The Two Sisters, Henri Fantin-Latour (1859).

Codes, Devices, and Reality

It’s summertime. In Bellerive by the Murtensee, Switzerland, a scientist, Pietro Brahe, and a writer, Ira Epstein, enjoy the fireworks’ show offered by the city of Geneva to celebrate the latter. In the darkness of Epstein’s garden, the two protagonists of Atlante occidentale (Del Giudice 1983, not translated in English), raptly look at the fireworks’ fluidity, speed, and the fleetingness. Which in this novel become a metaphor for what we usually call “reality.”

The next day, Brahe’s research has a breakthrough, and for the first time, the physicists look at the fundamental elements of matter and understand their instability and un-representability. Excited by this powerful vision, Brahe sees “the word «space»” (118, my translation) breaking into pieces and its dimensions multiply.

This story pushed me into re-elaborating Henri Fantin-Latour’s 1859 painting, The Two Sisters. I chose it not only because of its representation of the theme of reading but also for its title, which makes me think about the relationship between literature and science and their attempt to describe the real.

At the end of the day, this is what Brahe e Epstein do. Both of them work with technologies, which aim at grasping and representing reality. However, the old writer asks:

Could I ever make you see the exact point where an image is born, a gesture, a story’s turning point, where feelings weave together, by showing you the difference between the product and what has produced it? […] No, behind words there’s an energy, a power that is not yet form, but it’s not feeling either. Who knows what kind of power would it need to disconnect that feeling from the words that make it visible, from the thought that thinks it instantly, and understand the mistery making letters lay in one way and not another and one can say: “I like you,” and the miracle making all this correspond with something.” (Del Giudice 105, my translation)

In describing the evolution of the Brahe and Epstein’s friendship, Del Giudice explores the relationship between matter and the codes we use to represent it and communicate it in spite of its ineffability.

We can try to partially understand it, and by using models only. In Passwords, Jean Baudrillard explains that “the real has only ever been a form of simulation. […] Reality, as we know, has not always existed. We have talked about it only since there has been a rationality to express it, parameters enabling us to represent it by coded and decodable signs.” (43)

Reality is not what it seems, then. However, Baudrillard’s statement represents more than a postmodernist provocation. For instance, let’s think about to the opportunities offered by augmented reality and virtual reality, which create environments, objects, and avatars that’re both real and virtual as much as they’re fluid and never fully graspable. How do (or can) they affect our perceptions, intuitions, and relationships we have of and with ourselves, others, and the world? In the next post, we’ll look at how these two technologies apply to editorial products. Do you already have some suggestion?

 

Sources

Baudrillard, Jean. Passwords. London-New York: Verso, 2003[2011].

Del Giudice, Daniele. Atlante occidentale. Torino: Einaudi, 1985.

Fantin-Latour, Henri. The Two Sisters: 1859.

Rovelli, Carlo. Reality Is Not What It Seems. New York: Riverhead Books, 2017.

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