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Space Warps and the Narratable Self in the Post- Mechanical Age

Milan Jaros
Newcastle University, UK


The contemporary self is caught in spatial systems beyond its control. Yet it has to interrogate these systems in order to make existential as well as architectural – designer sense of its predicament. This interrogation is acted out in the language of anxiety, hybridity and fragmentation that reflects the material condition of humanity of today; it appears inseparable from techno-scientific practices. The result is a weakening of the Cartesian notion of ‘extension’ (ontology, objectness) and ‘self’ (subject, narratability) as a measure of the bodily existence and identity. Instead, it is argued here, the self depends for its ability to recognise itself primarily on collisions that suspend the flow of spatialised complexity. The sites of such collisions are folds of networks of virtual and material interactions - spatio-temporal instabilities or warps. They expand the Schmarsow- Benjamin ‘elbow room’ (Spielraum) that gives a perceptual-empirical meaning to the self’s ontology. The “elbow room” may be viewed as a dynamic impact parameter - an effective existence radius of the self – as an assemblage of the self, place and interactions (narratives) binding them dynamically together. It constitutes an object-event, with its ‘extension’ and a ‘lifestory’. This dynamic model of the wayfaring self seeking self-recognition and creative fulfilment is analogous to the field theoretical treatment of collisions. It offers an opportunity to develop models that may be instrumental in unfolding the origin of space warps, in finding their link to specific techno-scientific models of the world and dynamic ontology, and in pointing to their usefulness in identifying strategies and novel technical features in meta-design.

Key words: meta-design, empirical models of creativity, warped space, elbow room (Spieraum), narratable self


The aim of this study is to describe a model of the creative process that is peculiar to the material condition of humanity at the threshold of the post-mechanical age and that lends itself to empirical studies of the meta-development of human environment. The paper begins with an introductory section outlining the novel character of knowledge and knowing and the shift it leads to from the transparent, perspectival space containing autonomous observers to networked subjects and quasi-objects, from design to meta-design. The space and time are no longer smooth independent variables - Kant’s forms of perception. Instead, thought and feeling are given ‘dynamic extension’, spatialised and temporalised forms.

The dominant source of change is now knowledge detached from the system of thought in which it originated (physics, medicine) and re-presented to make it fit the experiential thought-events. The dread of the unknown is now externalised not in mythical symbols and fetish objects but in spatial warps, in instances where space is not transparent, where space and time are not smooth but warped, where the flow is interrupted and suspended. The warped space (Vilder, 2001) is a particularly fitting metaphor borrowed from the vocabulary of theoretical physics and science fiction narratives. It captures the blurring of the separation between the formal and the psychological, between the objectified artefact and the individual experience of it. It means that the wayfaring observer ‘discovers’ his psyche in a building, square or in an obelisk. He does it by projecting (a fragment of) a narrative, knowledge, event – ‘virtual’ or ‘real’ - upon the place of inspiration. The sum of these narratives is wrapped up around the ‘object of desire’. It enhances and ultimately dominates the ‘meaning’ of the encounter and of ‘place’ (e.g. Casey, 1998). In effect it opens a ‘psychoanalytical’ case of both components of the human-object assemblage in the sense in which philosophers (e.g. Deleuze and Guattari, 1994) and geographers (e.g. Soja 1996, Harvey 2000) conceptualise the post-Kantian, dynamic ontology in a contemporary megalopolis.

Every such interrogation of a (virtual or real) knowledge territory successfully translated by the mind of the wayfarer into an encounter with an ‘object’ suspends the flow of the objectified interactions driven by the movements of network mediators, material and spiritual exchanges, of the techno-scientific society (e.g. Jaros, 2003). In this unique ‘onto-poetic’ moment of personal freedom the viewer can play, create, ‘live’. The extent to which she can do so can be expressed in terms of an effective radius and lifetime of the ‘playground’, the ‘elbow room’ the interaction has opened. The last section is concerned with the ways narratives make the space warp possible, the ways they come into being via an object of inspiration (Arendt, 1958). They expand the elbow room, make themselves available to the viewer in order to constitute her self and the place. What precisely are the processes that turn knowledge and knowing into fragmentary narratives that the wayfarer invokes, uncovers from some invisible or visible register in order to constitute the assemblage of the things and the self, the living place? Inversely, what must the meta-designer concerned with developing a down town theatre complex, a sitting room, a computer game or a multi-media performance consider in order to optimise the opportunity for a wayfarer-dweller to find her self, to make a living place today?

From Design to Metadesign

The meta-designer (e.g. Fischer and Scharff, 2000, de Kerckhove, 2001) is a model of a future knowledge worker – a system interrogator, facilitator of living places, animator of modes of individuation; a creative narratologist of personalised pathways of life activities, a bodily event manager in a networked society. Meta-design (here meta means about, more than) is an approach to creative activity and to life in general that acknowledges the new openness of contemporary knowledge systems. Indeed it was born out of the new condition of human freedom to express themselves created by their dependence on networked media and on mechanisms (the order of things, laws of motion and of energy flow in general) derived from the scientific models of the world. It amounts to a strategic move beyond the modernist-Greenbergian closure imposed by the demand that the critical content be the decisive measure of the creative act (e.g. de Duve, 2000). This absence of closure of the processes of knowledge and knowing opens a fresh intellectual space for interrogating knowledge systems and for studies of dynamic ontology (Smith, 2000). In particular, it may open new ways to taming and exploiting technology so as to create a basis for sustainable passages of life without destroying the scientific civilisation on which our prosperity - indeed survival depends. It is grounded in the notion of a dynamic embodiment (Crary and Kwinter, 1992) of ‘human subjects’, ‘ideas’ (codes, frames, schemes), and “natural objects” in design (embracing biotechnology and other hardware-software networked platforms). In this language a meta-place is a place plus the flow of events, a living place. Similarly, meta-data is an assemblages of raw ‘facts’ plus access routes, resources, responses, and the rest of the networking substratum of ‘facts’.

The generic objective of meta-design is to bring about a dynamic living space which encourages one to see life as a project, as an engagement with other humans via living things and environmental systems, as openness to active personalised (‘customised’) pathways of learning, of making and doing positioned at the bodily site of doing and making. The need for dynamic models of the human environment is a direct consequence of the radical changes in the material condition of humanity. One way to understand such changes and their implications is to map the mechanisms and their functions deposited in the minds of humans (and in popular and high cultural artefacts) by the advancing and ever present techno-science (as attempted e.g. by Omar Calabrese, 1992). It is these mechanisms that in the course of the last century or so became commonly recognisable and used and have been gradually replacing ‘traditions’ as drivers of creative and habitual practices (Jaros, 2002).

For example, the mechanical age (the first industrialisation era from the industrial revolution roughly to the first decades of the 20s century) brought into design materialism, calculability, mathematisation (quantify, measure, classify), scrutability (atoms, molecular processes, tests), objectivity (scientific method) and computability. Later, the ‘post-mechanical’ age with its internet, nano & geno (body invasive) technologies brought into play complexity (i.e. non-programmability as opposed to and in addition to complicatedness), automation of all creative processes (reproducibility, repetition, re-designing), followed by wholesale fragmentation and loss of subject’s (object’s) autonomy, loss of direct links between things and images, between concepts and signs, etc. It follows (Crary, 1990, 1999) that the content of concepts of attention, perception, measurement, body, experimentation, distance, extension, interval, presence, limit, approximation, uncertainty, locality, that is the core vocabulary of any account of a creative act depends more and more on the driving mechanisms and meaning generation originating in the scientific models of the world. This is so even if they take on a form often distorted beyond recognition by the process of transferring them from their original context into the realm of metaphoric or allegorical application (for example in the arts and literature, Jaros 2003)

Models of generalised energy flow constituting living places

The pre-modern man did not have a rational concept of the world. Every event, every object was a potential threat. He was in a state of constant fear, of phobic reflexes which eventually substitute a ‘known image’ or thing however dreadful for the horror of the unknown. This leads to myths, religions, rituals and eventually to science. Modernism equipped with the scientific rationality displaced this traditions with the representational confidence of Galilean ‘measure and quantify’, with the control (of time, space and matter) via the perspective, the spatial and conceptual transparency of the Cartesian clear and distinct, only to become destabilised by its overwhelming success. The space and time, Kant’s forms of perception, are no longer stable containers of autonomous bodies. The Cartesian extension is no longer the single measure of objectness, language no longer corresponding directly to reality.

Once the legitimacy of the Kantian approximations became undermined the subject once again finds itself lost in the world that it cannot conceptualise. It is a spatio-temporal quasi-object in a state of anxiety, of nausea and existential angst. Yet its rational education makes it difficult for it to seek identity and meaning in traditions as in the pre modern eras. It is no longer possible to attach a divine aspect to things and symbols, only a critical one. Alas! The Kantian vocabulary is twisted and gradually replaced in high modernity by the vocabularies of decomposition and displacement, distortion and fracture, void and block, re-assembling and de-composition, framing and codification, mediation and re-constitution.

In this world the self resembles a moving packet of concentrated energy caught in dynamic spatial systems beyond its control. Yet it has to interrogate these systems in order to make existential as well as architectural – designer sense of its predicament. This interrogation appears inseparable from techno-scientific practices and mechanisms of change. The result is a weakening of the Cartesian notion of ‘extension’ and ‘narratability’ as a measure of the self’s bodily identity and existence. Instead, it may be argued, the self depends for its ability to recognise itself and the place primarily on collisions that suspend the flow of spatialised complexity. This is about the making of living places - as opposed to a ‘smooth’ flow of dehumanised exchanges - by suspending the flow and maximising the effective radius of the personal living space as a sum of interactions with the participating knowledge systems folded into a localised space warp. The onto-epistemic concept of a dynamic assemblage of interacting humans, things and ideas suggests a model of the human environment as a flow of generalised energy analogous to the field theoretical treatment of interacting bodies used in theoretical physics. The sites of such collisions are folds of localised virtual and material interactions - spatio-temporal instabilities or warps. As in a quantum mechanical calculation the meaning of the place is a superposition of interactions, in this case fragments of narratives the mind and body invoke in order to suspend the flow of incomprehensible energy. The larger the number of interactions and the stronger their match to the place in question, the longer the poetic interval of freedom (its lifetime if one were to stay with the mathematical metaphor), i.e. the larger the effective radius of ‘free play’! In the language of space warps one says that they expand the ‘elbow room’ that gives a perceptual-empirical meaning to the self’s (place’s) ontology, identity as well as interactivity. The expansion of the “elbow room” may then be viewed as a dynamic impact parameter - an effective freedom (creativity, play) radius of the self. It also gives an empirical meaning to the assemblage of the self, place and the interactions binding the assemblage dynamically together as a quasi-object with an ‘extension’ and a ‘story’. It is empirical since it is something that can be established by observing the effect of each individual interaction on the self in question (dweller, designer). This offers an opportunity to develop models that may be instrumental in unfolding the origin of ‘space warps’, in finding their link to specific techno-scientific models of the world, and in pointing to their usefulness in meta-design.

It was August Schmarsow who first posited that space, particularly architectural space is an active bodily creation and perception (Schwarzer, 1991). For him architecture (design) is literally a way of creating space. The body creates this space so as to ensure its play space, the elbow room it needs for existence! This concept of space became the leitmotiv of modernity (Lefebvre, 1991, Harvey, 2000, and references therein). It created the room for conceptualisations previously severely restricted by the Kantian notion of space, time, extension and directionality. Indeed, it is worth pointing out that most of the heroes of high modernism, for example architects Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe and philosophers Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger thought that this ‘end of perspective’ is liberating, that it is a way of moving beyond the limits of the 19th century system building e.g. Hegelian or Marxist. It was a leap into infinity, into a limitlessness which they thought was a key aspect of mature modernity or at least a necessary condition for humans to redeem the original richness of being and the fellowship with nature. Instead, it soon transpired that a new and even more threatening void has been opened. It brought back the memory of Blaise Pascal’s horror of falling into an abyss (on his left) and other phobias made famous by analysts from Freud to Lacan (e.g. Freud 1974, Cole 1995, Vidler 2001). A string of concepts attempting to capture the existential angst created by the ‘thrown-ness’ of the modern self followed as the expansion of urban civilisation and domination by technology accelerated, e.g. estrangement (lack of unity, transparency, pathological deformation of technological achievements and bodily life) of modern space, what Benjamin called ‘distraction’ (hidden influences at work in the observing subject to render the place unseen or unseeable) and the ‘optical unconscious’, the absent mindedness of the new solitary walker (Benjamin, 1985). And then there is a long list of the neo baroque effects (e.g. Buci-Glucksmann, 1994) the spectacle and horror, the filmic time machines, the pan-geometric (Lynn, 1998), the psycho spaces and the latent violence and criminality of the megalopolis unleashed by the dissolution of the body into the flow of time and matter (e.g. Soja, 1996). Yet it is often argued that the perspective is still apparent even in a virtual reality environment. Ostensibly the computer screen does look like Alberti’s window. Alas! A millennial shift has taken place. What has been added is the multitude of manifestation of the models of the world, of real and virtual depositions of anecdotal layers of meanings all of which combine to re-define ‘viewing’, ‘perception’, ‘attention’, and the boundary condition for the motion of the view as well as the image in any practice of ‘viewing’. It is well to be reminded (Vidler, 2001: 5) that much of the avant-garde experimentation in arts and human sciences - including philosophy - may well be seen as “to mirror each successive stage of technological development…” They are attempts to give meaning to our experiences of urban modernity that are inseparable from efforts to account for and represent even the un-representable manifestations of techno-scientific advances anywhere from theoretical physics to warfare, from the communication media to consumer practices. What then one deals with is not so much the ‘object’ to be observed but the sources of the vision process, the technique of the observer (e.g. Crary 1990, Jaros 2003) who in Alberti’s day was just a projectionist with a bit of intuitive and largely unconscious possession of ‘cultural theory’ on the side.

Onto-poesis of the Narratable Self

To recapitulate, the warping of the smooth perspectival space marks a process of post-Cartesian thinking, of a discursive quest for place-ness as well as self-ness. The rapid advances of new technologies exposed the growing gap between the material life and the images and narratives of life inherited from even our recent past. Such traditional sources of identity and creative expression are being replaced by the mechanisms that echo the techno scientific re-moulding of life on this planet. What is the narrative content of the space warp, of the elbow room? How does it reflect the models of the world whose signature inscribe if not shape directly both the material as well as conceptual dynamics? How do the collisions between things and bodies translate themselves into self-recognition, into design methodologies? Answers to such questions may be instrumental in providing useful guidelines for designing a human environment better adjusted to the conditions of the post-mechanical age.

The aspiration to explicit narrative self-expression is very much part of the Western intellectual tradition. It is certainly cherished by those who value the ideal of self-control and self-awareness in human life. Philosophers of otherwise quite different tastes– for example Hannah Arendt, Alasdair MacIntyre?, Charles Tylor as well as Daniel Dennett and Paul Ricoeur - see this as an inescapable, indeed foundational condition enabling the subject to see directionality and moral orientation in life. Even those who are anxious to oppose this way of thinking agree that it represents a majority view right across the full spectrum of contemporary human endeavour, academic or not. They share with the narratologists their concern about the status of reality and perception, of reference and memory, about the way we ‘experience time’.

Hannah Arendt ( 1958) laid foundations in her Human Condition to a notion of narratable self that is open to embracing the narrative self in conditions of hybridity and contingency. Arendt’s work inspired others (e.g. Adriana Cavarero, 2000). They have developed her ideas further and interfaced them with other influential sources. Arendt begins by pointing out that when we want to say who someone is our (post-Cartesian) philosophy leads us into saying what he or she is. Arendt proposed that we are dependent upon each other for the narration of our own life story. I can only know who I am by knowing (recognising!) the story of which I am myself a hero. The narratable Self is a self which is exposed from birth to the world. This act is constitutive to the desire for a tale of one’s own life story from the mouth of another. It is through the desire to be narratable, to be a ‘unique existent’, that narrations are contextual and political. The narratable self does not make the other into the object of his narration by adopting the third person perspective. Rather it lives without distinguishing the I who narrates from the self who is narrated. As Adriana Cavarero points out this self finds itself not by the conscious effort in the spontaneous narrating structure of memory itself. What the life story is and how it is intelligible is less important so long the subject knows that the other is a unique existent. Since this self is not a product of its story’s performative power the content of such a story is necessarily discontinuous, fragmentary and fleeting. This is because the self depends for its constitutive drives on the narrating impulse and its authentic actuality. This means that the self is narratable through a flow of material exchanges of energy in which the ‘object’, i.e. the bodily site of the material exchange mediating between the story (text) and the ‘self’, plays a crucial role in giving meaning to the actuality of the self. This mediator ‘object-event’ is an ‘archetypal doll’, a ‘toy’ (Tiffany, 2000). More precisely, it is the bearer of the models of the world, of the past and future stories, of the anecdotal richness of this past and future.

Narration and contemporary consciousness

The model of Self of the above paragraphs tacitly assumes that the mind works in the narrative form rather than as a digital computer. It is then a question of how the journeying through matter and space inscribes the acquisition by the mind of narrative learning power, the hybrid folds and superpositions that constitute (and drive the motion of) the awareness and development of the Self. The breakdown of the legitimacy and autonomy of traditional narratives and the emergence of creativity as a temporal and individual act promoted narrative to the status of a place where onto-poetic individualisation processes are acted out. Clearly this is also a new space for inserting another subdivision, not only to measure and quantify but in order to self-organise a story. It is re-positioning meaning and knowledge by changing the way knowledge is accessed, framed and assessed (from oral communication and memorising to books, data banks and the internet), by a gradual reduction of structure and controls in remembering, and by openness to re-writing. So for example an internet search will change the order and grouping of ‘facts’ and therefore the meaning compared to a library or oral referencing. This is a very different picture of the Self to that born out of the philosophy of the Rational Man.

For Kant this rational human is a digital logical machine. It is measured by measuring how the analytical power is exercised (proofs, syllogism, sequential processing of objectified data). When the soul was taken out of religion there emerged in its place the science of memory, behaviour and the technologies of making, re-making and maintenance. Now it is an analogue input-output process where what is happening inside the box is so muddled that it cannot be disentangled. Knowledge comes to us in the frame of models of the world (knowledge that is now inseparable from the model that gave it a meaning) and therefore these models are mere metaphors unless we attach a function to them (do something according to them, project them on a territory so that the narrative component can be graphically documented). As a result there are now numerous levels of embodied self: the material self of molecular biology, cell biology, neurons and neural nets, viroid penetrations and scaling (Crary and Kwinter 1992, Pearson, 1997), of the maps of physiological centres of activity and their systems that spread over the whole body, genes, therapy and design based on computer modelling and artificial intelligence, etc. Hence the self becomes material whose future needs will be repair or reconstruction, re-arrangement, even re-design, and which will be in a constant process of change (e.g. Goldberg 2001, Mackenzie 2002). It is these narrative contributions that must be linked to the way the space warp is formed, i.e. to the magnitude and lifetime of the empowering ‘creative Spielraum’. The result are ‘knowledge maps’ linking the concrete design feature (positioning of a staircase, a through view, the geometry of gates, corridors or walls - to use naive examples) to the narratives it invokes in the mind of the viewer (agony, release of tension, baroque paintings, last night’s soap, a desire to know more or interact with others, etc) and the means the viewer chooses to express this link (going away, settling down in peace, writing a poem, etc.). It is such maps that would assist the meta-designer in maximising the ‘living potential’ of a place.


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