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Glass is a rigid material formed by heating a mixture of dry materials to a viscous state, then cooling the ingredients fast enough to prevent a regular crystalline structure. As the glass cools, the atoms become locked in a disordered state like a liquid before they can form into the perfect crystal arrangement of a solid. Being neither a liquid nor a solid, but sharing the qualities of both, glass is its own state of matter.
Glass has great inherent strength. Weakened only by surface imperfections, which give everyday glass its fragile reputation. Special tempering can minimize surface flaws.
Paul Scheerbart, Bruno Taut, and Glass Architecture
Closely followed by architects, philosophers, scientists, politicians, and artists during the first half of the twentieth century - especially in the years around World War I-Scheerbart and his unique world view have had a far-reaching but often unrecognized influence. He is a writer difficult to define in any coherent way; he can be many things at once. Simple in his language, he spoke of the absurd and the stubbornly technological in the same breath. It is sometimes hard to know when he is joking, but one always feels the desire inside his dreams, however flabbergasting, to make sense of the world. Largely forgotten after his death because his ideas do not cohere neatly with the values of economic and political efficiency that dominated the twentieth century, he is now being rediscovered. But what does he actually say, and what did he propose that gained the trust, faith, and hope of his contemporaries? To some Scheerbart was a visionary, a technocrat avant la lettre, who outlined radical new possibilities for architecture in his book Glass Architecture. To others he is a fanciful figure in the history of science fiction, the strange mind behind a series of hallucinatory astral fantasies featuring intergalactic romances between stars and surrealistic biological "advances" in evolution.
Walter Benjamin, understood him to be a revolutionary theorist of the politics of culture itself. Finally, in retrospect, we appreciate Scheerbart for his exhilarating ability to predict the coming century of political and technological violence. Rational theorist or fantastic dreamer? Serious writer or spinner of nonsense? Crackpot inventor or revolutionary? Literary innovator for a new world or amateur poet? It was Scheerbart's burden to be all of these at once, an outsider begrudgingly recognized for both the clarity of his world view and the contradictions of the truths he wished for. He was the writer of a story whose answer is a question.
In 1919 Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus that year, urged a fellow architect, "You absolutely must read Paul Scheerbarth [sic|... in his works you will find much wisdom and beauty." Gropius was particularly fascinated by Glass Architecture (1914), a book in which Scheerbart imagined a new, better, crystal world. "If we want our culture to rise to a higher level, we are obliged, for better or worse, to change our architecture," Scheerbart wrote. “The new environment, which we thus create, must bring us a new culture." Comprising 111 short chapters, this impassioned manifesto elaborates on the revolutionary potential of glass. Man's ingenuity would triumph over nature, and the entire planet would be transformed by glass architecture, frosting into a dazzling, festive frenzy of illuminated colored crystal. Splendid glass cities would float on the oceans, and crystalline palaces, linked by bridges of glass and rock, would cover Alpine peaks.
But by 1923, when Gropius sought to reinvent the Bauhaus as a technological institute that designed cheap, mass-produced goods, Scheerbart and his utopian mysticism of glass had been all but forgotten. Scheerbart urged his readers to "resist most vehemently the undecorated 'functional style,' for it is inartistic." His bejeweled aesthetic sensibility was closer to an imaginary art nouveau–he didn't think ornament a crime but a necessity; concrete should be hidden behind decorative enamel, niello, mosaic, and majolica, and an array of colored glass would create a shimmering rainbow of refracted light.
Scheerbart's friend Bruno Taut, to whom Glass Architecture was dedicated, created a glass monument to Scheerbart, the Glass House, a crystal temple for the Cologne Werkbund of 1914, an exhibition intended to showcase new building techniques. They had met through Herwarth Walden's Der Sturm group around 1912 and cemented their friendship through Scheerbart's hope to found a society of "glass architects." The pavilion with its prismatic glass-domed roof (known today only from black-and-white photos) was the sole fruit of their collaboration. Taut's pavilion, unlike later transparent vivaria, was a sumptuous riot of color in a spectrum ranging from dark blue through moss green to, at the point of the dome, golden yellow. Aphoristic quotes about glass and crystal culture written by Scheerbart were embedded in the exterior concrete frieze, such as "Without a palace of glass, life is a burdensome task" and "Colored glass destroys all hatred at last."
After Scheerbart's death in 1915, Taut sketched out his mentor's ideas, such as the vision of glass cities in the Alps. He also formed the Crystal Chain, a group of like-minded architects, artists, and poets who sought to keep Scheerbart's memory alive by further exploring his idealistic visions of the future. They referred to Scheerbart as "Glass Papa." Taut, recognizing the intrinsic conservatism of adults, hoped that their children would one day accept and live in a glass world. To this end, he designed a modular construction toy–Dandanah, the Fairy Palace (1919)–with sixty-two glass bricks of different bold colors, which children could use to experiment with Scheerhartian architectural schemes, "These master builders see with emotion.' Taut wrote in a review of Glass Architecture, "and when they are grown-ups they will build with and through us, even if 'we' are already dead.”
Scheerbart's and Taut's fantasies are by no means the complete, self-sufficient systems one finds, for instance, in Thomas More's Utopia (1516) or William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890). Rather, they are fragmentary proposals that can be understood in light of the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch's The Spirit of Utopia (1918). Bloch suggested that utopias were still possible as fragments that could spring from quite diverse sources–even fairy tales and the everyday–and be collaged into a partial rather than a fixed reality.
Scheerbart’s Gallery of the Beyond
An is generally known, it is only in the twentieth century, according to our accounting of time, that microscopic study of the photographic plates provided by the great astronomical observatories has begun to yield some results. Until now, these results have never been made available to the general public, in an effort to avoid possible misinterpretation; it is undeniable that sometimes what the microscope revealed was only a factor of the photographic material itself. But this is of course not the place to go into questions that lie within the purview of specialists. This much is already certain: the plates taken in the region of the heavens near Neptune, an area characterized by a remarkable brightness, present new views of our world that are nothing less than exhilarating–that these are cosmic images can no longer be doubted.
The following drawings are reproductions of what we have discovered beyond the orbit of Neptune.
We must now refrain from any further attempts to meet the newly discovered creatures beyond Neptune with further attempts at explanation; we must first seek slowly to familiarize ourselves with them. The magnificent and marvelous life in our solar system that is just now becoming visible to our eyes is so vast that for now a long, admiring silence seems the best course.
These ten pages naturally ought not to be judged from a purely aesthetic standpoint, as such aesthetic judgments can only proceed from our habituation to the appearance of earthly beings.
Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!! - A Paul Scheerbart Reader
Duchamp’s Glass is the first x-ray painting of space. — Frederick Kiesler
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even is often called the Large Glass because that is precisely what it is: two pieces of glass, which are stacked vertically and framed like a double-hung window to reach over nine feet tall. Though the Large Glass is essentially a flat, two-dimensional object, it is emphatically not a painting, as it is mostly transparent—you can walk around it and view it from both sides—and Duchamp avoided using traditional materials like canvas and oil paint. Instead, he concocted the imagery on the glass surface out of wire, foil, glue, and varnish. He also allowed dust to collect on the glass as it laid flat in his studio, which he affixed with adhesive. Man Ray’s photograph, Dust Breeding (1920), shows just how dirty the glass got.
From the very outset, interpretations of Duchamp’s Large Glass have been affected by the vicissitudes of its physical state. The work, a complex and ironic representation of human lovemaking as a mechanistic and endlessly frustrating process, was made using oil, lead wire, lead foil, dust and varnish on two large panels of glass, which together make the piece nearly three metres high and two metres wide. The lower glass, slightly larger than the upper, contains the Bachelor Apparatus: a Chocolate Grinder, Glider, Malic Moulds, Sieves and Oculist Witnesses. The Bride Machine above consists of three main parts: Bride, Blossoming and Shots. Duchamp had begun making the sculpture in New York in September 1915 and the collector Walter C. Arensberg bought it in 1918. When Arensberg moved to Los Angeles in 1921 he sold it to Katherine S. Dreier so that it could remain in New York and Duchamp could continue to work on it. It is well documented that Duchamp declared The Large Glass incomplete or definitively unfinished in 1923. The work was also considered too fragile to travel, a concern well founded as it shattered while returning from its first public appearance at the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Brooklyn Museum in 1927.
The whole glass had splintered, with cracks propagating from the upper right section, an area that included nine holes or ‘shots’, which had probably weakened its structure. The work was repaired in 1936 by Duchamp himself using the lead wire and varnish that had helped to hold the pieces together, which he then secured between two sheets of heavier plate glass clamped together by a new steel frame. The ‘marmalade’ effect that the damage had caused was improved upon but cracks were still visible. For Duchamp this change was an acceptable addition, whereas Hamilton later described it as an ‘accidental finality,’ The Large Glass was exhibited once more at the Museum of Modern Art from 1943 to 1946; Duchamp accompanied the work and repaired it at the museum after some of the glass pieces had slipped out of place during transportation. At Dreier’s bequest it then joined the Arensberg Collection of Duchamp’s works in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1953. By this time, then, The Large Glass had been declared unfinished, bought, sold, exhibited, broken, repaired and exhibited once more before entering a permanent collection of art where it remains today, cemented into the floor.
Duchamp stopped working on the Large Glass in 1923, after eight years, not because it was complete, but because he decided it should remain “definitively unfinished.” Later, in 1927, when the glass was en route to collector Katherine Dreier’s house from an exhibition in Brooklyn, he was thrilled to discover it had been damaged, saying the accidental cracking finished the work in a way that he never could have.
The Large Glass is a curious contraption; it looks a bit like a mechanical diagram and was designed to function like an allegorical machine. He made preliminary paintings and drawings for components of the Large Glass including Chocolate Grinder (No. 2) (1914). He also amassed an impressive collection of cryptic notes that he brought together in The Green Box (1934), which scholars have used to interpret the work’s many different meanings—from the frustrations of love and sex, to the physics of electromagnetism and the fourth dimension. To understand how the Large Glass works like a machine we must imagine its components in motion.
The action begins in the upper left corner with the “Bride,” the element that resembles a bug or a tree. She flirts by stripping for the “Bachelors” in the lower register. The Bachelors are the nine vaguely anthropomorphic cylinders in the lower left section of the glass, and they think the Bride is very attractive. Each Bachelor is trying to win her affection, but they exist in a completely different zone, and are having a hard time communicating with her.
As the Bachelors become excited their forms fill up with what Duchamp called an “illuminating gas” (invisible). This gas causes an “imaginary waterfall” to turn the water wheel (mill) beneath them. That action makes the rectangular glider slide back and forth, which moves the scissors above, which makes the chocolate grinder churn. All of that motion builds up, as the gas from the Bachelors flows into the cone-shaped sieves. The gas that represents the Bachelors’ desire for the Bride transforms into liquid and flows into the lower right corner. Next, the liquid is propelled through the three circular elements, and through a magnifying glass (Oculist Witnesses), and shoots into the Bride’s realm above. The goal for each Bachelor is to land his shot within one of the three square windows inside of the cloud that hovers at the top of the glass (Draft Piston or Nets). If he can do that, he will win the Bride and they will be able to consummate their love physically. If you look closely, you can see nine small holes on the right side of the Bride’s register, which Duchamp marked by firing matches with paint on the tips through a toy cannon. Unfortunately, only one of those shots even came close to its target. Thus, the Bachelors cannot reach the Bride and their love for her remains unfulfilled.
To create the Large Glass, he experimented not only with new media but also with recent scientific theories as if he were in a laboratory. On top of the tale of amorous attraction and frustration, Duchamp layered ideas about such scientific phenomena as electromagnetism and telegraphy. The way the Bride communicates her erotic feelings from her pane of glass to the Bachelors’ realm below relates to the power of electricity and the vibratory waves in the electromagnetic field mobilized in wireless telegraphy. The Bride’s form actually resembles the telegraphic antenna on the top of the Eiffel Tower that was the source of much popular interest in Duchamp’s day. As an antenna, she can send and receive unseen messages through space, but the Bachelors are not so advanced. They are able to receive her communications, but their only response comes in the form of those failed shots from the toy canon, which are at best a rudimentary and rather pathetic means of winning her love.
Duchamp’s writings reveal that he imagined the Bride’s realm as the mysterious fourth dimension of space, a higher plane from the Bachelors who live in our common three-dimensional world. This accounts for their miscommunications and failed attempts at finding love. In the Large Glass, Duchamp brought art, science, sex, and love together in an absurdly humorous way. Watching machines try to fall in love; imagining the bug-tree-antenna Bride strip for Bachelors who cannot reach her; understanding that the object was made with dust, shattered glass, and marks made randomly by a toy cannon; and tying that drama to the complicated workings and invisible forces of science is surprising, playful, and oddly hilarious.
Cracks travel, but never in a straight line. They are always slightly deflected, but a crack that starts at one edge of a sheet of glass will hardly ever stop until it reaches another edge. Cracks in glass have virtually no physical dimension. They are breaks in the molecular structure made visible. Marcel Duchamp loved cracks. For several years Duchamp was a glass painter, and three of his four works in this medium are shattered. He would say that these transparent paintings were not broken but merely “wrinkled,” and even enhanced, or “brought back into the world,” by the new linear designs that accidental falls or jolts had imposed upon them.
Duchamp derived great pleasure from repairing these glasses, or “bringing them back into the world,” each in its turn completed with a web of cracks. He expressed these feelings emphatically to James Johnson Sweeney, standing before the The Large Glass in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: “The more I look at it the more I like the cracks: they are not like shattered glass. They have a shape. There is a symmetry in the cracking, the two crackings are symmetrically arranged and there is more, almost an intention there, an extra-curious intention that I am not responsible for, a ready-made intention, in other words, that I respect and love.”
Richard Hamilton became an avid follower of Duchamp after first seeing his work in a 1952 Tate Gallery exhibition. Inspired, Hamilton began a project to translate Duchamp’s Green Box into English. In 1966 Richard Hamilton made a replica of Duchamp’s famous 1915 work ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even’ also known as ‘The Large Glass’ for the Tate Gallery Duchamp retrospective, as the original was too fragile to be moved from its home at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Replication has the power to create a break in history, materially and conceptually. However, the disrupted lineage of Tate’s Large Glass has been complicated further. Today, Tate’s work is not the complete piece that Duchamp authenticated and legitimized, nor is it solely Holden’s ‘original replica’, Yule’s ‘authentic reconstruction’, or Thirkell’s ‘new prototype’. In the early hours of 19 June 1984 the lower glass panel of Hamilton’s Large Glass shattered, ‘like a car windscreen cracking.’ Like Duchamp’s Large Glass, which had shattered in transit on its return from its first public appearance, the fate of the original and the original Hamilton replica seemed uncannily similar. The precariousness of the glass had become a reality once again; hereditary characteristics could not be avoided and the material had failed. Following Taylor, this rupture could perhaps be seen as the chance process Hamilton’s reconstruction needed, with fate again playing its role in the historiography of the work. With Duchamp’s original the damage was not made known to the public for several years. However, Tate’s Large Glass had cracked into approximately two hundred thousand pieces while on display. It is hard to imagine a more dramatic or more literal way of resurfacing the question of the material constitution of the replica and its relation to the original.
Ironically, both Duchamp’s and Hamilton’s attempts to express Duchamp’s complex ideas in permanent physical form have been subjected to dramatic structural ruptures and changes, with the glass seemingly insisting on its own physical precariousness. The shattering of the original, still visible even after it was repaired by Duchamp, produced an acceptable addition for the artist and has been exhibited in the same state since. In contrast, Hamilton and the Tate felt that the crazing of the replica’s glass made the panel illegible and sought to return the work to a ‘coherent image.’ There is an irony here in that the same structural failings of the glass yielded different responses at different times, and has caused a fault line in our understanding of the work, materially and conceptually. Meanwhile the shattered lower panel, the younger victim, remains preserved in storage, an archival example of the technical problems encountered when working with glass.
Entropy and the Glass Ingot
Melting is an entropic process par excellence, and perhaps this is one of the reasons Bataille was so interested in the Icarus myth. As Edward Ruscha showed with his Liquid Words, melting means falling into in-difference. Liquid is what is always everywhere the same. And it's toward just such a uniformity, as Michel Leiris reports it, that Miró was also aiming in his so-called Portraits of 1929: they expressed "this liquefaction, this implacable evaporation of structures … this flaccid leaking away of substance that makes everything--us, our ideas, and the ambience in which we live–like jellyfish or octopi."
It was only a matter of depicted fusion there, but what happens when this becomes the very process of the work? The same thing, but more clearly and more immediately, without the distance of representation, since the very materiality of the work is engaged.
To make his brulages (1939), Raoul Ubac submitted the photographic emulsion of the negative to the heat of a little hot plate: the images literally liquified, just like the melted glass from Mont Pelée which doubtlessly had fascinated him (this deformed object, the result of a volcanic eruption, was one of the mascots of the Surrealist group with which he was associated). Exactly thirty years later, Gordon Matta-Clark fried positive prints with some gold leaf that melted in the pan and fused with the photographic emulsion (he sent his Photo-Fries as Christmas presents, one of which went to Robert Smithson). After this first experiment, Matta-Clark made a whole series of works having fusion as their principle: one type, often carrying the title Glass Plant (1971), magnifies the action of the Mont Pelée eruption by transforming collected bottles of beer or soda into repulsive ingots; another type had agar (the gelatin one gets from algae) as its base, which he cooked in large sheets with many different substances (yeast, sugar, concentrated milk, vegetable juice, chicken bouillon, sperm oil, etc.), then mixing it with yet other substances and left to dry.
Glass in Nature
Volcanoes spew molten rock, lightning strikes desert and beach sands, meteorites pound the earth, and sea sponges and microscopic organisms inhabit the waters. All of these natural phenomena are related to glass.
What is glass? Scientists tell us that glass is a state of matter rather than a single material. It is formed when a molten material cools so rapidly that there is not enough time for the material’s crystalline structure to re-form.
Solids have atoms and molecules arranged in perfectly ordered, lattice-like structures. In liquids and gasses, atoms and molecules are free to move about in a random way, which is why they can flow. In glass, the atoms and molecules are held rigidly in place so that they cannot flow. But they have not had time to arrange themselves in the perfectly ordered lattice that nature would have liked. Neither a solid nor a liquid, glass is often called a rigid liquid. It is unlike any other material on earth.
The intense heat and force of meteoritic impacts on the earth and atmospheric explosions, millions of years ago, created the natural glasses that we know as tektites and Libyan Desert Glass. Libyan Desert Glass is found in the Sahara’s Great Sand Sea, which spreads across the border of Libya and Egypt. The large silica glass field there is believed to have resulted either from a meteoritic impact or from a comet exploding in the earth’s atmosphere.
Tektites are a glass created by meteoritic impacts. These impacts melted the meteor and the surrounding terrestrial rock, creating the spherical forms, comma shapes, drips, and splashes characteristic of tektites. Tektites are formed at a much higher temperature than volcanic glass (obsidian) and under tremendous pressure.
Natural glass may also be formed by explosions on earth. Volcanic glass, known as obsidian, is created when lava cools rapidly, becoming rock in a glassy state, just as boiled hard sugar candies are sugar in a glassy state.
When lightning strikes the ground, the resultant temperature soars five times hotter than the sun’s surface. It’s a great deal of heat that can melt and fuse silica, sand, and some forms of soil. Petrified lightning, or fulgurite, is the glass formed by lightning striking the ground.
Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis)
“The tons of shattered glass forming Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis) (1969) are layered both literally and figuratively. As the title implies, the sculpture is to be seen not simply as a pile of flat, sharp, transparent fragments but also as a map of a legendary lost continent (almost certainly, however, a fictional one).
Robert Smithson’s work suggests that the concrete materiality of sculpture depends on the mind’s ability to see metaphorically in order to comprehend meanings within the language of art. The resulting gaps are passageways akin to Alice’s Looking Glass or the Bellman’s blank map, in that they are thresholds to an elsewhere.”
For twenty days in July 1969 Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis) occupied a beach in Loveladies along the New Jersey coast. It’s there on the map Smithson draws with Wheeler, right next to the “unlocatable island” that annotates the pole at the center of the page, just ten degrees above the zero-degree line that Smithson has labeled “horizon.” The Loveladies project steers us back to his drawing for Map of Broken Clear Glass that locates itself in the center of Atlantis (as it was mapped by Lewis Spence), quantifies tons of broken glass, and outlines how the hypothetical project would be assembled. With these precedents, Smithson summarized for Wheeler both the map he was drawing and the project he was planning for Miami Islet: “You have a string of hypothetical islands that finally find their result in an actual island.”
The island was a place that explored dialectics as it also became a site that crystallized debates. With Island of Broken Glass, Smithson was working toward the “physical equivalence of a mental image” in order to present a dialogue between perception and matter, between broken glass and barren island. But its mix of an actual place with displaced material caused debate among those who hailed the project’s reclamation of a “wasteland area” and others who foresaw environmental degradation, or saw the broken glass as just so much “U.S. garbage” dumped across the border. The material was on its way from Stockton, California when the telegram halted the project. For critics, the project also encroached on forbidden areas of nature and sovereignty. In many ways, Smithson already knew this. He already understood the island as a “taboo territory” where the project could confront ambiguities of matter, nature, and ecology without imposing order. For Smithson, the collision of glass and island would make a place where the “tension of disparates” came together—the kind of place where, as Mary Douglas noted, “disparate elements are related and disparate experience is given meaning.”
Perhaps all of Smithson’s projects appear as thresholds, each a waypoint to the next in a continually redrawn map. Island of Broken Glass certainly pointed toward Spiral Jetty, but it is significant in its own right—a reckoning of sorts. Mariners might call it a dead reckoning that navigates between temporary and permanent toward that “wreck of precision” and its island—a spiraling film that might yet remain in place, frozen for a time. Its spirals are so many concentric rings around the island, like a pebble tossed in the ocean. And so Island of Broken Glass anchors an archipelago of projects where each island is a working hypothesis, never meant to be resolutely found or fully realized.
When Josef Albers first arrived to study at the Bauhaus in 1920, he began using glass as one of his primary mediums, fusing together pieces of glass he found at the town dump in the glass painting workshop developed by Johannes Itten. In 1922 under Paul Klee, Albers was appointed as both journeyman and provisional master of works of the workshop. Eventually, Albers began working with fellow Bauhaus artists Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer, creating colored glass windows for a residential house in Berlin, in 1922. With his stained glass windows for Sommerfeld House and Otte House in Berlin as well as the stairwell of the Grassi Museum in Leipzig, he created the best-known artworks of the glass painting workshop. Due to a lack of commissions, this workshop was merged with the sculpture and stage workshops in the “experimental laboratory of the Bauhaus” in 1924.
Albers was profoundly interested in craftsmanship, and invented a new way of creating his glass art, which he referred to as “wall glass paintings.” He started with a sheet of white milk glass covered with a very thin piece of glass film and then layered with stencils before being sandblasted. The results, as Albers himself wrote, had “unusual color intensity, the purest white and the deepest black and the necessary preciseness as well as the flatness of the design elements offer an unusual and particular material and form effect.”
In America, he accepted a number of commissions for large works in glass: In 1955, he designed the White Cross Windows at St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota, in a building designed by Marcel Breuer, and in 1957, he designed door panels for the Todd Theater in Chicago, designed by Bertrand Goldberg. In 1928, when Albers was still in Germany, he had created a glass painting that he entitled City. This was the basis for a later work, a giant Formica screen, entitled Manhattan, that was installed above the escalators in New York City’s Pan Am (now known as the MetLife) building. Manhattan currently sits in a landfill site in Ohio, where it has been located since its removal from the building in 2000.
In some ways, glass is a sturdy medium, neither fading nor decomposing as time passes. Yet its relative fragility means that it often ends up being destroyed, whether by negligence or intent.
In 1995, the Guggenheim held an exhibition of Albers’s glass pieces—Glass, Color, and Light—organized jointly by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Josef Albers Foundation. The book tried to be an exhaustive compendium of all of Albers’s glass art, though many pieces were destroyed during World War II, whether they had been installed in buildings and subsequently wrecked by the Nazis or broken into shards after being shipped to America. Even some of Albers’s later pieces, made in the United States, are now in storage or otherwise no longer on view, making the catalogue one of the few places where any description—written or visual—of these lost artworks still exists.
Through a Glass, Brightly
Technics and Civilization first presented its compelling history of the machine and critical study of its effects on civilization in 1934—before television, the personal computer, and the Internet even appeared on our periphery.
Drawing upon art, science, philosophy, and the history of culture, Lewis Mumford explained the origin of the machine age and traced its social results, asserting that the development of modern technology had its roots in the Middle Ages rather than the Industrial Revolution. Mumford sagely argued that it was the moral, economic, and political choices we made, not the machines that we used, that determined our then industrially driven economy. Equal parts powerful history and polemic criticism, Technics and Civilization was the first comprehensive attempt in English to portray the development of the machine age over the last thousand years—and to predict the pull the technological still holds over us today.
Technology affects the way man looks at himself and the way he thinks. Mumford suggests that the refinement of glass and its availability to the masses resulted in "a sharper interest in the external world. The mirror led to increased introspection into the self as a separate personality. With the camera, man "thinks of himself as a public character, being watched.”
Lenses are technologies, but lenses are also objects. As objects, lenses offer lessons in understanding how culture has organized itself around the material of glass. Humans invest beliefs in lenses, but lenses are also cultural because “that culture could only have emerged in the first place through the interactions between embodied humans and a creative material world.” Lenses exist at the surface of a complex set of material processes – they are crushed down into silica from the quarries of Fontainebleu, melted by constant and intense heat in specially designed clay pots, examined by testers for defects, ignored in the shop windows of Parisian instrument retailers, worn down from excessive handling and use, laid away in attics, bought online and shipped across the world to be remounted on digital cameras. As Lewis Mumford claims, “Without the use of glass for spectacles, mirrors, microscopes, telescopes, windows and containers, the modern world as realized by physics and chemistry could scarcely have been conceived.” Glass, as both a material and a way of organizing space, arranged people, places, and their relation to each other.
...it was a Dutch optician, Johann Lippersheim, who in 1605 invented the telescope and thus suggested to Galileo the efficient means he needed for making astronomical observations. In 1590 another Hollander, the optician Zacharias Jansen invented the compound microscope: possibly also the telescope. One invention increased the scope of the macrocosm; the other revealed the microcosm: between them, the naive conceptions of space that the ordinary man carried around were completely upset: one might say that these two inventions, in terms of the new perspective, extended the vanishing point toward infinity and increased almost infinitely the plane of the foreground from which those lines had their point of origin.
In the middle of the seventeenth century Leeuwenhoek... became the world's first bacteriologist. He discovered monsters in the scrapings of his teeth more mysterious and awful than any that had been encountered in the search for the Indies. If the glass did not actually add a new dimension to space, it extended its area, and it filled that space with new bodies, fixed stars at unimaginably vast distances, microcellular organisms whose existence was so incredible that, but for the researches of Spallanzani, they remained outside the sphere of serious investigation for over a century, after which their existence, their partnership, their enmity, almost became the source of a new demonology.
Glasses not merely opened people's eyes but their minds: seeing was believing. [...] Now the eye became the most respected organ. [...] The use of glasses in the following centuries magnified the authority of the eye.
The retort, the distilling flask, the test-tube: the barometer, the thermometer, the lenses and the slide of the microscope, the electric light, the x-ray tube, the audion-- all these are products of glass technics, and where would the sciences be without them?
There is one further property of glass that had its first full effect in the seventeenth century. One sees it perhaps most clearly in the homes of the Dutch, with their enormous windows, for it was in the Netherlands that the use of glass and its manifold applications went furthest. [...] Sharper eyesight: a sharper interest in the external world: a sharper response to the clarified image-- these characteristics went hand in hand with the widespread introduction of glass.
- Glass and the Ego
For perhaps the first time, except for reflections in the water and in the dull surfaces of metal mirrors, it was possible to find an image that corresponded accurately to what others saw. [...] The most powerful prince of the seventeenth century created a vast hall of mirrors, and the mirror spread from one room to another in the bourgeois household. Self-consciousness, introspection, mirror-conversation developed with the new object itself: this preoccupation with one's image comes at the threshold of the mature personality when young Narcissus gazes long and deep into the face of the pool-- and the sense of the separate personality, a perception of the objective attributes of one's identity, grows out of this communion.
The use of the mirror signaled the beginning of introspective biography in the modern style: that is, not as a means of edification but as a picture of the self, its depths, its mysteries, its inner dimensions. The self in the mirror corresponds to the physical world that was brought to life by natural science in the same epoch: it was the self in abstracto, only part of the real self, the part that one can divorce from the background of nature and the influential presence of other men. [...] Indeed, when one is completely whole and at one with the world one does not need the mirror...
...the isolation of the world from the self-- the method of the physical sciences-- and the isolation of the self from the world-- the method of introspective biography...-- were complementary phases of a single process. Much was learnt through that dissociation: for in the act of disintegrating the wholeness of human experience,the various atomic fragments that composed it were more clearly seen and more readily grasped.
The world as conceived and observed by science, the world as revealed by the painter, were both worlds that were seen through and with the aid of glasses: spectacles, microscopes, telescopes, mirrors, windows. What was the new easel picture, in fact, but a removable window opening upon an imaginary world? [...] Glass was in fact the peep-hole through which one beheld a new world. Through glass some of the mysteries of nature themselves became transparent. Is it any wonder then that perhaps the most comprehensive philosopher of the seventeenth century, at home alike in ethics and politics and science and religion, was Benedict Spinoza: not merely a Hollander, but a polisher of lenses.