Poorly Exposed II

Humanities class assignment at The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), instructor Jill Vesci, 2013

  1. What is the state of recognizably in a context of cultural nostalgia?
  2. What can be done about this in relation to extant moments of cultural cohesion to the ends that new understands can be brought forward?
  3. How might the human-centrist approach of art before the rise of blatant abstraction be turned against itself?
  4. Can the abilities of Photoshop, employed widely to enhance the reality of surreal imagery, be underwritten in a move towards irreality?
  5. What is the glitch in terms of a methodology for cultural cannibalism?

An Encyclopedia of Estrangement

The Encyclopedia was traditionally perceived as the seminal collection of information. Its intent was to gather and to distill all that was humanly approachable. Unfortunately, it has failed. In its place, we find a destitute book, stranded on the edge of human bias and conditional perception. We have found that at the end of our abilities, it was not possible for us to escape the lives which we lead.

It is in this context that I propose a new Encyclopedia. Instead of skirting the eventualities of the human experience, this edition not only takes advantage of our perceptual shortcomings but harnesses them. Where Diderot failed at avoiding the ultimate human desire to cast his or herself onto the world, a kind of sadomasochistic solipsism emerges which allows us to skew everything within grasp. If indeed the Encyclopedia’s efforts are in vain eventually to crumble at man’s handicaps, why not harness the freedom allotted to us? This is the Encyclopedia [of Human Foibles]. In a world which we by very nature see eschewed by our desires, contemplations and assumptions, why not create the literal embodiment of our blindness? Anachronism, bias and stereotype must be embraced as the de facto human perspectives onto the self-centered world we rule. Paradoxically to intents we must accept that the encyclopedia perhaps best transcribes our contemporary biases onto stone. It gives them the permanence they might otherwise have escaped in the bowels of time.

Though the possible lenses by which we might achieve this vantage point of distortion are manifold, I choose for this occasion the blur as a methodology for escapism. In estranging the present from what we understand, swept away in a Gaussian perception of reality, we might more appropriately approach the understanding purported by the Encyclopedia, because we will come to terms with our own biases. In the most literal way, the blur removes the recognizability which we seek in something like an encyclopedia. Inasmuch as it removes the clarity of the image before us, it plays on our assumptions and perceptions.

Upon searching out an article in the Encyclopedia, we seek the most direct and unbiased recollection of information possible, yet before us we find only the culmination of one specific contingency. Where Diderot seeks to define “intolerance”, he quickly engages a barrage against religion. Likewise, Blondel entraps himself in a definition of “architecture” which decries the Roman technique as an “imperfect imitation” of earlier Greek traditions. Clearly, we are incapable of inscribing without perversion by truths we see in the world. Thus it seems natural that we lust for a collection of ruined images, both serving to question our assumptions and judgments and to reveal through some abstraction the qualities we may previously have foregone at the hands of our own vices.

This having been approached, we arrive at the untimely understanding of our own boundaries. By this point, we must then begin to ascertain the realities of our presumptions. Here, at the fulcrum by which Diderot prescribed himself to the failures of his own ways, we actively remove ourselves from the contexts in which we exist. Finally, we might at the least hope to approach in a novel method the inexactness of our world. Quantitative answers for so long readily supported our comprehensions, but it has become too evident that they can no longer form the foundations of a body of knowledge in an age so richly imbued by various understandings and innumerable contextualities.

The blur destroys “us”. It posits to glitch the one-to-one methodology by which we typically engage our surroundings. Prerequisite comprehensions and assumptions are both rendered null. This is the keystone of a proposed new encyclopedia, the final codification of our accepted shortcomings.

On Shortcomings in the Encyclopedia

Denis Diderot’s entry under “Encyclopedia” begins in perhaps the most predictably banal way, reciting the etymology of the very word. This established, his description continues for a short bout without note. It is then that Diderot stumbles, his written infant in arm, down a truly problematic path. In describing the ends of the accumulated work procured and curated by Diderot and others, false perceptions are quick to arise. In the proclamation that the encyclopedia ought to inscribe the teachings of their age for the virtuous progression of humanity in the approaching future, Diderot et al go forth supposedly without bias on subjects which inherently cannot exist outside conjecture. Their encyclopedia sought to become, as they saw it, the closest embodiment of the scientific method within the humanities, a ubiquitous categorization of all things to the ends that man might progress himself, but can we truly prescribe such subjective subjects to objective clarification? How is one to write about things so imbedded within his understanding without physically removing himself from his own realities?

As expected, the otherwise well intentioned attempt to index all that surrounded them ended in a bias representation of one method by which we might review the world. Human foibles reestablished a vantage point on the world once again which collapsed at their hefty foundations. While simpler definitions with quantitative characteristics stayed within tangible grasp to the ways of the encyclopedia, larger ideas or politically sensitive groups fell victim to circumstantial, intentional and subconscious biases. That is to say, Diderot could not achieve the inhuman task required by his endeavor. He could not remove himself from his present. Thus, he became entangled within it. Like the eagle which plucked at Prometheus’ chest in punishment for his attempt to bring advancement, Diderot’s own circumstantial perceptions rip the guts from his logic, incarcerated forever to the biases of his times.

It is often to this fate that our endeavors are subjected. Without formally approaching ourselves form a perspective completely estranged from everything we are familiar with, we are inherently unable to objectively view a single object within our world. A fitting example can be found in the initial contact between the indigenous American civilizations and the early European explorers. As was the case for Diderot, the conquistadors, British parties and natives alike, among others, brought upon their encounter perceptions long held to be intrinsic. When the Aztec civilization mistook at first the arrival of Cortés for the descent of their Gods following a then recent prediction of a catastrophic event to come, they saw the present through a lens prescribed to their civilization. Without doubt, the misrepresentation of the event would prove disastrous. Similarly, early British parties along the East Coast found themselves insulted at the Natives’ traditions about ownership and possession. These misreadings can only be attributed to human nature. Inherently, they were powerless to see anything but that which they already knew. Perhaps then, this initial contact between the West and those living for centuries in the American continents demonstrates the necessary estrangement by which one might face himself. Both civilizations offered each other a trope, a mirror into which their gazes could cast back exactly what they quite obviously had missed in themselves.

This taken into account, it is possible to underwrite the purpose of the encyclopedia. Once the collector of knowledge possible for the progression of mankind, we might now experience it with new eyes to be the literal inscription of our woes. While whimsical infractions in the straightforward recodring of definitions might pass us by, larger issues spring forth from Diderot’s efforts, such as the ascription of slavery to the “weakness of white men” in the harsh North American Climate (Le Romain). In so doing, the encyclopedia both gave into its own temptations and failed to perceive the greater forces at work around it. A predetermined exemplification of the more unrefined notions of its day, the accumulated work functions far better as a highly reflective mirror than a time capsule. Rather than offering a mechanism around which the lives of men could organize for the future, the Encyclopledia seems to codify existing beliefs under an improvised system. Whereas the scientific method held the possibility checks and possible repudiation in new findings within the realms of natural studies, the humanities became prey for intellectual stagnation and societal solidification when inscribed within the Encyclopedia.

This effect, in turn, fed a paradoxical loop of logic which seems inherent in both the work of Diderot and that of the larger Enlightenment. Instead of offering solutions ad infintium, the work and its respective movement altered the ways by which society looked at the world before it. Although this allowed for temporary progress, it could be noted that the adherence to the methodologies taken up during the Enlightenment, many of which Diderot went to such lengths to codify, would set into play the stagnation of the society’s perception of itself. Just as the encyclopedia inscribes a false justification to slavery in North America, the general movement would simply shift the powers already in play, rather than redefining explicitly any ethos. If the Enlightenment had been truly potent in shifting the perceptions of mankind within his world, the innumerable travesties which followed it would have been avoided. Such events as the First and Second World Wars doubtlessly provide evidence that the Enlightenment failed to change the inherent state of man.

Perhaps it is this threshold which crippled Diderot’s Encyclopledia. Although simpler definitions were adequate to be inscribed, more complex topics failed the straightforward translation without serious incredulities. In the end, the lofty goals of both the Englightment and Diderot alike may have outpaced the glass ceiling of human nature which existed before them. They were unable to escape the intrinsic nature of man’s eye, blinded to only the things which they had already seen. Although the French Revolution and the development of the scientific method at the time seem to have managed to estrange Western Civilization enough that it was able to contemplate slightly on its own existence, they clearly failed the make the seminal jump by which true advancement might have taken place. While the methods by which human society worked were indeed in flux, their outcomes would still be bound to the rules already in place.

Works Cited

Blondel, Jacques-François. “Architecture.” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Reed Benhamou. Ann Arbor: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. Web. 20 October 2013.

Diderot, Denis. “Intolerance.” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Philip Whalen. Ann Arbor: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library, 2002. Web. 28 October 2013.

Le Romain, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre. “Negroes.” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Pamela Cheek. Ann Arbor: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. Web 30 October 2013.