Excerpt: ‘The Action is the Form. Victor Hugo’s TED Talk’ by Keller Easterling

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How to develop the right kind of knowledge.

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Keller Easterling is an architect, writer and professor at Yale University. She considers that the urban reality is strongly dependent on infrastructure space, which is not only pipes and buildings, but also all the repeatable patterns and features of people’s life. According to Easterling, architects are able to rule this space in case they think over the problems regarding the approach of philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Strelka Press published her book “The Action is the Form. Victor Hugo’s TED Talk.”



While he was alive, philosopher Gilbert Ryle spoke with a British accent, smoked a pipe and wrote philosophy in a droll, charming and conversational tone. He is perfectly cast as the next encounter in The New Yorker treatment of “the action is the form”. Ryle was especially keen to point out the “ghosts in the machine” or the logical fallacies harbouring in everyday language. Disposition was, for Ryle, one of those ghosts, and his work further demystifies the magic of ghosts and giants with a practical art that might also guide the design of infrastructure space.

Ryle wrote about disposition as something we already understand and use in common parlance: an unfolding relationship between potentials — a tendency, temperament or property in either beings or objects — a propensity within a context. The disposition cannot be proven as a definite “occurrence”. Ryle used the example of glass that does not need to shatter to possess a brittle disposition. The shattered glass is not a “ghostly happening, but because it is not a happening at all.”

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A ball on an inclined plane possesses disposition that is stored in relationship and geometry. The ball does not need to roll down the inclined plane to possess the disposition to do so. A function in calculus is an expression for the behaviour of a number of values; knowing all of those values is less important than understanding the disposition of the function to form a curve with a particular amplitude. Reinforcing Latour, Ryle argues that, given this latency, disposition is indeterminate. Yet this indeterminacy is not necessarily mysterious.

“My being a habitual smoker does not entail that I am at this or that moment smoking; it is my permanent proneness to smoke when I am not eating, sleeping, lecturing or attending funerals, and have not quite recently been smoking” – Gilbert Ryle

For Ryle, the difference between “knowing that” and “knowing how” — between training the mind to know the answer over training the mind to rehearse actions — was essential to an understanding of disposition. One cannot know disposition as one knows the correct answer. It is gleaned from multiple observations of activity. The disposition of the organisation is an indication of how that organisation deals with the interplay of factors over time. Like Latour, Ryle refers to theatrical arts that are accustomed to handling action. Using the performance of a clown, Ryle noted that being funny is not something for which one knows the right answer.

It is something the comedian knows how to do in an unfolding response with an audience. “Knowing how” is dispositional. Ryle noted that dispositional attributes sometimes remain as a fuzzy imponderable within customary logics and language structures — “occult” agencies or processes taking place, in “a sort of limbo world.” Yet to disregard “knowing how” in favour of “knowing that” is to discount our most practical expressions for capacity, potentiality, property or tendency. Best understood by using it, the word “disposition” is itself dispositional.

Ryle never addressed disposition in urban space, but if he had he might have talked about the disposition of the suburban field to multiply or the disposition of Facebook to become a political instrument. He might have referenced simple topologies or familiar network repertoires that have a disposition to circulate information in particular ways: the phrase “a smuggling ring” models the secrecy of a closed loop of players.

Photo: Istockphoto.com

The disposition of a linear rail system or a linear fibre-optic cable is different from that of an atomised sea of mobile telephones. A radial or hub and spoke network, like mass media television or radio, is one in which every activity or relationship must contact a single central point with the privilege of disseminating information. A tree or arborescent structure is hierarchical and concentrates authority, like streets that move from trunk line arterials to the smallest lanes. An all-channel or distributed network, like an open mesh, is one in which every point in the network can reach every other point. A mainframe computing network is a linear network that passes information sequentially, while a parallel network is arranged with simultaneous rather than sequential exchange. A skyscraper might be understood as a serial organisation because one accesses each floor sequentially by an elevator. A market, a train station or any other organisation with multiple points of access and exchange might be organised with simultaneity and parallelism.

Disposition can then be designed, just as one can decide the geometry and relative position of the ball on the inclined plane.

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