Off the Descartes

November 26, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s  funny that the last name of Rene Descartes was used to refer to his Cartesian coordinate system, which in turn has became the basis for much of our sense of creating charts.

The word card as well as playing cards themselves appear to have been introduced to Europe by way of Egypt, and China and the Indus Valley before that.*

Latin charta “leaf of paper, tablet,” from Greek khartes “layer of papyrus,” probably from Egyptian

The root of ‘cartoon’ refers to the cardboard (carton) sketches that artists used in the 19th century. This is a bit different from the sense that I get from playing cards and charting coordinates, which is strongly quantitative and digital, like dominoes and dice. The word dice may be related to ‘datum’ (“given”), but the word origins of both domino and dice are hazy. Dice also have a roundabout connection with Descartes and philosophy in general, by way of Platonic solids and three dimensional (x, y, z) geometry.


Ancient Greece, 5th-3rd century BC. The earliest dice! Made from the knuckle-bone of an animal, drilled and filled with lead for weighting.

Cartoons are now rendered directly in coordinate geometry, using domino-like computers, which are displayed on card or chart-like screens. The object, symbol, paper and calculation – to plan, like an artist, in hypothesis and rehearsal in advance of the fact. The strategic panopticon of the scientific approach marks and defines before the final will is executed. All possibilities are accounted for beforehand as a Hilbert or configuration space – a containment of physical permutations given an assumption of generic recombination, like hands dealt from a finite deck. This is not the anima, not the giver or the taker, but an animation of the given, data about giving and taking.

When we insist upon looking only at the given ‘data’, we are limited to an outward-facing perspective on public spaces. In this mode, time is fragmented into instants of measurement rather than fluid memories. From binary code to the I Ching, quantum to DNA, our notions of  Turing emulation and quantum mechanics hinge on this methodical charting of possible positions and dispositions. This world of information is not our world, it is a world that is perpetually out there, but only ephemerally in here. To join the world out there requires bodies and death. The butterfly must be pinned and dried to be displayed and recorded.

*”The earliest authentic references to playing-cards in Europe date from 1377, but, despite their long history, it is only in recent decades that clues about their origins have begun to be understood. Cards must have been invented in China, where paper was invented. Even today some of the packs used in China have suits of coins and strings of coins – which Mah Jong players know as circles and bamboos (i.e. sticks). Cards entered Europe from the Islamic empire, where cups and swords were added as suit-symbols, as well as (non-figurative) court cards. It was in Europe that these were replaced by representations of courtly human beings: kings and their attendants – knights (on horseback) and foot-servants. To this day, packs of Italian playing-cards do not have queens – nor do packs in Spain, Germany and Switzerland (among others). There is evidence that Islamic cards also entered Spain, but it now seems likely that the modern cards which we call Spanish originated in France, ousting the early Arab-influenced designs.” – source

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