Observations Upon a Blazing World

Introduction: Part III

Part II: Scalable Form and Sovereignty

The reach of Cavendish’s investments in form extend into a finely developed political aesthetics as well. Amid the aftermath of the English revolution, a reigning question at Cavendish’s moment regards the embodiment of sovereign power. The question of alternative models of sovereignty touched the work of nearly everyone in the Cavendish circle. This is certainly the case with Thomas Hobbes and his both philosophical and aesthetic fascination with sovereign embodiment; but it is equally the case with the near obsession with epicurean ideas that permeated everything from Pierre Gassendi’s polymath writings (friend of both Margaret and William Cavendish while in exile in France), to the early atomistic poetry of both the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle. It is through the structures of these methodologies and systems that Cavendish et al were exploring the reformation of power at a politically unstable moment. The sovereign question was not just about laws and arguments; it was about actions and territories — and territories understood in the broadest abstract and concrete (macro and micro) formalisms imaginable.
Robert Hooke, an experimentalist who ghosts Cavendish’s hermaphrodite text, is a principal example of the pervasiveness of the relationship between the formal structures of knowledge and their conceptual implications as a political aesthetics. Hooke’s Micrographia serves as a kind of negatively charged nuclei to Cavendish’s work, primarily because it so fully engages with the extent to which forms of knowledge emerging at the moment were changing the very dimensions of the knowable and the actionable. When Hooke expresses his desire to know the complete “design’d business” of the objects under his telescope, he is cultivating a reader who will envision forms as scalable maps of possible alternative political and social worlds. The dramatic differences in scale made possible by Hooke’s images further argue for a new understanding of “catastrophe." That is, a new level of potential for extreme events of unprecedented scale; a new model that depicts the collision between the unseen (quantum) and the seen (macro materiality) as an utter overturning (in the Greek sense of catastrophe) of a human (or even godly) centeredness of control and power. Cavendish recognizes the significance to these experimentations with scalable form when she laments how she does not know if those who “invented microscopes” and like instruments did “the world more injury than benefit,” given the obsession with “phenomena” that follows in their wake. This conflicted fascination with the forms of these “digital” objects of her moment leads her to a strategy of immersion in their aesthetics, knowing that the far-ranging implications of this revolution will impact all imagined territories of bodies, environments, texts, objects, nations, and the ontologies of power that attach to them. Nothing short of world-making is at stake in these networks of form.
And this leads us to another aspect of Cavendish’s hermaphrodite text that speaks to our own hermaphroditical moment, a moment experiencing its own fundamental redefinition of forms, territory, and temporal-space. We are at a moment where the hypermodern collides with the modern and premodern. We can consider, for example, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s recent arguments for how we misunderstand the dimensions of power and knowledge and how they are distributed at present by continuing to focus on external logics of power, rhetorical performances, and conceptual categories of sovereign meaning. As they indicate, sovereign power now runs on “invisible, internalized laws (157),” on virtual “procedures” that have become their own ideological machinery. And, increasingly, as they further point out, these procedures and invisible laws comprise the digital atmospheres and forms we all now breathe in and negotiate through, socially and politically.
Benjamin Bratton goes even further in examining the vast significance of scalable form with his rendering of the “black stack,” that collision between old forms of territory and power and newer digital clouds and forms of digital feudalism. He demonstrates how we are encountering a world of “weird geometries” of political control and aesthetics, with territories that are now moving ontologies of the virtual/digital; we are at the edges and nodes of a world created out of Westphalian boundaries, imagined and materialized, now scaled over horizontal, largely invisible stacks of codes, protocols, and interfaces of virtual territories.
Cavendish’s moment and ours are permeated by hybrid territories and hermaphroditical mash-ups of the premodern, modern, and hypermodern. This project serves as a critical exploration of these transversal events and texts, as well as a digital re-creation of Cavendish’s hybrid text.

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This page references:

  1. Earlier Frontispiece, Leviathan
  2. Anamorphic Frontispiece, Detail
  3. Hobbes Final Frontispiece, Leviathan
  4. Louse, Micrographia