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on vanity III:9 1083

plane tree


the mad hammer is from the automata/automaton blog

The translation into English is by I. E. Drabkin, in R. Cohen and I. E. Drabkin (eds.), A Sourcebook in Greek Science (New York, 1948), pp. 162-165, from the Greek-Latin edition of Carolus Müllerus, Claudii Ptolemaei: Geographia (Parisiis, 1883), which I in turn found in ‘The Concept of Location in Classical Geography’, F. Lukermann, in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Jun., 1961), pp.194-210




























footnotes, appendices and apparatus to the anatomy

grouped loosely by subject


9. on Natural Philosophy


...not the first city of failures...

There is also the infamous Poneropolis, for example, town of the wicked. The story ran that Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, founded a town in Thrace and sent the morally reprobate there, allowing them to build, ultimately, what Montaigne reckons to be a ‘political fabric and an advantageous lawful society'. Poneropolis (a nickname) was in fact a garrison town with a lively reputation.

Montaigne’s point is that form will emerge from matter, no matter what sort of matter is in hand. Montaigne’s God is a Plasmator God, continually moulding and giving form to chaos.




...a leap of the technical imagination.

Harvey’s leap of the imagination, documented in the Exercitationes Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus of 1628, is technical and processual as much as anything; he set himself to investigate the motion of blood in the body, and it was the range of technique he applied – dissection, vivisection, anatomical and physiological techniques (the use of ligatures to track the build up of blood in his own arm, for instance), and the application of mathematics to biology, that allowed him to see the heart in action.

In other words this was not an intuition which he followed up, but was an amassing of relevant data through new technique. Doubtless there came a point where he thought he understood, and tuned his techniques accordingly. But as with Leeuwenhoek and Hooke  and their microscopes, it was the instrument (or instruments of knowledge) which led.




...urban silviculture and its deceits...

The silviculture of Norbiton is mostly plane trees erupting from the paving stones, like stock-brokers transformed at the touch of a whimsical, rather than lustful, Apollo.

The London plane is a cross between the platanus occidentalis and platanus orientalis. It is not a real tree, but a  tree designed for urban environments; it has compacted roots and can breathe polluted air – as the aspidistra in the nineteenth century flourished as a houseplant in the miasma of gaslight emissions, where other plants wilted.

The aspidistra is not so common now, but people still like house plants. Space travellers will probably have house plants in their living quarters, to cheer them out of the endless black night of space. It won't work.




...almost without reference...

In much the same way, I suppose, as physicists handle the interactions of matter and energy through mathematical objects, as it were by proxy. However I'm extrapolating this supposition from something I think I heard a physicist saying on the radio some years ago: that you don't understand quantum mechanics, you just get used to it.

I would apologise therefore for being way out of my depth, as in fact I am, if it weren’t for my suspicion that imaginative accounts of the sort I’m proposing have none – no depth, that is: they define their own terms, beyond which there is simply nothing – they are not constrained by inconvenient external referents, such as, for example, a universe.

Having said that, it is probably just as well that Einstein didn’t think along these lines, so perhaps I should make that apology after all.




...a mechanical clock or orrery...

volpaia's clockFicino specifically suggests that the mechanical object in question should resemble the planetary clock of Lorenzo della Volpaia (attached here is a reproduction of his second version, dating from 1510, but I suppose it is close enough).

I am moved to speculate in this connection that Leonardo's thirst for mechanical wonders had more of the talismanic about it than at first meets the eye.


Or why not go a step further and hazard that all mechanical innovation, as all art, addresses or approaches or circumvents the Pygmalion myth in one way or another: to infuse motion into dumb matter is to feel yourself on the cusp of godhead.

Erroneously, as it happens.




...monstrous intermediate forms...

In the allotments it is mostly pests of one sort or another that I fear; but in the Kelley garden I am coming to abhor dandelions, which Kelley - perhaps for want of something to say - has instructed me to purge from his various patches of grass.

dandelionI find that in the iterative process of stooping, picking, uprooting, casting aside, you become simultaneously battle-hardened – your technique is grooved, your attention hyper-focussed – but also weary of the low down horror of life at a few inches from the soil, your face constantly in all this crawlspace; dandelions start by annoying you but end by making you queasy; they defeat you by their dumb persistence, the alien tentacular form they take, the rapidity of their growth and change, their spidery stealth; you almost want to let them go, let them take over, reclaim the pavements, the paths, sprout from your nose, your mouth, draw sustenance from your own dusty bones.

I know too that at some point soon I will have to pick slugs, snails, caterpillars off the back of cabbage leaves in my allotment. I am beginning to realise that a gardener does not lay down and police boundaries. I am not a pilgrim pushing back the virgin forest so that I can plant and sow my other, cleaner, functioning rows of vegetables, my pure and numerable monoculture; rather, I am forced to draw on all this welter of disorder, of writhing crawling growing matter; my little field of corn – or my hundred of beans and potatoes - is no more than a version of it.

I look at Monty Don turning over the soil in his vegetable patch, and I do not recognise it as soil; it is loamy, fluffy, mobile, rich; there is not a stone or a root in it; when I dig, the earth is recalcitrant, claggy, globulous, compacted; full of wormy crawling things; I do not want to touch it; Monty Don’s soil is otherworldly, it is the soil of the paradisus terrestris,  the soil of a rich man.

I crave the clarity of my room; where the flies and mosquitoes and wasps bounce of the windows that I keep shut, where the green stuff is all outside; where I sit in a sealed environment of inert and beneficent plastics (paradoxically characterised by nothing so disturbing as plasticity) and metals, perhaps some well seasoned wood from which all life has been healthfully expunged; if I died here in my chair and rotted to nothing the room would look much the same a thousand years hence, a little dustier perhaps, but not much different. The allotment, on the other hand, would by then have elaborated its own monstrous logic, would have become the wildwood, stalked by monsters, green men.




...some remarks by Ptolemy in his Geographia.

In 1397 Palla Strozzi was given a copy of Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographia Uphegesis by Emmanuel Chrysoloras. The first latin translation by Giacomo de Scarperia followed in 1406, and it was first printed in 1477, being the first of the incunabula with engraved illustrations.

Ptolemy described the difference between geography and chorography as follows:

Geography is the representation, by a map, of the portion of the earth known to us, together with its general features. Geography differs from chorography in that chorography concerns itself exclusively with particular regions and describes each separately, representing practically everything of the lands in question, even the smallest details.... It is the task of geography on the other hand, to present the known world as one and continuous, to describe its nature and position, and to include only those things that would be contained in more comprehensive and general descriptions .... Again, chorography deals, for the most part, with the nature rather than with the size of the lands. It has regard everywhere for securing a likeness but not, to the same extent, for determining relative positions. Geography, on the other hand, is concerned with quantitative rather than with qualitative matters, since it has regard in every case for the correct proportion of distances, but only in the case of the more general features does it concern itself with securing a likeness, and then only with respect to configuration.

There is here a clear intimation that the shift in scale necessitated also an alteration of method, approach, understanding: geography assumes a homogenous and infinite, in the sense of boundless, lump of matter called the Earth upon which various unvarying natural processes are inscribed; while chorography tilts at an exhaustion of detail within an arbitrarily bounded space, generalising no processes.

And I would go further and argue, or anyway state, that the natural province of (Renaissance) chorography is the city and its environs, whereas the natural province of geography is the totality of the earth, and while, in theory, there is no reason why the reverse could not be the case (so that cities were treated as geographical processes or the result of those processes, and the earth as an arbitrarily bounded and wholly particularised locale), nevertheless the processes and understandings which access the one are not usually appropriate to the other. The City and the Earth, geographically speaking, are radically discontinuous entities – not least, because to suppose otherwise would be to postulate a greater, overarching episteme within which geography, chorography and topography would all operate at their varying scales – a manifest nonsense.

Such at least is my cursory understanding of Ptolemy.




...on portolan charts...

Portolan charts were navigational maps showing named features of coastlines, and compasses boxed from multiple points.

portolan chart

They were essentially outshoots of the periploi of ancient Mediterranean mariners. They could be gradually extended by experience, for as long as there were coasts. They required no conceptual readjustment, just an acceptance that the charts would suddenly break off at the point where the furthest eye had been.

The grid-like organisation of these charts, intersecting lines speaking of arcane but consistent science, is meaningless without the further intersection of the known or knowable coast – the coast, so to speak, polarises the intersecting compass points.

The portolan chart gives no information about the inland of a country: the inland is a white expanse, not unknowable, perhaps, by other means (get out of your boat and walk about), but largely irrelevant. What was important, to a seagoing merchant, was the interface. Set up a factory on the beach, and wait for the trade to make its appearance in ivory and slaves; watch rumour – of anthropophagi, of Prester John - crystallize at this permeable barrier into trade goods, ready money.




...there is a single unicursal path.

Actually, this is not true. While for most their history mazes were merely broken unicursal labyrinths which could be reconstituted into their original unicursal path - which is to say, solved - by the simple pragmatism of keeping one hand at all times on a wall; from the early nineteenth century efforts were made to ramp up the complexity, isolating the centre by the simple expedient of floating walls, as for instance here, at Chevening House in Kent.

Chevening House cut out and keep

And in other cases there are multiple routes to the centre. Nevertheless, it remains the case that if a labyrinth is soluble and if there is a user of that labyrinth - a Theseus, a Minotaur, a Daedalus - or in other words, where the labyrinth has not just a topology but a history, then there is a steady convergence of paths trodden and permissible routes: a convergence on a single unicursal path.

I am prepared to admit, however, that at this point we should probably stop using the terms multicursal and unicursal. In the interest of clarity.




...which he called the Periglacial City.

Periglaciation is associated with those regions of the globe that fringe the permanently frozen regions of the arctic – thus Northern Russia, Canada, Scandinavia. There are also relics of periglacial landforms fringing the antique ice-sheets.

The periglacial is characterised by the interaction of the permafrost, a layer some feet beneath the surface which never thaws, and the surface layer which thaws seasonally. This subsoil boundary and the differential movement it implies, and the seasonal saturation of the upper layer, account for a number of landforms peculiar to periglacial areas: frost-heaving, hummocks, hydrolaccoliths, sorted stone polygons, and so on.

peculiar periglacials

There are probably Northern myths – Siberian, Norse, Inuit – of periglacial tundra gods whose feet are rooted in ice like thwarted and tormented Prometheans; or of felt-wrapped shamans stilling their pulses and descending into the permafrost to secure crystalline visions. There are certainly modern mythologies, of chain-wheeled mining corporations, hurtling meteorites, preserved mammoths.

And there are fragmentary personal mythologies. When I was seventeen, studying geography A-level, a field trip was mooted to Lapland. We would go up there, pace out the hydrolaccoliths, squidge the hummocks, lasso reindeer, catch walrus through holes in the ice, drink phials of 80% proof potato spirit against the cold – who knew? Anything seemed possible.

The trip never happened. We went to Cornwall instead, stayed in Bude, and drank beer. I have never been to Lapland, and am far from committed to its existence.

lapps unconfirmed





...made no hypothesis about what he was seeing.

This is not to say that his observations did not in some sense conform to his prior beliefs regarding microstructure and sense perception. He was, after Descartes, a replica Leeuwenhoek microscopemechanist, who believed that properties of substances could be traced to the shape of their smallest parts. His entire microscopy could be said, therefore, to be sprung from the hypothesis that the characteristics of being might be seen through a magnifying lens. Lisa Jardine relates, for example, how his discovery of protozoa in water (his animalcules) was a by-product of his reseaches into the pungency of pepper.




...once a touchstone of truth.

unjustifiedThis is, strictly speaking, an unjustified assertion.

As Paul Feyerabend notes in Against Method, "[t]he ‘illusions of direct vision’, whose role in scientific research is slowly being rediscovered, were well known to mediaeval writers on optics, who treated them in special chapters of their textbooks." (p.86-87 note 17)

Feyerabend mentions this in an aside on the work of physicist S. Tolansky, whose routine microscopical inspection of crystals and metals were distracted, on his own account, by 'one optical illusion after another'.

It is fair to say that I paint with a broad and sloppy brush.




...looking for an angle.

As usual with Kant, there is a bit more to it than that. He in fact believed that geometry offered the user a series of synthetic a-priori judgements, and was looking for something similar.

But, understandably enough, he had not accounted for non-Euclidean geometries. So in fact he walked about Königsberg in a great cloud of unknowing, a cloud more dense than he could easily have imagined, surrounded by invisible swarms of the irrational, like an illiterate inhabitant of Borges’ library, so many angles dancing like angels on pins.

It is only natural to wonder, therefore, about Norbiton's own blizzard of unknowables.We have been called dense, thickety, a thorny prickle of words; but we are a balm, a salve, a caress to the unknown elements which lie beyond our ring of fire.