9.15.2012

Transparency in Hyperbolic Space

Hypercube #3 from Oilly Oowen on Vimeo.

A condition of transparency is the obscuring of light. Of course, what makes something transparent is that light passes through it. But if all light passed through it — if there was no deflection of light, no obscuring of sight — then the thing wouldn't be transparent: it wouldn't be at all. (Deleuze makes the same move with repetition: the condition of repetition is difference. Because if there were no difference, then it wouldn't be repetition: it'd be the same thing.)

While a seemingly obnoxious, pedantic gesture — sophistic, one might say were one not, himself, a sophist  — my point is this: everything, everywhere, is inflected. Transparency is premised on a Euclidian universe, a geometric universe: everything in its place, lines zipping along a flat empty space in which shapes sit.

But the universe is not a 3D geometry. I want to say it's a 4D calculus but that's not quite right, either. The world in which we live has god-knows how many dimensions.

And this same said world is not flat. It's folded, relentlessly. Some folds are big; some are small; some are severe; some, less so. Anyway, that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about what it means to look through something.

Every thing is an amalgamation of other things, visible and invisible. And it's not just an assemblage but a way of assembling, a style of gathering, poaching, stealing, adhering, cohering — of distributing this and that.

This thing that is many things, that takes up and distributes in a particular manner, is never done.  Which is to say, every thing is always changing, always moving. Every being is becoming.

So when I look at something, I am not just seeing that thing.  Because that thing is, in fact, other things. When I see, say, that glass sitting in front me, I see the glass, of course, but that glass is a taking up of sand, heat, the history of drinking vessels, refractions — amplifications and distortions — whatever that is — of what's spatially behind the glass (because, conceptually, the books behind my glass right now are historically in front of it). I see the world from the glass' perspective. 

This is the world as I see it, says the glass.  But that's not what I see. What I see is my seeing of the glass' seeing.  I don't as much look through the glass as I see with the glass. Metaphysics is all in the prepositions.

When I look at my son, at times, I see his mother. I see my eight year old self. All the while I see him. To see him is to see these other things — and to see him grasping for those things — for his friends, for me, for his mom, for Eminem and Groucho Marx, for dogs and soldiers and whatever other things he's taken up.  I want to be clear: I don't see Eminem when I see my son. I see my son trying to wear what he sees as Eminem. We all wear the world in our own way (pace JP Gaultier).

Of course, there is something to be said for distinguishing between, say, a window and a black couch. I can say that both are transparent in my sophistic definition but surely there is something productive about maintaining the more common understanding of transparency.  I think of people making battle gear and such: they would have little patience for my bullshit here.

Still, I wonder if we can retain some notion of transparency while shifting our understanding of it. 

Allison Holt, aka Oilly Oowen, gives us what she calls Hypercubes — translucent cubes made of resin in which we see flickering images as ambient sound mysteriously emanates. These are chunks of the world itself — the space directly in front of you.  Light passes through it and doesn't pass through it. Because the space directly in front of you is full — absolutely full, a plenum, in fact — and this means some light is getting through and some light is not getting through.

What is "light getting through," anyway? Do we ever see light per se? Or is light, like everything else, an amalgamation of other things?  Isn't white light the coexistence of all colors?  Light is not outside the fray. It surely has a critical role in the flow of things but light is not untouchable, as it were. If I had to say — in what situation could this possibly be the case? You can see Wittgenstein and Bergson's annoyance with philosophy's construction of ideal, false circumstances in which it tries to derive a truth — the vacuum being perhaps the most obvious but there's "language," too — as if language were something I could study — life and space are all about the em dash, the aside, the qualification, the whisper or scream or smile that punctuates the flow, always, because the flow is relentless but not steady — so, if I had to say, I'd say the fold precedes light as an essential ontological figure.  We fold before we see. Our seeing is a fold.

Look at Holt's Hypercubes. To see through something is to see a shape of the invisible world, a shape of light, and to hear your own voice, and the voices around you, constituting that "seeing through." All space is inflected with forces and drives and ideas and notions and smells. Nothing travels in a straight line. When we see the world, we see plenty. When we see a thing, we see many things — even when we see transparent things, we see plenty.

The defining figure of cosmic space is not the point or the line: it's the fold. Space, as Margaret Wertheim says, is hyperbolic.


The other day, my 8 year old asked the question every kid asks: What happens if the world is upside down? Would we fall off? Would our hair stand up (or fall down, as the case may be)?  I said to him, somewhat cryptically perhaps, What is up and down in space? His brow furrowed.

If we taught the logic of hyperbolic space, he'd never have asked that question. He'd know that everything is relative. That everything is inflected. That there is no norm, no standard, no certainty. That to see another face is to see the world. 

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