Thursday, March 16, 2017

Some themes, elaborated: cities and straight lines

It happened, eight years ago, that a friend of mine was visiting her parents in Jersey and needed to get back to Washington, DC on the quick. I was happy to give her a ride, and then to spend the night with her. It wasn't for the first time.

She's been living in Minnesota for a few years now, and got engaged last winter. Less than a decade ago we were smoking cigarettes together outside Paul's Diner on Route 46 after closing shifts at the bookstore, but to recollect those nights with her now, to remember myself then, is like imagining the life of a stranger. The day-to-day state of things seems so obvious, so unneedful of an explanation until one thinks back to a past he's lived, history he's experienced, old acquaintances he's made and lost, and then the present becomes a mystery beyond all reasoning or utterance. How did we get to where we are?

I believe that if most of us are honest with ourselves, we perceive the arcs of our lives being determined not principally by will or fate, but by a conspiracy of accidents, chance meetings, impulsive swerves into the exit lane, mistaken boardings of the wrong train, last-minute changes of plans.

So: I took my friend to DC. While she was at the office the next day—a Monday—I sauntered for hours through the National Mall and Capitol Hill in the languid dogday heat. The National Air and Space Museum was my first priority. I believe I hit up the Hirshhorn next, and peered inside the National Museum of the American Indian afterwards. I know that before meeting up with my friend in the afternoon, my last stop was the United States Botanic Garden, and I know I visited it on somebody else's advice—someone who knew I'd be taking this trip. I don't remember who it was.

The medial chamber of the Botanic Garden's conservatory is called "The Tropics," and is designed to simulate an area of rainforest that has subsumed the remains of an abandoned plantation. Entering the room for the third or fourth time, I came upon a guide giving a tour to a small group of visitors, and listened from a distance. She invited her flock to take a look around, and asked them to pretend for a moment that they were looking at an actual landscape in an actual rainforest. Just on a glance, she asked, how would we know which of these plants were cultivated by humans?

Murmurs, but no answers.

She pointed to two rows of palms standing along the edges of a pebble-paved stream running from one end of the greenhouse to the other.

The palms and the stream. (Not my pic.)

Look at how they're arranged, she said. You can tell humans planted them because they're standing in neat rows. And straight lines do not occur in nature.

SeƱor J.L. Borges writes about an object called the Zahir. It has appeared throughout history as many different things—it has been an astrolabe, a tiger, a compass, a vein in a marble pillar—and in each of its manifestations it possesses the supernatural and terrible property of being unforgettable. Once somebody glimpses the Zahir, they can forever afterwards not not think of it. In Borges' tale the Zahir appears as a 20-centavo coin, handed to him out of a bartender's till on the night of June 7, 1947. It was a matter of procedure: JB paid for his brandy with cash, and the man at the bar gave him his change. Neither thought much of it. Then JB glanced at the coins in his palm, and spotted the Zahir among them—and that was the fulcral moment of his lifetime.

My being in DC to overhear this elderly tour guide's routine exposition of the conservatory on the afternoon of August 3, 2009, was borne of circumstances no less arbitrary than those which placed the Zahir in JB's hand during his visit to an obscure Buenos Aires tavern; and when I left the place, I carried with me something that's always creeping at the periphery of my thoughts.

Straight lines.

After exiting the Botanic Garden, I sat at a patio table by the flowerbeds outside. I smoked a couple of cigarettes, I read the copy of DH Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature I'd borrowed from my friend's bookcase. I took a few notes on the legal pad I carried with me in my backpack; I remember writing: Nature abhors a Euclid.

My friend left work and met me at the Metro station an hour or two later. We visited the National Museum of Natural History, though it was only open for another twenty-five minutes by the time we arrived. Then we went to an Adams Morgan hookah lounge, where we met up with some of her coworkers, who talked for hours about the sane and conspicuously savvy things that DC yuppies are wont to talk about. (I don't blame my friend for a minute for absconding to Arizona a couple years later.)

But I could be mistaken: I know my friend and I went to a hookah lounge with some people she knew from the office, but it could have been on a subsequent visit. Maybe the hookah lounge wasn't in Adams Morgan. It could be that she and I visited the National Museum of the American Indian for twenty-five minutes—yes, now that I think of it, I think that's how it went—and I toured the Natural History museum by myself earlier in the afternoon. Maybe I wasn't carrying a legal pad; maybe it was a sketch pad. It could be that I jotted down that line about Euclid on a later occasion, a later visit to the Botanic Garden, after the idea had some time to germinate in me. So many of the details of this visit to DC have lost their distinctness—but I remember what the tour guide in the conservatory said with the uttermost lucidity. Straight lines do not occur in nature.

And I've thought about this a lot since then. Pondered the curvature of the Earth, the Einsteinian dimples in spacetime about massive objects. Considering the inscrutable physics that determine the form into which a city crystallizes. Taking long looks at the bare tree branches in the winter and the meristematic shoots in the spring, each a physical record of that organism's straining efforts to put as much of itself under the sun as it feasibly can. Sitting under the transmission towers in the meadow and watching the clouds through the apertures in their members...

We've peeked at the peculiarities of the English language with regard to the confused semiotics of "open spaces" and "nature." Our language obfuscates their converses, too. Nobody says "closed space" in reference to the sorts environments or landscapes standing in contradistinction to "open spaces." Nobody says "unnature" to mean "place where humans live."

A thought: what if, in reference to cities, or to anthropoized environments, we were to altogether exclude human beings from our description. What would we be left with?

City: a landscape wherein objects tend to be arranged in straight lines; where the lines tend to meet at right angles; where the planes demarcated by these lines tend to be flat. We might also add: where surfaces tend to be hard; where the ground tends to be visible; where there are relatively few objects obstructing or projecting into the open corridors between stranding structures.

Does it follow that the extent to which a landscape may be said to be developed, urbanized, anthropized, etc., can be gauged by the prevalence of these characteristics?



Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea



Australia, 1904

Australia, c. 1900

United States, 3/14/2017

United States, 3/14/2017


To be clear, this did not begin with the modern age or the West.


Machu Picchu

Notice: even to the Incas, urbanization entailed terracing the Andean slopes—in other words, converting them into a succession of flat planes, perpendicularly joined.

The emergence of these elements in urban landscapes is not difficult to account for. It's easier to manually carve a straight beam than a curved arch, and easier to erect four rectangular exterior walls than a dome (for instance). With a rectangular building, the area of every floor is (ideally) equal to the area occupied by the foundation, whereas the floor space of a domed or pyramidal structure decreases with height. It requires less work to erect structures, haul materials, and move about on level ground than on a steep hill. There is less desire for greenbelts or undeveloped space when the residents of a densely populated area want more places to walk, more direct traffic routes, and more places to live, shop, and work, and when they don't require nearby tracts of open land to procure sustenance. Straight lines, right angles, flat surfaces, and clear spaces are nothing if not efficient, provided that biological heterogeneity (or dearth thereof) isn't a concern.

Given that any large, stationary concentrations of humanity, anywhere in the world, at any time in history, would have modified their environments in such ways as were most expedient to their means and needs, it is unlikely that the evolution of the city could have progressed along any radically different path.

Any city, to paraphrase Italo Calvino, is a mirror held up to human desire—and therefore to the human spirit (if there is such a thing). We developed these environments to fulfill our needs, give us pleasure, and ease our lives: their outlines are the tessellated diagrams of who and what we essentially are.

And who and what we are is chiefly determined by our environment. 

Time, which generally attenuates memories, only aggravates that of the Zahir. There was a time when I could visualize the obverse, and then the reverse. Now I see them both simultaneously. This is not as though the Zahir were crystal, because it is not a matter of one face being superimposed upon another; rather, it is as though my eyesight where spherical, with the Zahir in the center. Whatever is not the Zahir comes to me fragmentarily, as if from a great distance ... Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject. The Cabalists pretend that man is a microcosm, a symbolic mirror of the universe; according to Tennyson, everything would be. Everything, including the intolerable Zahir.

Before 1948...they will have to feed me and dress me, I shall not know whether it is afternoon or morning, I shall not know who Borges was. To call this prospect terrible is a fallacy, for none of its circumstances will exist for me. One might as well say that an anesthetized man feels terrible pain when they open his cranium. I shall no longer perceive the universe: I shall perceive the Zahir. According to the teachings of the Idealists, the words "live" and "dream" are rigorously synonymous. From thousands of images I shall pass to one; from a highly complex dream to a dream of utter simplicity. Others will dream that I am mad; I shall dream of the Zahir. When all the men on earth think, day and night, of the Zahir, which will be a dream and which a reality—the earth or the Zahir?
One generation erects the city, draws the pattern. The pattern of the city shapes the architects' children, who expand the city, refine the pattern. Their descendants go on modifying the city to align more closely with their own image, and their image was stamped upon them by the city as it was a generation before. And it continues. Like a resonant frequency reinforcing itself. Like unconnected stray thoughts accreting towards acuteness, obsession.

We would be mistaken in believing Homo sapiens' anthropization of the world is a one-way process. Humans build cities; cities build humans.

Straight lines. Linear thought. Efficient causality. A city conspiring its own construction. A species estranging itself from its own planet as it perceives and knows itself ever more exclusively, and perhaps with ever increasing lucidity.

Key word: perhaps.


  1. I believe that the straight line as aesthetically symptomatic of human influence over a given environment is also revelatory of an aspect of the human condition. To wit, a straight line is the shorter distance between any two given points, or as you describe its use in tools and structures, "easier" to implement.

    That... "efficiency" is, I believe, what is so uncannily human--and so abjectly anti-natural. That ceaseless quest for efficiency betrays two very human flaws, if "flaws" is the name we should give to such informing traits of our nature: a constant dissatisfaction with one's current circumstances and a burning lack of patience. Distances and processes need to be shortened, elements be made neatly ordered and convenient, decision making needs to be simplified. Nature by itself explores and branches, takes detours and gets lost. Humanity thinks in terms of "points" and how to better connect them.

    A similar immediately recognisable human-made intrusion on the landscape is "flatness". It clearly betrays the convenience of a flat-footed bipedal being who has come to regard the easy balance that a flat surface allows as greatly desirable.

    1. Aldous Huxley: "The worst enemy of life, freedom and the common decencies is total anarchy; their second worst enemy is total efficiency."

      I'm not sure if this fixation on efficiency is "inherently" human, or if it's a characteristic of a certain (now very widespread) strain of acculturated humanity.

      I'm opening The Gutenberg Galaxy, and I turn to:

      More than anybody else, the mathematician is aware of the arbitrary and fictional character of this continuous, homogeneous visual space. Why? Because number, the language of science, is a fiction for retranslating the Euclidean space fiction back into auditory and tactile space.

      The example Dantzig uses on page 139 concerns the measurement of the length of an arc:

      'Our notion of the length of an arc of a curve may serve as an illustration. The physical concept rests on that of a bent wire. We imagine that we have straightened the wire without stretching it; then the segment of the straight line will serve as the measure of the length of the arc. Now what do we mean by “without stretching”? We mean without a change in length. But this term implies that we already know something about the length of the arc. Such a formulation is obviously a petitio principii and could not serve as a mathematical definition.

      The alternative is to inscribe in the arc a sequence of rectilinear contours of an increasing number of sides. The sequence of these contours approaches a limit, and the length of the arc is defined as the limit of this sequence.

      And what is true of the notion of length is true of areas, volumes, masses, movements, pressures, forces, stresses and strains, velocities, accelerations, etc., etc. All these notions were born in a “linear,” “rational” world where nothing takes place but what is straight, flat, and uniform. Either, then, we must abandon these elementary rational notions – and this would mean a veritable revolution, so deeply are these concepts rooted in our minds; or we must adapt those rational notions to a world which is neither flat, nor straight, nor uniform.'

      Now Dantzig is quite wrong in supposing that Euclidean space, linear, flat, straight, uniform, is rooted in our minds at all. Such space is a product of literacy and is unknown to pre-literate or archaic man. We have seen earlier that Mircea Eliade has recently devoted a volume to this theme (The Sacred and the Profane), showing how the Western notions of space and time as continuous and homogeneous are quite absent from the lives of archaic man. They are equally absent from Chinese culture. Pre-literate man conceives always of uniquely structured spaces and times in the manner of mathematical physics.

      I have the book on the Kindle app for Windows and MY GOD copy/pasting text is a chore. I'm sure there's better/more relevant material than this, but I'm too annoyed to go looking for it now.

      But yeah: this zeal for speed and simplification doesn't seem to be an cross-cultural human constant, from what I've pieced together. Though I'll admit I'm not too thoroughly versed in cultural anthropology.

    2. Hmm I'd argue perhaps not under our modern appraisal of "efficiency". However, not unlike complexity, I feel that we wouldn't have arrived to these modern notions of efficiency if there hadn't been a proto-efficiency (or maybe "arqueo-"?) that elevated the standard to begin with. Our modern weaponry employing materials designed at molecular level wouldn't have come to be if people didn't once figure that a stick which point was filed against a rock had better penetration. For them, that primitive improvement constituted the same level of applied thought to a better/easier achievement of goals than the one we use to research our nanomaterials. The continuous iteration that brought us to this point is the only evidence we need that our primitive ancestors were into efficiency as well.