Friday, September 7, 2007

Proportional Thinking--Considering an Aesthetics of the Scale of Concepts

In my recent history I've considered forms--ideas in the limited sense as "in formation"--in terms of beauty, singularity, modularity, parallelism, and so on, not to make too much of it, but this leads me to a notion that in many ways thoughts in a symbolic sense suggest a particular proportion--closer to the original sense of relativity as I see it--and by extension scale.

There are numerous ways to look at scale. There is the scale of constructs which consist of similar units repeated, like an apartment complex. There is the scale of differences in scale, like a child standing over an ant hill, or Gulliver and the Lilliputians. There is also the scale of status or monuments which are in the same field but may rise twice as high or more--even as a statement.

Then there is what I would like to call the "meso scale" of proportions. I realize its often used in a basic context related to the root "middle". In my mind, however, it is more directly related to the scale of beauty, to the universalizable nature of the relationship between individual scale and functional scale.

It is the balance of proportions of various kinds that may make a given thing beautiful. For large populations nothing major sticks out, while for smaller populations special characteristics may take precedent. Ultimately what is beautiful for one is its balance amongst less balanced ratios in a larger context.

Similarly, there is a beauty to situations which depends on balance. There is one way who will always be hauling a 20-foot ladder, and his situations depend on that scale. For another there is always a microscope, so that things begin to look microscopic. For someone else it is inbetween--knife tricks, juggling, painting posters--and the act is somehow more amazing for being immediately apparent. It is as though the middlemost scale is really the primary performance.

Yet there is a point where scale is not meso, nor is it entirely distinct from other scales; instead it is what I call an "ordinal scale"; it is concerned with proportions yes, but within a greater measure. According to a proportional measure of what is finite or even infinitesimal, wires cross-sect a computer chip in a way that may not be relevant to non-experts, venetian blinds consist of a finite number of slats, complexity can suggest scalelessness in art, modules on a spaceship can be secondary to the mega-logic of its overall shape, bulk, and engineering.

Within this scale, proportions can be quantified modularly and not merely in terms of ratios; the proportion is not merely between the micro and the macro, but between the macro of the scope of the micro and the proportional theory or holism of the overall situation. The metaphor is not merely between the ratio of the small and the ratio of the large, but between the small's likeness of the large, and the large's accommodation for the nature of repeating the small.

Returning to the notion of the ladder, the microscope, and the juggler or knife-thrower, these are things that are still relevant on an ordinal scale. Architecture--and by extension, concepts of architecture--as a mentor proclaimed to me--is scaleless. That is, the metaphor of form is applicable on any level, so long as its proportion is not a metaphor. But insofar as its proportion is a metaphor, it has achieved relevance. The macro produces a ladder, creating the potential to gain and lose distance; the micro examines minutia providing an alternative to travel, while the meso is a knife thrower continually holding us in awe with its astounding relevance.

By extension, the value of ordinary thoughts is their relevance, the value of great thoughts is to shift the sense of scale, while the value of small thoughts is as an alternative to one's accustomed scale. Similarly, "middle-thinkers" are practical, great thinkers are philosophers or make leaps, and minimalist thinkers always understand that they are prefigured within the ordinary.

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