(Tomorrow is utopian dreamer Charles Fourier’s birthday! Who claimed, in later life, that at the age of nine he swore an oath to destroy trade and commerce, as Hannibal had sworn to destroy Rome. And to replace it with an exquisitely – even obsessively – organized society in which all work and exchange was the product of the desire to do, in itself. Calvino said Fourier was the “alliance of Eros with cybernetics,” which seems about right. Tony Vidler was shown the unpublished Fourier papers in the Bibliothèque nationale, and found a page on which Fourier had listed which houseplants you should put in your windows in the huge cooperative villas of future Harmony, 365 days a year, with the appropriate plant for each day.
All the while, Fourier worked as a clerk and tradesman, holding behind his scowl an inner life of impossible lushness – Douanier Rousseau jungles, packed arcades and courtyards in which every human passion happened to meet a social need, quinces and quaggas and menus and chores, with the universe arranged like a vase of flowers.)
Charles Cros is now known – if he is known at all – as one of media history’s also-rans, or as the author of some delightfully irritating poetry. He invented techniques for three-color photography and a version of the phonograph, both of which he brought to the public more or less immediately contemporary to other, far more successful projects. His phonograph – called, beautifully, the paleophone, voix de passé, the past’s voice – was in many ways an Edisonian foil phonograph, not quite at the prototype stage, just as Edison was rolling out his world-beating first model. (The very model of a 19th century inventor-dilettante, Cros also spent time on an unsuccessful project to manufacture fake jewels.) He was one of the circle of artists and writers who shared a fumiste attitude, which combined outrageous subject matter with deadpan, resolutely withdrawn, laconic style. It’s a mocking, cryptic, too-cool sensibility, baffling to outsiders: think dank memes, but for the 1880s. Alfred Jarry’s “The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race” is very fumiste; likewise Erik Satie’s performance directions in his piano scores (“like a nightingale with a toothache”; “wonder about yourself”) and the classified ads he took out in the papers advertising package tours to mysterious countries (“Plutonia … unknown seas”) and the availability for rent of haunted, imaginary buildings like the Great Black Sun Inn, to which no one ever replied. Cros, in this line, specialized in grating nonsense poetry, like “The Salt Herring,” which he would read aloud in a forceful, focused monotone to restive audiences.
When not engaging in acts of deliberately failed communication with other humans, Cros petitioned the French government to fund experiments to communicate with Mars. He had given the matter considerable thought, in fact.
In “Étude sur les moyens de communication aven les planètes,” Cros seriously considers the challenge of reciprocal communication with an alien intelligence. He takes up the basic concept then well-established – an enormous mirror flashing light to be seen by an observer on another planet – but asks how information is to be conveyed once the lines of communication have been opened. He considers, first, how a sequence of rhythmic flashes could be used to encode numbers, but then takes up the question of whether those numbers could in turn encode images. A series of digits could communicate binary pixels – spaces black or white, off or on – in lines on an ordered grid, in the style of “six on, two off, three on, two off” for
using integers rather than having to flash all those signals one-by-one. (Cros devotes some time to how exactly this message-sending protocol would be initially communicated.)
As he outlines his project, it becomes clear to the modern reader that he has developed a version of what is now called “run-length encoding,” an image compression and transmission technology akin to that used in fax machines, early digital bitmap images, and some of the very first television technologies. There would need to be, he writes, encoding systems for turning images – and, potentially, other kinds of media – into materials for this notation-transmission apparatus: “analogous notation procedures for rendering designs as number series are used in various industries, including weaving and embroidery.” At this point, the ears of computing historians might prick up: what kind of industrial weaving machines, pray tell? “There is, in [Jacquard weaving], a whole science that, as so often happens, was practiced before it was theorized. From it will emerge a new and important branch of mathematics, and eventually a new classification of these primordial sciences [i.e. the sciences of information and data storage]. The study of rhythms [patterns and encoding systems] will take its place alongside that of figures.” The Jacquard looms, that is, whose punchcards were part of the conceptual framework of Babbage, Lovelace, Hollerith and others for storing and executing computer programs.
Paris in the 1880s, Mars in the sky; Cros, diagramming vast fields of signal mirrors to be laid out in some remote plateau, develops optical digital encoding, compression, and transmission, turning Earth into a graphics card, turning images, words, music into notations, data and light, to be displayed in the red deserts of another planet. The first image to be digitized, he writes, should be that of a rose.
Shine, a Malian metal-gospel band with a keytar: jamming. I’ve listened to this song about thirty times in the last few days. Two-plus minutes in, it’s like Daouda Dao’s making a gleaming, metal mosaic with a high-speed nailgun, with pneumatic pressure provided by the drummer. (Courtesy of the always amazing Sahel Sounds blog.)
In need of a cheese librarian
A wonderful collection of images of the magnificent eccentric and ultra-aesthete La Marchesa Luisa Casati
Protecting the world’s rarest colors
(If you’re in New York City, the amazing Jozef van Wissem, the lute-playing minister of “hypnotic darkness” (who scored Only Lovers Left Alive), is performing at Le Poisson Rouge this Monday night, with Holy Sons opening. Highly recommended!)
(On a personal note: I have fun pieces in two catalogs. “Tempting Information,” in Omar Kholeif’s The Rumours of the World, is about advance-fee fraud, Melville’s The Confidence-Man, and the history of American counterfeiting; “Où tu vas, j’y serai toujours / Where You Are, There Shall I Be,” in Clémence Seurat’s Extra Fantômes catalog is about haunted computers, silent horror movies, and obfuscation. Also, had a delightful conversation in the paper about the hoax artist Zardulu! (Here’s her manifesto.))
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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