Monday, January 16, 2012

Negative Space

As a concept, negative space is relevant in a number of fields of inquiry, including art, architecture, mathematics, sociology, history, language, and even economics. Let's talk about a few of them: visual arts, mathematics and sociology.

Most are probably familiar with the concept, as most commonly employed in the visual arts. Classic pictures--wherein the outline of an apparent image is actually the outline of something else--are commonplace, like this cover of a Pink Floyd album, or this tribute-to-Jobs version of the Apple logo.

There are also vivsual artists engaged in far larger and more difficult negative space pieces, like the sculptor Rachel Whiteread. This is her Holocaust memorial in Vienna, the Nameless Library (2000):


It represents the negative space inside of a library, the area defined by the shelves, walls and doors. And it is, in my view, quite brilliant.

In mathematics, the concept of negative space is particularly relevant in number theory. Consider the classic Fibonnaci numbers, 0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34..., wherein each successive number is the sum of the previous two numbers (Fn=Fn-1+Fn-2). It is a simple formula that yields a surprisingly interesting series of numbers.

But what about the whole numbers that are not in the series? The first ten would be: 4 6 7 9 10 11 12 14 15 16. Is there a formula for those numbers, too? Are they--the anti-Fibonacci numbers--as "interesting" as the Fibonnaci numbers? The answers to those questions would appear to be "probably not" and, surprisingly, "yes," but further exploration of this would probably bore most to tears. Let's move on to negative space in sociology, instead.

I say "sociology," but "anthropology" would be equally appropriate. What we are talking about here--when we say negative space--are identifiable social, political, or economic structures of a society that are unanticipated or unintended consequences of development, with regard to traditional structures. Really, what we're talking about here is largely Marxist thinking (don't anyone freak out!). Much of the analysis on these types of things are explored only by Marxist-oriented thinkers. And certainly, some of it is nonsense. But not all of it.

Previously, I offered a post wherein I identified some of the chief influences on my own thinking, my own point of view. That was--necessarily--far from a complete list of influences. So let me note another one here: James C. Scott and his Domination and the Arts of Resistance, published in 1990. Scott argues that there is a "hidden transcript," with regard to the actions--speech, movement, and general activity--of groups not in a dominate role within a given society. That is to say, public interactions--visible to all, especially those in a dominant role--are very, very different from private interactions among members of the oppressed group, only.

Scott, in fact, argues that resistance to oppression is--even when seemingly non-existent--always present in this hidden transcript. This is a very critical issue in Marxist theory, for with this contention Scott questions the conclusions of Gramsci and the later's concept of cultural hegemony. In fact if one accepts Scott's conclusions--as I do--Gramsci's theory is demolished wholesale.

The negative space here is that hidden transcript, the actions, attitudes, and practices of a population segment that is invisible to the remainder of the population but can often be identified as existing by observing the public transcript. It's a complicated thing, no doubt. But very interesting and very significant. I urge everyone who has any interest in these things to read Scott's book, but be sure to do it with an open mind. Because if you do, you'll see that Scott's critique is quite useful, not only for identified oppression but also for identifying what is not oppression.

For instance, ask yourselves this question: does the Occupy movement have a hidden transcript? If so, what does that tell us? If not, what does that tell us?

Cheers, all.

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