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The Grid Book
Hannah B. Higgins
MIT Press, $24.95
In The Grid Book, Hannah B. Higgins presents a sequence of ten emblematic grid types, framing the human condition in terms of departures from the grid and its implications for social control. Exploring the coalescence of real-world organizational principles and the virtual realm of musical notation, mapping, space-time, and Deleuzian logistics, Higgins suggests that there is a dynamic “biography of grids” that exists in a state of constantly evolving, discursive circumstances.
A professor in the art history department of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Higgins reveals her multidisciplinary approach in the book’s introduction, subtitled “A Meditation on Mrs. O’Leary.” Using the Chicago fire of 1871 as a springboard, Higgins suggests that there are numerous examples of grids throughout history less obvious than the urban plan from which they spring. In doing so, she begins to describe a phenomenon ultimately more complex than modernist painting and architecture’s visual mode, concerned with boxes and frames.
Higgins counterintuitively returns grid discourse to the terms of fundamental human expression, nature, and “living material.” She thereby uncovers a mythology that has less to do with mass production and more to do with the reconfiguration of Western society. The following chapters, each devoted to a grid type and its fundamental unit, include the brick, the cartographic representation of the world, the dissemination of religious ideas through musical notation, and the invention of movable type as components of this continually evolving grid genealogy.
Through the lens of the grid, Higgins has found a way to write about everything. The mélange of characters, events, and aesthetic shifts in The Grid Book is seriously thrashing. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, as the author is somehow able to string together the chapters by virtue of a constant series of digressions that lead to logical conclusions.
Beginning in ancient Mesopotamia, Higgins suggests that the brick has an inverse relationship to “the migratory paths of animals or the seasonal cycles of plant life.” According to the author, the brick was formed by hand out of mud or clay in an effort to support domestication. This human tendency toward physical stasis leads to notions of wall, structure, pattern, security, ceremony, and decoration. It comes as no surprise that for Higgins, the “persistence of grids,” or the inability to remove a grid from culture once it is established, explains the Tower of Babel, the Golden Section, magic, Derrida, perspective drawing, and Enron.
One of the book’s most interesting digressions variously includes the box, the architectural adaptation of shipping containers, functional exterior architectural form, transparency, the skyscraper, and German education reform. This is a fairly typical work flow for Higgins, and along the way one finds a photograph of the interior of a typical grocery store in a German village, a detail of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, and a photo of Opus 90 by Eric Andersen—a “four-dimensional voyage through a phase of an ever-changing artwork.”
Though these are incredibly interesting provocations worthy of their own thesis, Higgins’ pairing of the box and Froebel’s kindergarten curriculum, which employs “the evolution and articulation of geometric forms” in multiple dimensions, is by far the most unexpected of turns in the book. This observation suggests that interdisciplinary design, being the product of a synthesis between nature and geometry, ultimately inspired the birth of a distinctively modernist sensibility.
As an art historian of the postwar era, Higgins is not immune to the contradictory naming conventions that paradigm shifts carry with them. When the reader begins The Grid Book, he or she may encounter a very subtle antagonism toward modernism and grid homogeneity. As the grid is further exploded, however, it conceptually unfolds into an open, organic condition that one can’t quite put one’s finger on.
Indeed, from the punch-card loom, differential calculating machines, and the genesis of IBM to force vectors and fractal scaling, Higgins’ genealogy of grids has proven her false in a way. She admits in the introduction that her list of grids falls beyond the scope of her specialization. Yet if this is not an expert’s writing, what could possibly be? The Grid Book provides us with a passionate and obsessive answer to this question, in spite of the author’s charming self-abnegation.
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