Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

08 FEBRUARY, 2012

Da Vinci’s Ghost: How The Vitruvian Man Came To Be

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Fifteen centuries of combinatorial creativity, or what Leonardo’s to-do list has to do with ancient Rome.

In the first century B.C., at the dawn of the Roman imperial age, the architect and thinker Vitruvius proposed that the human body could fit inside a circle, symbolic of the divine, and a square, associated with the earthly and secular — an idea that later became known as the theory of the microcosm, and came to power European religious, scientific, and artistic ideologies for centuries. Some fifteen hundred years later, in 1487, Leonardo da Vinci rediscovered Vitruvius’s theories and put them into form. Thus, the Vitruvian Man was born — one of humanity’s most powerful, iconic, and enduring images, and a cornerstone of mapping the body, dominating visual culture in everything from books to billboards. Yet its story is far more complex than that, and its enigma far richer than a handful of historical factoids. This is exactly what Toby Lester unravels in Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image — a fascinating century-wide saga that explores how Leonardo set out to expand the metaphysical horizons of his art by studying the proportions and anatomy of the human body and its relationship with the cosmos, and ultimately created a visceral impression of Renaissance thought itself in the process.

Lester observes:

At a superficial level, [Vitruvian Man] is simply a study of individual proportions. But it’s also something far more subtle and complex. It’s a profound act of philosophical speculation. It’s an idealized portrait in which Leonardo, stripped down to his essence, takes his own measure and, in doing so, embodies a timeless human hope: that we just might have the power of mind to figure out how we fit into the grand scheme of things.”

The story, spanning a wealth of disciplines, cultures, and eras, unfolds through two parallel threads — one tracing Leonardo’s individual journey, and one weaving together the collective narrative of the people and ideas who filled and filtered the fifteen centuries between Vitruvius and Da Vinci. Among them are ancient Greek sculptors, early Christian and Muslim philosophers, Renaissance architects and anatomists, and Poggio Bracciolini, the book-hunter credited with starting the Renaissance.

Leonardo was also a voracious information omnivore, a quality so fundamental to the very networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity that no doubt enabled him to create the Vitruvian Man. He always carried a notebook with him and was known to have owned at least 45. Lester writes of the journals:

These notes reveal Leonardo in his perpetually ravenous information-gathering mode. Benedictine monks, obscure medieval treatises, university professors, popular guidebooks, accountants, itinerant merchants, foreign diplomats, artillerymen, military engineers, waterworks experts: all are fair game to him as he hunts for information about subjects that interest him.”

To complement Robert Krulwich’s NPR story about the book, my supremely talented friend Wendy MacNaughton (remember her?) drew this lovely illustrated to-do list based on a page from one of Da Vinci’s notebooks circa the 1490s:

More than a treasure trove of historical ephemera — though it certainly is that, with its generous selection of rare archival images that capture the evolution of Vitruvian Man — Da Vinci’s Ghost is also a profound reflection on humanity’s timeless obsession with untangling the intricate relationship between the physical and the metaphysical in our quest to better understand what we are and where we belong in the universe.

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07 FEBRUARY, 2012

Cartographies of Time: A Visual History of the Timeline

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A chronology of one of our most inescapable metaphors, or what Macbeth has to do with Galileo.

I was recently asked to select my all-time favorite books for the lovely Ideal Bookshelf project by The Paris Review’s Thessaly la Force and artist Jane Mount. Despite the near-impossible task of shrinking my boundless bibliophilia to a modest list of dozen or so titles, I was eventually able to do it, and the selection included Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton — among both my 7 favorite books on maps and my 7 favorite books on time, this lavish collection of illustrated timelines traces the history of graphic representations of time in Europe and the United States from 1450 to the present, featuring everything from medieval manuscripts to websites to a chronological board game developed by Mark Twain.

The first chapter, Time in Print, begins with a context for these images:

While historical texts have long been subject to critical analysis, the formal and historical problems posed by graphic representations of time have largely been ignored. This is no small matter: graphic representation is among our most important tools for organizing information.* Yet, little has been written about historical charts and diagrams. And, for all of the excellent work that has been recently published on the history and theory of cartography, we have few examples of work in the area Eviatar Zerubavel has called time maps. This book is an attempt to address that gap.”

* Cue in Visual Storytelling and graphic designer Francesco Franchi on representation vs. interpretation.

The Morning News has a wonderful slideshow of images from the book this week. A few favorites:

The Histomap by John Sparks, 1931.

In this universal history Johannes Buno, 1672, each millennium before the birth of Christ is depicted by an image of a large allegorical being. This dragon represents the fourth millennium B.C.

In the 1860s, French engineer Charles Joseph Minard pioneered several new infographic techniques. Published in 1869, this endures as his most famous graphic, featuring two diagrams that depict the size and attrition of the armies of Hannibal in his expedition across the Alps during the Punic wars and of Napoleon during his assault on Russia. The faded-red color band indicates the army’s strength of numbers, with one millimeter in thickness representing ten thousand men. The chart of Napoleon's march also includes a measure of temperature.

While mapping the body, the mind, and the heavens might be traced back to antiquity, mapping time, Rosenberg and Grafton remind us, is a fairly nascent enterprise:

The timeline seems among the most inescapable metaphors we have. And yet, in its modern form, with a single axis and a regular, measured distribution of dates, it is a relatively recent invention. Understood in this strict sense, the timeline is not even 250 years old. How this could be possible, what alternatives existed before, and what competing possibilities for representing historical chronology are still with us, is the subject of this book.”

A 'synchronous chart' from Meteorographica (1863) by Francis Galton, pioneer of the study and mapping of weather. The chart represents weather conditions, barometric pressure, and wind direction at a single moment in time across the geographic space of Europe.

Discus chronologicus by German engraver Christoph Weigel, published in the early 1720s, is a paper chart with a pivoting central arm. Rings represent kingdoms, radial wedges represent centuries, and the names of kingdoms are printed on the moveable arm.

From literature to art history to technology, Cartographies of Time offers a fascinating and dimensional lens on what it means to peer from a single moment of time outward into all other moments that came before and will come after, and inward into our own palpable yet subjective perception of permanence and its opposite.

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press / The Morning News

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06 FEBRUARY, 2012

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: Adam Curtis on How Technology Limits Us

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What Ayn Rand has to do with the Occupy movement.

Documentarian Adam Curtis is among our era’s most influential cultural storytellers, with a penchant for debunking the established order of beliefs and ideologies. In The Century of the Self (2002), he traces the origin of consumerism and how Freud’s theories shaped twentieth-century manipulations of public opinion, from politics to marketing; in The Power of Nightmares (2004), he explores the rise of the politics of fear; in The Trap (2007), he examines the concept and evolution of freedom and the simplistic models of human nature on which it is based. His latest BBC documentary, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, premiered last May, mere months before the global Occupy movement erupted, and paints an infinitely intriguing, though in my view wrong on many counts, portrait of technology as a limiting, rather than liberating, cultural and political force. The title of the series comes from a 1967 poem by Richard Brautigan, in which he envisions a world of cybernetics so advanced that the balance of nature is restored and there is no need for human labor.

Though the film has strong techno-dystopian undertones akin to the Orson-Welles-narrated Future Shock series of the 1970s and neglects how technology enables such powerful phenomena like networked knowledge and crowd-accelerated learning, it offers a dimensional context for many of our present political, economic, and technological givens. Coupled with Curtis’s signature immersive storytelling and exquisite use of historical materials, rare footage, and revealing soundbites, the series is an invaluable primer for much of today’s most pressing sociocultural issues.

The first part, titled Love and Power, deals with how Ayn Rand and her philosophy of objectivism shaped the ethos of Silicon Valley in the 1990s and, eventually, the global economy as Alan Greenspan and Bill Clinton set out to create the New Economy, based on the premise of a dramatic rise in productivity thanks to emerging information technology. Curtis, however, goes on to argue that instead of creating market stability, these Randian ideals constricted people into a rigid system with little hope of escape.

We are now living through a very strange moment. We know that the idea of market stability has failed, but we cannot imagine any alternative. The original promise of the Californian ideology was that the computers would liberate us of all the old forms of political control, and we would become Randian heroes in control of our own destiny. Instead, today, we feel the opposite — that we are helpless components in a global system, a system that is controlled by a rigid logic that we are powerless to challenge or to change.”

Part two, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts, explores how technology cornerstones like cybernetics and systems theory were, Curtis argues, falsely applied to natural ecosystems and used to develop unrealistic models for human beings and societies. The episode has particularly timely resonance, in light of the recent global Occupy movement, as Curtis argues that such self-organizing network models without central control might be good at organizing change, but are less effective in what comes after.

The failure of the commune movement and the fate of the revolutions showed the limitations of the self-organizing model. It cannot deal with the central dynamic forces of human society: politics and power. The hippies took up the idea of the network society because they were disillusioned with politics. They believed that this alternative way of organizing the world was good because it was based on the underlying order of nature. But this was a fantasy. In reality, what they adopted was an idea taken from the cold and logical world of the machines. Now, in our age, we are all disillusioned with politics, and this machine-organizing principle has risen up to become the ideology of our age. And what we are discovering is that if we see ourselves as components in a system, it is very difficult to change the world. It is a very good way of organizing things, even rebellions, but it offers no ideas as to what comes next. And, just like in the communes, it leaves us helpless in the face of those already in power in the world.”

The final part, The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey, examines the selfish gene theory of evolution, developed by William Hamilton in the 1960s and made famous by Richard Dawkins in 1976. Curtis traces how this applied to everything from the civil war in Congo and the Rwandan genocide to George Price’s quest for the origin of altruism to Dawkins’ atheist reformulation of the religious idea of the “immortal soul” as a computer code in the form of genetic patterns. Curtis concludes by asking whether, in accepting these views of humans as machines, we as a culture have disempowered the human spirit.

Hamilton’s ideas remain powerfully influential in our society — above all, the idea that human beings are helpless chunks of hardware controlled by software programs written in their genetic codes. But, the question is, have we embraced that idea because it is a comfort in a world where everything we do, either good or bad, seems to have terrible unforeseen consequences?… We have embraced a fatalistic philosophy of us as helpless computing machines to both excuse and explain our political failure to change the world.”

Curiously, Brautigan’s original collection of poems, which inspired the film title, was intentionally distributed for free. The Curtis documentary, on the other hand, remains largely (legally) unavailable online and nearly impossible to legally see outside the U.K., as if a stubborn and enforced metaphor for the very thing it argues.

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