The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Explosions in the sky

I love constellations. Therefore, I love this post from Liz Danzico. It’s got me thinking: Isn’t the spangling of stars in the sky just basically random noise onto which we’ve projected patterns and then stories? And if that’s been successful—and it toootally has—doesn’t it imply that you could do the same with just about any kind of random noise? What sort of weird wacky stuff could you spread across your desk to tell stories with?


Okay, this is my favorite thing about constellations. Everybody knows that we carve out semi-random shapes from patterns in the stars, and then assign those shapes characters and stories accordingly.

The thing is, even the semi-random shapes, the so-called patterns, prior to seeing them as a constellation and then an element of mythology, are accidents. They’re not real.

After the Copernican revolution, a constellation isn’t even a constellation. Instead, it’s a two-dimensional flattening of a three-dimensional reality. Actually, we should probably say a FOUR-dimensional reality. The light from stars at varying distances, leaving their sources at various times in the distant past, gets mistaken, from our earthbound point-of-view, as a simultaneous two-dimensional pattern.

BUT! That distortion, that accident, produces something extremely powerful — both imaginatively and practically.

Take “constellational thinking” and apply it to something besides stars in space. Let’s say — history.

Over here, you’ve got the Roman Republic, over there, the French Revolution. Distant in time, distant in geography, no kind of causal proximity let alone a relationship between them.

But bam! Slap them together. View them as a single event, a collapse of time.

Now you begin to see the French Revolution the way part of the Revolution saw itself, as an explosion of the continuum of history.

Now — and sorry if I slow-played this — you’re in Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History.” Now you’re performing a genuinely three-dimensional nonlinear reading of historical time.

What else is amenable to constellational thinking?

Your third graf blew my mind. I like this. I like it a lot. (And as usual, it’s well-branded. “Constellational thinking.” How can a person not be excited about something called constellational thinking?)

Thinking out loud here: how about human behavior — things like economics, esp behavioral economics? We have all these factors coming in from wildly different vectors — genes, psychology, incentives, history, everything — but we “flatten” them all out so they’re all on the same playing field, and then we try to tell coherent stories about them.

Also, this makes me think of a section of that recent (inSANE) John Mayer interview. This line actually struck me quite deeply when I read it, which is why I copied it to my notes file:

MAYER: This is going to sound odd, but sometimes I meet the 40-year-old me and say, “What do I do?” And 40-year-old me says, “Don’t do every scheduled interview. Go to the zoo instead. You’re going to be fine, you knucklehead. Stop overthinking what people say.”

I’m trying to fold over time, to see it as a random-access hard disk where I can move to any point in time and change the way I see today.

Is John Mayer a constellational thinker?

I didn’t expect to say this when I woke up this morning, but yes — I think John Mayer is almost exactly right.

He’s got his own pair of suggestive metaphors for it, too — “random-access hard disk” is maybe more obvious for we 21st-century digital people, but “to fold over time” is mind-sharp and mouth-tasty too.

The key thing, though, and he almost gets to constellation metaphor here, is to think about the accidents of position and vision that present themselves as straightforward reality. Space and the eye — where do I stand, and what can I see?

Constellation thinking! Well-named indeed. And I love this.

It really does marry the seams among known entities, even if the stories behind those entities aren’t terribly well-known themselves. So, that’s why history works so well. We all know something about the French Revolution, Roman Republic. Give them a story to weave them together, and as you say, you’ve flattened the dimension. This is magical.

Perhaps there’s something to that. For Constellation Thinking to work, you have to be able to name at least one thing, point something out. Dots, points in history, people, notes.

There’s an aspect of playing music, particularly performing, that applies here. Musicians when they’re learning a piece, may only know or hear certain parts. So they sort of improvise the space in between to smooth over the others. They can get to the solo bits, but the others may lie in a murky space. They make it up, put it all together. No one knows!

Perhaps this counts?

Yeah… I think I get it: there are these provisional discrete entities that stand in for and interconnect the infinitely divisible whole.

Not only references, but even a full musical score works this way. So do maps, or the color bands of the rainbow.

So does the alphabet. Of all the sounds in our language, all of the words, we’ve managed to abstract 26 symbols to represent them all. What a feat! What a technological marvel!

This is how we make the world intelligible.

And just like with the alphabet, constellational thinking is a feedback loop. At a certain point we can’t remember whether the shapes are made of the stars or just part of them — which are pictures or distortions of which.

But all of these things are lies. That seems important to me. Ar least, they are lies by almost any standard we could honestly accept as the truth. And that the fact that they are lies turns out to be immaterial, or even useful, that seems important, too.

It’s true. Pretty soon the pictures and distortions seem more the truth (as the lie becomes more believable) than the original objects. They are lies too, but there’s something troubling about the term’s connotation.

The flâneur or the classic street photographer, for instance, is a constellation thinker (right?), but I don’t know if I would call how they piece together the world lies. It’s something just pre-lie. More genuine than a story, but more authentic than a lie.

In my New Liberal Arts entry on photography, I called it nonauthenticity. Something that’s an accident and a construct at the same time. But by going through those concepts, they mean something different now. Something ike that.

Robin, are you saying that John Mayer is Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse Five? Has John Mayer become unstuck in time? 🙂

This constellational thinking thing also reminds me of how J. Michael Straczynski of used to call his creation Babylon 5 “holographic storytelling”, where the stories aren’t just linear, but instead reference various threads from throughout the show, only complete when viewed from afar.

Matthew Battles says…

How I missed this post and comment thread—beyond me. Such good stuff. The alphabet is totally constellational—especially when you consider the interleaved alphabets we use: the majuscule and the miniscule, the arabic numbers, the punctuation like ruins of old systems of breaths and voicings…. The kind of stuff Bruce Sterling talks about when he talks about atemporality is constellational, I think. I’ve been feeling like going full-constellatory in my writing (though I didn’t know I could call it that until just now), in part to get away from the compulsion to make beautiful sentences. One more crank of the kill-your-darlings handle. I’ve been blown away by Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, which I’m only just getting around to reading. But if I have a beef with it—compositionally, anyway; the history is a very hard nut to crack—I think it’s insufficiently constellational. The book is made up of short- to medium-length paragraph accounts of discrete events at the start of WWII. But it’s more telescopic, zooming in to focus on associated events. I’d like a telling that interweaves accounts that are contemporaneous, but have nothing to do with the war. Or spread out across history & culture. Guy Davenport’s work looks like this from certain vantage points. And poet & essayist Gustaf Sobin has a book that does this (almost too beautifully) with the history of Provence. It’s called Luminous Debris—there you go, constellations!

Luminous Debris sounds terrific. You know, Ezra Pound (nut for Provençal) called his preferred historical mode “the method of luminous detail.”

I’ve got a pet theory that one reason Pound’s approach and Benjamin’s seem so similar, even though they pretty clearly didn’t (and couldn’t) know much about each other, is that they both got it from Jacob Burckhardt, who more or less invented it in his Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy), albeit in a much less fragmentary, more essayistic style.

This is a fascinating discussion. Yes, we’re talking about necessary, useful lies, the only way we can see the world. Vonnegut’s Bokonon: “Foma! Lies!” A religion based on lies… a parody of every religion.

The idea that we see through a glass, darkly, is not new, but I think the idea that it was a useful and necessary way of seeing is new, and was pioneered by Vonnegut. Each of us sees such a slender slice of this stupendous universe, for such a short time, and augments that sparse understanding by reading 26-letter encoded linear descriptions from the perspective of other views through dark glasses dotted through time…


Love this comment, Greg. Slender slices and skinny strings.

Although there have been no new comments on this discussion of constellational thinking for some ten weeks or so I thought I would add mine nonetheless – let’s see if there’s still interest out there. I found this discussion because I was about to write a blog called – you guessed it – Constellational Thinking, in a social psychological context and thought I’d google it first to see what was already out there.

Tim mentioned Benjamin’s On the Concept of History and actually the German word ‘Konstellationen’ is commonly used in academic circles, especially historical ones. So much so that in Duden, the first meaning of Konstellation is, “an overall state which arises out of the meeting of various circumstances or relationships”. (In the OED there is a minor subsense of constellation which goes rather weakly, “a group of associated or similar people of things”.)

In the last two decades Konstellationen has been used in various contexts in German research. A major one is to describe the type of historical-philosophical research developed by Dieter Henrich in order to understand the complex set of influences which led to German Idealism developing out of the Enlightenment at the end of the 18th century (; Another is Constellation Analysis (Konstellationsanalyse), which is an analytical method that acts as an interdisciplinary bridge in complex, technical research fields (

Enough of that. What is common among these is that a constellation represents a whole that emerges from the relationships between phenomena rather than from the individual phenomena themselves. Must these individual phenomena be distant in time like in the constellations of astronomy and Benjamin? Not necessarily. It is notable that Tim’s emphasis on mere appearance (or “lies”) is not present in these (post-Benjamin) German uses of constellational thinking. In fact for them it is the opposite. Constellational thinking is a way of getting at the truth: mapping the system of influences and relationships to deepen our understanding of the overall phenomenon.

So it seems there are two distinct ways of thinking about constellations: those involving phenomena which are actually distant in time but are brought together by one’s current vantage point; and those that involving phenomena that actually are interacting in the same time frame. Thinking about the second kind in terms of constellations may be truth revealing rather than a beautiful lie.

Even constellational thinking which brings together phenomena from different time frames may be truth revealing. This is because there really is an actual relationship between those things in any given moment that they are brought together to affect a single person. This kind of constellational thinking may not directly reveal truths about the phenomena involved; but indirectly, through truths about the psychology of the person doing the constellational thinking. A constellation of things from different time frames can reveal truths about the psychology of the person who is affected by them (think stars, perception; think history, thinking). These truths about a person’s psychology can in turn be used to reconsider the constellation and discover truths about it.

After all, Copernicus could only start from his perceptions of constellations, an arrangement of things which, from his vantage point, stood in a particular relation to one other.

My blog about constellational thinking in a social psychological context is forthcoming here:

Fantastic discussion! Coming very late to this lovely thread, and not quite sure how I ended up here although I think it had something to do with Banyan Trees. In any case, this very much resonates with a mode of thinking and writing pushed by Greg Ulmer, he terms it electracy, and others in certain digital humanities circles influenced by the post-structuralists, the avant garde, and Frankfurt. This metaphor here, however, strikes me as rather more elegant.

Also, recalls an e-lit work titled “88 Constellations for Wittgenstein,” although it doesn’t quite exemplify the fullness of the ideas here.


Love this post and just had to chime in with two things

1 – Check out Borges’ essay “Kafka and His Precursors” where JLB sees Kafka’s influence extending backward through time. Very cool. You can read it here:

2 – The art of Felice Varini who creates large-scale images of simple patterns superimposed on the walls of buildings. The way the images are created allows the user to view a coherent image from only one specific vantage point. If you view from another perspective the image becomes incoherent. The effect is that the images often just float impossibly in front of you. Worth a look:

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