“The Sympathy of Things”: Excerpts

The most predominant feeling I was left with from reading various excerpts from The Sympathy of Things by Lars Spuybroek was that I really wish I had the context of the rest of the book to put the excerpts into. There were a number of things the author continually referenced back to that I’m sure would have made many of the things he was talking about make more sense to me. As a result of this, and also the fact that these were excerpts from different points in the book, it was hard for me to gain a real overarching feeling for this reading. As such, I have more of a collection of thoughts and reactions to various parts of the text vs. an overall cohesive response to it all.

  • I find Spuybroek’s idea that we have this need to “humanize” machines to be very interesting; that we need to make them such that ultimately they are no better than us at creating things, even though theoretically the whole point of creating machinery is to complete tasks more quickly and efficiently than we could just ourselves. The distinction he makes between traditional machines and digital machines (sameness vs. difference) is important to note, as the argument against the one does not really apply to the other; we want to slow down the former to reinfuse the objects it produces with a sense of craft and human imagination, whereas our desire to slow down digital machines makes no sense for those reasons, as it is inherently infused already with human imagination.
  • I like his argument that a computer is not a machine that replaces handicraft, but that it is a form of handicraft itself. That it is not a way of doing a preexisting thing better or faster or more accurately, but instead is its own whole new way of creating at the same level of something like hand drawing.
  • As someone who does a lot of moldmaking, the discussion of the mold in this piece is intriguing to me. In particular, the discussion of the flawed idea of a “changeable mold”. This makes me interested as to how someone might go about doing that, how to create a mold that by its very nature changes and transforms with each casting: “as a mold that is itself variable, undergoing what the French technology philosopher Simondon called ‘continuous temporal modulation.'”
  • “The more complexity is added to the line, the more lines embody a temporal dimension: the curves of a glacier, of a cannonball’s trajectory, of a leaf’s contour, a twig’s shape, or of a spiral’s path, are without exception traces of movements and registrations of a temporal process.” I like the idea of thinking of lines as more than just lines, of thinking about what kinds of parameters they can define and what kinds of data they can reveal.
  • His comparison of the texture of natural materials to patterns is interesting, but I’m not sure that I agree with it. I understand the point that he is trying to make, that a natural texture has no overall guiding principle that governs it, and so is a lazy form of decoration, but I think that sometimes having a surface that doesn’t appear overly thought out can be nice. In some of the wallpaper patterns he mentions in this section, their repetitious intricacy feels somewhat overwhelming and suffocating in the tightly packed nature of their design. Sometimes starting with a texture that has been predetermined for you and then utilizing that in an aesthetically pleasing way can be just as strong a set of design choices as self-determining every aspect of the design.
  • “Artists have no way to structure their sympathy anymore. Why? Because they are locked in the museum, the festival, the gallery, or worse, the transitory media, leaving us with the white walls and the empty squares.” Once again, I understand the point he’s making, but I take issue with the implications of the alternatives. If not at these kinds of venues, then where should art live? I can’t help but think about the wallpaper patterns that he lauds, and think about where those would have lived and who would have ever seen them—it would be in the houses of people who could afford a luxury like that, and so in that case art becomes a thing restricted to the very wealthy. Not that it still isn’t that in many ways even today, but because of things like museums and festivals and galleries, art has become much more widely available for viewing to the public at large, and I just wonder what his answer would be for a venue for the display of art like he envisions that doesn’t reimpose classism on it.
  • Spuybroek keeps talking about the “tenderness” or “sympathy” of art vs. the “cruelty” of it. For instance, the art of a number of nations are described as being “cruel”. He does say that “cruelty [is] innate to abstraction”, but beyond that, he doesn’t seem to really define what makes a design or an artwork “sympathetic” or “tender” and what makes one “cruel”; he seems to have a very clear delineation for distinguishing one from the other, I just can’t seem to figure out what it is. He seems to argue that ornament is “sympathetic”, but I don’t understand then how the ornament of, say, the Byzantine Empire (one of the examples given by Ruskin) is “cruel”, as it is still ornament. Or maybe something abstract in his definition inherently cannot also be ornament, which I would have to disagree with. Or perhaps that is a distinction that Ruskin makes, that Spuybroek then somewhat refutes- “We must now correct Ruskin slightly: the presence of ornament is never a sign of cruelty, in whatever form, be it Arabic, Maori, English, Greek, whatever.”

One Comment

  1. Thanks for this very in depth response, if you haven’t yet, it could be great for you to take some time reading Ruskin, about his five dual themes of ornament and matter, sympathy and abstraction, the picturesque and time and Gothic and work, ecology and design.



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