Mumford: Space, Distance, Movement (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

hereford_mapCultures can be differentiated by their unique conceptions of space and time. Europe in the Middle Ages understood space and time in terms of arbitrary, religion-based symbolism. For instance, medieval cartography presents land masses and water as arbitrary shapes (see the Hereford Map), related to each other allegorically. Further, time was understood as something fluid, where in storytelling the past is happening now, so that it’s realistic to the medievel mind to transport a story from a thousand years ago into the present, or as in Botticelli’s The Three Miracles of St. Zenobius, where three different times are presented at once. The result of this was the ability to understand what we presently only understand using science–ship’s drop off the horizon, demons drop down chimneys. Things in the world come and go in the same way as adults come and go in the eyes of children–things are all either mysteries or miracles. All things make sense through religion–“the true order of space was Heaven, even as the true order of time was Eternity.”

boticelliBetween the 14th and 17th centuries, space “as a hierachy of values” was replaced by “space as a system of magnitudes.” In painting, horizons, vanishing points, and visual relationships between things replaced symbolic relationships between things. Size no longer corresponded to divine proportions, but to distance, objects in relationship to one another. This meant a need to understand the world accurately. Space would now be measured in the same way time was measured with a clock. To understand something would be to place it, and to time it–how long to get there? By placing things geographically, there was now an incentive to explore and discover the world. And by graphing out the world, even while incomplete or inaccurate, there was now a basis of expectations, rather than the navigationally useless maps of the Middle Ages. Explorers did not need to hug the shoreline, as in the old maps, but could now launch into the open seas and return to roughly where they began. Eden and Heaven were no longer to be found on maps. The concepts of space and time require us to begin, arbitrarily, with here and now–their conquest is through measurement, and through their conquest, scientific advancement. And in conquering space and time, the importance of numbers and counting grew.

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Clair: Sous les toits de Paris (1930)

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All I’d seen of Rene Clair was his Entr’acte that–although I have no recollection of it, I do associate with Dadaism or some such thing. I trudged slowly towards home carrying this film in one hand, a bottle of wine in the other, knowing that I was to soon face the hell that is art. But, as sometimes happens, I fell in love instead. I’ve grown quite used to silent films, to the point that I prefer them to sound films, to focus on the visuals and only the visuals is something we rarely have the opportunity to experience anymore, for even in an art gallery we frame our paintings with the noises of the gallery itself, that acts as a frame for the frames, and our days frame the museums, so that somehow, even the sound of the cash register as we buy our tickets is the sound of Botticelli’s goddesses in repose. Clair works with sound, and yet his film is essentially a silent. He uses sound as punctuation, and one is forced to pay close attention to the sound when it is present, for he always offers an explanation. Background music always has an origin, although we rarely discover its origin until deep into the song, when the camera cuts to a view of a spinning record, or when the soundtrack itself begins repeating a single line, and a hand picks the needle up and begins the song again. A great fight scene occurs in which all we hear is the sounds of a train. And when the character Pola speaks, “non, non, non, non,” tiny breaths in response to silent whispers, that’s enough to fall in love with her, and with love, and with the fullness that is a soft voice.