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  • The Algorithmic Writing of Stones:A Cybernetics of Geology
  • Paul Prudence (bio)

To know the shape is to enjoy the information it embodies.

– Blohm, Beer, and Suzuki, Pebbles to Computers

In his classic work of lithic scrying, The Writing of Stones, Roger Caillois suggests that the pareidoliac's interpretation of a stone's pattern depends upon her own personal internalized database of stored images, a database defined by the cultural stock of mediated imagery forged and embellished by personal memory, emotion and psychical topography. For Caillois, "the vision the eye records is always impoverished and uncertain. Imagination fills it with the treasures of memory and knowledge." Caillois's own database was one defined in a pre-digitized, barely computerized world. His meditations on Agates, Jaspers and Septaria evoked for him a world of grotesque pathologies, fantastic creatures and mythological landscapes devoid of digital allusions. Like the results of a Rorschach test, the imagery he conjured reveals the emotive secrets hidden in the recesses of his own mind. A post-digital re-reading of his stones might invoke entirely new kinds of narratives. By reinterpreting Caillois's stones in relation to the aesthetics of digital simulation, algorithmic visualization can be used as decryption device to decode and unravel new fictions.

The digital age has supplied the directory of the unconscious with a new aesthetic of patterns. Sigils of chaos theory and emblems of emergence provide the imagination with new a gestalt with which to interpret the writing of stones. How do the symbols of this new aesthetic invade our dreams and reconfigure the hard-drive of the collective unconscious? And how might they be refracted back into our view of the world as we invent stories that give meaning to entropy and shape haphazard incidents into coherent narratives? The crystal deposits in stones might now chronicle the arching trajectories of boids as they trace pathways defined by chaotic parabolas of a Lorenz Attractor. In other rocks, mineral accretions may delineate facsimiles of reaction diffusion patterns—the scattered pointillist aftermaths of activator-inhibitor liaisons. Other patterns tell tales of cellular automata self-assembling themselves into unpredictable, but [End Page 71] scrutable patterns—Conway's Game of Life frozen inside a crystalline snapshot. So, the stones become a collective unconscious for dynamical systems, an oblique strategy for algopoetic revelry, and a divination system for generative pattern recognition.

Though Caillois's readings prefigure the emergence of digital culture, there are some tantalizing references and delicate clues in his writing, almost as if he were peering into the future and blindly feeling his way through to a possible computational interpretation of his stones. Commenting on one Jasper that he nicknames Orbits, we hear of a concentric ring pattern that "proclaims the orbits of the planets or electrons around invisible nuclei" and whose rings "reflect the phantom revolutions which, alike on a vast and on a microscopic scale, unflaggingly repeat the same pattern." Here he intimately senses the universal constructor function of self-similarity in nature long before chaos theory and fractal mathematics became mainstream. He understands that forms can encapsulate themselves across dimensions, rhythmically repeating themselves to create diminishing echoes of their own signatures towards a proposed infinity, in sometimes maddeningly giddying recursions, mise en abyme. Just as chaos theory has infected every corner of science, the scale invariance found in Orbits, according to Caillois, symbolizes "the blueprint of nature itself." The author often hints at this internal self-reflexivity so essential to natural morphologies at any given scale: "To decipher such writing is to interpret some oft repeated signs so turned in upon themselves that they refer to their own form." And when he explains that "their values are intrinsic and without external reference," might he be imagining a kind of geological Turing Completeness?—a universal lithic calculating machine whose solution is its own morphology (Turing). This possibility echoes the inklings of tantric cybernetician Stafford Beer in Pebbles to Computers who saw that "Nature's computers are that which they compute" and who maintained that "We cannot read off numbers" from these calculations "because nature does not put labels on its solutions—it becomes them" (in Blohm, et al.). The sealed language of stones...


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pp. 71-83
Launched on MUSE
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