Peculiar Attunements

Peculiar Attunements: How Affect Theory Turned Musical 

by Roger Mathew Grant

In his second book, Roger Mathew Grant offers a new way of thinking through affect historically and dialectically, placing contemporary affect theory in relation to an overlooked historical precursor—European music theory of the eighteenth century. Struggling to explain how music could move its listeners without imitation (as a painting might), theorists of that period developed a “materialist theory of vibrational attunement.” Carolyn Abbate describes Peculiar Attunements as a “tour-de-force” that provides “a formidable and extraordinarily clear-headed critique of affect theory, while at the same time identifying and then demystifying its strange affinities with eighteenth-century theories about music’s power.”

Grant’s work on affect theory’s antecedents in eighteenth-century music theory appears in Representations 144, in the article “Music Lessons on Affect and Its Objects.”

Roger Mathew Grant is Associate Professor of Music at Wesleyan University and the author of Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era (Oxford, 2014), which won the 2016 Society for Music Theory Emerging Scholar Award.

Thoughts While Shaving

RAND Narratology

by Kent Puckett

Robert S. McNamara. US News & aNd World Report, 1965

This penetrating essay by Representations own Kent Puckett looks at the unlikely historical and aesthetic overlap between narrative theory and strategic defense thinking in the middle part of the twentieth century. Taking in the many writings and frankly odd intellectual styles of nuclear war planners working at the RAND Corporation, the essay examines the unexpected play between the material facts of intellectual history, the obscure but nonetheless real force of narrative desire, and the unthinkable costs of nuclear war.

The essay begins:

In late 1947, John Williams, recruiting for what was then called Project RAND, sent the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann a letter offering him two hundred dollars a month in exchange for just a little slice of his time:

In practice I would hope that members of the Project with problems in your line (i.e., the wide world) could discuss them with you, by mail and in person. We would send you all working papers and reports of RAND which we think would interest you, expecting you to react (with frown, hint, or suggestion) when you had a reaction. In this phase, the only part of your thinking time we’d like to bid for systematically is that which you spend shaving: we’d like you to pass on to us any ideas that come to you while so engaged.

Von Neumann—who, with Oskar Morgenstern, wrote 1944’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, more or less inventing game theory—would go on to work, and not only while shaving, with RAND on a number of its key Cold War projects, especially helping to refine its early application of game-theoretical models to the problems of nuclear war planning and strategic deterrence.

The story is characteristic of the early days at RAND. First, it is one of many RAND anecdotes about von Neumann that highlight the fact and local value of his uncanny and apparently unlimited brilliance; it is thus proof not only of von Neumann’s reputation for intellectual virtuosity but also of the peculiar emphasis that RAND placed on brains, on an intelligence that was rapid, ruthless, burning bright. A colleague at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study reported that “Johnny’s mind . . . was lightning quick—stunningly fast. If you gave him a problem he either solved it right away or not at all.” More than just a prerequisite for the analysis and modeling to which RAND was committed, excessive, throwaway, for-its-own-sake brilliance was, as we will see, an important and, indeed, constitutive aspect of the early RAND style. Second, Williams’s note suggests a kind of desperate whimsy that seemed almost de rigueur at RAND. Hard drinks, good music and good food, modernist interior design, Ping-Pong, dirty jokes, cool jazz, fraternity pranks, and sci-fi: accounts of the early days at RAND make it look as much like a David Lodge novel or an episode of Mad Men as the well-funded think tank that in fact it was. The RAND milieu, writes one critic, “offered the exhilarating emotional palette of a certain type of boy’s world: a virtuous people menaced by evil zealots, the fate of millions concentrated in the hands of a daring few.” “Life at RAND,” writes another, “was a boy’s conception of what a man’s life should be, down to the fragrant pipe tobacco, fast cars, and clubby exclusivity.” Its humor was a boy’s humor, too. Like Williams, von Neumann was “an inveterate jokester”: “Merrill Flood recalls the time that Einstein was supposed to go to New York and von Neumann offered to drive him to the Princeton train station. Von Neumann purposely put Einstein on a train going in the wrong direction.”

A similarly affected eccentricity appears in Williams’s own popular introduction to game theory, The Compleat Strategyst: Being a Primer on the Theory of Games of Strategy (1954). In addition to its cod-Elizabethan title, its leaden gags, and its water-cooler misogyny, Williams’s book was illustrated in an urbane, by-the-way style reminiscent of the New Yorker. Where, however, contemporary comics by Carl Rose, Jules Feiffer, and Herbert “Herblock” Block displayed real wit about midcentury life and things directly relevant to RAND, Charles Satterfield’s illustrations feel unmotivated and, predictably, a little distasteful. One image of a besmocked painter pausing fussily before applying yet another color to a globe wouldn’t be all that funny in any case, but it seems especially ham-fisted appearing as it does in a RAND publication introducing ideas that backed American policies of containment, strategic deterrence, second-strike capacity, and, in time, proxy war in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

What’s more, Satterfield’s image and Williams’s text rely on a more general and long-standing relation between war and games that connects the abstract and deadly serious modeling at RAND with a longer if equally fraught history of Kriegsspiel, with, that is, the idea of war as not only a terrible necessity but also an almost aesthetic activity that—like painting, mixing drinks, or telling jokes—is said to give special pleasure when done all for its own sake. Indeed, the offer to pay von Neumann for his nearly idle shaving thoughts, for his extra ideas, for time that would otherwise go to waste, for work that was valuable precisely and paradoxically because it bordered on waste, is evidence of the prodigal ethos of the early days of RAND, an appreciation for the beau geste that could seem to run against the grain of the group’s clean-cut, clinical, avowedly pragmatic, and broadly amoral work on military strategy at an especially high-stakes moment in American and world history. What is most interesting to me is what this all reveals about the generative relation between, on the one hand, RAND’s “hard-headed” realism and, on the other, the elegant, seductive, and oddly excessive qualities, first, of game theory, which was not invented but rather cultivated at RAND, and, after game theory had run out of steam, of systems analysis.

Elegant, excessive, and, as I will argue, strikingly if also—and this is important—minimally narrative. Take, for example, the prisoner’s dilemma, the most famous of game theory’s many models, which was developed at RAND by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher in 1950 and subsequently filled out and crucially named by Albert Tucker. Game theory is, roughly, the use of quantitative models to account for or to predict the cooperative or competitive behavior of rational actors within defined states of conflict, and the prisoner’s dilemma is a two-person game that imagines two prisoners who have together committed a crime and must choose separately under interrogation either to remain mum or to confess and thus to incriminate the other. If A and B both speak, both spend two years in prison; if either only A or only B speaks, the one who speaks will go free and the other will spend three years in prison; if neither A nor B speaks, both will spend only a single year in prison. Although the prisoner’s dilemma is an abstract and, in that sense, apparently timeless conceptual construct, it is also a little story, a “stock narrative,” a concrete example that motivates abstraction in terms that recall the bare but nonetheless real narrativity of the folktale: it has characters, a conflict, a setting, and something like a beginning, middle, and end. What’s more, the story of the story, the story of the dilemma’s itinerant passage from RAND through Tucker and then out into the wider world might—again, just barely—mirror the trajectory of the traditional folktale: “Not published as such until years after its invention, the prisoner’s dilemma spread through the scientific community of the 1950s by oral transmission that would satisfy the folklorist’s definition of a dilemma tale.” If the dilemma’s utility is a result of its capacity to quantify conflict, its considerable and enduring appeal is due, at least in part, to what was only apparently inessential or extra to it: a minimally developed narrative set-up that motivated abstraction in the familiar terms of temporally distinct and yet causally related events: crime, confession, punishment. Just as structuralist and formalist thinkers were working in the 1950s and 1960s to theorize literariness as an objective, more or less present, and semi-autonomous aspect of some kinds of language, the quantitative realists at RAND demonstrated—and not only in their early work on game theory—a similar commitment to the ostensible autonomy of rules, systems, and, as I’ll argue, to narrative understood as independent of whatever it might in fact narrate.

It is important, given a tendency simply to equate RAND nuclear thinking with game theory, to note that game theory was finally an early and ultimately abandoned expression of a more varied commitment to systems thinking and the quantification of conflict: as Robert Leonard argues, “This burst of game-theoretic analysis of tactics in the late 1940s and early 1950s, although intensive, was short-lived. Although formally impeccable, little of it ultimately found its way into the larger systems analyses conducted at RAND, the studies most influential upon the Air Force client.” If, however, game theory per se seemed quickly to hit a wall at RAND, its rationalist, discursive, and minimally narrative promise continued in both more and less diffuse ways to inform the think tank’s culture, style, and rhetoric: “That the Cold War was literally a game in this stripped-down, spare sense remained a consistent point of departure for discussions of arms races and nuclear war, even as the adequacy of game theory’s calculating brand of rationality for dealing with such situations came in for criticism.” At a moment when the enormity, immediacy, and speed of thermonuclear war threatened the very idea of significantly different but related beginnings, middles, and ends, RAND advocated styles and strategies that betray not necessarily a commitment to military victory (an increasingly hollow concept in the age of the bomb), or even to meaning at a moment when meaning seemed under threat, but rather to an unmotivated desire for what we might call bare narrativity. Continue reading …

The author of War Pictures: Cinema, Style, and Violence in Britain, 1939–1945 (2017), Narrative Theory: A Critical Introduction (2016), and other books, KENT PUCKETT teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, where serves on the editorial board of Representations. He is currently writing a book about the aesthetics of electoral modeling.

In Analogy to Painting

Vera Molnar’s Computer Paintings

by Aline Guillermet

The Hungarian-born French painter Vera Molnar pioneered the use of the computer as a creative medium beginning in the late 1960s. This article by Aline Guillermet explores how Molnar’s computer-generated works used programming as a means to reflect on the autographicity of the handmade trace in drawing and painting.

The essay begins:

In 1948, Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener each published a work that would durably shape the concept of information for the digital age. Both mathematicians defined information in terms of entropy—a term borrowed from physics, which describes the disorganization or unpredictability of a system. While they differed in their interpretation of the term, both agreed to define information as a probability function wholly independent from material conditions. As Wiener famously stated in his book Cybernetics: “Information is information, not matter or energy.” The distinction Shannon and Wiener inaugurated between information and its context would have lasting consequences far beyond the narrow realm of communication engineering. Writing fifty years later, the literary critic N. Katherine Hayles summarized: “The time was ripe for theories that reified information into a free-floating, decontextualized, quantifiable entity that could serve as the master key unlocking secrets of life and death.”

The definition of information as disembodied pattern, in turn, led to a series of misconceptions that still inform contemporary conceptions of digital media. By contrast, Hayles argues that “for information to exist, it must always be instantiated in a medium. . . . Conceiving of information as a thing separate from the medium instantiating it is a prior imaginary act that constructs a holistic phenomenon as an information/matter duality.” In this article, I aim to extend Hayles’s analysis to the history of art by focusing on a series of computer-generated works produced by the Hungarian-born French artist Vera Molnar. A classically trained painter who started working in French computer laboratories in 1968, Molnar opened a space of mediation between the computational realm of information processing and the material practice of painting; in so doing, she directly challenged the duality between information and materiality that Hayles condemned.

Information needs to undergo a certain amount of analogizing before humans can experience it, a task that today is routinely, and more or less invisibly, performed by interfaces. Information, therefore, not only needs to be “instantiated” in a medium in the general sense, as Hayles contends, but also relies on specific material conditions in order to be perceptually experienced and cognitively processed. This holds important consequences for the visual arts. Well before the advent of the user-friendly interfaces that we know today, early technologies of data visualization and inscription enabled such an experience. Originally developed for the military during World War II, the electronic visualization and plotting of data (on a cathode ray tube [CRT] screen and on paper, respectively) was refined throughout the 1960s for the benefit of the booming postwar industry. It is in this context that a few computer scientists, working in research institutions that encouraged collaboration between engineers and artists, exploited the creative possibilities of the machines at their disposal.

As early as 1962, the engineer A. Michael Noll produced a series of “computer-produced patterns” at Bell Telephone Laboratories, using the newly acquired Stromberg-Carlson 4020 microfilm printer (also known as the “microfilm plotter”). From the outset, Noll situated his “patterns”—black and white plotted line drawings generated by connecting a series of points with straight lines—at the periphery of artistic creation in order to avoid “an unintentional debate at this time on whether the computer-produced designs are truly art or not.” However, the relation between these computer-produced works and modern visual culture was far from unambiguous. While Noll did not set out to create “art,” several of his productions appropriated an aesthetic derived from the canon of modern painting, whether intentionally or not: for instance, one of his first patterns, Gaussian-Quadratic (1962), “reminded [him]” of Pablo Picasso’s cubist painting Ma Jolie of 1911–12. Two years later, Noll also produced a series of computer-generated simulations of Piet Mondrian’s Composition in Line (second state; 1916–17)—a work to which I shall return in reference to Molnar’s practice.

In Europe, too, computer graphics originated within a scientific context. At the University of Stuttgart, the first works of computer art were produced between 1963 and 1964 by the mathematics students Frieder Nake and Georg Nees using the Zuse Graphomat Z64 plotter. Yet these early works were already embedded in a broader intellectual environment that sought to rethink the production and reception of art in the age of the computer. As early as 1964, the inventor of the Graphomat Z64, Konrad Zuse, had foreseen that his device—while primarily designed for technical purposes—could be put to artistic use. Moreover, Nake and Nees were closely associated with the philosopher Max Bense, whose information aesthetics aimed at developing a mathematical framework for the perception and creation of art. For these pioneers of computer graphics, modern art and visual culture functioned as a point of reference rather than as an example to emulate. However, as the context I have sketched indicates, their endeavors existed in tension with, rather than outside of, the artistic sphere.

By the late 1960s, a small number of artists had started experimenting with computers. For these artists, computer graphics did not exist in contradiction to modern art; rather, they envisioned using the machine to further develop features usually associated with human-made creation, such as inventiveness and organicity. Foregrounding the importance of materiality at the point when the algorithm is not only traced but also drawn and painted became a key strategy to legitimize the computer as an artistic tool. At the time, however, such works were largely dismissed by critics of traditional art, who failed to recognize any aesthetic specificity to the artistic appropriation of the computer as medium. Today, computer art is no longer an object of condemnation; yet it has remained on the periphery of the artistic canon and is generally classified by museum institutions under the category of print media. While media history and media archeology have done much to clarify the technological context of emerging computer art, such approaches fail to account for the way computer art has related to fine art. Among those artists who saw in the computer a new means to expand the possibilities of painting, Molnar best brought into productive discussion the so-called immateriality of the algorithm and the materiality of the computer-generated trace.

Molnar studied painting at the Budapest College of Fine Arts between 1942 and 1947 and moved to Paris in 1947. Between 1947 and 1960, she collaborated with her husband, François Molnar, an academic researcher in experimental psychology at the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique), the French national center for scientific research, on artistic productions they saw as “scientific experiments.” Having gained access to a computer in 1968, Molnar relied on the new discipline of information aesthetics, developed independently by the French physicist and philosopher Abraham A. Moles and the German philosopher Max Bense during the 1960s, as a theoretical framework for her creative practice. As a result, the balance between randomness and redundancy—crucial to information theory and its application to the visual arts—became central to the dialogue between classical painting and computer programming that she inaugurated. The manipulation of random parameters, in particular, enabled the production of “autographic” effects, such as trembling and hesitation, suggesting that the plotted line could imitate key characteristics of the handmade trace.

In this article I argue that Molnar’s computer-generated works reflect upon painting as a practice, a historical tradition, and an aesthetic experience. This claim, in turn, invites a reassessment of computer art in relation to the materiality of painting. The elements that constitute computer art as a medium—the coding process, the computer, the screen, the plotting table—all engage with materiality in ways that are fundamentally different from drawing and painting. Molnar’s production, however, shows that as soon as code becomes materialized, it is perceived in relation precisely to these existing instances of materially instantiated visual culture. My argument is structured around three series of works realized between 1973 and 1988. The first section deals with Molnar’s appropriation of information aesthetics in two series of plotter-drawn variations, Hommage à Barbaud (Tribute to Barbaud; 1974) and Computer-rosace (Computer-rose; 1975), in which Molnar experiments with Bense’s concept of an “aesthetic state.” In the second section, I investigate the different ways in which the materiality of computer-generated paintings comes to the fore, first in (Dés)ordres ((Dis)orders), a plotter drawing in color ink on white paper (1974), and second in a group of acrylic paintings begun in 1973 entitled Computer icône (Computer icon). In the last section, I focus on a single series of works produced during the 1980s, entitled Lettres de ma mère (My mother’s letters), to suggest that coding, in simulating autographic qualities, may evoke the materiality of painting. Continue reading …

ALINE GUILLERMET is a Junior Research Fellow at King’s College, University of Cambridge. Her research interests include postwar German art, the impact of technology on painting, and digital art. She is currently completing a book on Gerhard Richter.

Lyric Archaeology

Pindar, Song, and Space: Towards a Lyric Archaeology

with authors Leslie Kurke and Richard Neer

Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, UC Berkeley

In Pindar, Song, and Space (Johns Hopkins, 2019), Leslie Kurke and coauthor Richard Neer develop a new, integrated approach to classical Greece — a “lyric archaeology” that combines literary and art-historical analysis with archaeological and epigraphic materials.

The focus of their study is the poet Pindar of Thebes, best known for his odes in honor of victors at the Olympic Games and other competitions. While recent classical scholarship has tended to isolate poetry, art, and archaeology, Kurke and Neer show that these distinctions are artificial. They argue that poems, statues, bronzes, tombs, boundary stones, roadways, beacons, and buildings worked together as a suite of technologies for organizing and inhabiting space that was essentially political in nature.

LESLIE KURKE is the Gladys Rehard Wood Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The Traffic in Praise: Pindar and the Poetics of Social Economy. Her essay “Plato, Aesop, and the Beginnings of Mimetic Prose” appeared in Representations 94.

History Goes to the Movies

History Homecoming: History Goes to the Movies

February 5 | 6:30-9:30 p.m. | UC Berkeley Alumni House, Great Hall

What’s it like to go to the movies with a professional historian? Find out at History Homecoming 2020, which features a panel of distinguished UC Berkeley history professors discussing two recently released films (Little Women and Harriet) and one popular contemporary Netflix series (The Crown). In addition to offering short presentations, panelists will field audience questions and continue the conversation over food and drink at a post-panel reception.

 Thomas Laqueur, Professor Emeritus, History Department; Stephanie Jones-Rogers, Associate Professor, History Department; David Henkin, Professor, History Department

 Peter Zinoman, Department Chair, Professor, History Department, 510-6421092