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About the AuthorCynthia Houng is a graduate student in Princeton University's History of Science program. In her spare time, she writes about flowers and things.
Contactchoung //at// princeton [dot] edu
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10 Things // I’m Reading Now1. Michael Fried, The Moment of Caravaggio // 2. Francis Haskell, Patrons and Painters // 3. Louise Gluck, The Wild Iris // 4. Heidegger, Being and Time // 5. Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence // 6. T J. Clark, The Sight of Death // 7. Lorenzo Valla, On the Donation of Constantine // 8. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception // 9. Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World // 10. Paul Celan, The Meridian
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How to get an elephant into a museum: installing new work at MASS MoCA. Photograph stolen from the MASS MoCA website.
Some day, I will have walls of books, too. Though I’d prefer it if the books were shelved “library style,” and organized with LOC call numbers.
That some day, by the way, is almost here. My library is growing at an alarming rate. One of the consequences of graduate school.
Photograph by Todd Selby, “borrowed” from http://www.theselby.com/
Thanks to Pixar’s Cereal Bar video, we have definitive proof that cereal fuels creativity. But what do other creative types choose to eat? Wendy McNaughton was moved to create this illustration (for the New York Times) after she began investigating the “snacks of the great scribblers.”
Marcel Proust and I share the same penchant for espresso — and like Proust, I often write in bed, though unlike Proust, I do not insist on writing everything out on tiny slips of paper. I do still write in longhand, but since I type everything up, all of those longhand sentences wind up converted to 0′s and 1′s, and the scribbled sheets wind up in the recycling bin, along with the egg crates, cereal boxes, and discarded mail-order catalogs.
An Installator moment, if there ever was one. Photograph by Andy Freeberg. See more photographs from the “Art Fare” series on the New Yorker website.
Drawing as a Daily Practice: Jason Polan’s “Things I Saw” & Kate Bingaman-Burt’s “Daily Purchase Drawings”
Drawing, as a daily practice, serves as a means of recording those experiences that would otherwise pass, unremarked, from experience to oblivion. These two artists have produced a kind of micro-microhistory in pictures, a record of the quotidian and mundane things that drift in and out our daily stream of consciousness.
These are the things that populate our optical unconscious. They are the fragments that cannot be categorized. This is the substance of everyday life, the material that constitutes the history of daily life, or what historians call Alltagsgeschichte.
When I describe these drawings as being, somehow, part of the practice of everyday life, I am, of course, referencing Michel de Certeau’s influential Practice of Everyday Life, first published in France in 1980, with an English edition quickly following, in 1984. In a world bounded by capitalism and consumption, de Certeau argued passionately for the possibility of an “oppositional practice of everyday life.”
It is no accident that there is something mystical about de Certeau’s vision of an oppositional practice of everyday life that would spring out of individual experience, that the individual’s power of memory and narrative could reach out, beyond the boundaries of selfhood, and accomplish something sublime. De Certeau’s own Jesuit background, as well as his interest in Catholic mysticism, his sympathy for figures such as Teresa of Avila, who practiced “the art of the weak”–the art of transforming the quotidian experiences of everyday life into something powerful and sublime–shaped his sense of possibility, of the power of individual resistance in the face of power.
De Certeau’s insistence, in The Practice of Everyday Life, that we take “story” and “narrative” seriously, takes us back to that space created by the triangulation of experience, memory, and creativity. “Everyday narration” is, itself, a form of resistance, the practice contains the seeds of something uncontrollable and carnivalesque, something that threatens to escape society’s governing logic.
This might all be too much theory, too much expectation, to place upon two sets of rather slight line drawings, which seem more concerned with the play between object and representation, or sign and thing. But there is something about the quixotic nature of recording, over and over, the embodied nature of our everyday experience, that feels especially poignant. There is something futile about this practice–how the self, in these drawings, becomes just an accretion of things. Things seen, things consumed, things advertised for consumption–where is the possibility of transcendence? Whatever I do, however I do it–unless I embrace, as Simone Weil did, the radical negation of consumption, I remain forever immanent (at least, until my death), wrapped in this cycle of thing after thing after thing.
Given that I spend large amounts of my life on the computer, I should probably construct an altar to honor Alan Turing, one of the grand dons of computer science and artificial intelligence. I grew up hearing all about Turing’s brilliance as a mathematician, his cryptography work for the British government (the story of how Turing cracked Enigma is a wonderful one, and worthy of its own space), and, of course, the impact that Turing Machines had upon computing and computer science.
What I did not know, however, was that Turing received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1938. At Princeton, Turing was part of a luminous group of mathematicians that included Alonzo Church, Kurt Gödel, John von Neumann, and Stephen Kleene. At Princeton, Turing’s advisor was Alonzo Church, but it was von Neumann who implemented Turing’s ideas. Von Neumann recognized the potential of Turing’s theories and built MANIAC, a machine usually described as “the world’s first computer”–and one could fairly describe MANIAC as the ancestor of my sleek MacBook.
It is amusing to think that I run past the Institute of Advanced Studies, the place where von Neumann and his team built MANIAC, on a regular basis.
It is also amusing to think that one of the first computer programmers was a woman, Klára (Klari) Dán Von Neumann.
Tonight, taking a break from studying for general exams, I took a moment to examine the original, typed manuscript of Turing’s dissertation, on display in Firestone Library’s atrium.
Turing’s dissertation is titled “Systems of Logic Based on Ordinals,” and it is full of pen-and-ink notations, mostly in Turing’s own hand.
Today, typographers spend a great deal of time trying to replicate the “analog” aesthetic of Turing’s typed manuscript. Though Turing and his colleagues could not have imagined, I think, the look and feel, the aesthetic, of living in this “digital” world.
Princeton is a strange place for a Renaissance historian. I often have the sense that I am floating across centuries. Tonight I am “writing” (really, typing) texts about works whose materiality (as oil on canvas, or iron-gall ink on cotton-rag paper, or watercolor on vellum) has been suppressed, because we now know them largely as digital images stored–and accessed–on sleek, cold machines. (My workaday laptop is faster and more complex (and yet more minimal) than any iteration of von Neumann’s MANIAC.) And here I sit, looking at digital images of 16th century drawings, and saving “text” to some abstract storage space. My thoughts “materialize” on my screen as text, and that text takes shape as a font designed to resemble the old die-struck fonts that were once pervasive before digital typesetting changed the mechanics of print.
Fragments of our former world always remain with us, and so the analog world continues to resurface, in unexpected ways, in the digital realm.