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More On the Truth Process: Chaos

February 7, 2009

Books That Changed Me: Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick

IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT. Boston, 1992. At an after-hours club, which may or may not have been an illegal operation. In a three story building of questionable structural integrity. There were the dulcet tones of techno. Trance, I think. On a video screen, moving images of fractals were being shown. It may have been a ‘Mandelbrot zoom’ though I didn’t know what one was at the time. Fehlleistungen was there. F nodded toward the video screen, then, in order to be heard over the music shouted into the space next my ear, “Chaos Theory.”
I looked dumbly at the screen, then back at F, who went on, “When you look at a Part, no matter how small, it looks the same as the Whole.”
“Sweet,” I said. I was tripping balls on vodka, cigarettes, ephedrine, and X, and thus unable to process the mind blowing shit F was trying to lay on me.

It wouldn’t be for another, what, sixteen years, after that “conversation,” more than twenty years after the book pictured above was published, before I got round to reading up on the subject.

Anyway, what I’ve learned is that I have been thinking wrong about a great many things with this whole ‘truth process’ thing. Oh, it was so clever of me, in a recent post, to leap from the architect Le Corbusier’s “[human] criterion of harmony,” (in terms of aesthetics,) to the Mandelbrot set, which is featured heavily in Chaos. But, the more I think about these things, the more it seems a strange connection to make. Especially in thinking more deeply about the difference between philosophical truths, which do not have any context in which to exist without ‘truth subjects,’ — human minds to think about them — and scientific or mathematical truths, (natural truths?) which, I would argue, exist independent of human minds. In other words, when a tree falls in the woods, vibrations result, which would be observed as sound if someone were there to ‘hear’ them.

But wait. Le Corbusier described his criterion of harmony as the “axis of organization which must indeed be that on which all phenomena and all objects of nature are based.” Which is certainly the sense one gets of the science of chaos described in Gleick’s book. So, aesthetic philosophical truth, at least to hear Le Corbu tell it, may be based in our innate sense of chaos theory. And Your Montag’s misfiring synapses are vindicated!

In explaining patterns and forms found in nature which seem at first random or chaotic, but when considered in the proper context, are found to conform to that axis of organization, with the help of Michael Barnsley, Gleick also describes what I’ve taken to calling ‘natural truth’:

“…when we go into a new room, our eyes dance around it in some order which we might as well take to be random, and we get a good idea of the room. The room is just what it is. The object exists regardless of what I happen to do.”

The Mandelbrot Set, in the same way, exists. It existed before Peitgen and Richter began turning it into an art form, before Hubbard and Douady understood its mathematical essence, even before Mandelbrot discovered it. It existed as soon as science created a context — a framework of complex numbers and a notion of iterated functions. Then it waited to be unveiled. Or perhaps it existed even earlier, as soon as nature began organizing itself by means of simple physical laws, repeated with infinite patience and everywhere the same.

There was one other gift this book gave me, in this nexus point in between Le Corbusier and Mandelbrot that I have been inhabiting. See, I love it when intellectuals fight, with their gutting insults and arrogant senses of infallibility. That shit’s entertaining, yo. Under the cut, we witness an intellectual slap fight… across time.

Mandelbrot, it seems, doesn’t have a taste for industrial age architucture:

A geometrical shape has a scale, a characteristic size. To Mandelbrot, art that satisfies lacks scale, in the sense that it contains important elements at all sizes. Against the Seagram Building, he offers the architecture of the Beaux-Arts, with its sculptures and gargoyles, its quoms and jamb stones, its cartouches decorated with scrollwork, its cornices topped with cheneaux and lined with dentils. A Beaux-Arts paragon like the Paris Opera has no scale because it has every scale. An observer seeing the building from any distance finds some detail that draws the eye. The composition changes as one approaches and new elements of the structure come into play.

Le Corbu— who says good architecture is comprised of primary shapes, and a sense of scale and proportion that appeals to what he calls an “Engineer’s aesthetic,” more than what might be called a “Natural aesthetic” —climbs atop his high horse and rides it to the top of an ivory tower, before providing this rejoinder:

Decoration is of a sensorial and elementary order, as is colour, and is suited to simple races, peasants and savages. Harmony and proportion incite the intellectual faculties and arrest the man of culture. The peasant loves ornament and decorates his walls. The civilized man wears a well-cut suit and is the owner of easel pictures and books.

Oh, snap!

Don’t get him going! If he goes along this same train of thought, he’ll start talking trash about Rome* and then things will start to get ugly.

Instead, let’s bring Gleick back in to moderate:

Appreciating the harmonious structure of any architecture is one thing; admiring the wildness of nature is quite another. In terms of aesthetic values, the new mathematics of fractal geometry brought hard science in tune with the peculiarly modern feeling for untamed, uncivilized, undomesticated nature.

So as there is a difference between philosophical truths, and ‘natural truths’, there is also a difference between the beauty of fine architecture, and the beauty of nature. Recognize.

* Le Corbu on Rome:
Rome is a bazaar in full swing, and a picturesque one. There you find every sort of horror (see the four reproductions here given) and the bad taste of the Roman Renaissance. We have to judge this Renaissance by our modern taste, which separates us from it by four great centuries of effort, the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th.

We reap the benefit of this endeavour; we judge hardly, but with a warrantable severity. These four centuries are lacking at Rome, which fell asleep after Michael Angelo. Setting foot once again in Paris, we recover our ability to judge.

The lesson of Rome is for wise men, for those who know and can appreciate, who can resist and can verify. Rome is the damnation of the half-educated. To send architectural students to Rome is to cripple them for life. The Grand Prix de Rome and the Villa Medici are the cancer of French architecture.


  1. February 8, 2009 2:13 AM

    Le Corbusier: nice buildings but you wouldn’t have wanted to get stuck next to him at a party, would you? Especially not on vodka and ephedrine. Chaos, for sure.

  2. MR Bill permalink
    February 9, 2009 4:50 PM

    I don’t know if you’ve ever read From Bauhaus to Our House. Like most of Tom Wolfe, it’s not very intellectually respectable, but it sure is fun, and his take on theoretic architecture and it’s intersection with the real thing is, well, interesting. He wrote just as Michael Graves was the hottest thing…
    And has a lot to say on Corbu: “ of those relentlessly logical thinkers that only the French love, who flies higher and higher in dizzying circles of logic until he disappears up his own fundamental aperture and emerges into the fourth dimension as a splinter thin umber bird .”
    In my own art struggles, I came to think of architects as the enemy of the artist or at least, his would be master.

  3. February 10, 2009 8:19 PM

    Michael, maybe we should work out a signal. if Le Corbu corners me, and I touch the side of my nose, you come over and smash me in the face with a beer bottle. okay? i know you got my back.

    MR. Bill, intellectual respectability isn’t really my bag. you may have notice that about me. i’ll add the Wolfe to my ‘to read’ list and maybe get to it in the next 16 years.

  4. February 25, 2009 3:16 PM

    If Le Corbu is still able to corner you forty-four years beyond the grave, I may be too surprised to react as quickly as you’d like.
    Better make it Jack Straw, eh?

  5. February 25, 2009 6:23 PM

    you are dealing here with a guy who in all seriousness endorsed a zombie presidential candidate in the elections, so you shouldn’t be too surprised. at my mental state anyway.


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