Friday, April 25, 2008

It's Beginning To And Back Again

William James , Waterfall Illusion (1890) (Source: Harvard Gazette)

A couple of weeks ago, I presented a paper at a two-day conference and workshop hosted by MIT's Department of Architecture. As part of the event, we were given a personalized tour of Harvard's Scientific Collection by none other than Peter Galison. He drew our attention to one of the most well-known optical machines from the collection: William James' Waterfall Illusion.

The instrument was used by German psychologist Hugo M├╝nsterburg at Harvard's Psychological Laboratory (affiliated with, of all things, their Philosophy Department) for various well-documented trial experiments. Yet the Waterfall Illusion illustrates an important point about the relationship between the eye and the brain. The Dictionary of Psychology thus describes this relationship as,
An example of a negative after-effect. It is an illusion of apparent movement that occurs as a result of steady visual fixation on any portion of a waterfall. When the observer's gaze is shifted to the surrounding scenery, it appears to move in an upward direction. May be demonstrated in the laboratory with a waterfall illusion device such as one described by William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890).
I find the idea of an "illusion of apparent movement" fascinating. So much so that I was thinking about the waterfall illusion as I heard Mark Cousins speak at the Princeton University School of Architecture only a couple of nights ago. In a lecture entitled "History vs. The Past," Cousins (head of the Theories and Histories Program at the Architectural Association) bemoaned the current state of history in architecture school curricula. "History" was quickly put as a straw man, but only when understood in particular temporal frameworks, and under the dangerous rubric of "influence." Put another way, Cousins finds fault in the W├Âlfflinian approach of breaking down stylistic periods according to various attributes, and determining how those attributes were transmitted from from architect to architect.

A distinction was made between "history" and "the past." And Cousins advocated the latter rather than the former. When asked by an audience member how one would ever operationalize this idea, Cousins used the terms "relationship" and "engagement." In other words, the task is not to learn how ideas relating to the design of the Parthenon were communicated from generation to generation. Rather, the charge should be how individual architects dealt with the past. To use the Parthenon example, then: Cousins would opt for meditations and exegeses on how Le Corbusier "digested" the Parthenon in his writings and designs, or, to move on to more recent examples, how Peter Eisenman "made" Guiseppe Terragni.

The trouble is, the differences between "historical" methods and Cousins' interrogation of "the past" may be too subtle. They may be so subtle that the actual work of history -- the Blochian project of "crafting" history -- may fall by the wayside. The strange thing is that though the Q&A session was heated, Cousins and his critics were actually fighting the same fight. For two hours, people actually talked about "history", its guises and its pratfalls.

Yet for all the semantic wrangling between "history" and "the past", such distinctions can make for some confusion. But is this confusion good? Moving forward, in Cousins' pedagogical framework, means looking back. And one wonders if this wholly Benjaminian take is really just another version of Henry James' waterfall illusion. Do we think that our careful analyses and theoretical investigations move forward, when in reality we are mired in "the past"? Or is it the other way around: does our seeming reliance on precedent, influence, and any other deployment of concepts that require us to look backwards in time, in fact, move us forward? I'll leave it to James:
All currents tend to run forward in the brain and discharge into the muscular system and the idea of movement tends to do this with peculiar facility. But the question remains: Do currents run backward [?] (1918: 69).

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