On Form

Right now, I'm sitting in a café listening to Brian Eno on my headphones. Sounds stream into my senses — my ears, sure, but also my cognitive and affective senses. There's some electronic humming, for lack of a better word, that is modulated, rising and falling in tone and intensity. There are some single keyboard notes meandering slowly about. The entire thing threatens to not be a thing at all but to be noise, unrelated sonic drones and dings. And yet the flow of sound, while seemingly undetermined by a concept or an external structure such as verse-chorus-verse, isn't arbitrary per se. There is a coherence — or, better, coherences.

What ties a thing together so that we can say it's this and not that?  From one perspective, form seems so obvious. Look! A table! A chair! A person! Form is simply what's given to us. But from another perspective, form becomes arbitrary and precarious, if it can even be said to be at all, form as a conspiracy of historical and cultural forces born of a human weakness to see order amid the disorder  of an indifferent universe.

Let's take this Brian Eno music again. I was going to write Brian Eno song but I'm not sure that's the right word. Song seems, well,  so determined, so definite. You can hold a song in your hand. I'm not sure music is right, either. Both words assume and predetermine in multiple ways. After all, if we interrogate the notion of music, don't we leave the realm of records and Spotify and begin to hear the music of birds, of conversations, of what we might call street noise? Isn't this what John Cage does in 4'33"?

In fact, let's look at that John Cage for a moment (what makes an essay an essay? Do I have to stick to one object? One train of thought? Does thought travel by rail?). What makes it something not nothing? Wait, that's not the right question. The question is: What makes it order not chaos? Or what makes it music not noise? Or my favorite question: what makes this piece hang together as a piece?
(The question is everything; in every question, there lurks a theory of form.)

Well, it has many of the cultural, and hence historical, trappings of a piece of music. It has a composer, namely, John Cage. It has a title, 4'33". It is played in a concert hall before an audience; it has a player who sits in front of his piano. And, as the title declares, it has a set duration.

All of these things are, of course, seemingly external to the music. When we actually listen to the music, we hear ourselves and those around us. We hear heating ducts, the buzz of electricity, coughs, fabric rubbing against fabric as legs cross and uncross. We hear breath. And perhaps we experience peace, anxiety, joy, annoyance, distraction. The only reason we call it a piece of music rather than just noise is a series of external elements.

What, though, is internal and what is external? There is no natural state vs. cultural state of things, nothing that pre-dates the world, that hence pre-dates phenomena. There are no things that don't interact with ideas (at least negatively) or impress upon the world one way or another. Everything is historical. And so everything, to this or that degree, hangs together by the forces of history, culture, and concept. These are not forces that are added to a thing; they are constitutive of a thing.

There is no pure thing, no pure form. Or, rather, all forms are pure with the things that constitute it. These includes materials, forces, ideas, social agreements, hiccups, and processes. Form, then, comes to be — or comes to become — neither through ideas nor materials but through an amalgamation, a calculus, an assemblage of both and more.

Which is to say, unlike for Plato and Kant and others, forms are not determined by ideas or categories. But neither are forms strictly physical beings. Forms are made of an intertwining of elements visible and invisible (pace Merleau-Ponty). 

So what makes a form a form? Back to Brian Eno. While his piece — and, yes, it's a piece even if in many ways it is multiple pieces and never quite a piece — enjoys many of the so-called external elements such as a composer, duration, performance, it has what we might think of as internal coherences, as well. The most obvious is the refrain (see Deleuze and Guattari). A refrain is a return of a theme, a repetition of an element — a rhythmic bass line, a certain repeated drone signal. But if the repetition becomes too predictable, it is no longer a repetition and, in some ways, it ceases to be music and becomes mechanical, the insistence of a factory (which is still a form but not a piece of music). As Deleuze and Guattari write, Home does not preexist: it was necessary to draw a circle around that uncertain and fragile center, to organize a limited space. Many, very diverse, components have a part in this, landmarks and marks of all kinds.

Picture the universe, outer space and all that. Picture the whirl of forces, the pushes and pulls and collisions of bodies. Picture solar systems and black holes. Picture magnets and covalent bonds. Bodies, invisible and visible, are drawn and repelled by and to and with each other. The world is aswirl in forces and bodies. The question of why is there form is therefore absurd. Of course there are forms! There are forms as there are bodies and forces and these bodies and forces conjoin and repel each other relentlessly. That's the way it is. They don't need ideas to do that. Ideas are part of that swirl.

But a form is not a fixed thing — and this is what throws a lot of thinkers off. If we imagine forms as geometric, as existing in three dimensions and only as spatially extended, then forms seem either definite or in such a state of flux that they cease to be forms. But if we imagine forms as always already moving, as being four dimensional from the get go, then we shift our understanding and questions. We need to begin with the calculus, not geometry.

A form is never just a form. It is forming. And the "it" in that sentence can be multiple things. For instance, from one perspective, I am a form: Daniel. From another perspective, my toe is a form (and not Daniel's toe; just toe or that toe there). Ideas and categories are forms, too. The idea of romantic love is a shockingly firm and determined form. Literature is a form. And, like all forms, literature and romantic love are multiple and ever changing.

A form, then, is a local cohering from and with a perspective. Form always has a trajectory that it forms with a perspective. Picture the Eames' Powers of 10: zooming in and out shifts perspectives and the very terms of a form. Now add people and animals rather than a disembodied lens and these perspectives and forms multiply exponentially. Forms are as sure as they are precarious.


M.K. Hobson said...

Have loved listening to you on Diet Soap & Zero Squared. M


Daniel Coffeen said...

Oh, you're kind. I do have a lot of fun shooting the shit w/ Doug, letting the conversations wander.

And nice to wake up to a little Bauhaus.....thanks.