Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Descartes and Plato: humorists in the algorithm

In the sidebar to the right you'll find a link to an online art gallery where I've posted a few of my photographs for sale. One of the photographs is a shot of a mare and her foal,

 Click to enlarge.

but until today this image was covered by a click-through warning page marked, in capitals, "SAFE FILTER IS ON."

"Well," I thought when I first saw the warning, "the gallery is family-friendly." After all, the friendship filter has long been a part of American culture. We may think of the Jacksonian era as a time of exuberantly expanding frontiers, yet in Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) Frances Trollope describes a civic landscape whose emotional architecture is all House of Usher.

An English lady who had long kept a fashionable boarding-school in one of the Atlantic cities, told me that one of her earliest cares with every new comer, was the endeavour to substitute real delicacy for this affected precision of manner; among many anecdotes, she told me one of a young lady about fourteen, who on entering the receiving room, where she only expected to see a lady who had enquired for her, and finding a young man with her, put her hands before her eyes, and ran out of the room again, screaming, "A man! a man! a man!"  (136-37)

Still, the emotional technologies of reading and seeing do change. The modesty screen before my image of love among the calmly unashamed Houyhnhnms has been taken down. 

Not yet so, however, with the unlucky oeuvre of Leland Howard, an Idaho photographer who specializes in Rocky Mountain landscapes. As of July 13, 2010, his page in the online gallery looked like this. 

The man just out of sight in this blasted landscape could, I suppose, be Edgar Poe, and he might be muttering something like, "Accursed!" My guess about the blocks of gray among the colors, however, is that the gallery's censor isn't an Edgar, or even a human being, but a software routine. An algorithm can't (yet) react to allusion and connotation or the emotions they can stimulate, but somewhere there's a programmer who has realized that some families of curves are associated with sexual desire as stimulus to response. Flag the curves with a warning sign, then. In translation, the sign will read: "Hazardous emotion watch." If the curve then turns out to be a mere mountaintop cloud (as it does in Howard's images) -- well, no harm done. The modesty screen has been programmed to go transparent at a click, and whatever emotion the clearing reveals won't be detectable by the software. 

Still, the moment of clearing is memorable, isn't it? For that memory, then: 

Thank you, René Descartes, great prose stylist who showed us how to reduce curves, those wordless forms, to a wordless mathematical grammar. Transcending the human desire to visualize physically and express the visualization in words, your discovery turned out to be one of the great comedy routines. Malvolio and Laurel and Hardy and Captain Gulliver have an essential family resemblance: by perseveringly refusing to see what's there to be seen in the human world, they dehumanize themselves. For reasons that Henri Bergson explains, that sometimes comes out funny.

Thank you, Plato, for showing us that when we look at a body we see first curvature and then invisible love. 

And (why not?) thank you too, mare and foal standing before my camera two years ago, for helping me understand what the Platonist Wallace Stevens meant when he mused, "The body dies; the body's beauty lives."

Source: Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans. 1832; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949.