Investigating Aristotle’s four causes (material, efficient, final, and formal), can lead to an interrogation of his use of sculpture as an illustrative example (clay, the art of ceramics, the use to which the piece will be put, and the ‘shape’ of the piece). The last one, formal cause, is, as McLuhan pointed out, the least satisfactorily understood. How does the shape exert a ‘causal’ influence independently from the telos, the purpose, or ‘end’ (qua final cause)? Indeed, most accounts conflate the two.
In Peter Sloterdijk’s reading of the book of Genesis in Bubbles, the creator is seen as a kind of potter, who creates Adam as a kind of vessel for his breath/spirit (in Hebrew ruah; in Latin spiritus; in Greek Pneuma). Adam is animated by the breath of the creator, and has been formed in the creator’s image… Is there a deeper connection between ‘spirit/breath’ and form here? I’d like to inquire more deeply–and perhaps it would take some serious scholarship to back this up effectively–into the connection with “wind” (another meaning of ruah), and in a possible conjunction between the German cognate geist (ghost, spirit, mind) and the English gust, which would seem to indicate a fundamental unpredictability; the gustiness of the wind of spirit, qua god’s breath, is like the unpredictability inherent in the conjunctions among the various causes: the art applied to the matter, in light of the ends and (possible) forms… The reason pottery is an art rather than a science is because of this fundamental indeterminacy (also consider the inter-reactions of the materials under the high-intensity/temperature conditions of the kiln, where the unexpected event occurs as a matter of routine; one never truly knows what will come out of this alchemical crucible…
I would like to imagine the throwing wheel as a kind of crucible as well, albeit one operating at a much different scale of the intensities, on which temperature becomes friction, the force of the hands on the rotating mass, and the phase change (from greenware to bisqueware, or from bisqueware to stoneware) responsible for the discrete creation of the vessel becomes more of a ‘drawing-out’ (or ‘educing’) of the form from its matrix of possibilities (the material). We do this by turning the clay on itself, and forcing it into itself, thus lending it a kind of rotational symmetry at the scale of its composition (elementary particles in aqueous solution). This rotational symmetry may (perhaps) itself be considered as a kind of ‘tonality’ or temperament; wedging and centering would then be a kind of ‘tuning’ of the material qua instrument. The material then disappears, in a Heideggerian way, becoming what Heidegger calls zuhandenheit (ready-to-hand), in the manner of a well-functioning tool. In this case the clay functions well to the extent that we can imbue it with a form; with the especially negentropic form of a vessel, usually.
Symmetry can also be considered in light of information theory (and engineering) as redundancy, which is a kind of repetition of critical elements. Turned vessels with higher redundancy (more symmetry) will, I think, be generally more robust and fracture-resistant, whereas asymmetrical vessels would be more fragile. Perhaps there’s some truth in this, but any practicing potter knows that it’s not the whole story. But quite aside from the more obvious problems regarding the relativity of intended use (final cause), which would (I’d suggest) negate the efficacy of this notion for most ‘practical’ potters, I think that our provisional info-theoretical notion of ceramics assumes a kind of ‘neutrality’ of the material, as if clay could be perfectly wedged and centered. This is a rather theoretical consideration, since in practice this assumption is often provisionally assumed as a criterion of ‘skill’, and taken as a prerequisite for craftsmanship qua (practical) art. Ceramics is an interesting art form, for me, precisely because of its peculiar resistance to more ‘modern’ notions of transgression of ‘practicality’ (as exemplified, for instance, in the work of Peter Voulkos). The continued emphasis on production in contemporary ceramics–despite attempts to transcend it–hearken back to Aristotle, in a way, in that they imply a kind of tyranny of the telos, from which artists like Voulkos (and Picasso) have tried to free the medium and the art form. In production pottery, the telos of the marketplace (which has, of course, peculiarly managed to subsume other ‘ends’–like the tabletop, the oven, the flowerstem, and the cafe latte…) governs an emphasis on the reproducible achievement of forms (a production potter’s style is defined through the character-continuity across his or her productions), which treats the irreducibility of information–qua asymmetry & eccentricity–in the medium rather like the electrical engineer treats noise in a communication channel. The techniques of competent potter–wedging and centering, throwing and trimming, etc.–are geared towards maintaining a repression of this ‘noise’ in the medium below a certain threshold, where it will not interfere with the imposition of the desired form.
“The minute that you begin to feel you understand what you’re doing it loses that searching quality. You have to forget about the little technical problems that don’t matter—you’ve overcome them long ago anyway. You finally reach a point where you are no longer concerned about keeping this blob of clay centered on the wheel and up in the air. Your emotions take over and what happens just happens. […] No rules, just concepts” -Peter Voulkos, from a Sotheby’s catalog for a show on Dec 5, 2012 (via Spiros Antonopolous).
Returning to the notion of the crucible, we might note that repressed eccentricities inevitably resurface, and do so according to statistical regularities implicit in the aggregation of instances of ‘creation’. Here, then, we have a kind of ‘revised’ myth of the Golem for our technomaterialistic age: the Golem is just that artifact which performs the task for which it has been designed, hiding its irreducible eccentricity beneath the surface of an apparently robust functionality, whose eventual failure, precisely because of its unlikeliness, becomes a kind of fatal treachery, like the tunnel scaffolding, which precisely by allowing the miners to enter deep into the bowels of the mountain’s interior, imprisons them there all the more surely when it finally fails. Technology becomes a kind of indebtedness to nature, whose collection agents may knock on the door with the most uncanny rhythm..
“It’s no coincidence that ‘futures’ is the name of the derivatives market. Futures as projective virtualities, projective… They’re projected as internal effects of a system, an apparatus. But interaction with the apparatus -although it does revolve around a kind of zero-degree of transformation- is nevertheless always minimally microtransformative, which means the map is not the territory; which means that the image always dissimulates its object(s), and which means also that the impression is always memorial. Writing is always the writing of what has been, not what is; never of what is. And it’s a kind of an infinitessimal difference, minimally. That infinitessimal is a different kind of atomos, it’s a different kind of indivisibility than the indivisibility that’s ascribed, or that was ascribed to a certain kind of classical conception of the atom. This indivisibility is an indivisibility of the gap; the difference between, um…” -10:32am – 10/23/12.