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Monday, February 6, 2012

Representing Randomness


 Two views of the same thing: what is it?
I posed the question to a couple of people who answered confidently that it represented something lost at sea, a shipwreck or treasure. They took their contextual clues from the sea scene set around the object and the appearance of being caught in a net.

In fact, what the pictures represent is what I put together during a visit to the Queens Museum. I followed the directions to "make a mess."  The idea was to gather up various items from the bins and attach them to a base without a set plan about the structure.  I have no problem with randomness. The reason I opted for the sea picture was really because it looked better than the gray cardboard, and it happened to be right near my place at the table.

Is this art? I would say not, except in the sense that it is quite as "useless" as Oscar Wilde declares art to be. But what this nonrepresentational product does represent is how the viewer frames it to give it contextual meaning.   That we impose narrative on randomness to make sense of and remember events is one of the concepts that Nassim Nicholas Taleb brings up in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

An observation on this state of human nature was made a long time ago by Marian Evans, when she wrote Middlemarch,  the novel considered her masterpiece. In chapter 27, she throws in this observation:

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person... 

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