Spinning and the Parameters of Power

The book charkha is a mobile, affordable spinning wheel in a box.
The book charkha is a mobile, affordable spinning wheel in a box.

A few months ago I got the itch to spin again. Out of nowhere, that memory of fibers twisting up from an undifferentiated mass into the start of something useful. As a teenager, I spun wool from the fleece of my single sheep. The yarn was thick and uneven, the spinning wheel big enough to qualify as furniture.

This time around, after a bit of research, I stumbled across the Indian book charkha (“book”? I’m hooked). It’s meant for spinning thin, light fibers like cotton and silk. When closed, it’s no bigger than a hardback bestseller. In an increasingly complex world, I love its simplicity. With so much of my life relying on digitization and virtuality (evidence this blog), my charkha is pleasantly analog and physical.

GANDHI’S CHARKHA

The book charkha (and larger briefcase-sized version) is more properly known as a Yerwada charkha, a design Mahatma Gandhi and his associates developed and used while imprisoned in the Yerwada jail in the early 1930s. Gandhi was behind the re-engineering of the large household spinning wheel into a portable, affordable tool.

Why did Gandhi care about the charkha? Indian cotton was being exported to Britain and then imported as finished cloth, a relationship that enriched Britain economically and politically, while making India dependent at both ends of the textile value chain. Against this landscape, Gandhi realized that spinning could be a symbolic act of independence.

First he began spinning cotton, making “women’s work” into everyone’s work. Then he began wearing only kadhi, cloth made from homespun cotton. In these simple and perfectly legal gestures, he revealed the politics of cotton and cloth. When he encouraged everyone to spin—men as well as women and in public whenever possible—spinning became an act of political defiance, symbol of national self-sufficiency and also pushed social politics forward. The charkha became a weapon in India’s nonviolent war for independence. All that from a spinning wheel in a box.

SPINNING AND PARAMETRICS

It took me a few tries to feel the rhythm of spinning on the charkha, but soon I was winding thread off the spindle to make room for more. It can be quite meditative, but one day I put my laptop nearby to watch video of the CalArts conference “The Politics of Parametricism”. The fascination running through my fingers was about to get a new dimension.

Charkha Monument, Mumbai, India, a beautiful parametric sculpture
Charkha Monument, Mumbai, India, a beautiful parametric sculpture

Parametricism describes design that takes multiple parameters into consideration, a complexity powered by computational algorithms. If you’ve ever wondered how those fluid, organic, futuristic-but-here-now buildings are possible, that’s parametrics. See some masterful examples at Zaha Hadid Architects. Watch this for an introduction.

Parametric design soars and inspires more organically than those higher-than-high, straight-to-the-sky structures. It’s easy to get lost in those curves.

But today, parametric architecture is also status architecture. The CalArts conference exposed the problem: Is parametricism for everyone, or is it computational power for those with power? Can it be used to empower local neighborhoods and small scale economies or must it always inscribe the signature of status and wealth? Is it part and parcel of our current capitalist orientation, or can it be used to transcend that worldview, benefiting a broader base? These are no small questions for architecture and every other industry and discipline being recast through the heady possibilities of Big Data and computational power.

MEANWHILE…

So how fitting that the low-tech charkha and high-tech parametricism come together in Mumbai’s Charkha Monument, an abstract design that “represents the ideology of the spinning wheel and India’s sustainable progress through its visual motion and construction.” It embodies modernism’s signature parallax view, with every vantage point revealing a different sculpture. It references political history while looking forward through the lens of a design “developed using a digital applet, the spiralling gesture of a spinning wheel explored with multiple parameters in play: diameter, density, speed, and geometries.”

I came across the Charkha Monument after watching the CalArts conference. It’s the spring of 2014, some 85 years after Gandhi reminded Indians of the power in their own hands. Meanwhile, American democracy bows to corporate power and care for the commons becomes more rare. It’s the era of experts (as .expert becomes the latest URL extension) that reminds us that some things are better left to the grownups.

As cotton runs through my fingers, I wonder how we will negotiate this “hands off” approach to our own future. Computational power is being embedded across the built landscape and in the devices of everyday life. This will supposedly do more for us, making life easier. But as net neutrality teeters on the brink of extinction, the future is indeed not looking like it will be evenly distributed. Will this Internet of Everything be good for all or only for some? When no one needs to drive a car, how will our inherent longing for control be satisfied? What new fantasies will we agree to in order to keep the machines running?

Another view of the Charkha Monument in Mumbai, India.
Another view of the Charkha Monument in Mumbai, India.

I draw out more cotton and turn the handle on the charkha, working out unevenness and testing the strand before winding another yard of thread onto the spindle. I don’t quite know myself anymore, this woman asking political questions. I wasn’t raised to be political. Politics was for politicians, but whenever I hear someone say, “I’m not political,” I hear my own fear. “I’m not political” means “I’m not ready to wield my own influence.”

RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW

For those years on a Montana ranch, I felt I had no influence at all. Everything happened somewhere else. But I did learn the tools of self-sufficiency (too well, at times). I did learn to expect answers of myself before seeking answers from others. As I spin, I’m aware of this fundamental orientation. It creates a turning together of the countless small things I’ve learned and experienced over the years. Now they’re overlapping and catching, twisting up into a directional strength. This might be a rope to tie a boat or thread to weave into a material with new properties and possibilities.

The impulse to spin, literally and figuratively, is deep in the bones of culture. It’s how raw material becomes material that matters. Look to the double-helix; spinning is in the very shape of our DNA. Politics—the art and science of power—is also with us everywhere, making the worlds where we live and shaping what we grow, make, buy, and build. More than ever, computational power and algorithmic design are shaping those outcomes. But make no mistake. It begins with our own grasp and what we choose to take in hand.

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MORE:

The Politics of Parametricism: Digital Technologies and the Future(s) of Sociality, CalArts conference at REDCAT, Los Angeles, November 15-16, 2013

LIVE Architecture: Charka Monument, 11-meter tall outdoor Installation in Cross Maidan, Mumbai, India

The Charkha Movement

An introductory video on charka spinning by Ritesh Singh

I bought my charka and cotton fiber from New World Textiles.

The Escaping Word

"Should I Stay or Should I Go" by Yoshitomo Nara, 2011
“Should I Stay or Should I Go” by Yoshitomo Nara, 2011

Again, at the precipice. Some part of me must love it, considering how much time I spend here. This place of mind and body where time mostly stops and all notions of progress are undone. It’s the place from which I didn’t finish two master’s degrees, the place from which I leave businesses and communities. It’s the place from which I broke my marriage. I clear the area and protect what I can. Disasters loom.

Depression is what I used to call it, a too-simple pseudo-diagnostic that was nevertheless a sort of relief and license for getting nothing measurable done. It is a trough—but also a precipice. Outwardly, I feel low. Inwardly, somewhere near my bones, chaos is erupting. This deadened surface is, in fact, a highly polished containment field. I make no sudden movements. I put away the credit cards and don’t get behind the wheel. Every gesture will be rash. Damage will be done but (with luck) only the kind that can be undone.

When whatever lurks deep flashes too fast to the surface, behavior gets bent. Absent words or images—absent the possibility of an understanding audience—what longs for symbolic expression gets written in the flesh.

Skin is not the only surface we use to inscribe our identities. My persistent fat is a story of the struggle that circulates continuously in my blood and nerves. The mind of my body has its own strategies and sometimes seems to have had enough of me. Then, to satisfy the craving for change, the best tactic seems to be: unloose the body itself. Time to go. Time to move on. An action that is by nature unfathomable, even when the polite suicide leaves an explanation behind.

At this precipice, my self-doubt so far takes hold, even as it unleashes empathy for those who go. Their suffering is by definition beyond bearing. Whatever the inexpressible “it,” it is too much. Too much becomes a hole with its own gravity. It calls. It swallows some of us.

Impossible to know how it works out for those who go. But there is the suffering left behind, the aftermath that is not at all “after” but present, if not accounted for. The legacy to loved ones and acquaintances is the unthinkable possibility, their  minds and bodies now imprinted with the shape of that hole.

At this precipice I’ve learned to wait. It can feel pathological, this attentive inability to move. But it’s a vast improvement over sinking into thick silence or sizzling in the bright lights of compulsive distraction. I sit on this edge in a sort of humming drift, humming and groaning, listening for myself and the escaping word.

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Postscript: A few weeks later, I come across these lines in Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover: “He waited for a clarifying wind. And torpor hardened over everything, like the lava stream. He looked into the hole, and like any hole it said, Jump.”

Making Space for Uncertainty

Exactitude French Poster 1929Not All Who Wander Are Lost. When I was a teenager, that bumpersticker favored by Lord of the Rings fans and New Agers didn’t strike me as profound or funny. Depression-era reality echoed down the generations of my family: Uncertainty is the enemy, and wandering doesn’t pay the rent.

In those years, Thoreau spoke to me, against a poster image of a sailboat at sea leaning into a moody sunset: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”  The problem? Certainty is the enemy of dreams, not to mention imagination.

In my 20s, I grew confidently in the direction of perfectionism and fetishism. I named one of my early businesses No Loose Ends. Life became some version of porn, compelling but completely unsurprising. Novelty but not change. Movement but not growth. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Certainty was my virtue. I was productive, efficient and unequivocal. What can be measured can be managed. Control, we’re told as consumers, is empowerment. Power is a springboard to freedom—the f-word that unlocks the American dream.

Certainty as a habit of mind was my defense, a hand held up to vast possibilities I had no capacity or facility to entertain. The “Exactitude” poster, a French Deco classic from a fateful 1929, hung in my first office. But certainty was a brittle strength. Uncertainty was and is the messy thing that overflows.

Most of what we rely is actually up for grabs (as it actually always has been). Last night’s earthquake, a gentle rock-a-bye as I was falling asleep, was a good reminder.

As it always has been! But electricity, running water, concrete, fully-stocked grocery stores, mobile phones (etc.!) give me the impression that I’ve mastered daily life. Even if it’s impossible to solve the Big Questions, a full belly leaves less room to worry about it. This may be why I’ve always been so obsessed with stories—novels, short stories, films. Narratives can be ways to imagine and rehearse alternative futures and even break open history so it can move in different directions. Stories can get past emotional and psychological defenses that “facts” can’t.

My own ability to imagine “what if” is limited less by knowledge than fear—unconscious fear that doesn’t announce itself but nudges me back into cravings for routine comforts. Endless, unchanging loops of the known. Processes that make other people bobblehead in agreement. Same as it ever was.

Without uncertainty in the frame, my thinking goes awry. Risks seem greater than usual. Creativity shuts down. I tell myself that I’m in control but wonder why my knuckles are turning white? It’s a form of mind-body split. I don’t think I’m alone in it. Companies use this dissonance to sell us more stuff while politicians exploit it to start wars. (Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of anti-fragility, things that benefit from volatility, is interesting here. Stay tuned for more on that.)

I’m still working at being more resilient. What’s clear is that by defending myself from considering alternative futures—and my agency in them—I also distance myself from what’s bubbling in my own unconscious. Dreams and the future. The two are not unrelated.

In 2006 I took a brief course in scenario planning, basically a business application of storytelling. Even after 2008, it’s a tough fit for businesspeople who are paralyzed by things they can’t measure. When I studied it, scenario planning was the ONLY business planning process that accounted for uncertainty. Astounding when you think about it. With one hand, we wave at the multiverse. With the other, we clutch at counting the stars.

Near the end of the course, I asked Kees van der Heijden, one of scenario planning’s big names, if the practice was as much psychological exercise as business strategy. Were the exercises really tools to help people gain a sense of familiarity with the very FACT of the unknown? He smiled and nodded.

An imagined future becomes a possible future (though not necessarily a likely one). And while more space for what’s possible sounds wonderful in that rational part of the mind, contingency makes us squirm. It threatens the way things are, and if the way things are is good for you, you stand to lose. But, to paraphrase another bumpersticker, shit will happen. And standing too firmly against that inevitability can get very messy indeed.

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Want more?

ScenarioThinking.org – an open community devoted to scenario thinking and planning

Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation by Kees van der Heijden

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of INCERTO (Antifragile, The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness, and The Bed of Procrustes) an “investigation of opacity, luck, uncertainty, probability, human error, risk, and decision making when we don’t understand the world”

Casual, Free and Fulfilling: Job Nirvana Awaits

For more than a decade, creative start-ups have been positioning themselves in job listings as places that are so much fun you won’t know you’re working!  Most of us have learned to read through the euphemisms, the way we know that “quaint” in a house listing means “no updates since 1930.” But today a listing… Continue reading Casual, Free and Fulfilling: Job Nirvana Awaits

Breaking Better Late Than Never

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 1.03.46 PMAs a cultural moment, Breaking Bad is already in the distance, but I’ve still been missing something. When it pops up in conversation, every discussion leaves me quoting  T.S. Eliot: “That is not it at all.”

It has something to do with that final episode. When Hank was offed middish-season, I got the message: Outside authority is an obstacle for Walt, but it’s not the real game. Walt’s a thinking man. His ultimate nemesis? Walt himself.

I know that existential turn in the last episode struck some viewers as a narrative cop-out, but to me it was wholly necessary. Why? Because the baseline conflict today rests with each of us asking what it means to be human in a world where science, technology and their businesses are developing faster than we can understand or control. In a world where “progress” can look and feel like its opposite, what—if anything—guards the greater good? If providing for your family ends up nearly killing them, what does that mean for our possible future?

In today’s knowledge economy, algorithms and gene sequences are the commanding heights. Walt, as a teacher and chemist, embodies the pitfalls of academics bent by business. He may get distracted by money and the buzz of building an empire, but in the end it’s the scientific method that he loves. He’s a noble of academia and science; in the end, the lab steel is bloodied but still shines. In between, clean theory turns into dirty knowledge, catalyzed by the American Dream.

Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow. Ethics, shmethics. Walt’s problems are authority, power, money, transportation, distribution, manufacturing, labor…  questions any creative capitalist faces today. He leans on a familiar ideology about protecting family. (Saving/feeding the world and promoting democracy are for bigger guns.)

When Walt’s morality goes MIA, the audience loves him for it. It’s just too bad that actress Anna Gunn in her role as Skyler, standing in for Walt’s conscience, had to deal with death threats and “hate boards.” Skyler’s a form of whistleblower for Walt, a role that is supposed to be good (whistleblowers keep us honest) but its syonyms tell a different story: rat, betrayer, busybody, troublemaker.  

This social schizophrenia helps companies keep doing bad business as usual, and we love watching characters make sociopathic decisions to do it. But great entertainment is a shitty real-life society, and we struggle to make the distinction. No wonder Wall Street continues to get away with it.

And so we reach the radical optimism of the final episode. Where the problem started, it can be solved. At the root of it all is Walt alone with himself. Like we all are in the end. I’ve felt it keenly myself, the violence of leaving my conscience at the threshold. Life is complicated, hypocrisy unavoidable, compromise inevitable.

But size and scale matter, and by the last episode, I desperately needed Walt to face himself. “I did it for myself. I liked it. I was good at it. It made me feel alive.” That’s the real story behind most things we do, especially the things we are sure we do for others. The bravest thing Walt does is give up his fantasy of himself—the noble scientist, the loving husband/father acting out of pure good. Honesty can have a cleansing effect, and we’ll never get that kind of reckoning from anyone at Monsanto, Pfizer, or Google. We only rarely find it within ourselves. Truth invites more truth. That’s why we need art.

As a knowledge society, self-knowledge is the true final frontier. Empires crumble, but human dignity is still possible and ingenuity lives on. Walt says he even discovered a more efficient chemistry. Probably a bluff, but we now know what occupied his mind during that cold exile in the New Hampshire woods. We may be fucked, but as long as we can think, we’re not yet lost.