Arts & Culture

‘Instability and Decomposition’

6 min read

Young scholars from around the globe and a range of disciplines welcome instabilit

Instability is the reign of things erratic and unpredictable. Decomposition is the state of being as it unravels, nicely captured by a common sentiment: Things fall apart.

The two words — and the frictive, unstable worlds they imply — were at the heart of a convocation of young scholars last week (April 25-26).

“Instability and Decomposition: 19th and 20th Century Moments in Art, Literature, Philosophy and Technoscience” was the 2008 Harvard Humanities Center Graduate Student Conference. The annual gatherings, bid for every fall in a contest of ideas among Harvard doctoral students, are themed showcases for emerging scholars.

The thematic idea this year: Instability is not a condition to be avoided intellectually, but instead is the most productive realm for the arts, literature, philosophy, and technology.

In art, for instance, there is a “growing instability and radical expansion of materials, spaces, and techniques,” said Harvard co-organizers Lambert Williams and Séverine Meunier in their January call for papers.

He’s a doctoral student in the history of science; she’s doing a Ph.D. in Romance languages. They’re the new parents of 6-week-old Gabriel, who was the youngest to attend the conference — a scholar of blissful naps.

“We came from what should be very different universes,” said Williams of his and Meunier’s seemingly divergent interests. He studies the science of complexity, including instability in disciplines and experimental systems in the late 20th century. She studies Proust; one chapter of her dissertation will describe the destruction — decomposition — of boundaries between literary genres in the early 20th century.

“We had no idea what to expect,” said Meunier of the call for papers from a variety of disciplines. “That was the fun of it.”

A dozen papers were delivered to an attentive audience in the Barker Center’s Thompson Room by young scholars from France, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States (Harvard, University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Texas, Austin).

They are emerging experts in physics, literature, history, the history of science, art, and governance whose presentations touched on a wide range of productively destabilizing forces remaking the art and technology of today.

Over two days, they loosed a swarm of cultural references: architectural ruins, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s views of the Civil War, literature in Québec, Senegalese fiction, cell phones, mirrored sunglasses, quantum computing, and more.

Biliana Vassileva-Fouilhoux, a Ph.D. in the performing arts from the University of the New Sorbonne in Paris, looked at choreographer William Forsythe. He’s known in dance circles for deliberately overturning the strict organization of classical ballet and employing improvisation techniques made to look like accidents. In one piece, said Vassileva-Fouilhoux, “the dancers begin by trying to lose their balance.”

In other papers, there were references to modes of art and technology that shook up the past. One looked at the romantically naïve paintings of Henri Rousseau, which prefigured the disruptions of surrealism. Another explored critical journals like Partisan Review and Seven Arts, which once challenged cultural tradition from the margins.

There was even a paper on laboratory glass — a “historical ecology of experiment” — by German graduate student Kijan Malte Espahangizi. In one 18th century experiment with oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid), he said, German chemist Andreas Marggraf reported that the mineral acid “heavily attacked” the bottom of a retort, piercing it “like it was shot by bullets.” Advances in glass technology followed.

“In the history of science, we have gotten accustomed to focusing on stabilities,” said Espahangizi, who is writing his doctoral thesis in the history of science at ETH Zurich (known as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). But it’s destabilizing accidents like the one in Marggraf’s lab that advance technology, he said. Improvements in making glass led to better windows, wine bottles, photographic plates, and (after 1880) to the first mass-produced laboratory glass.

Other kinds of instabilities don’t require a historical moment, but are embedded in an art form itself. Graffiti is one example, explored by Laurent Deflandre, a graduate student at the École Normale Supérieure Lettres et Sciences Humaines (ENS LSH) in Lyon, France.

Documentary film is another, said Constance Rivière, a student at the École Nationale d’Administration, France’s prestigious academy for high-level civil servants.

Documentaries use analogues of reality — photographic images — to reflect “the instability of the real,” she said. Her presentation was illustrated with clips from the disturbing observational films of Frederick Wiseman.

His films are a series of montages that don’t rely on traditional narrative, said Riviere, but have “more [of] a musical structure [like] jazz.”

There were no jazzlike montages, or dancers losing their balance when the bottom dropped out of the physics job market nearly four decades ago. But the instability of that intellectual marketplace transformed science, said conference keynoter David Kaiser Ph.D. ’00, an early-space physicist and a historian of Cold War physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His presentation, “How the Hippies Saved Physics,” began with the unemployed or underemployed physicists of 1970. In a historical review from his forthcoming book, Kaiser showed how they turned their bleak present into a version of a rich past — a prewar time when physics routinely grappled with questions that were probingly philosophical.

In the technological fever following World War II, and heightened by the implicit challenge of Sputnik, physics grew twice as fast as other fields, said Kaiser. But practicality ruled in postwar classrooms bursting with students. They “learned to turn the crank and calculate,” he said, “but not [explore] what it all means.”

When the physics job market went bust because of a thaw in the Cold War and a shaky economy, these conventionally trained physicists — inspired by a growing counterculture — turned to new topics, said Kaiser. Their scientific explorations of Eastern mysticism, precognition, remote viewing, and psychokinesis became the edgy underpinnings of the New Age.

These liberated physicists also turned to new forums (counterculture magazines, and places like Esalen Institute) and to new patrons (including the Central Intelligence Agency and New Age gurus like Werner Erhard).

They also turned to new means of delivering the art, science, and philosophy of physics. The best illustration: Fritjof Capra’s “The Tao of Physics,” which came out in 1975, and has since appeared in 43 editions and 23 languages.

So the “decomposition” of the physics job market in 1970, said Kaiser, was just the productive instability that the science of force, mass, energy, and charge needed to regain its philosophical roots.

“There’s a notion,” he said, “of creativity coming out of those fissures.”