17 Απριλίου 2011

A tribute to Joseph Kosinski

Joseph Kosinski is an architect mostly known as the director of Disney's 2010 TRON legacy the remake of the classic 1982 film. Kosinski is also an awarded VFX and digital animation expert working for a while in cinema and advertisement industry.  

But more than that Kosinski was my teacher at Columbia's GSAPP in 2001-2002. The guy who introduced me (and many other enthusiastic postgrad students) in the amazing world of 3d architecture. A graduate of Columbia himself ('99 M.Arch) and currently an adjunct assistant professor he was a star in his own way. A calm but very capable and communicative person whose course was a joy for me. 

Considering his work for TRON I find his setting design very advanced and sophisticated. Having direct references to the original TRON and other Sci-Fi films like Kubrick's 2001 he composes a mythical-digital environment whose its neon-glowing image covers its restrictive and totalitarian perspective. An up to date comment on capitalism's dystopic nature maybe? Fredric Jameson would certainly say so!
Fynn's house in TRON legacy

From Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey

Anyway, I just saw this film on DVD yesterday without knowing who the director was. This was revealed to me just through the end titles reminding myself working with Joseph for my final digital animation assignment in front of a Mac at the basement of Lerner Hall. Thank you Joe !

A recent interview of Joseph Kosinski can be found here.

9 Απριλίου 2011

Topographies of Enlightenment (2001)

The unknown worlds of empiricism: Locke’s notion of personal knowledge and the perception of space through the travels in the age of Enlightenment.*


The purpose of this paper is to examine John Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding and focus on its importance as an ideological background for spatial conception in the early seventeenth century English scene. The notion of personal experience as a means of spatial perception, which is so thoroughly cultivated in Locke’s essay, can also be defined through the travels and voyages of the 17th century. Expeditions and travels provide individuals with a new way of social, ethical, and aesthetical evaluation based on the experience of different civilizations and cultures. Personal experience, which becomes the only way of understanding cosmos, is finally the means to comprehend the human nature. It is though obvious that the experience gained through the travels has a particular importance when studying the human subject and its relation to the spatial perception and representation. Locke’s way of spatial perception influenced not only philosophers but also architects, gardeners, landscape artists and urban planners of the time. It is also clear that this notion of empirical perception of Nature has been the reference of contemporary spatial and architectural concepts and has always been a source of artistic inspiration. Nowadays, considering architectural space, as a sequence of spatial experience constitutes an interesting conceptual approach, which is mostly influenced by empirical philosophy.

Locke’s Life

John Locke was born on August 29, 1632. He entered Westminster school in 1646, and passed to Christ Church, Oxford, as a junior student, in 1652. Locke found the Aristotelian philosophy he was taught at Oxford of little use. Locke received his B.A. in February 1656. Locke knew all of these men and their work. Locke, Boyle and Newton were all founding or early members of the English Royal Society. Sydenham[1] was one of the most famous English physicians of the 17th century and Locke did medical research with him. Locke and Newton became friends after Locke’s return from Holland in 1688.When he did read Descartes, he saw the great French philosopher as providing a viable alternative to the sterile Aristotelianism he had been taught at Oxford. In 1666 Locke had a fateful meeting with Lord Ashley In 1667 Locke did move to London becoming not only Lord Ashley’s personal physician, but secretary, researcher, political operative and friend. Living with him Locke found himself at the very heart of English politics in the 1670s and 1680s[2]. In 1674 went to France[3]. Locke returned to England in 1688[4]. After his return from exile, Locke published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In 1696 the Board of Trade was revived. Locke played an important part in its revival and served as the most influential member on it until 1700. After his retirement from the Board of Trade in 1700, Locke remained in retirement at Oates until his death on Sunday 28 October 1704.

The Essay is divided into four books; the first is a polemic against the doctrine of innate principles and ideas. The second deals with ideas, the third with words, and the fourth with knowledge.

Ideas in General

All the objects of the understanding are described as ideas, and ideas are spoken of as being in the mind (Intro. 2; Bk. 2:1:5; Bk. 2:8:8). This wide use of the term "idea" is inherited from Descartes. The existence of ideas needs no proof: "everyone is conscious of them in himself, and men's words and actions will satisfy him that they are in others." All our ideas, he says, come from experience.

All ideas come from sensation or reflection. Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas:- How comes it to be furnished? … To this I answer, in one word, from experience. In that all our knowledge is founded;

The mind has no innate ideas. Our observation is the source of most of the ideas, which we have, and, as it depends "wholly upon our senses," is called "sensation."

Simple and Complex Ideas

There are no innate ideas "stamped upon the mind" from birth. Thus he holds that "space and extension" is a simple idea given both by sight and by touch that helps persons imagine the idea of infinity.

Distance or space, in its simple abstract conception … I call expansion ... The mind, having got the idea of the length of any part of expansion … can … repeat that idea … as often as it will, till it equals the distance of any parts of the earth one from another, and increase thus till it amounts to the distance of the sun or remotest star. By such a progression … it can proceed and pass beyond all those lengths, and find nothing to stop it’s going on … How we come by the idea of infinity … the power of enlarging his idea of space by further additions remaining still the same, he hence takes the idea of infinite space.

Knowledge of the Self, and God

In the fourth book of his Essay Locke applies the results of the earlier books to determine the nature and extent of knowledge. Concerning the self, Locke agrees with Descartes that the existence of the self is implied in every state of consciousness. Every element of our experience, every idea of which we are conscious, is a certificate of our own existence, as the subject of that experience: As for our own existence, we perceive it so plainly and so certainly, that it neither needs nor is capable of any proof.

So much as we ourselves consider and comprehend of truth and reason, so much we possess of real and true knowledge... (Bk1:III:24)

For nothing can be more evident to us than our own existence. I think, I reason, I feel pleasure and pain: can any of these be more evident to me than my own existence?

being certain that there is a God, and how we may come by this certainty, I think we need go no further than ourselves, and that undoubted knowledge we have of our own existence … from the consideration of ourselves, and what we infallibly find in our own constitutions, our reason leads us to the knowledge of this certain and evident truth…

Locke’s arguments and exotic countries

If we take a closer look into the essay we will be impressed by the fact that Locke continuously uses examples of the way of life and the beliefs strange or exotic countries to support his arguments. The way other nations perceive the world and the different ways of life in other places consist an important, and sometimes the only, evidence that there are not innate principles. In the second chapter of book one when trying to prove that there are no innate practical principles he argues that:

in some countries, put them (their children) into the same graves with their mothers, if they die in childbirth; or despatch them, if a pretended astrologer declares them to have unhappy stars?

And are there not places where, at a certain age, they kill or expose their parents, without any remorse at all? In a part of Asia, the sick, when their case comes to be thought desperate, are carried out and laid on the earth before they are dead;

The notion of other “places” and other “civilizations” noticeably becomes vital. To strengthen his point of view he even focuses on some travel books that bare witness of particular behaviors in other distant societies:

Garcilasso de la Vega tells us of a people in Peru which were wont to fat and eat the children they got on their female captives … the virtues whereby the Tououpinambos believed they merited paradise, were revenge, and eating abundance of their enemies

if we look abroad to take a view of men as they are, we shall find that they have remorse, in one place, for doing or omitting that which others, in another place, think they merit by

The way Locke constructs his arguments has nothing to do with a traditional philosophy treatise. His world is not any more the world of classical or medieval philosophy. He does not refer to other books neither does he criticize the work of other philosophers. The “land” which Locke is more familiar to is the unknown land of the voyages. This is the source of the new empirical knowledge. This becomes more extreme in the chapter III when Locke has to provide evidence that the idea of God is not innate either. It seems that even when thinking of such a significant matter he trusts only empirical facts and testimonies based on travel accounts:
Idea of God not innate … if we will not believe La Loubere, the missionaries of China, even the Jesuits themselves, the great encomiasts of the Chinese, do all to a man agree, and will convince us, that the sect of the literari, or learned, keeping to the old religion of China, and the ruling party there, are all of them atheists

the Abbe de Choisy more judiciously remarks in his Journal du Voyage de Siam, 107/177, it consists properly in acknowledging no God at all. (Bk1:III:11)

What is actually hidden between those lines is John Locke’s personal concentration in traveling. It is clear that the discoveries of new worlds have a direct impact in the formation of what is actually an established truth and what starts trembling under the expanding experience of his era. That is why a great part of his library, actually the greatest, consists of books about travels, voyages and information about other new discovered countries. His library is filled with volumes of travel books with titles as: An account of a voyage up the river de la Plata and thence overland to Peru by Acarete (du Biscay), Histoire naturelle et morale des îles Antilles de l’ Amerique, L’ Asia: de’ fati de’ Portoghesi nello scoprimento, & conquista de’ mari, & terri d’ Oriente by Joao de Barros, Bergeron, Relation des voyages en Tartarie, Voyage de Guinée by Willem Bosman, Voyage to the straights of Magelan by Sir John Narborough, A journey into Greece by Wheler, Travels by Brown, Nineteen years travels through the most eminent places in the habitable world by William Lithgow, A collection of voyages and travels and many more.

As it becomes clear the experience acquainted by the travels of the end of the seventeenth century is for Locke of great importance as it is able to alter fundamentally the view we have in relation to the world. Locke constructs all of his arguments with a single point. To prove that the persons of his epoch should consider more thoroughly their own personality and not take as granted any kind of innate knowledge that is reflected to them through any ways other than personal. If we consider Locke’s essay as the fundamental theoretical document that enlightens the essential turn in the understanding of cosmos in the seventeenth century we cannot neglect the actual impact that the travels had to the travelers of this era. If we examine the way travelers, which usually have nothing to do with the conceptual approach of John Locke, we will realize that the notion of the subject is also fundamental in forming a new type of person-observer that perceives the space and the surrounding world in general only through his own experience, his own eyes.

Unknown worlds and personal observation. Introduction

It is a fact that for the first time in this era persons are challenged to conquer the unknown worlds using no more than the power of their personality, and particularly of their gaze. When studying the way people understood the physical or social space it becomes lucid that the world is not any more the medieval microcosm[5]. Space cannot be defined as an analogy of something else as long as individuals are able to have a true experience of it. The universal models of mathematics and of the geometry are not seductive. What attracts people is the eyewitness, their gaze on the world, which fulfills their own personal pleasure. Ideas such as that of the observer, the curiosity, characterize the new person which only gets pleasure when fulfilling his own need for personal experience of new spatial phenomena, new worlds, new landscapes.


During the end of the seventeenth century Plotinian theology and especially Plotinus eye theory[6] becomes the core of English neoplatonism and occupies the central position in Henry More’s ‘Enchiridion Ethicum’, the principal ethical work of the Cambridge school[7]. What is very interesting in this case is the fact that the notion of ‘’vision’’ becomes an essential reference and particularly the Plotinian “theoria” is the fundamental idea that promotes the eye as the primary medium of perception. The investigative tool of the gaze trained to penetrate, aided the traveler or the explorer not only to comprehend the present landscape but also to decode the state of the earth with eyes that could discern the substance of things. The “ideas”, “concepts” and “names” are all tending to immediate between the mind and the world.

The claim to unmediated, observer’s experience provides travelers with a new approach for endorsing their own authority to describe and comment. One mission that travelers achieve is that of affirming their own status as eyewitnesses, who have encountered the objects of commentary in person, and undergone an experience beyond the imaginative grasp of those who know these objects only through the mediation of literature or art. It is the eyewitness alone who is capable of experiencing the sense of exceptionality that supplies the condition of wonder. The person has the certainty that what he sees is true because it is experienced through his eyes. The curious eye perceives the world not through reflection but with a direct way.


The idea of curiosity is one of the consequences of the need for personal eyewitness experience. After the personification of all these new experience notions of the sublime, the hyperbole, the excess, and the infinite are no longer attributed to God but to the physical world itself. The sublime supplies a metaphor for the desire for freedom and self-realization. The vastness of God, earlier read over into the vastness of cosmic space, is now reflected in the vastness of the world, filled with all possible variety. There is a continuing motion from Infinite God through vast nature to the soul of the man. By the half of the eighteenth century the source of the emotions associated with the sublime was removed from the object and given to the human subject.


There is strong alliance between voyages and science during the Enlightenment. The explorers labored to see and corporealize the powers of nature as they encountered them. One must attempt to learn all that is open to human inquiry. Furthermore, even the so called scientific explorers perceived their attack on the environment as an escape into freedom, a solitary encounter with a plethora of things resolved into the primal experience of space as vertical or horizontal or as height, depth and extent. Their overriding goal was to discover the unknown, to see the unseen, to be the first to tread the margins of the world.

Self – cosmos. The dominant subject

Besides of Locke, Descartes, Malebranche[8] and Hobbes searched for the grounds of certainty. The traditional body of rationalist truth, with its emphasis on the a priori was challenged by empiricism. The latter underscored the participatory role of individuals in shaping the world and focused on the origins and development of knowledge. In this era, which saw the birth of modern subjectivity, the aim of the objective sciences was the progressive search for certain truth based on the ideal of undisputed authority. The spatial idea of motion is also very important, as it becomes a gained privilege of the subject and the limitations of space become relative as the traveler’s experience is marked by a movement beyond bounds that separate the self from the world.


It is obvious that even from opposite perspectives, British and French philosophers contributed to 18th century discourse an awareness of the personal component of vision. It was Locke, however, who codified the modern view of nature as the object of ongoing scientific research. This “new” nature was not the alien intellectual principle that had governed the normative approach to human practice. This investigation of the world was based on a “person’s” not a “man’s” individual study of lively phenomena. Locke’s epistemology is wholly dependent not upon the authority of an ancient pattern of viewing but upon progressive individual research that alters the perception of the world.
This attitude constitutes a fundamental methodological principle on empiricism: no opinion is to be accepted as an instance of knowledge until it is proud to be established through undeviating observation.


The perception of the space as expressed through Locke’s philosophical essay is important in order to understand the spatial model of the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. The idea of the human subject itself is what finally interests Locke and the senses of the individual define the new relationships between man and cosmos. At the same time the voyager of the age of enlightenment which travels and experiences different ways of life of exotic civilizations does not only evaluates in a more practical way any “innate” knowledge but also strengthens at the same time its position into the natural environment. This movement from the object to the subject is a central concept not only in the history of philosophy of the Enlightenment but also of every cultural aspect of this period of time. The first empirical philosophies composed a new way of spatial perception. 

[1] Sydenham stressed the need for careful observation of patients and the keeping of detailed case histories. Using information learnt from recording and comparing patients' symptoms, Sydenham wrote the book 'Medical Observations' in which he described the diseases that he had seen in London during the period 1661 to 1675. This led Sydenham to discover a new disease, scarlet fever. Sydenham believed that disease was the result of a combination of different 'constitutions' which could be atmospheric, that is, as a result of weather, heat or moisture or environmental e.g. from the soil.
[2] Locke’s chief work while living at Lord Ashley’s residence, Exeter House, in 1668 was his work as secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations and Secretary to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas.
[3] In France Locke went from Calais to Paris, Lyons and on to Montpellier, where he spent the next fifteen months.
[4] He returned on board the royal yacht, accompanying Princess Mary on her voyage to join her husband
[5] microcosm Literally, a "little world." {Gk. mikroV [mikros] + kosmoV [kosmos]} In the philosophy of the Stoics, many neoplatonists, and Leibniz, individual human beings are taken to reflect the structure of the universe as a whole.
[6] Once the individual soul has, through its own act of will -- externalized through dialectic -- freed itself from the influence of Being, and has arrived at a knowledge of itself as the ordering principle of the cosmos, it has united its act and its thought in one supreme ordering principle (logos) which derives its power from Contemplation (theoria). In one sense, contemplation is simply a vision of the things that are - a viewing of existence. Contemplation is the 'power' uniting the One, the Intelligence, and the Soul in a single all-productive intellectual force to which all existents owe their life. 'Vision' (theoria), for Plotinus, whether intellectual or physical, implies not simply possession of the viewed object in or by the mind, but also an empowerment, given by the object of vision to the one who has viewed it. Therefore, through the 'act' of contemplation the soul becomes capable of simultaneously knowing its prior (the source of its power, the Intelligence) and, of course, of ordering or imparting life to that which falls below the soul in the order of existence. The extent to which Plotinus identifies contemplation with a creative or vivifying act is expressed most forcefully in his comment that: "since the supreme realities devote themselves to contemplation, all other beings must aspire to it, too, because the origin of all things is their end as well".
[7] Henry More (1614-1687) and his concept of space and time as “the sense organs of God” greatly influenced Newton’s theory of absolute space and time. By virtue of the fact that it is infinite, immaterial extension, space is analogous to God, whom More conceives as an infinitely extended spirit. In Enchiridion Metaphysicum space is described as ‘an obscure shadow’ of divine extension, since its properties (infinity, immateriality, immobility, etc.) correspond with many of the attributes of God.
[8] As a leading Cartesian, Malebranche argued in De la Recherche de la Vérité (The Search after Truth) (1675) and Entretiens sur la métaphysique et sur la religion (Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion) (1688) that our ideas provide no direct, certain knowledge of bodies, but that instead we "see all things in god." This divinely ordained occasionalism provided for the apparent regularity of the natural world without appealing to any genuine causal interaction among things. Malebranche's explanation of the imperfection of a divinely-created universe in the Traité de la nature et de la grace (Treatise on Nature and Grace) (1680) and other theological writings influenced the theodicy of Leibniz. 

*postgraduate paper presented in "Topographies of Enlightenment" course@ Columbia GSAPP / November 2001 / supervising Prof. Ralph Stern