By Lucy M J Calder, on 19 March 2014

Penrose diagram of a black hole

Penrose diagram of a black hole

Another brilliant seminar on Tuesday 4th March, with David Burrows (Slade school of Fine Art), followed by responses from Dina Gusejnova (UCL History) and Martin Holbraad (UCL Anthropology).

Download the whole seminar (audio)  HERE.

Not only was every place available for this event taken up on Eventbrite, but David invited his students from the Slade along to watch him, which made for a very full room indeed, with students sitting two and three abreast in the aisle between the seats and packed into the floor space at the front.  Apologies for the squash to anyone who was there, but it did help generate a buzz.

David Burrows remains unperturbed by the large crowd and launches into his talk’ entitled Negative Space in the diagrammatic imaginary of science and art. He is, he tells us, going to talk about black holes, but from the perspective of art rather than science. He has a good grasp on the physics, gleaned from popular science books, but he is more concerned with the representation and presentation of black holes. These attempts to present the data through the use of diagrams mark out, he suggests, a ‘diagrammatic imaginary’. Drawing on the work of Kant and the French philosopher Michele Le Doeuff, Burrows proposes that certain problems require or solicit images, and that black holes are particularly relevant because they are ‘only perceived and present to us through a diagrammatic imaginary.’ Human beings can only ever encounter black holes in their minds, through thought experiments, not in actual space.

Beyond the event horizon of a black hole, time and space morph into one another, and physics breaks down at a singularity in the centre, where all mass is apparently crushed to nothing. Even artists, specialists in the ‘presentation of presentation’, are challenged when it comes to presenting this scenario. There is a tension between mathemes  (lessons in structures or relations, that which can be taught) and pathemes (the affects of structures and relations), which relates to the different orientations of science and art.

reality_participatory_universeRecently, philosophers and artists have valued science for its ability to turn the accepted order upside down, from Copernicus pointing out that the Earth isn’t at the centre of the Universe, to the more recent off-planet perspectives engendered by contemporary astrophysics.

Burrows suggests that, like Western art, diagrammatic practices are also concerned with the presentation of presentation. Furthermore, and most relevantly in this seminar, diagramming is a trans-disciplinary practice since diagrams are common throughout all the university disciplines.

We are here introduced to Gilles Chatelet’s book: Figuring Space: Philosophy, Mathematics and Physics (1993), in which the author, a French philosopher and mathematician, ‘defines diagrams as gestures that invite further gestures.’ Chatelet finds violence in the gestures of diagramming and says that these gestures are a means to explore potentialities/ what might eixst. Interestingly, Chatelet points out that the vanishing point in perspective drawings, which is necessary to unify the diagram, is always inaccessible and outside the presentation. However if we place ourselves at this blind horizon point we can explore all possible perspectives. Einstein surely did this when he imagined the world from the point of view of a photon, and proposed an ultimate speed limit for light.

Roden Crater. Credit: James Turrell

Roden Crater. Credit: James Turrell

Bruno Latour’s actor network theory is, said Burrows, also helpful to the discussion of diagrammatic thought. The separation of the study of the human and the non-human has produced a blind spot, in which hybrids come into existence. Diagrams, in mediating data between object and subject, or subject and subject, can be thought of like Latour’s subject/object hybrids.

Black holes can be thought of as horizon points, or blind spots, which can give us a new perspective on the universe, and Burrows asks whether art can contribute to their diagrammatic imaginary. He concludes by talking us through some images of modern and contemporary art, pointing out the common use of the term ‘negative space’ in art school to refer to the spaces between objects. By thinking about these spaces, the artist is better able to compose a drawing. In abstract art, negative and positive spaces can very quickly transpose, and the Cubists of the early 20th century demolished master-point perspective and attempted to produce four-dimensional images.  They were influenced by the mathematician Henri Poincare, if not by Einstein’s recent theories of relativity.

Out of the experiments of the Cubists came the work of artists such as Luibov Popova, whose abstract paintings are, Burrows points out, similar to the allusive devices Chatelet describes in scientific diagrams. Throughout the last century and in to this one, there has continued to be interference between the work of artists and that of scientists. For example, Yayoi Kusama’s cosmic dot paintings play with collapsing figure and ground – the loss of sense of where everything starts and ends – at a time when quantum uncertainty was becoming established in physics.

In a suitably contemporary art manner, I will quote Burrows describing Chatelet quoting Schelling, who (Schelling) ‘argues that thought is not in the brain or in scientific figures or words but in the morning dew. Just as likely, thought is in the black holes and singularities that force a diagrammatic imaginary, that sends minds racing to an outside beyond visible and human horizons. In this the diagrammatic imaginary and non-human orientations of science might be placed in productive relation with the art that seeks new forms of presentations through a concern for the artifice of mediations, and a feel for negative space.’

Download the whole seminar (audio) HERE.

Yayoi Kusama - dots

Yayoi Kusama – dots

By this time there is a palpable sense of intellectual excitement in the crowded room. Dina Gusejnova from the History department stands up next. She notes that the BBC had announced a few weeks ago the headline ‘Black holes do not exist!’, a story based on Stephen Hawking’s recent theory that black holes can exist without definite event horizons, the point at which no information can escape them. What repercussions might the non-existence of black holes have for her, she wonders. They were a beautiful concept of the unknown – necessary as a horizon of limits of thinking, as a foil for what we do know, in a similar way that Malevich’s Black Square relates to one of Renoir’s figurative paintings. But just as Malevich’s painting is showing signs of age, so are black holes. Perhaps they are now in the dustbin of history and Burrow’s talk can be seen as a eulogy for them.

She wants to give three answers to the question: what have black holes done for us, and can we still keep them? And extracts 3 themes from David’s paper. Firstly, black holes are a marker for historians of archaic modernity, the fact that the Enlightenment was never really an Enlightenment and we moderns have never really been modern, as Latour says. Secondly, black holes reveal something about the structure of our imagination. Even if these ones have now been written out of existence, they will be replaced by other and better black holes. Thirdly, black holes might reveal something about visual representation and political representation and about a certain form of utopian thinking.

She goes on to explain these themes more fully, and ends with a question to David: is it better to keep black holes in our minds, even if Stephen Hawking decides to declare them non-existent?!

Burrows says yes. In fact, Hawking has not said there is no such thing as black holes, only that the event horizon is not as imagined by classic General Relativity. So we still have to believe in them, but whether they are useful to us or not is open to debate. In his opinion, what is useful about them is they’re not human –they’re beyond us and we can have no effect on them. Furthermore, the idea that there is no spacetime in a singularity is an incredible idea to think about – it’s an idea that messes with your head!

 A Feynman diagram demonstrating  an annihilation of an electrons (e-)  and a positron (e+) into a photon (γ) that then produces an e+e- pair.

A Feynman diagram demonstrating an annihilation of an electrons (e-) and a positron (e+) into a photon (γ) that then produces an e+e- pair.

Martin Holbraad is the second respondent. He remarks that an underlying concern of this series is the two cultures debate. The worst outcome would be simply to reiterate the old arguments and get no further forward. The idea of negative space and figure-ground reversal where things indexically point at each other, rather than oppose each other, is perhaps a better metaphor to use to compare Ofer’s ‘hard science’ talk last week with the art informed talk we listened to today.

Scientists often make a hierarchical distinction when they talk about knowledge, between science proper and pop science. They make a distinction between physical theories based on observational data, which are esoteric because you need to be able to do the maths, and the metaphorical ways in which these data are conveyed to the wider public. Hard science versus public engagement. Dilwyn Knox drew attention to the historical depth of the metaphors Ofer used to describe the science, but a tendency when presenting the historical depth of these ideas is to think you’re somehow debunking science. In fact the scientist can simply retort that we’ve only debunked the metaphors, not the hard science. Burrows’ argument about the diagrammatic imaginary could suggest a third path, between the metapohric and the mathematical. What scientists deal with are particular forms of conceptualisation: the realm of the thought experiment, which Einstein used so effectively; or conceptual configurations such as the event horizon, compared to the vanishing point in art. Burrows referred to the ‘warped side of the universe’. There is a warping of our own conceptual repertoire when we try to engage in thinking about the universe. Perhaps some working scientists find these kinds of non-scientific appeal to quantum theory etc a bit blithe and tell the non-scientists they don’t know what they’re talking about, but this can feel quite chauvinistic when you’re on the receiving end! What we should do, as non-scientists, is to use these concepts with care, rather than debarring ourselves from using them at all.

2 dimensional representation of a black hole warping spacetime

2 dimensional representation of a black hole warping spacetime

There follows an animated discussion between artists and scientists in the room about how far conceptualisations can act as a bridge between the disciplines.

For example, a particle physicist from the LHC tells Burrows that, while he has enjoyed the talk, it wasn’t about black holes. He himself wouldn’t dare to discuss black holes in public because he doesn’t understand all the theory. To really understand a scientific theory you have to work through the maths, otherwise you can form an image but it’s just not the same thing.

Burrows replies that his talk was more concerned with the diagrammatic imaginary than with black holes. What Chatelet is so good at is he shows, within scientific diagrams, the diagrammatic imaginary at work. Even though he is not going to get to the same level of mathematical understanding as the particle physicist, they can still have a conversation about how they understand the world. He doesn’t think there’s a direct synthesis between science and art. A direct translation is impossible. But scientific endeavours can have much wider effects beyond those they set out to achieve, and here he takes the moon landings as an example.  A University needs opportunities, such as these seminars, where different disciplines can meet, if only to make diagrams that clash.

Wonderments of Cosmos Seminar 1: Professor Ofer Lahav

By Lucy M J Calder, on 6 March 2014

Dark Energy Survey, Dark Energy Camera, DES, DECAM, Cerro Tololo Observatory, Chile. Reidar Hahn, FermilabThe seminar series began in style last Tuesday (February 25) with a brilliant talk by Ofer Lahav ( UCL Physics and Astronomy) describing, among much else, the standard scientific model of Cosmology and its development.

Download the audio for Seminar 1  HERE,

Ofer discussed the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the evidence for Dark Matter, and the supernovae observations in 1998, which are evidence for the accelerating expansion of the universe, pausing here to mention the recent UCL discovery of a supernova in galaxy M82.  He explained how Dark Energy, which has been invoked to explain the universe’s acceleration, is almost exactly equivalent to the cosmological constant (lambda), a term that Einstein added to his general relativity field equations in 1917 to give a static solution, then definitively rejected when Hubble’s evidence showed that the universe is expanding.

The Dark Energy Survey is currently trying to find out a lot more about Dark Energy, and Ofer described some of the methods they are using, and UCL’s contribution to the international collaboration. Another possibility is to reject the idea of Dark Energy altogether and instead modify Einstein’s gravitational theory, and this choice – modify a theory or add a new entity – is quite a common dilemma in the history of physics. Ofer pointed out the possible benefits of scientists working on problems in isolation, as happened during the Cold War, because it can lead to different ways of approaching a problem, or different answers altogether. This point was taken up by Jon Butterworth in his Guardian blog (JB was also at the Seminar) to argue that when isolated scientists come to the same conclusions via different routes (such as the development of quantum electrodynamics), it gives scientists confidence in their theories ( implying, I suspect, that the theories truthfully represent reality).

You can download Professor Lahav’s slides HERE.

Copernicus_modelDilwyn Knox (UCL European Languages, Culture and Society) then bravely refuted everything Ofer (Olaf!) had told us, describing the alternative picture of cosmology in the Renaissance and pointing out that there is no longer any room in modern Cosmology for the individual human being.  In the Renaissance picture the microcosm that is the human is intimately connected to the macrocosm outside, through the medium of the human mind. A fundamental change came about when Giordano Bruno developed the Copernican model into an infinite universe, because infinity is impossible for the human mind to cope with. Dilwyn pointed out that the idea of the Wonderment of the Cosmos is ancient, and people have perhaps always been awed by the universe. Quoting Genesis, he told us that the light created out of darkness on the first day was not visual light as we thing of it, but  ‘intelligible’ light/matter – ‘energy that has not yet been put into motion’ – this could be thought of as equivalent to the Big Bang. In effect, both Renaissance cosmologists and modern physicists are using metaphors as ways to grapple with these mind-bending notions. The old question, of course, is whether our descriptions and mathematical models really correspond to underlying truths. (I leave it to the reader to interpret the terms ‘truth’ and ‘reality’!)

The second respondent, David Napier (UCL Anthropology), acknowledging the challenge posed by an inter-disciplinary discussion on this topic, put forward two possible Anthropological approaches to cosmology:

The first is to think about looking at the sky through a telescope – it’s an empirical process but you are actually looking into the past, without the use of a time machine, and when you think about it this is profound.  Consider our ideas about aliens – we imagine them more like people from other cultures (like us but with alien value systems) than as completely alien beings. In fact, the real study of alien ideas falls to anthropologists, who study different ways of thinking around the world  – or to novelists and writers (e.g Borges, or Edwin Abbott’s ‘Flatland’ [this is a great book, often recommended to undergraduate physics students to start them thinking about reference frames]). Trying to imagine alternative worlds is hard work ‘even at times intriguing and repulsive’ – attaching new ideas to familiar concepts is challenging because we expect to be able to take them for granted.

Planck_CMB ESA and the Planck CollaborationHis second point is that if we want other modes to reshape our thinking about what is possible, ‘they’re out there if we take the time and effort to learn about them’.  He gives the example of Balinese cosmology. The more you know, however, the more you realise what you cannot know. The more you think you know the spatial extent of the universe, the more it alerts you to what is ‘dark’. Real wisdom consists in holding the knowing and not knowing in creative tension. There is value in accepting what we do not know and acknowledging cosmic mystery. How can we understand the infinite not-known based on the finite known? Bertrand Russell gave an example of the increasing feelings of secruity of a well fed chicken in the days leading up to Thanksgiving.  It feels safest just before the slaughter.  Scientists tells us mostly about what we already know, as do economists.. History gets moved by what we do not know, not by what we know.  ‘ The true events that create the future are also those that most revise the past. For that reason dark energy and dark matter do in fact matter, more than we could ever imagine.’

Obviously I’m paraphrasing, and not conveying the humour or the humanity, but you can download the whole seminar HERE, including the thought provoking conversation which followed the speakers.

For example, the first question Prof. Lahav was faced with was ‘what is the difference between astrology and astronomy?’ which isn’t something he has to cope with in the Astrophysics Group. He explained more about the Planck space telescope’s image of the CMB and there was a discussion about the use of examples, models, metaphors; the simplicity of ideas; beauty; time; multiverses; approximations; paradigm shifts; and the inestimable value in independent ways of thinking about the world.

Cosmology concerns us all, as Ian Scott  (UCL Grand Challenges)  reminded us at the end, and we all have the right to think about and comment on these questions.

The sense of excitement in the room was certainly an indication that these are ideas we should be discussing across the disciplines.

Images (from top): Dark Energy Survey, Dark Energy Camera, DES, DECAM, Cerro Tololo Observatory, Chile. Credoit: Reidar Hahn, Fermilab.

Copernicus Model. Credit: Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium

Planck CMB. Credit: ESA and the Planck Collaboration

A Relative Position in Time – an essay by Alison-Violet Mount

By Lucy M J Calder, on 9 February 2014

I felt stuck in time reading my course outline for Temporality Consciousness and Everyday Life and found myself caught in a circular loop moving unstoppably forward, propelled by the evasiveness of time when attempting to identify, what is the problem of time?  I speak of this problem as a problem for cosmologists and as an anthropological object of study.  This essay will put both of these academic fields in a dialogue tracing the trajectory of anthropological thought beginning in the nineteenth century and Western science’s evolving conception of cosmology in three generalized steps.  I do not intend to claim that these analytical shifts are analogous or chronologically paired, but parallel reflections of the positioning of subject or observer within the universe.  Providing three stages of science’s understanding of space-time is the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin.  Smolin has extensively written about quantum cosmology theory and dedicated much of this work to the problems with time.  I will employ Smolin’s three-tiered model to track a condensed evolution of anthropology and scientific cosmology.  The conclusion of this journey will result in a re-positioning of the observer/actor of time as part and whole of the universe.  Thus, time is hence described as a network of relations between temporal reference points of which subject/actors are encompassed by and participating with.  To deliver a materialization of the network I will examine the ethnographic example of a Melanesian framework of time, that Eric Hirsch and Daniele Moretti call, “Universal Past” in their article One Past Many Pasts, Varieties of Historical Holism in Melanesia and the West.  Universal Past connotes an image of an expanding temporality in the employment of the Fuyuge Tribe’s creative force of Tibide, “of the past but also adheres the present” and functions as an example of time as a whole and part of the individual (Hirsch and Moretti 2010: 285).  To conclude, I will return to the problem of time for anthropology.  Nancy Munn in her essay, The Cultural Anthropology of Time: A Critical Essay, makes clear the bound up problematic relationship of time and general theories of anthropology (Munn 1992: 93).  I will highlight her plea for a more comprehensive understanding of time and elucidate this in faults she claims.

1. Aristotelian Revolution and Structural Functionalist Anthropology

The field of anthropology in the nineteenth century identified itself as a scientific authority that was capable of finding and delivering truths about humans (Holbraad 2012: 21).  Beginning with a reflexive evolutionary anthropology claiming a “highly distinctive sociocultural manifestation that was characteristic of the ‘advanced’ societies.” (ibid 21).  This platform of a colonial hierarchical social structure, placed the anthropologists in a position of authoritative knowledge, based on this more ‘advanced’ position in society, ‘advanced’ relative to the primitive society in question.  Anthropologists were put on a pedestal above the natural/cultural worlds of their informants, as they believed to possess an advantaged knowledge of truth.  The more ‘advanced’ the society on a progressive evolutionary model determined by the anthropologist, the closer one was to truth-claims, (ibid 22).  Moving into the twentieth century signified a shift from naturalist evolutionary anthropology to the school of structural functionalism.

Structural functionalism formulated a top down approach that saw social structures functioning to maintain the whole, the whole symbolic of society.  This maintenance of shared values and norms constituted a social space of reality above biological forms, a privileged space of social constructed phenomena.  As previously stated in the introduction, I am not attempting to track parallel chronological trajectories between science and anthropology, but rather mirror how our scientific perceptions of time follow similar evolutionary patterns to anthropological understandings of society, specifically the placement of subject/actor.  The Aristotelian Revolution began in 350 BC with Aristotle and culminated with Ptolemy in 150 AD (Smolin 2005).  The ancient Greek understanding of space-time grew out of a hierarchical universe and a steady, finite Aristotelian cosmology.  An Aristotelian cosmology conceived of concentric, celestial rotating spheres, placing earth at the centre equidistant and surrounded by the heavens.  In Figure 1 I have depicted visually the similarities to the meta-social space established in structural functionalist anthropology and the essential, eternal Aristotelian celestial sphere acting and influencing outside the earth, making changes ‘below’.  The Aristotelian cosmology governed by a structured hierarchy belonging to a moral code of celestial spheres, the closer an earthly being was to heaven the closer they were to transparent truth (Smolin 2005).  Anthropological theories of structural functionalism also valued absolutes preserving social structures as building blocks of society.  What I would like to illuminate in both instances is the failure of accommodating or being able to account for social change.  As both eternal absolute governing structures lack the flexibility of change, not taking a strong account of cognitive actors.  I would propose this is a result of the position of the subject/actor outside or below the regulating forces.


2. Newtonian Revolution and Structural Anthropology

With the introduction of Newtonian physics a more liberal universe was built on the supposition of an absolute, infinite, eternal time.  Historically, the Newtonian revolution is measured as starting with Copernicus in 1542 until Newton in 1687 (Smolin 2005).  Newtonian physics recognized and put primary time’s functional properties.  However, different to Aristotelian cosmology, these laws had less religious implications.  A universal time was named and the earth was no longer centrally and symmetrically located in celestial heavens.  Newtonian physics was opened up by a burgeoning globalized world that was becoming self-aware and developing a locus for the earth in relation to the universe.  Time was an absolute progression against which all change was measured, a background that defined where things are and how they move, a perpetual motion of bodies in a mechanical system subject to Newtonian laws (Smolin 2005).  Reversible and Irreversible time were laws of two corresponding categories that dictated motion and time.  Realized in a time continuum that theoretically is a process that can (or could) proceed equally well either in the forward or the reverse temporal directions.  To an anthropologist, this might start to resemble two binary oppositions; from which the theory of time is grounded.  Structural anthropology was a theory led by Claude Lévi-Strauss, who introduced binary codes as a fundamental structure of the human mind.  Structural anthropology was committed to the idea every subject could be understood universally in terms of binary oppositions.  Departing from structural functionalism that was seeking out structures in the social systems themselves, structural anthropology sought to examine the cognitive effect on social structure, resulting in a bottom up approach.  These binaries were a system of differences that create a code, the code allowing for different possibilities of expression.  Allowing one to look at the underlying structure that provided the coordinates.  The connection I wish to draw between Newtonian physics and structural anthropology is the actor’s position universally (Figure 2).  Scientifically, we have Newton’s liberal universe of equal atoms and actors functioning against an absolute backdrop of time.  Anthropologically speaking, structural thought classifies subjects in universal codes of binary opposition.


3. Quantum Cosmology and Recursive Anthropology

Over one hundred years on from Einstein’s theory of relativity time-space is still considered to be a relational and pluralist universe.  There is no absolute meaning to time, only relative positioning, time as a measuring of relationships of events (Smolin 2005).  But, the relativity revolution has not ended, nor time, something we have come to fully understand.  Lee Smolin has proposed the problem with time in quantum cosmology theories is not with time, but with assumptions that led to the conclusion there is a problem.  Smolin argues that the state of accessible space that is constructed as the universe evolves, is expanding out from an initial state where time and causality are built in at the fundamental level (Smolin and Kauffman 1997: 5).  Please refer to Figure 3 for a visual interpretation.  Traditionally, in the quantum theory of cosmology it is required to have a “non-constructable procedure to define its formal setting” (Smolin and Kauffman 1997: 2), meaning a function that sets up the universe outside of the universe – outside of the physicist.  In simplified terms: by imaging the non-constructive procedure as a meta-space outside the physicist’s reach that sets the stage with what scientifically/mathematically we are working with.  Time is employed as one of these functions, resulting in the disappearance of time in quantum theories of cosmology (ibid 3).  Classically, these configurations of space – a system assumed to be a subsystem of the universe – start to sound like an echo of the Aristotelian revolution.  But, try to imagine if as if there is clock outside the system (space), carried by an observer.  Now imagine if we did not have this observer and the external clock, time would not exist or would disappear.

Time is in fact represented in the description, but it is not in any sense a time that is associated with the system itself (subsystem of the universe). Instead, the t in ordinary classical mechanics refers to a clock carried by an inertial observer, which is not part of the dynamical system being modelled…instead the problem is postponed, as what is represented is time as marked by a clock that exists outside f the physical system which is modelled by the trajectories in the configuration space C.
(Smolin and Kauffman 1997: 3).

The key message I want to extract from Smolin’s discussion is the call to repositioning the observer of time, time as part of the universe. Upon reading Smolin’s article I immediately time traveled to Martin Holbraad’s book, Truth in Motion, in which Holbraad makes a call for recursive anthropology. Recursive, understood as the function being defined is applied within its own definition. More specifically, in an anthropological discourse, recursive anthropology identifies a problem of anthropology that is not of the anthropologist, but the conventions of distinction in anthropology. For example, between nature and culture. To solve the problem Holbraad suggests to ‘”pursue an ‘internal’ anthropological critique of that distinction in order to reframe the question…” (Holbraad 2012: 34). In the act of recursivity it is asked that assumptions deteriorate and a re-identification of the anthropologists ensues. Anthropologists are put back into the network. In other words, to have the subject/observer recognized as part of the society/universe. In this relational view the observer can be expressed as follows, “any observer may carry any clock, no principle why we should have the same time…”, it is about relationships we are having in and with the network (Smolin: 2005). When discussing this observer of the universe as in and a part of the universe she/he is labeled a ‘partial observer’. Partial, because the observer’s information concerns a part of the universe excluding them and because the observer must interact with it (Smolin 2005). What is excluded in the universe from the partial observer is what cannot be seen. Coming back to recursive anthropology and to grasp this concept I correlate it to Marilyn Strathern’s notion of partial connections. The main point being, that the world is always both a container and what is the container (Strathern 2005). Therefore, we cannot see it all at once. Now that we have come to a point in space-time described as temporal relations, I would like to draw upon an ethnographic example from the article One Past and Many Pasts, written by Eric Hirsch and and Daniele Moretti, implementing their model of a Melanesian Universal Past, specifically The Fuyuge tribe of the Udabe Valley. Hirsch and Moretti’s analysis of Universal Past relies not on individual stories or pasts against a backdrop of time, but are formed through a network of connections and reconnections.

The following section will materialize quantum physics’ theory of time as relative positioning, a measure of relationships, in the context of a Melanesian Universal Past.  The actors of Melanesian Universal Past are partial observers, made up of partial connections in a Stratherean sense.  In the article, Hirsch and Moretti categorize the actors in Wagner’s term of a ‘fractal person’ to establish this – “the person as an image composed of, and enchained with, other persons… (Hirsch and Moretti 2010: 285).  The fractal person is compared with Tidibe, a creative force that is not only of the past, but also inheres in the preset.  Tidibe is an original unity or whole from which all is differentiated (Hirsch and Moretti 2010: 285).  It is concurrently one and many: one past and many pasts.  In the Fuyuge, Tidibe contains you and defines you, at once a whole and part of (Hirsch and Moretti 2010: 286).  The connective network of Tidibe functions within a network of multiple narratives, growing exponentially through ‘associated transformations’ the network of past and future connections are made, re-made and develop outwards as a constructed whole.  As connections are forged, or in the Melanesian sense, connections reconnected, the Tibide force evolves and expands.  In Figure 3/4 I have poached the model of Smolin’s theory of time and causality as fundamental state, of which a state of accessible space is constructed through evolution.  This has been drawn alongside a visual interpretation the Melanesian foundational force of Tibide; the figure-ground holistic approach or origin of temporal networks of increasing complexity of relationships.  Upon immersing myself in both visual fields I came to the bold conclusion that what Hirsch and Moretti describe as Universal Past, I would call Melanesian Entropy.  Entropy as defined in the field of cosmology as a constantly increasing universe, energy can never decrease nor increase, where irreversibility is impossible (Smolin 2005).  Hirsch and Moretti’s Melanesian Universal Past is entropic in that Tibide’s system of reconnections has been created and remains constant and only re-imagined, just as the universe’s energy cannot be created or destroyed but only altered through distribution (Smolin 2005).  Universal Past turns away from individuality and focuses on a network of multiplicity, sustained by the expanding number of particular accounts that are continually produced to create a whole.    Tibide is everything the Fuyuge know, where they inhabit, and all possibilities beyond perceptual boundaries, comparable to the reality of the infinite possibilities of accessible space of the universe (Hirsch and Moretti 2010: 285).  In focusing on these relationships, it is not my intention to try and fit a Melanesian concept within Western science, nor claiming universal understandings of time as complex and expanding networks.  I simply want to demonstrate another rendering of time as temporal events and persons all connected through a relative network and how the position of the partial observer or fractural person is not only made up of the network but contained by it as well.

AVMFIG3_4 Nancy Munn’s review of the cultural anthropology of time brings us back full circle to my original query of time.  In her article, The Cultural Anthropology of Time: A Critical Essay, typifies this problem in anthropology in claiming the problem of time is inextricably bound up in anthropological discourse (Munn 1992: 93).  Munn first touches this in her faulting of Western theory to “frequently treat space as time’s antithetical ‘Other’, time’s Other turns out somewhat embarrassingly to be its Other Self” (Munn 1992: 94).  Munn blames anthropology for objectifying cultural time and judging whether or not it adequately represents temporal processes excluded from them:

…cultural time consists of fixed concepts of time that may or may not, in the author’s view, adequately represent the temporal process excluded from them. In short, cultural time is not itself viewed as temporal. These frameworks are not merely simplified; at the minimum, they cannot take account of the problem that people are ‘in’ cultural time, not just conceiving it or perceiving it.
(Munn 1992: 100)

The key word is excluded.  Space and time are integral to each other.  When we are in time, we are in space, not outside of it.  It is not one or the other but “Other Self”, recalling the Melanesian fractal person.  Munn’s writing asks to give truth-value to any cultural time, marking a recursive revision.  Holbraad states that ‘the ability to uphold a claim to truth” is essential to recursive anthropology by ‘transgressing representationalist assumptions so to arrive at a different concept of truth altogether” (Holbraad 2012: 53).  In Munn’s case this would translate to a different concept of time.

The beginning of this essay began with a question I have not, nor attempted to answer.  My cyclical loop of investigation is still moving directionally forward along a time-causality continuum.  Despite this, my goal of following the evolution of thought between Western science’s cosmology theories and schools of anthropological thought was to unravel a possible associative evolution with how as humans we have come to position ourselves in the universe, and how as humans we have come to place ourselves in the world.  These positions and places exist spatially and temporally situate us, as subjects/actors within and a part of time.  Time is not only experienced immediately but infinitely, a becoming through networks being in time as relations from and between themselves and temporal reference points (Munn 1992: 104).   Anthropology is in a unique position to understand cultural time in a temporal sense; respecting that time is not perceived, rather subjects/actors are in the network, not outside, above or removed from exponentially growing temporal relations.


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