Research: The Sympathy of Things

Reading Response to The Sympathy of Things by Lars Spuybroek

In this book Spuybroek compares and contrasts elements of the gothic to the digital age. He argues that Ruskin’s theories are related pretty directly to the Gothic. He distills Ruskin’s theories down to six key elements:

  1. Redundancy- copying
  2. Changefulness-activation and movement
  3. Rigidity- the lack of free movement, preconfigured patterns
  4. Naturalism- familiarity
  5. Savageness- imperfection
  6. Grotesqueness- savageness pushed to extremes

For each of these elements he speaks of how they relate to both the gothic and the digital age. Redundancy is the availability of a huge number of ribs. Changefulness is how lines copy and swerve and grow in a nave and the spaces between fill. Rigidity is straight lines that then bend and come to a stop and stitch together. Naturalism is these lines having a sense of the familiar. Savageness is the breaks and branches in the lines. Grotesqueness is the strange excrescences that results from it all.

I found his analysis to be interesting. I could see how code as a generative tool relates to this. However, I did think it was a bit of a stretch for the author to compare these two things. It seemed like he was warping the intention of some of Ruskin’s concepts to fit into his theories of gothic, digital.

I did like his use of writing as a way to demonstrate concepts. He had the reader draw an “a” by hand over and over to demonstrate the use of motor schema and how the repetition of drawing those “a’s” represented a script. I also enjoyed how he related writing to code. If a letter is a script than putting letters together creates a code. I had never really thought of the correlation between writing and code before.. It got me thinking about what other things in life are codes that we never classify as codes. His comparison of the generative nature of genetic code to digital code was interesting as well. I was a bit confused by the comparison of modeling and casting together as it relates to digital code. I understood that digital code can be something that both builds upon itself and deteriorates, but I feel there is a lot more to the acs of modeling and casting than just distilling them down to those two actions and Spuybroek was sort of ignoring the other aspects to prove his point. I felt like he often zeroed in on one small aspect of a concept and ignored the rest in order make it fit better with the gothic or the digital.

I did like his criticism of Gehry because Ghery created these visions of what he wanted buildings to be without considering the way things fit together and whether they would be structurally sound. Many of his buildings have major structural flaws, they let in water and create mold, or they have had to have constant structural work to keep them standing. His criticism of Gehry’s work as being a partial attempt at the union of the gothic made perfect sense to me.

When he talked about patterns he said that natural and technical patterns have no difference and the example he used clearly illustrated this point. I questioned that statement until he talked about how natural patterns can occur in a factory too. This brought me back to Ruskin’s idea that everything produced in a factory is the same, but in actuality each thing produced varies slightly. You can look at mass produced plastic trinkets and see some have imperfections, perhaps the plastic caught an air bubble in production and there is a small hole where the bubble once was, or a tiny bit too much plastic was poured into a mold and a bit overflowed and gathered on the edge of the object. No two things are exactly alike whether we would like them to be or not.

I thought it was a it interesting that he elaborated on naturally occurring patterns like snowflakes and mud cracks. He seemed to be trying to convince us that they were all different when I think most people would not need convincing of that. I think most people have enough experience of nature to know that no two things in nature are exactly alike. I would have expected him to elaborate more on the technically produced patterns like those produced in a factory. Especially when the first half of the reading focused on Ruskin’s criticism of machines creating copies. This is a clear case of “uniformity amidst variation” as he says, but I am not sure we need convincing of that.

I really loved the line “Patterns are true expressions of formation as time- dependent; the spatial forms are only the final products of such periodicity, the remnants carrying all the information as a graph of the process.”

The transition from Ruskin’s theories to patterns was kind of abrupt. There was little transition. To me they seemed like opposing forces, like patterns themselves were proof of the repetition Ruskin so strongly criticized. I understood how patterns related to the gothic because in nature patterns are generative and they fill in the gaps between the space. I just wasn’t sure why the text suddenly stopped talking about Ruskin and veered in a completely different direction.

A few terms I wanted to remember:

Matter- not the structure of a final form but the structure of a zone of potential forms.

Pattern- materials arranged through a history of forces.

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