Convergence

The personal site of Zach Horton

Doors

Swerve-door

8mm still from Swerve, by Zach Horton

The door, simultaneously barrier and threshold, invites us to approach, awakens our desire to pass through, to enter (or to exit), but bears the power of refusal. The brute inertia of the door, its solidity of both material form and cultural decree, can give pause to even the most tenacious of trespassers.

A room without a door, the most horrific vision Poe could conjure up, appears again and again in his speculative architecture, from “The Pit and the Pendulum” to that improvisatory room in “A Cask of Amontillado.” The most diabolic deed is surely to wall someone in, when no provision is made for a door. Perhaps of his literary brethren, only Kafka would disagree. Worse by far, he might say, is to have too many doors, leading to too many corridors, an overdetermination of possible passages that ensures that you never reach your destination. One always dies between two doors.

Poe, haunted by those doorless rooms, died outside.

Rome- Forum- copper doors- Temple of Romulus- 1700 years old

1700 year old copper doors in the Temple of Romulus, in the Roman Forum. Photograph by Zach Horton.

Most doors are meant to keep others out. As such they are signs (VERBOTEN), but they are also sorting devices (UNLESS…). Do you know the keeper of the house? Do you know the password? Do you know the combination? If so, the door will let you pass, and you will become sorted across that threshold. Rules and sorting. The nineteenth century made much of this mechanism: Maxwell’s demon, on one hand, was a thought experiment that posited a small creature who opened or closed a small door between two chambers whenever a molecule of a certain type approached. With only passive doorkeeping, claimed James Clerk Maxwell, the demon could build up potential energy in the form of difference. This was the opposite of entropy, of homogeneity. Was it therefore possible to cheat death, the universe’s heath death, the eventual state of maximum homogeneity that would leave no energy differential to do any useful work?

Dresden- ELREMA 1959 accounting computer

1959 ELREMA Computer, East German. Photograph by Zach Horton.

 

The second sorting machine of the nineteenth sentry, invented by Charles Babbage, went further: by representing numbers with mechanical cogs on wheels, those numbers could, through complex sorting—transfer from one mechanism to another—be manipulated in theoretically unlimited ways. The universal, programmable computer had come into being. The threshold it mediated was between the material and the symbolic. The latter could be manipulated in theoretically limitless ways; the challenge then became encoding, or the representation of the material within homologous data structures. Later computer engineers, and particularly Alan Turing, realized that the simpler the logical structure, the more universal the machine, in both representation and manipulation. The universal binary computer was born (with Konrad Zuse), using only two characters to represent any arbitrarily large structure. Best of all, it could be materially instantiated by something far simpler than Babbage’s complex machinery: the any electromagnetic switch, vacuum tube, or transistor. Each of these serves the function of a logic gate. One input, two possible outputs: 0 or 1, on or off, in or out. At the heart of the computer, and everything the computer generates, is a humble door.

Of course, not all doors are meant to be opened. Some are there to remind you that none shall pass, or that the pleasure, even necessity, of exit is but an illusion.

Rome- doorway

Chalk door in Rome. Photograph by Zach Horton.

 

Other doors may be obliging, but serve to obscure the other side. Who will be brave enough to exit the known for the unknown? Contestants of Let’s Make a Deal had to ask this question of themselves. More lucratively, so do cat-burglars. I simply wonder who is behind each of those cold doors in the hotel hallway.

As I finish my Ph.D. and enter the academic job market, I’m thinking a lot about doors. That which they conceal, the thresholds they guard, and whether or not they lock behind you.

I discovered my favorite door by accident one day in Rome. Having thrown away my map, determined to wander aimlessly, I ended up on a narrow, unremarkable street with a solid wall lining one side. As I wiped the sweat from my brow, I noticed, with a start, that the wall had sprouted a head. It was made of the same red clay and jutted outward defiantly. A wall that refused to remain flat. I followed its gaze and discovered a second head, and then an ear, an eye, and a nose. I walked on, dumbfounded at the community of body parts embedded within this wall. Finally, I came to the door. And here, amidst this anthropomorphic wall, the door framed a question: what or who was behind this wall?

Rome- Artists house 6- doorway

Door to residence in Rome, Italy. Photograph by Zach Horton.

I considered ringing the off-kilter doorbell or intercom. I stood for nearly a half hour studying the clues provided by this threshhold. Finally, I turned and began to walk away.

A rusty creak rang out behind me. I spun just in time to witness the door opening by just a crack. A young Italian woman slipped out, carrying a handful of laundry. The door closed again, before I could make out any detail within. She walked in my direction.

“How is it,” I managed to ask in a blunt English that she might or might not understand, “that you came to live behind that door?”

She stopped, regarding me quizzically. “My father,” she finally said by way of explanation, “is an artist.” She smiled and continued away on her errand.

Why was it that this encounter affected me so sharply? Was it the incongruous presence of a human where there should only have been a silent door, waiting through the ages? Was it that the granting of my wish, to have experienced the inside behind this door, was accomplished only through a shift of modality, from the material to the symbolic? I had nothing but the word “artist,” a signifer, to show for my adventurous curiosity and humble patience. (This is, after all, within the purview of the door’s alchemical magic.) Or was it, quite simply, that in my phenomenological egocentrism I had forgotten that other great function of the door? To open, not to allow entry, but to facilitate an emergence?

Convergence

This blog existed for several years before I actualized it. It hurts to become. It also never ceases. As philosopher Gilles Deleuze reminds us, it is the traversing of the virtual, affirming difference and embracing potentiality, that is the hard part. The rest, however necessary to actually produce something, is about placing limits on the dimensionality, the freedom, of our concepts, our affects, and our bodies. This is one of the paradoxes of becoming: it requires a reduction of potentiality (actualization) at the same time that it requires the emergence of something new, something not determined by or derived from what was there previously. Deleuze and his collaborator, Felix Guattari, call this “miraculation,” because it seems to violate Newtonian conceptions of matter and involve some holy or unholy spirit, some dark magic to those who cleave to a determinist ontology. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here.

One day in October of last year my sister and I, on a quest for famously opulent cupcakes, found ourselves inside hip Georgetown confectionery “Baked and Wired,” in Washington, D.C. This establishment provides a large wall to customers as a surface upon which to exhibit their artistic inspiration, provided that such inspiration is representable in the medium of napkin art. This is the napkin that caught my eye:

Hurts to Become

Photograph by Zach Horton

It turns out that this is a quote by poet and LGBT activist Andrea Gibson. It is from her poem, “I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power is Out,” a poem about the potentials of the body. Walt Whitman transposed through Andrea Gibson, delivered via concrete napkin to myself in a neighborhood that was decidedly not my own (I live in California, for starters). This is convergence.

My sister Jessica and I developed what we jokingly called “Convergence Theory” quite a few years ago, when we began to see our paths in life take shape retrospectively. Why, we wondered, do we suddenly feel that we are on the right track, that nothing we had done previously was superfluous, even though (a) we had never articulated or understood these paths previously, (b) had in fact had other goals in mind, since discarded, and (c) couldn’t tell, even at this latest juncture, where it all would lead. Somehow, the disparate interests, pursuits, skills, and experiences that we had accumulated had intertwined themselves and produced… something new. Convergence is another way of expressing becoming. It isn’t what can happen, as if guided by fate, despite the discontinuities represented by (a), (b), and (c). Rather, it is what results when these conditions are met.

We might say, along with John Lennon, that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” But convergence theory goes beyond the acknowledgement that planning, shaping, and controlling are forms of hubris, and that the most interesting details emerge out of the cracks of identity, in the gaps and fissures of intentionality. Convergence follows from the interconnectedness of all things, an ecology of environment, body, and mind, but recognizes that all connections are not equal. Connections, assemblages, are assembled. They are produced through intra-action in the world. Everything connects to everything else given enough degrees of separation. All players of “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” know this.

Photograph by Zach Horton

Photograph by Zach Horton

I would like to suggest that convergence is fundamentally an affirmation of the emergent potential of a life lived experimentally. An experimental life is simply one that increases the potentialities of the bodies within a sphere of influence (one’s “own” included). Concretely, this means that no experience is irrelevant to a life as long as it increases future potential. If I learn to knit, it increases my future potential. If I encourage a friend to learn to knit, it will likely increase both her potential and the potential forms of our future interactions. Ditto for listening to other humans and learning about their experience of life. Even better: spending time with nonhumans and posthumans and attempting to understand how they experience the world. This all sounds intuitive enough.

And yet it flies in the face of Neoliberal culture. We are taught to visualize concrete goals and then work hard to achieve them. This approach reifies identity (it is assumed that the “I” who is to pursue these goals is unified, differentiated from others, autonomous and self-determining, and exists prior to and outside of the discursive structures that articulate these goals as choices to begin with) and elevates the individual above all other units and scales in order to suggest that all goals should be individualized. It also implies that life should be linear and goal-driven, with every potential action pre-judged on the basis of whether or not it moves one closer to the imagined end state that constitutes the “goal” in question. And finally, it assumes that goals, or static end states, are actually desirable to reach.

Convergence theory playfully challenges all of these assumptions. Here the “I” is undefined and amorphous: it may include one’s entire family, one’s near and dear assemblage of non-human entities from inert objects to electronic devices to animal co-habitants to colleagues. Because this “I” is always in a state of becoming, it does not exist prior to a series of actions and thus cannot articulate a coherent “goal” or imagined end state. Any attempt to do so is foolhardy and illusory at best, and dangerous and destructive at worst. In other words, the “I” only emerges through the series of experiences and transformations that constitute it as a subject. Because this conception of identity is fluid, fixed states are anathema to it, symptoms of a breakdown of the creative process; certainly not goals to which we should aspire. Convergence, then, is not a linear path that moves one, step by step, closer to a desired end state, but rather a non-linear accumulation of potentials over time that open up new forms of becoming. These becomings are actualizations in the sense that they reduce a field of virtual potentials to concrete forms, but they must always be incomplete so that they continue to propel us forward into new paths, new connections, new combinations.

Photograph by Zach Horton

Photograph by Zach Horton

Stated simply, then, convergence theory holds that all experiences must converge upon something new and that the larger the difference between experiences, the greater the differential leap of becoming. The more varied and less linear one’s experiences, the greater will be the acts of becoming upon which they continually converge. The correlate here is that linear, goal-driven behavior produces minimal convergence. This is because convergence is a kind of short-circuiting, the crossing of wires across difference in order to produce yet more difference. Linear behavior produces minimal convergence because it is already nearly homogeneous: there is no difference to converge. One of the implications of convergence theory is that the more difficult it is to cognitively link one’s actions in advance, the more clearly one will be able to link them retrospectively as components of emergence.

This blog will be one small experiment in convergence. Here I will attempt to catalog some of my varied interests and experiences, mostly in textual and photographic form, as an exploration of the connections between them. In this way it must be not merely an excavation of pre-existing connections, but also, through the process of exploration itself, the production of new vectors, new directions.

The primary subjects of this blog will thus likely change. At this moment, though, I take the following to be my starting points: photography, film, ecology, philosophy, cultural theory, technological systems, open source, creativity, innovation, literature, energy conservation, and scalar mediation. (This last, which happens to be the subject of my PhD dissertation, will be explained in a future post.)

Where will we go from here?

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