Alan Sondheim on Wed, 18 Aug 1999 11:35:57 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Configurations of the Electric (inc. addenda)

(First apologies for cross-posting. Second, this is an extension of the
short text Brian Carroll posted to nettime; I thought the full version
plus addenda might be of interest here. I want to thank Brian and others
writing back-channel commentary.)

Configurations of the Electric 

(Response to Brian Carroll's text on Nettime, and others back-channel.)

Think of three configurations of the _electric_ as a discourse network,
after the era of experimentation, voltaic cells, kite experiments, the
working-out of Maxwell and Faraday, galvanic twitches - in other words
after the two early configurations of the _anecdotal_ based on apparently
unrelated phenomena, and the eventual _mathesis_ of the same.

The early-mechanical - look at any text from say 1880-1905 - the images of
rheostats, circuit breakers, transformers, motors - only the light-bulb
contained the vacuum that opens up into the second configuration. Space in
this first configuration is that of mechanism, euclidean, 'practical.' The
chemical is also critical; there are batteries, measuring devices, indus-
trial processes, all in interaction with gears, levers, cams and rockers.
There are dialectic and insulating materials everywhere; the _weight_ of
apparatus immediately comes to mind - heavy electric motors, AC-DC, power-
lines, turbine generators - but even wound coils and capacitors. In the
anthracite mines of Pennsylvania, my homeland industry, huge bolted elec-
tric pumps and conveyors were used in the mines, collieries, and breakers;
the pumps are massive, swollen masses of black iron housing. Everything is
laid out mechanically; there are pulleys, belts, I-beams, and even within
the home the electrical grid consisted of _parallel lines_ running to the
sockets, a power skein of poor shielding. The early electric was _rotary,_
light-bulbs themselves transforming cities and work-force, night into day,
the luminous heated tips of the grid tending towards vacuum. In Appleton's
Cyclopaedia of Applied Mechanics: A Dictionary of Mechanical Engineering
and the Mechanical Arts, 1880, there are the following entries: Electric
Bells, Electric Clock, Electric Engraving Machine, Electric Fuse, Electric
Gas-Lighter, Electricity ("According to the modern theory of correlation
and conservation of forces, electricity is a mode of motion of the mole-
cules of matter. 'Light, heat, electricity, magnetism, motion, are all
convertible material affections. Assuming either as the cause, one of the
others will be the effect. Thus heat may be said to produce electricity,
electricity magnetism; and so of the rest.' (Grove.)"), Electric Light,
Electric Loom, Electric Machines (Static), Electric Pen, Electro-Ballistic
Machines, Electro-Galvanic and Thermic Batteries, Electro-Magnet, Electro-
Metallurgy or Galvanoplasty, Electrometers and Galvanometers, Electromo-
tors, Electroplating, Electroscopes, and Electrotyping. Other entries are
scattered among the two volumes with five-thousand engravings.

The vacuum - say 1910-1950 - use of vacuum tube technology, television,
radar, etc. - electrons moving through empty internalized space - I think
of this as organism, 'atomic.' As organism, I note the internal _heat_ and
separation of interior from exterior by the thin skin of glass, the cath-
ode streaming electron-blood, the warm glow, the grids screening the way
to the anode; the vacuum life is a hallowed-hollowed life. In 'hi-fi' aud-
io amplifiers, a certain _resonance-effect_ is established as the life of
the song and the tube itself dance harmonically (wolf-notes). Even the in-
terior of the computer monitor remains mysterious, delicately blown; on my
Sony Triniton screen, I see faint outlines of the wires supporting inner
gridding. In the Coyne Television Cyclopedia, 1951, article on picture
tubes, one reads "The electron stream still is spreading to some extent as
it reaches the space in which is a magnetic field produced by the focusing
coil or focusing magnet. This field draws the electrons together to form a
narrow beam that strikes the screen of the tube on a spot of small
diameter. This is the action of focusing, which is explained in the
article on _Focusing and Focusing Controls._" Here are the operations of
the interior, controlled by _fields,_ not necessarily of a Euclidean meas-
ure - operations upon a stream of sub-atomic particles. One thinks of
x-ray and other radiations made visible, for example radium decay through
Crookes' 1903 spinthariscope or cloud-chamber photographs; the former
relies on particle emission producing scintillation against a zinc oxide
target, and the latter, appearance of cloud-tracks within a chamber embed-
ded in a magnetic field. The information in the cloud-chamber is conveyed
by the trajectory itself; within the television tube, it is based on the
trajectory as scan, the amplitude of the stream governing the effects on
the screen.

The electronic - 1950-on out - transistors through integrated circuits of
increasing size and complexity - etc. - here's where computation begins
and the space is topological, not geometric - it's a question of point-to-
point connectivity, layers. Three or more spatial dimensions permit an
indefinite number of such connections; in two-dimensions, four is the max-
imum number of points that can be connected without cross-overs. Layers of
roughly two-dimensional surfaces (which can however be connected both
front and back), or even the cylindrical geometries of some super-comput-
ers, are practical solutions. The electronic tends towards physical _sta-
sis_; the ultimate device has no moving parts whatsoever, weighs almost
nothing, is nearly invisible, presents a flat inert surface to the user,
does what it's intended to do without interference. The interface may be
audio, physical pressure (touch-screen); it maybe be thought itself. Think
of the electronic as the _tendency of matter towards information_ - matter
which is, down to the molecular, infinitely addressable, each address in-
ert, possessing one of a number of states (including probabilistic states
in quantum theory, and, ironically, mechanical states in nanotech). This
is the literal blank generation, offering and containing everything, not
so much the (vacuum) _body_ of the organism as inherent simulacrum of the

All of these interpenetrate, exist within one another's imaginary, that of
infinite power, infinite life within the world of the practical-inert. Ev-
en television has its ancestory in, among other things, nineteenth century
parallel-pen telegraphy and spark-grids; one might think of legacy systems
backwards and forwards throughout the history of technology.

And all of these are qualitatively different; the 'electric' of 1900 was
not the 'electric' of 1930, nor that of 1999. On the other hand the power
grid moves through all of these states, but the _control_ begins with the
first configuration, moves through the last. With the telephone, control
is even hand-control (human operators, etc. making connects for even local
calls) at first - the rest come later. (One can imagine a fourth configur-
ation: nanotech in combination with organic membranes, within the next ten
years 'or so.')

[ The static, static electricity, interests me as well; it's as if it were
inherent in objects - St. Elmo's Fire, the electrical energy spewing from
telephone pole tips in Santa Monica, California, the sporadic lightning
energy of the Wimhurst generator - it's an energy which seems unable to be
harnessed, it bursts forth - so relates as well to a material unconscious,
taking a drive to bring it to the surface, expose it, produce/reproduce.
This energy which can so easily destroy a solid-state electronic chip will
do minimal damage, if anything, to vacuum tube circuitry, and even less to
mechanical configurations; as one proceeds through the twentieth century,
size and voltage/amperage diminish ... ]



Think of ur-, anywhere before the seventeenth century in Europe - there
AMBER, TEKTITES: chthonic residue, detritus, isolated phenomena, distances
of plains, valleys, and mountains, circuitous routes (even then the cir-
cuit completes, Japan's early contacts with China, for example, dangerous
- ships disappearing forever in the sea, finally sufficient returns of
Buddhist monks, texts, rites and rituals) -

And only _after_ this _divinatio,_ the configurations of the electric as
accumulations tending towards coherent and somewhat unified phenomena -

Think of last, anything after the stages of configurations - mid twenty-
first century - _animate_ matter, inertias, _universal stone,_ kaolins -
inherency in pebbles, _spewed matter_ elsewhere - bootstrapping for exam-
ple humanity 5,000,000 BCE; 30,000 BCE; 5,000 BCE - trembling towards the
future - circuitry through time and space - maybe a desire not to return.
foreclosing, _leaving_


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