Algorithmicity, Islamic Art, and Virtual Philosophy: Thoughts on Laura Marks’ ‘Enfoldment and Infinity’
“The universe is not dualistic, but folded, so spirit is separated from matter only by degree” – Laura Marks, Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art (2010, p. 271).
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As someone deeply invested in using networks to understand a wide range of phenomenon, I was thrilled to see Laura Marks’ new book Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art. But I had little sense of just how amazing this book was going to be. I can’t recommend it highly enough.Beyond art, this is a work of philosophy, and I’ll get to Marks’ ontology shortly. But it’s worth saying that while not a systematic primer in Islamic thought, but rather a work of radical syncretism, Marks’ text can also nicely serve as an excellent introduction to classical Arabic philosophy (philosophy written in Arabic language), describing everything from Islamic atomism and Illuminationism to crucial figures like ibn-Sina and al-Sijistani. The text is full of gems like a quote such a as this, all placed in historical context: “Know this world is a mirror from head to foot/ In every atom there are a hundred blazing suns” (Shaykh Mahmud Shabistani). One doesn’t have to imagine far to see a forerunner of Leibniz here, a figure whose influence on the contemporary digital age is well known, and who seems more prescient by the day.
Marks’ goals, however, are wider than an introduction to philosophies under-studied in the Euro-American world. Building upon a Deleuzian ontology, and making use of C.S. Peirce and Henri Bergson as primary interlocutors, Marks develops a series of links between these contemporary philosophers, and the algoritmicity that links new media art, computation, and various forms of Islamic art, architecture, and philosophy. More than a work about art and architecture, or even new media, this is a work about our age and its increasingly algorithmic foundations. The stakes couldn’t be higher, or more general in import.
Marks’ Algorithmic Ontology: Infinity, Information, and Image
Marks starts off her work by describing her ontology of enfoldment. She synthesizes Deleuzian and Peircian models to argue for three levels of understanding computational formations, which she describes as infinity, information, and image. To put this in more familiar Deleuzian terms, these are the notions of the virtual, code, and the actual. In everyday language, we have computational images (ie: webpages), and these are always produced by algorithms (ie: computer code), a term computer scientists have devised for anything that can be thought of as a “set of instructions,” often described as a similar to recipes in a cookbook. Computational images and algorithms are two of Marks’ three levels, but they need to be brought together by a third level, because there needs to be something to activate code and actualize its potentials, bringing to life what Deleuze and Guattari might call a “abstract machine” as a “concrete assemblage,” which in this case, takes the form of an image. That which activates code is what Marks calls infinity, which is her third level, along with algorithm and image.
Building on the Deleuzian commitment to immanence, Marks works to describe how her notions of infinity, algorithm, and image can be intertwined using Deleuze’s notion of “the fold.” For Marks, images are unfolded patterns/codes, and patterns/codes are enfolded infinity. Or to proceed the other way, infinity unfolds into code which unfolds into image. Taken to its extreme, everything we see can be thought of as simply enfoldment and infinity, with code as the twist in the Moebial band that intertwines the one within the other without ever breaking into an otherworldly dualism. Building upon the Arabic distinction between that which is zahir (surface) and batin (hidden, enfolded) Marks argues that Islamic art can help us see the potentials of an “immanent infinite” hidden in the world around us, waiting to be unfolded in all its potential differentiations.
For an example of Mark’s tri-level model in relation to our contemporary mediascape, when we encounter a webpage, the image on our screen is the result of a code which is the potential for this webpage, which needs to activated by something which can bring potential to life, namely, energy. Energy actualizes the potential webpage within code, and in this sense, the energy can be thought of as a pure virtuality, code as a specific virtuality (a “potential to be x”), and image is an actualization of code by energy. But all of this is simply unfolded energy in different forms, which is to say, infinity, information/code, or image. While Marks is clear that she is slightly modifying Deleuze, she does so in a Peircian manner, which is to say, in a manner friendly to Deleuzian methods, and the result is a world composed of energy unfolded into signs and signs into things, even though ultimately these are all versions of the same.
And while Marks’ attentions are clearly on new media formations, she seems to also be describing a general ontology. Building upon Deleuze’s notion of an ontology of light present in the Cinema books, which itself builds on the Bergson of Matter and Memory, Marks describes crucial links between this model and various forms of Arabic philosophy. For Deleuze and Bergson in these works, the world can be conceived of as a pure interplay of light and various reflectors, refractors, and impediments (a notion not all that far fetched to contemporary quantum theorists), such that impediments subtract from pure transmission of light to give rise to bodies, perceptions, affects, and ever more complex forms of being, So long as we think of this light metaphorically as emanation of rays of influence from God, this notion permeates Arabic thought, particularly in the late Illuminationist school, which builds upon Suhrwahardi’s “metaphysics of light.” Surhwahardi in fact describes all the world infoldings of various forms of light and darkness, with physical light as a less perfect version of the intellectual active light which emanates from God and gives rise to all the forms in the world. Writing nearly a thousand years before Deleuze and Bergson, however, such notions seem not only contemporary, but indicate powerful moments in the history of thought which have been erased from traditional Western histories of thought. In this case they underscore the debt of these thinkers to a figure such as Spinoza, whose debt to Islamic thought by means of Moses Maimonides is well known, even as this particular case indicates the larger contours whereby the West has simply erased a wide variety of its intellectual filliations, particularly to those arising from domains it was colonizing, or which it otherwise considered inconvenient.
Going beyond Marks’ theories for a moment, it’s perhaps worth noting that theorists working within contemporary quantum physics have argued that it’s not impossible that all the light we see in the world is in fact the result of one light particle, or photon, refracting in spacetime, giving rise to the all the electromagnetic radiation in the cosmos as a result. This refraction of unity into multiplicity by means of its interference with a refraction matrix of some sort is something which seems uncannily to be anticipated by some of the philosophical models described here. Whether or not this is evidence that our contemporary models are permeated with an unintegrated Islamic intellectual heritage, or that ancient philosophers were able to grope by metaphor to what science now seeks to describe with different means, is certainly a question worth considering .
Whatever the physical analogues, however, according to Marks, the similarity between many contemporary Western models, such as those seen in Bergson and Deleuze, and a variety of Islamic predecessors, can be read as potential evidence for a perhaps unconscious and subterranean influence of Islamic thought on the present, often via intermediary chains of influences (ie: Spinoza, Leibniz). And in fact, the Arabic philosophical tradition, via ibn Sina (Avicenna) and ibn Rushd (Averroes) influenced the Christian medieval theologians (ie: Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham) which when combined with Maimonides, who wrote in Arabic and was widely influenced by thinkers like ibn Faradi and ibn Bajja, influenced Spinoza so much. Both Christian and Arabic models were in fact influences of Neoplatonic models propagating from Plotinus to Porphyry, Proclus, Ammonius, absorbing various Aristotelian, Stoic, and Epicurean influences on the way to form a grand Neoplatonic synthesis that dominated philosophico-religious thought from the period of late Antiquity (about 500 CE) to the early modern period (the rise of Carteisianism around 1650 CE). It’s my sense that understanding the neglected genealogies of the west, from Neoplatonism to Islamic thought, can help us to understand some of the potentials of our age, and Marks provides a starting point to bring so many of these threads together.
Neo-Medievalism: Techno-Images and the Return of the Repressed of Capitalist Modernity
While Marks argues that Islamic thought helps provide some of the missing links in chains of transmission of some of the most important trends of contemporary philosophy, her goal seems to not only be provide new genealogies for various philosophers, but to help us understand networked postmodernity itself. If early European modernity found philosophical expression in the individuality given philosophical form in the Cartesian cogito, which was then radicalized via Kantianism, it seems today that with the rise of networked formations, such as global capitalism and the internet, that perhaps the trend to more post- and supra-individual modes of thought, such as structuralism or various postmodernisms, can be seen as a response to the manner in which contemporary networked formations are refiguring subjectivity such that today, individuals are increasingly nodes in nets. From Facebook to GPS systems, product customization and the narrowcasting of news, we’re never not linked in, and at many levels of scale.
While in some sense this has always been the case, perhaps not least via the massive network that is human language, some have argued that we’re seeing a shift in scale in form, the formation of increasingly complex forms of networking, many of which take visual form. Certainly Guy Debord argued that we live in an age perhaps best described as a “society of the spectacle,” but some have even gone as far as describing the coming age as neo-Medieval. Villem Flusser, for example, believes that we are entering a “second visuality” in which “techno-images” will increasingly absorb texts into themselves, and become the primary way information is transmitted, similar to how images functioned in the middle ages, but with the twist that techno-images are based on texts, algorithmic codes, while traditional images are not. So in a sense, while perhaps we are entering a second visuality, unlike previous eras of visual dominance, these images all share an implicit, enfolded textual basis, one which isn’t read linearly, but in networked links of commands and executions. And as Bernard Stiegler has argued, since so many of us have no idea how to read these often hidden codes, we are the first generation in history that has hidden its memory of how to produce itself from itself within its own products, a massive form of forgetting which is radically disempowering and which needs to be actively countered.
From such a perspective, thinking of our age as potentially neo-Medieval might be true in more senses than one. For if we imagine the world as a network of algorithmicized images, particularly when we use the word “image” in the sense employed by Bergson (and later Deleuze) as any slice of “flowing matter” (thereby including bodies and everyday objects within the notion of images), then simply replace the notion of “God” which centered the medieval world with that of the network formations which are increasingly knitting our world into a fractal network of networks, you have something like a neo-medieval worldview. God serves as a metaphor for the “ghost in the machine,” the distributed spirit in the world of our capitalist mediascape. None of which is to say we are simply going back to the Medieval, rather, this is a return with a difference, at a higher level of complexity perhaps, some sort of grand “return of the repressed” of modernity. And this is why I think philosophers with a “networked God” at the center of their worldview, such as Spinoza or Leibniz, can be used to help us think out networked age.
For example, building on some of Max Pensky’s descriptions of Leibniz’s philosophy of monads, it seems that Leibniz’s worldview describes few things better than a network of computers connected to the internet, with a virtual “God” at the center. And Spinoza’s immanent networkology seems to be an ethics of how to deal with this, an attempt to understand the deeper logics of the ghosts within the machines. That is, if Leibniz is perhaps the philosopher of the reified capitalist mediascape, then perhaps Spinoza is a theorist who indicates paths beyond this, towards immanent yet also democratic relationalism based on a God of infinite creativity. And the question then becomes, what sort of God do you envisage, the radically creative one of Spinoza, or the centralizing and hierarchizing one of Leibniz?
Spinoza and Leibniz both wrote at the birth of capitalism,but seem to have grasped its networked structure avant-la-lettre, and largely by reworking Medieval sources inspired by Arabic and Neoplatonic Hellenistic philosophies, as a way of getting around the limitations in the Cartesian project. Few things could be more contemporary perhaps than examining the various networked gods that dominated thought in the so-called middle ages. And restoring Islamic thought to its rightful place in the genealogy of contemporary “western” philosophical models can perhaps fill out this genealogy, particularly because it shows us so many of the political, ethical, and aesthetic consequences of various theories in relation to widely different social circumstances than those of Spinoza and Leibniz.
Of course, while the Islamic capliphates and their global trade networks were perhaps an early stage of globalization to those involved, it is the algorithmic use of code which provides one of the many ways Marks links classical Islamic art with new media formations. This may seem anachronistic in some ways. But perhaps the world was always already algorithmic, and only particular historical circumstances bring this to the fore. That is, perhaps our new algorithmically textual times have simply allowed us to see what was perhaps always already there, an algorithmic way of relating to reality ready to reveal itself whenever the socio-historical circumstances shine a light upon it.
Deleuze and Guattari argue, for example, that the world is composed of “concrete assemblages,” any of which can be mapped by an “abstract machine” that can explain how a set of singularities actualize in particular situations to give rise to the assemblage in question. For example, if we think of evolution as an algorithm (and most evolutionary theorists do, often speaking of evolution as a bio-informational process), we can think of the DNA of any organism as a code which when given energy and an environment, will actualize in a fuzzy set of particular ways. Likewise, even an inorganic molecule, which doesn’t have an “instruction manual” within it like living organisms do with DNA, can be seen as actualizing a virtual, implicit plan that scientists then map out with things like molecular diagrams. And today scientists are increasingly using the algorithmic aspects of our world to produce designer molecules, organs, and even organisms. Perhaps then it is not all that much of a stretch to think of all that is as algorithmic, a massively networked intertwining of potential, algorithms, and actualities. And as Marks indicates, this model finds a precursor, in the very source of Medieval European philosophy, namely, Medieval Islamic thought.
Islamic Philosophies as Algorithmic Networkologies
But how might it be possible to think of Islamic philosophy as algorithmic? Much of Arabic philosophy portrays the world as a giant network of sorts, with God as the infinite that powers the whole thing. And as described by Marks, the Qur’an acts in much Islamic thought as the algorithmic code that gives the world order and pattern, such that the individual things of the world are mere incarnations of the forms of this pattern within the degraded world of matter. Many Islamic theorists argue that as the word of God, the Qur’an isn’t created but rather eternal. Furthermore, written forms of the Qur’an are merely traces of the spoken form, which is the act of God which brings the world forth, which is why recitation is so important in Islam. This also helps explain why humans shouldn’t try to compete with God as creator, and hence images which resemble higher beings are often prohibited, a notion commonly known as “aniconism” (an-icon-ism). Within all this, Marks is careful to show the potential political applications of such a notion of God, how it can be repressive of difference, or radically liberating, depending upon how the relation to this infinite is conceived. Here lies the politics of her work, about which we’ll say more shortly.
Within such a model, however, speech is performative action, the means whereby God brings the created world into being, and the written trace is simply there to help humans reactive the link to God. Literally, to recite the Qur’an is like establishing a network connection to the eternal, unchanging source of all creation, that from which all emanates. In this sense, the text can be seen as both information and interface, an enfolding of the virtual potentials which are emanations of God’s eternal creative power. The Qur’an (literally, ‘The Reciting’), as God’s active word, literally then functions as an algorithm, a code that makes things happen, for it is not merely a writing, but a doing. And for a human to recite the Qur’an is then to participate in him and his work, to sync with it, in a sense, even if the agency for it and yourself all comes from God in the first place. The Qur’an is a therefore a sort of master code for actualizing in the world.
And for some theorists, there’s potentially more in the Qur’an there than meets the eye. Some philosophers felt the text needs to be understood allegorically as containing massively more meanings than present on the surface (ie: Shi’a interpretations valued this, indirectly influencing Aquinas in his allegorical readings of Christian scripture), while others felt there is only one way to execute this code (Sunni theologians in fact often argue against all interpretation, for and hence for pure ritualized recitation). At the most radical extreme, and in a manner similar to Jewsish Kaballistic approaches, the characters of the Qur’an could be converted to numbers, producing yet more layers of potential meaning to be unfolded.
Marks describes this attempt to numerically decode the text as as one side of the vogue for “computational magic” and “sacred geometry” popular since late antiquity, a trend only vanquished with the rise of modern science. Then again, it seems reasonable to argue that without such computational and geometric symbologies, with its search for correspondences and affinities between things like planets, metals, numbers, animals, etc., modern science would likely not have emerged. And if in fact these predecessor procedures for having symbolic efficacy on the world are some of the “vanishing mediators” (to use a term from Fredric Jameson) of contemporary science, then perhaps we’ll need to understand them if we are to move beyond the limitations which contemporary forms of scientism which turn science into technology in the name of its industrial masters.
Whether in more textually fundamentalist Sunni form, Shi’a allegorical form, or Sufi mystical radicalizations of either, Marks describes how the Qur’an can be seen as the code linking God and created beings, thereby linking into her general model of virtual/infinity, information/code/algorithm, and image/thing. After establishing these connections, she then describes twelve primary characteristics that she feels can be seen as unifying the otherwise radically disparate corpus of classical Islamic art, characteristics which are also shared in various ways by new media formations, including art.
From here, Marks then proceeds to a series of semi-historical chapters, which lay the groundwork for understanding the nets of transmission of Islamic ideas to the West. According to Marks, we are the unconscious inheritors of a hidden genealogy of Islamic thought, one which was erased as vanishing mediator of modernity, and which is only now making itself seen again. Marks carefully traces the network of influences between Alexandria, Constantinople, Damascus, and Venice, and describes how Venetian culture during the period of the crusades was absolutely permeated with that of the more developed Islamic world. This Islamo-Venetian network is then largely destroyed when the monopoly of trade to the Far East is broken by Portuguese discovery of a sea route to the Indian Ocean, as well as the discovery of frontiers beyond Europe and Asia, all of which allowed European coffers to eventually develop the surpluses which were able to spur development in nearly every field (eventually giving rise to the Industrial revolution). But as Marks shows, Islamic models nevertheless snuck themselves into everything from carpets to design patterns, more than just philosophical models, often lurking in the collective unconscious of the European imaginary, with influences that can be felt even today. For Marks these traces serve as reservoirs which periodically resurface, and whose effects are being seen today in various new media formations.
Islamico-Algorithmic Aesthetics: Pixel, Vector/Raster, Arabesque/Fractal, Texture/Screen, Morph/Figure, Figural/Textural
After Marks’ general description of her project, which she then historicizes with her genealogy of Islamic art’s influence upon “the west”, the second half of the book truly jumps into uncharted terrain. Synthesizing various aspects of Deleuze’s philosophy into a coherent aesthetic theory, Marks finds analogues in classical Islamic art, philosophy, and aesthetics which can help us understand developments in contemporary new media art and life. Taking the notions of point, line, plane, figure, and text as reworked by Deleuze and his sources from Worringer to Foncillon, Marks links these to new media art formations, such as pixel, vector/raster, texture/screen, image/text, even as she continually shows how these can be contextualized in relation to various forms of Islamic art, and with profound political implications.
For Marks, the pixel is the contemporary equivalent of the atom of Islamic atomist philosophers (ie: the Ash’arites), which finds artistic expression in the unit-like muquarnas from which many Islamic dome interiors are composed. These can also be thought of as the “cells” from which Islamic geometric artwork like tiles are formed. And yet, the muqarna/pixel seems a method to contain the very power to leap beyond its bounds, that of which pixels are formed.
Here she turns to the notion of the vector, which finds historical antecedent in the way seemingly everything in Islamic religion points towards Mecca, and from there to God, such that so much art in the Islamic world, and even the practices of which the art is often simply a trace, take on a fundamentally vectoral form. This finds artistic expression in the ways in which lines often seem to have a life of their own in a variety of Islamic patterns, such that these lines can be thought of as points leaping outside themselves, giving rise to forms by means of the forces they trace. This can either be disciplined, as seen in rigid geometries which represent only highly ordered and stable shapes, which she compares to the raster’s disciplining of vector graphics today, or take the form of the arabesque, the line which continually breaks away from figures and texts, misbehaving, giving rise to “haptic” textural spaces rather than screen-like planes, often producing a multiplicity of potential readings and patterms. These haptic spaces are somewhere between lines and planes, like lines with depth and planes that introject “the void [crucial to Islamic atomists] into the heart of matter” (p. 177).
Describing how these lines give rise to proliferation of potential figures, or how various Islamic calligraphies were disciplined by the state, only to keep having various images arise from their edges, Marks describes how there was a constant attempt to tame lines and their voids, to keep images from creeping into words and words from exploding into images, to prevent figures dissolving back into patterns, and to eliminate various other unruly aspects which came about from the productive constraint of aniconism. And when Islamic art did allow for images of people, such as in Persian painting, Marks shows how the defamiliarizing aspects of these works, with their unattached spaces and times, and other generally anti-illusionist forms, has similarities to contemporary virtual reality, which Steven Shaviro has described as manifesting post-cinematic affects by means of what Deleuze describes as “any-place-whatsoevers” and “any-times-whatsoevers.”
In all this Marks’ goal is liberation, exploding objects into objectiles, pixels and rasters into vectors, screens into textures, figures into abstract patterns, and texts into psychadelic refractions of images. For if an infinity, for Marks, is something that you relate to “like another person,” her goal is to help us imagine ways that our relation to every aspect of the world can be like this. Which is to say, she wants to help us see the potential for the unfolding of infinity, and its infinite potential for folding and unfolding, within and between every fold.
From Mystification to Engagement: Genealogizing Network Politics of Aesthetics from Classical Islamic Art to Techno-Image
From morphing calligraphies and figures to virtual spacetimes, Marks keeps tracing a struggle between the powers of centralization and those of proliferation and creation. For Marks, “art is a primitive swamp that liberates differentiation as a force in itself” (313), and this force shatters points, lines, planes, figures, and texts to give rise to new differentiations, something which tends to terrify those in power. For some Islamic governments during the classical period, strict measures were taken to rein things in. Some required using ratios to produce a proportioned relation between individual characters and the flourishes allowed in calligraphic inscriptions. Others prohibited allegorical readings of texts, or banned calligraphic writing which turn into images or vice-versa. For others, pure geometric patterns and the void were all that were allowed, and often in austere, centralized forms, producing a mathematical sublime with no sense of connection to human production, leaving only the spectacle of grandeur and complexity stabilized by a deviously omnipresent absent center.
Mystification, for Marks, is a powerful force for repression, and she sees the austere geometric pureness of some Islamic works as similar to some modernisms which emphasize purity of geometry, or new media works that emphasize spectacle rather than interactivity. For example, Marks differentiates those geometrically patterned works of mathematical art that give rise to proliferating refractions of difference (ie: Mandelbrot fractals, enfolding massive diversity into elegant code) from those which simply echo and reflect a centralized sameness, a difference which, building on Deleuze, could be described as that between reflection and refraction (and for more on this in regard to political formations, see here). And while Marks values the insights of Sufi mystics, both in art and philosophy, she expresses concern that the Sufi notion of fana’ (annihilation before God) might lead to political and intellectual quietism, as evidenced in how some forms of Sufism went from being repressed to endorsed by the State, with political implications for today in the ways in which technology often leads to awe and spectacle, yet also passivity and detachment of the form described by Guy Debord as ‘the society of the spectacle.’
Describing the European tradition as one of the depiction of face and body (Deleuze’s notion of “faceity”), Marks argues that the emergence of ornament and figural line in modernism (ie: pre-Raphaelites, Aubrey Beardsley, etc.) shows the return of a repressed Islamic influence which, for Marks, had been hiding in, amongst other places, the Venetian patterns that carried algorithmic art forms into the heart of the European visual unconscious. Marks nicely shows how carpets with Islamic patterns show up in a wide variety of European paintings, and can be seen to function as sorts of ‘images of thought,’ what Deleuze describes as “noo-signs.”
In all this, the tension between neo-Baroque proliferation and the forces of centralizationplays out, from classical Islamic art and philosophy to new media formations. Just as modernism was torn between the drive for purity and that of neo-Baroque excess (ie: Corbusier and Loos versus Art Nouveau, The Union of Socialist Writers versus Constructivst rebels in Russia), so new media art is torn between that which fosters proliferation and distributed agency, and that which simply attempts to ‘shock and awe’ us before technological spectacle, all in a manner which can be seen to play out in the formal languages of Islamic arts. In terms of new media, understanding these two types of what Jameson calls the “technological sublime,” that which furthers activity and change versus that which furthers passivity and disengagement, can help us track some of the political implications of the techno-images which seem to increasingly structure meaning in our networked age.
Mark’s book is a profound attempt to develop an aesthetics which is also an ontology as well as an ethics, linking Deleuze’s Spinozism to the side of Islamic thought which fought against the powers of centralization.
In the process, she not only provides a guide for navigating our algorithmic times, but also a much needed recurperative work. For as I argued in a previous post, it is time that “the West” and its history to begin to integrate the fact that it didn’t simply ‘go to sleep’ after Rome, but rather, that its heritage crucially runs through the Islamic world. That is, we are all inheritors of the ways in which Greek learning moved from Rome and Byzantium to Alexandria, Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba, Toledo, Damascus, and other centers of learning in the Islamic world, where it built upon the Neoplatonic heritage, mutating it in the process, and advancing substantially in regard to medical, mathematical, and scientific knowledge, before the leading edge of that tradition moved back to Europe.
All of which is to say that “the West” as we know it today is the child of Islam, whether it wants to acknowledge this or not. Of course, contemporary Islam is also an inheritor of its own classical period, and understanding the commonalities between these cultures so often at odds today, their common heritage, is something that may help to produce bridges which may help us develop more robust and liberatory futures in common. Marks’ work of radically hybrid scholarship is precisely the sort of thing that can help point us in this direction, while providing us with tools whereby to imagine future work of this sort.
And it’s a great read! I actually couldn’t put the book down, highly, highly recommended. I expect to be drawing from the conceptual resources this book provided for a very long time. A crucial text to help understand our rapidly changing world.