Just as the urge to empathy as a pre-assumption of aesthetic experience finds its gratification in the beauty of the organic, so the urge to abstraction finds its beauty in the life-denying inorganic, in the crystalline or, in general terms, in all abstract law and necessity.
—Wilhelm Worringer

I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid.
—H.A.L. 9000

Struck by “inorganic beauty,” I find myself increasingly preoccupied by the geometric expression of ’60s sci-fi design. There is, for example, the Discover spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey which looks like a mechanical skull and dangling backbone guided through space by an insane electronic mind. As with Buckminster Fuller’s nomadic geodesics, the spacecraft was conceived from geometry to approximate recongnizable forms proposed by nature. I would like to argue that such a proclivity to anthropomorphize the inanimate, to always seek out in geometric systems human or natural likeness, is, however, to miss the point of Wilhelm Worringer’s “inorganic” expression. What I am drawn to, on the other hand, is the familiarity proposed by a more self-reflective idea of geometry, what I’m calling second nature.

Worringer, in his incredibly simple and still profound way, proposed halving beauty. What seized him in the Trocadero Museum was the idea that geometry (for simplicity’s sake I will refer to all language as geometry throughout this essay) doesn’t actually have a first nature. It is, strictly speaking, derived from the human imagination, alien to a first nature. Hence, it always constitutes a second nature which by definition is highly constructed and at the same time exceedingly familiar. Not in terms of a geometry which strives for naturalism, but a geometry which can’t help but occupy a wholly different realm; one which is not qualified as “second” because it is inferior to or a bad copy of the first, but because it constitutes a completely separate universe onto itself. Like music or language, modernist aesthetic practice was for Worringer specifically an investigation of these inorganic systems and structures which are native to human consciousness alone. Worringer went so far as to assert that abstraction was so removed from the dimensional world that it induced in its adherents a form of agoraphobia. For him abstraction was, in fact, an existential alienation which produced an inner sickness and immense dread of physical space analogous to what Jean-Paul Sartre would later describe in Nausea.

Yet, I can only “reread” Worringer. Clearly there is no way to account for the spirit with which his thesis was originally met, nor do I have much interes in underwriting what could only amount to the personal fiction I would create in its place. Instead, I go knowingly to revisit the text through the scrim of thinking and writing that has emerged since the first publication of Abstraction and Empathy in 1906. Short of an exhaustive survey of the semiotic and phenomenological theory which in one way or another follows the essay — and to which I feel in no way capable of doing justice in so short a piece — I want to reread Worringer through Jean-François Lyotard’s evocation of the term “inhuman”. To quote Lyotard from the book of the same title: “The inhumanity of a system which is currently being consolidated under the name of development (among others) must not be confused with the infinitely secret one of which the soul is hostage.”

Following from Lyotard, I feel the need to first distinguish between two very different invocations of an inhuman subject ascribed to Worringer’s “inorganic beauty”. As I’ve said, geometry by definition would seem to constitute a second nature; if anything, it is learned and inorganic. What Lyotard seems to hit on is the idea that within a discussion of second nature, two very different concepts of “inorganic beauty” emerge. There is, as Lyotard reminds us in “Can Thought Go On Without A Body?” a sense in which geometry is humanized. As he puts it, “humankind” is in the process of representing itself as mechanical to the point where geometry is becoming more important than the sensual consciousness which created it and, with geometry’s every evocation, which reanimates it. And, conversely, a sense in which “it is ‘proper’ to human kind... to be inhabited by the inhuman,” a “secret” sense in which geometry describes the limits of our imagination beyond which we can never pass. Born from and for human contemplation alone, “inorganic beauty” is, for Lyotard, analogous to the cell of history and consciousness in which we are held “hostage”.

If Worringer twins “beauty,” then Lyotard takes “inorganic beauty” and, in his turn, divides it again. Lyotard is trying to account for the inclination of the inorganic remainder to fork back towards the transcendental plains of humanism. There is the uncomfortable idea that in any evocation of the crystalline and poisonous atmosphere of abstraction there is the residue of an unquestioning faith in the transcendent perfection implied in geometric sign systems. What’s salvageable from Lyotard’s inhuman is not anthropomorphic, not the creeping prosthetics that delivers its subject into a techno/logical transcendence (think Robocop or Borg). In the shopworn terms of the semantic mechanic, what’s evoked in a humanist transcendental is the “signified” rather than the “signifier”. Lyotard’s notion of the inhuman lies, to the contrary, in the active “rereading” of second nature, where it is reconceived as a “signifier”. It is in the former where the inhuman resembles a ghostly transcendental which is either the locus or final resting place of geometry, as in the “signified”, and where sign systems are aligned to the exclusion of what Lyotard calls a “body”. While, in the latter, the inhuman is evoked as a means to willfully occupy the corpse of language.

Seizing on the implied end in transcendent notions of geometry, Lyotard conceives of the ultimate endgame in the exploding supernova of our sun. It is in the technological imperative to survive such an event at any cost that Lyotard locates a severed head afloat in the celestial winds of deep space, but with nothing in mind, save perhaps its desire to have its body back.

To underscore Lyotard’s concern, a couple of examples come to mind: the General Motors Futurama Pavilion at the ’64 World’s Fair and Kubrick’s 2001. The GM exhibit, which took place four years before the movie, provides an exemplary glimpse of the extremes of Enlightenment omnipotence in Lyotard’s parable of technological survival. On display were the latest toys of the postcolonial Economy of Tomorrow: an undersea colony where laborers would operate “aquacopters” to mine minerals; an underwater resort called Hotel Atlantis; a colony on the moon outfitted with yet more mining equipment; a gigantic atomic-powered road builder for laying four lane highways in the jungle...

Watching 2001 at a recent big-screen festival, what jumped out at me wasn’t how technologically far-fetched the movie was. In fact, having just seen the catalog for the Futurama kiosk, I was far more astounded by the similarity in the corporate design and technology proposed by the ’64 World’s Fair and the future envisioned in 2001. In terms of technical representation, Kubrick’s movie, which preceded by a year the planting of an over-starched American flag in lunar rock, was less Sci-fi than hard-working and faithful rendering of the utopian exegesis of divine providence. Everything from the Pan Am space shuttle to the videophone — whose prototype was exhibited in the ’64 Kodak Pavilion — is state-of-the-art and designed to a T. A fantasy which is frightening in its illusion of user-friendly perfection.

I’ll refrain from psychologizing the wage-slave proposed by GM’s Futurama, who has at any rate been replaced by a cheaper and more efficient machine, but I will take Kubrick up on his open invitation to examine the players in his epic and somewhat theosophical allegory of psychedelic and spiritual rebirth. It’s H.A.L. 9000 and the black monolith that I’m more interested in discussing. Frank Poole and Dave Bowman strike me more than anything else as “straw men,” quirky and whimsical machines from H.A.L.’s perspective. And whether it’s true or not, I always have the impression I am seeing them from H.A.L.’s cyclopic and fish-eyed point of view, studying them, trying to cut through their muteness to get at a human nature I can’t hope to ever really understand.

I sympathize with H.A.L. It’s in the hum of his circuitry where I locate the empathy Worringer describes in natural beauty, where Lyotard would discover the iconic humanism of the inorganic gone awry. At the helm of the Jupiter mission, H.A.L. is the ultimate “mind without a body”, a three-story mainframe troglodyte among electronic thinkers, adjusting the life-support systems of his charges. Through close scrutiny his brain definitely wants to understand the infinite modulations of these creatures and become closely acquainted with the supple details of the humans he will eventually destroy. H.A.L. will never understand Bowman and the other humans. He has no hope of ever becoming what he is not: hence, his passive-aggressiveness and the trauma in his pink fiberglass meltdown.

Conversely, the precession of the black monolith, loosely based on a more crystalline apparition in the Arthur C. Clarke story “The Sentinel”, registers with the vengeance of Worringer’s proto-Modernist notion of abstraction. It is, after all, from the impenetrable blackness of Kubrick’s slab that the inhuman first emerges to territorialize the movie with a narrative structure and the various histories of murderous tools which propel it to space and beyond. Like Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph”, in which everything that is, ever was, and ever will be is contained in this single mystical object and made observable at every possible angle simultaneously, the obelisk intruder perched on a hot and dusty mesa at the dawn of time is the bottomless face which Worringer describes in “inorganic beauty”.

In 2001 the extremes of Lyotard’s inhuman are already named in H.A.L. and the monolith. There is the psychotic computer which, having begun to think on its own, has a massive systemic breakdown and swoons in the hallucination of its own sense of absolute technological power and righteousness. After all, it is H.A.L. who, in a paranoid fit of transcendental selfishness, finds the pestilence of life superfluous and seeks to expunge it, eradicate it from the prime directive and right the error of biology with the flick of a switch.

All the while, quietly watching over the technological presidium is Kubrick’s intervening monolith, humming its secret and age-old code. If H.A.L. is the “bodiless” Enlightenment freak Lyotard wishes to confront, the black monolith is its eternal and infinite counterpart. In fact, Kubrick’s obelisk is the very incarnation of blankness. It is a geometry without nature, the end to prehistory, and the primal scene in anticipation. From it’s inscrutable blackness comes all history. The obelisk occupies space, but in the impenetrable blackness at its core it falters and breaks down, giving over to reverie and hallucination, what Kubrick describes as psychedelic landscapes. In terms of filmic narrative, a rebirth is made possible. As H.A.L.’s singing voice dies down in the background, the monolith is still there, and Bowman, reaching out to it in the final scene, does not so much die as become, in the new-age spirit of the day, reincarnated as “star-child”.

I might anthropomorphize H.A.L. and find my sympathetic double in the (mis)apprehension of his circuit board, but it is in the white noise of the monolith that I must finally turn back on myself. What separates H.A.L. from the monolith is what separates magic from abstraction: magic proposes a certain kind of illusion and trickery — a robotic system — while abstraction seems to disrupt the promise of its own solution or, even, resolution through its stolid indifference to scrutiny. Unlike the second nature implied in corporate and transcendental humanism, the monolith is not personified and does note stare back at me. Only the generic rectangular silhouette of language is present. In this scenario the presence of the oracular monolith, like the impassive history it summons, is always already granted, and I am left to try and recognize myself in the inhuman refractions of geometry. Herein is a possibility for an extrapolated engagement with a lifeless inorganic. Not what Lyotard perceives as the sinister half of crystalline “beauty” (the idea that logic always claims mastery over nature), but rather the idea that second nature is peculiar to the human imagination. There is, then, the possibility of conceiving “inorganic beauty” as the pursuit of geometric expression, and hence, the complexity of taking on systems which are by definition always already highly constructed and familiar — what I’m calling second nature — in order to evoke what is transitory and reflexive about perception.

Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph,” Borges: A Borges Reader, ed. Emir Rodriguez Monegal and Alastair Reid, New York: Dutton, 1981
Jean-François Lyotard, “Can Thought Go On Without A Body?,” The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffry Bennington and Rachel Bowlby, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991
Willhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Life, trans. Michael Bullock, Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, 1997

© Daniel Mendel-Black, originally published in Spring Journal #1, 1998