Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Screaming metal (de re metallica)

Metal: iron and steel. Iron curtain and caves of steel, tanks and rockets, the impossible machines of Jean Tinguely and the galore of Japanese manga monster robots, Joe Steel and Soviet workers in metal forges, cityscapes of glass cement and steel, punk nihilism and cyborgs, Fernand Leger's "Ballet Mechanique" and the Crash fantasies of Ballard: the twentieth century thrived in a mythology of metals.

The image of screaming metal is powerfully connected to two intertwined archetypes, that of the rising city (concrete and steel) and that of the half human/half machine warrior that accompanies it. The two most famous embodiments of this mythological figure are the android of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, with the background of mountains of steel rising up to the skies in the above ground city as well as metallic Molochs devouring the exploited workers in its viscera, and the more recent cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell, with its background of East Asian futuristic (or not all that futuristic) metropolis with its own abysses of steel. In both cases the warrior figure that is born of the merging of metal and human flesh is a woman warrior, an archetype in itself that is well suited to accompany the vision of the city as both a container, vessel, cradle of humanity and at the same time an advancing powerful tide of metal challenging the skies.

The image of city rising as a scream of metal is intrinsic in the drawings of the futurist architects from Sant'Elia to Tatlin. The scream of the city was at once a "barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world", a cry of triumph of modernism and progress, and a scream of anguish of the dispossessed whose world is torn, like the workers of the underground Metropolis, to make room for and to power the wheels of the steel rails of progress.

The scream of metal as the soul of the immense megalopolis evolved with time into a cyberpunk dystopia. At the same time Screaming Metal (the French punk-sci-fi magazine Métal Hurlant of the group "Les Humanoïdes Associés") became Heavy Metal and blended with a musical stream stemming from Led Zeppelin, flowing through punk rock, Iron Maiden, Metallica and all the like. Screaming metal became a musical genre, a loud flurry of Aeolian harmonic progressions, fifth chords and tritones. While in much of the mainstream Heavy Metal movement the archetype of the woman warrior that accompanied since its early futuristic and expressionistic origins the metal scream of the city was transformed into an overtly macho exploitative fantasy, it survived in a more interesting form in some of the cyberpunk genre, to which "Ghost in the Shell" ultimately also belongs.

The archetype of the rising city of steel and glass, from its roots in the early 20th century avant-garde to its recent cyberpunk incarnations, is ultimately a product of the triumph of power engineering that begun with the late 19th century. I submit that the accompanying archetype of the half human and half machine female warrior is similarly related to the accompanying rise of the other main branch of engineering through the same epoch, communication engineering. As Norbert Wiener remarks in the introduction to his beautiful book on time series analysis, the dichotomy between power and communication engineering is only apparent, while in fact they are one and the same thing in the eyes of the unifying mathematical models behind them. The images of Ghost in the Shell present the figure of Major Kusanagi as ultimately a part of a huge network of communication that permeates the city structure, a parallel world of information and cyberspace that lives side by side and is embedded in the infrastructure of the embodied architectural landscape, into which the cyborg conscience can merge and gain instant access to vast reservoirs of information. That's the purest form of a mythologized version of the blending of power and communication engineering that took place during the 20th century and shaped our perception of the urban environment.

Well, why am I indulging in this long reflection upon the screams of metal? Because I am in fact trying to conduct a process of alchemical transmutation of metals, from the dark agony of screaming metal to a music, a song of metal, a symphony of communication networks and information, of power networks and electrification. The metal of despair and the metal of progressive hope are one and the same alchemical substance in the collective consciousness of the modern soul.

I've been spending a good amount of time in the last couple of days reading the short book of Norbert Wiener "Extrapolation, interpolation, and smoothing of stationary time series". It's been an effective way to channel my mind towards kinder and more positive thoughts. This 1949 classic reprinted by MIT press (not in very good quality printing unfortunately, several lines here and there in the text are unreadable) is a mathematics book of a kind that defies any sort of standard classification. The writing style of Wiener is unique in its capacity of storytelling: I don't mean, mind it, the kind of extremely annoying practice of resorting to anecdotes and such trivia which in my opinion are capable of spoiling completely the pleasure of reading a book, not at all. Wiener is telling a story of time series, of ergodic theory, of Fourier analysis and filters, of mathematics and engineering. It challenges the generally accepted ways in which research mathematics is written: there are no stated propositions and accompanying proofs, just a narrative that flows easily, intertwining explanations, formulae and computations, motivation and commentaries. It's hard to claim that time series analysis can make a page turner but in the hands of Wiener that can happen too. There is something in it that can only be described as a poetic quality, and after the long reflection I have just been writing about, I feel inclined to view the Fourier analysis and linear filters that Wiener is talking about as that song and music of metals, of communication engineering.