Monday, 17 September 2012

Comic Books, Glove Puppets and Metaphors

I've always been a fan of comic books. From the Beano when I was under 10, to 2000AD, Spiderman, X-Men and Batman in my teenage years (and beyond!). I was 15 years old when I encountered a house brick of a graphic novel (as 'grown up' comic books are pretentiously referred to by the broadsheets) called 'From Hell' by a writer called Alan Moore. I didn't make it past the first chapter, returning to the relative safety of Gotham and Mega City One.

I attempted From Hell again around five years later and, despite an initial struggle, managed to wade my way through it, holding on to the convoluted narrative for dear life. It took three readings to begin to grasp this astoundingly complex and intricately researched work.
I'm not particularly interested in this becoming anything as bland as a book review, but this work led on to my discovering Moore's other work such as 'Watchmen,' 'V for Vendetta,' and 'Promethea,' and it turns out I probably started with his least accessible text.

Each work is breathtaking in its complexity; complexity which could only be achieved in the comic book medium. Each frame is loaded with information and symbolism easily overlooked yet subtly affecting your reading experience.

This passing interest led to a viewing of the documentary 'The Mindscape of Alan Moore' which I found to be a revelation. Not only is Moore an unparalleled story writer he is a political theoretician, subversive social philosopher and occult icon.
Describing himself as a magician, he explains that magic is the manipulation of symbols to affect people's minds and our barrier to it lies on the mystification of certain semantics (casting a spell is literally spelling, a grimoire is the Latin for grammar, etc). All art, he claims, is magic and has the ability to subvert and change the world for the better, yet this 'magic' is only utilised these days by big business and advertisers.

Moore subscribes to the notion discussed in my previous post of the manifestation of the 'real' world through metaphor and symbolism alone. He discusses the alchemical notion of 'solve e coagulum,' or 'dissolve and coagulate.' This is much the same as Ian McGilchrist's concept of abstraction and metaphor; understanding the world by isolating objects for ease of digestion then reintegrating them into context in order to create a view of the world (I discussed this subject in my undergrad thesis under the banner of 'abstraction and empathy,' put forward by early 20th century art historian Wilhelm Worringer. See appendix 1 of my postgrad thesis). This view of the world becomes a religion, be it spiritual (Christianity, Islam, etc), or political (conservatism, Marxism, etc), anything capable of developing dogmas. All claims to knowledge such as this, according to Moore, are ridiculous; this explains his decision to worship the snake god Glycon, a deity exposed as a glove puppet in the 2nd century.

Now I understand a bit about Moore's approach to the nature of reality I can see this reflected in his work. The depth of symbolism which underlies a story like Watchmen, a story which could be read on the surface as a superhero exploitation comic, lends it a profundity which can be translated and retranslated; challenging the reader in countless ways.

I didn't expect to draw such inspiration from my love of comics. Perhaps I'm becoming so intellectually warped I'm finding these patterns everywhere. 

This, however, feels fairly apt. Perhaps, like agent Aldo Sax, I'm developing 'high abstract patterning skills.' I fucking hope so!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

'The Destruction of Architecture' a criticism

Before starting my PhD I thought it might be a good idea to revisit my Masters dissertation (full text here, PDF format), the piece of writing which made concrete desire to take on a doctorate.
I now see I really missed the point! I spent the majority of the writing combining the thoughts of three diverse thinkers into an alternative view of society and then resorted to an irritatingly architectural language in the closing sections which is still based on the reliance on an objective reality, something which I thought I had discarded in the preceding chapters. Perhaps I only realise this now as I've had time to overthink these concepts.

Ian McGilchrist's 'The Master and His Emissary' allowed me to view and expand on the Heideggerian model which my original text relied on. McGilchrist explains that there are two main modes of thinking, illustrated by the 'left brain-right brain' cliché (this is only used to illustrate his ideas; while some brain functions are localised to the brain's hemispheres they are not a prescribed as this now debunked archaic paradigm). These modes of thinking can be described as 'abstraction' and 'metaphor.' Abstraction breaks our world down into discrete chunks we can understand, wresting theses 'bits' from their context, perceiving them in isolation. The alternative mode does the opposite. It looks at the entire picture and sees the connection between things. It manifests through metaphor and creativity.

The revelation of this text was that abstraction, despite it's apparent domination of modern life, is subservient to metaphor, illustrated by the beguiling notion that music preceded spoken language as a method of communication amount humans. understanding depends on metaphor.

These ideas became reinforced by a chance encounter with the work of physicist and consciousness philosopher, Dr Tom Campbell. I had encountered the famous 'Double Slit,' experiment before I started listening to Dr Campbell's lectures online, but I had never heard it described so elegantly, nor had its startling implications ever been spelt out so fully to me.
The themes of this experiment are too large to discuss in this already bloated post, but essentially Campbell's theory (which he playfully names 'My Big TOE,' TOE being Theory Of Everything) suggests that our concept of objective reality is false and is actually a probabalistic infomration field. This field seeks to lower it's level of entropy (uncertainty, chaos) and does so in an evolutionary fashion (this links up neatly with Richard Dawkins' description of Darwinian evolution as described in 'The Selfish Gene,' particularly when Dawkins begins to describe it as a concept which reaches beyond the idea of genes). As the system evolves and it's level of entropy decreases, the system becomes more and more stable and rules are 'imposed' (these become the basics of Newtonian physics). These give the illusion of an objective reality.

These two notions, 'abstraction as servant to metaphor' and 'reality as a field of probabilities,' hold the potential for a powerful tool for examining society. The pieces don't quite fit in my mind however...yet...

To return to my master's thesis, I suppose the aim of this initial piece of writing was simply to straighten out several key concepts and ensure I had an understanding of them. If I were to define an objective now it would be trying to understand how architecture's purpose could be re-understood considering this new model of subjective reality.

A bit lofty at the moment, I know. I hope there's nothing wrong with starting off this big!

As an aside, the two theories outlined in this post, that of Ian McGilchrist and Tom Campbell, have been severly squashed to fit into this post and I have probably done them a massive disservice! They involve major paradigm shifts and dramatically challenge the 'common sense' notions of reality and the self. If you are interested please seek out their books and particularly Tom campbell's numerous lectures, available free on youtube. This is a good place to start.