Clasbrummel: Qu’est-ce que gouverner un bateau? (SESSION 3)

Behind us lies a huge and rich chapter, almost as dense as the representation of the new world that Ovando desires (cf. p. 88), and that I could never fit into the blogpost that I am about to produce. I try to touch some topics lightly, but want to encourage you to also approach the discussion way apart from what I suggest.

Taking up the subtitle of the book “Sign-Practices of the modern sciences 1500-1900”, it seems that this chapter arrived at the beginning of the timeframe it strives to address. Situated in 16th century Spain, it covers what Siegert describes as “the birth of experimental sciences from the spirit of the bureau” (p. 70). The bureau, trying to stretch its reach to the faraway things it fears will get lost, is described as the precursor of the “Casa de la Contratación”, which ‘paper-king’ Philipp II installed as the bottleneck institution of the bottleneck city Sevilla (“Flaschenhals”, p. 71).

Following one of the mottos “If more can be had than is had” (see Peter’s posting), everything that leaves the harbour of Sevilla for the New World is counted: goods, people, ships, books (cf. p. 73). Siegert describes one goal of the casa with a parallelism: “Here, inside of the bureau, the book of the (New) World, there, in the stacks, the things of the new world” (“Hier, im Büro, das Buch der (Neuen) Welt, dort, im Magazin, die Dinge der (Neuen) Welt”., Ibd.). The casa strives to produce symmetry, and does so in applying practices which wire up (cf. p.109) those two spheres of “Les mots et les choses” (p.73), as Siegert references Foucault. Having entropy as the declared enemy (cf. p. 79), the paper king’s bureaucracy is not only trying to prevent the things of the New World from fleeing by repeatedly writing down “what is had” and where it is had, but as well to prevent the paperwork itself from fleeing; from being incomplete and sluggishly treated. The forming bureaucracy started to keep records of (the media of) recordmaking. This administration of administrations created certain necessities. Most importantly, things had to be given the ability to appear as “lost” (cf. p. 59), which means they had to be assigned a special place on a map, in a matrix or a list (cf. p. 83), in and/or on which they could or couldn’t be found, thus be available or lost. The bureau of bureaus consequently concerns itself with the processes and the instruments of mapping, in order to produce data, which are “assembled from real and symbolic parts – which is the exact reason they are operable” (“Daten sind aus reellen und symbolischen Teilen zusammengesetzte Gebilde – und eben deshalb kann man mit ihnen operieren”, p. 107). Remembering the socratic division between the polis inside of the land and the city which lies next to the water, I want to highlight and translate a passage of this chapter, which, as I perceive it, serves as a key analogy in this chapter, and which starts off with the question:

“Qu’est-ce que gouverner un bateau?”

“.. to take responsibility for the sailors, but as well to take responsibility for the ship itself and its shipment; governing a ship means to take the winds, the cliffs, the storms and all the rigours of weather into consideration as well; and this fabrication of the relation between the sailors, whose lives are to be preserved, and the ship, which is to be led safely to the harbour, is what marks the governing of a ship.”

This analogy seems to be telling a lot about the way in which Bernhard Siegert writes this book: opening up a series of possible analogies that lets the reader find concepts throughout history – be it the importance of the cifre 0, which enables things to appear as either “had” or lost and which seems to anticipate the binary number system – and to make history conceivable as non-linear – for example with describing ships as “cybernetic machines” (p. 75). And indeed does the dream of “entera noticia de las cosas” remain traceable in e.g. recent articles about Big Data, grappling with mathematic solutions to minimize the temporal distance between two measurings (see footnote 1), trying to pinpoint the location and forms of the shadows and the simulacra of the sea (cf. p. 37).

I’d have loved to inquire much further into the line drawn so far from the differentiation between polis and seaside-villages to practices of meshing units of utterance and units of process (which I spared completely) up until drafting an experimental research vessel. This can be covered in the discussion.

Referenced work:

Nguyen, Hoang-Vu; Müller, Emmanuel; Böhm, Klemens (2014): A Near-Linear Time Subspace Search Scheme for Unsupervised Selection of Correlated Features. In: Big Data Research 1, S. 37–51.


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