Line vs. Surface (vs. Volume) Thought

Wii Tennis

Vilém Flusser, "Line and Surface" (1973):

Let us, then, recapitulate our argument, in order to try to suggest what form the new civilization might take. We have two alternatives before us. First, there is the possibility that imaginal thinking [eg. surface, image, screen] will not succeed in incorporating conceptual thinking [eg. line, text]. This could lead to a general depoliticization, deactivation, and alienation of humankind, to the victory of the consumer society, and to the totalitarianism of the mass media. Such a development would look very much like the present mass culture, but in more exaggerated or gross form. The culture of the elite would disappear for good, thus bringing history to an end in any meaningful sense of that term. The second possibility is that imaginal thinking will succeed in incorporating conceptual thinking. This would lead to new types of communication in which man consciously assumes the structural position. Science would then be no longer merely discursive and conceptual, but would have recourse to imaginal models. Art would no longer work at things ("oeuvres"), but would propose models. Politics would no longer fight for the realization of values, but would elaborate manipulable hierarchies of models of behavior. All this would mean, in short, that a new sense of reality would articulate itself, within the existential climate of a new religiosity.

All this is utopian. But it is not fantastic. Whoever looks at the scene can find everything already there, in the form of lines and surfaces already working. It depends on each one of us which sort of posthistorical future there will be.

On the surface there are two primary and interconnected problems with Flusser's line of thought. The first concerns the materiality of the communications medium. While line and surface, or imaginal and conceptual thought are certainly distinct ways of knowing, the fact remains that they are both still represented in the two-dimensional planar form: text on a page and image on celluloid or screen. In other words, we must distinguish between dimensions of perception and inscription. Text is perceived as a line inscribed on the plane of the book, for example, while image is perceived as a surface inscribed on the plane of the screen.

This distinction becomes even more pronounced and relevant as regards the second problem. Flusser wrote his essay in 1973, just as Atari's Pong was being launched to popular audiences in the United States. Even had he been aware of the game at the time of his writing, it is unlikely that it would have significantly altered his theoretical framework, for Pong was in retrospect a rather humble attempt to bring electronic games to life in video form that faithfully represented in gamespace the ludic enclosure of the tennis court. In most respects, it seemed to be yet another example of proliferating surface thought.


We must recall, however, that the word atari derives from the game Go, and means to advance in attack and capture territory. Soon the simple enclosure on Pong was ruptured as the new videogame medium began to shed its technical constraints and realize its always-latent potential. Static gameplay yielded to scrolling gameplay, most famously in Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. In this quest to save the Princess, Mario captured territory seemingly beyond the boundaries of the television screen to which the console had inscribed its data.

In other words, though partly obscured by its inscription on the two-dimensional plane (as with line and surface) we were witnessing the emergence of a mode of perception in our media quite different from text and image, though it combined elements of both. Its proper name, gesture, is only now becoming apparent as the volume it represents attempts to pull free from the planar screen.

Flusser's lines and surfaces do not refer to a material substrate so much as they consider a mode or technique of viewing what are in both cases two-dimensional substrates, text on the flat page or image on a screen. Given this at the outset, then it seems we ought to consider volumes and volumetric thinking as well, even if they have been flattened to two dimensions with regard to the material substrate of the television screen or arcade console.

The question then becomes: how will somatic or proprioceptive thinking (gesture) fold together with imaginal thinking and conceptual thinking in our understanding of the world? At a surface level, then, what we are actually questioning here is the difference between invention and confinement.

Michel Serres: "What can our bodies do? Almost anything."

Smooth and Striated Space in Games

This week I have an article appearing in the U.K.-based Leisure Studies Association newsletter on the theme of New connections - new directions: current research in leisure studies. My paper is titled "Dispatches from the sport performance archive" and brings together some of my work on chess notation, baseball jerseys, and RFID tags in running.

The first paragraph of the chess section reads:

While volumes have been written about chess’ greatest players and games, or about opening and endgame theory, I would like to invert this analysis and anthropomorphosize the playing pieces themselves: the King, his Queen, and all of the feudal subjects that comprise his political economy; perfectly opposed uniforms of black and white, as essential a form of othering as can be; an 8×8 square grid system that serves to partition space into functional areas; ranked pieces, each with various movement possibilities and constraints; all under the watchful gaze of the human chess player, the promise of God to ensure the moral power of the throne. Without much trouble, one might consider the structural model of chess as an ideal instance of Foucault’s disciplinary power.

Picking through Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia this morning, I come across this passage in the 'Treatise on Nomadology':

Let us take a limited example and compare the war machine and the State apparatus in the context of the theory of games. Let us take chess and Go, from the standpoint of the game pieces" (p.352).


The rest of the passage really is beautiful, though. I will take the liberty of reprinting it here in full:

Chess is a game of State, or of the court: the emperor of China played it. Chess pieces are coded; they have an internal nature and intrinsic properties from which their movements, situations, and confrontations derive. They have qualities; a knight remains a knight, a pawn a pawn, a bishop a bishop. Each is like a subject of the statement endowed with a relative power, and these relative powers combine in a subject of enunciation, that is, the chess player or the game's form of interiority. Go pieces, in contrast, are pellets, disks, simple arithmetic units, and have only an anonymous, collective, or third-person function: "It" makes a move. "It" could be a man, a woman, a louse, an elephant. Go pieces are elements of a nonsubjectified machine assemblage with no intrinisic properties, only situational ones. Thus the relations are very different in the two cases. Within their milieu of interiority, chess pieces entertain biunivocal relations with one another, and with the adversary's pieces: their functioning is structural. On the other hand, a Go piece has only a milieu of exteriority, or extrinsic relations with nebulas or constellations, according to which it fulfills functions of insertion or situation, such as bordering, encircling, shattering. All by itself, a Go piece can destroy an entire constellation synchronically; a chess piece cannot (or can do so diachronically only). Chess is indeed a war, but an institutionalized, regulated, coded war, with a front, a rear, battles. But what is proper to Go is war without battle lines, with neither confrontation nor retreat, without battles even: pure strategy, whereas chess is a semiology. Finally, the space is not at all the same: in chess, it is a question of arranging a closed space for oneself, thus of going from one point to another, of occupying the maximum number of squares with the minimum number of pieces. In Go, it is a question of arraying oneself in an open space, of holding space, of maintaining the possibility of springing up at any point: the movement is not from one point to another, but becomes perpetual, without aim or destination, without departure or arrival. The "smooth" space of Go, as against the "striated" space of chess. The nomos of Go against the State of chess, nomos against polis. The difference is that chess codes and decodes space, whereas Go proceeds altogether differently, territorializing or deterritorializing it (make the outside a territory in space; consolidate that territory by the construction of a second, adjacent territory; deterritorialize the enemy by shattering his territory from within; deterritorialize oneself by renouncing, by going elsewhere …). Another justice, another movement, another space-time.