Discourse on the Exploded Car

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“Visibilities are inseparable from machines.” —Gilles Deleuze, Foucault[1]

“In numerous designs crucial parts are carefully hidden away…Many systems are vastly improved by the act of making visible what was invisible before.” —Donald Norman, The Design of Everyday Things[2]

1. Analogic Illumination

The figure of The Exploded Car is a bizarre sight of particular interest. It is a diagrammatic sketch of the mechanical—whose approach we see utilized not just in service manuals but in user guidesvisual aidsfurniture assembly guides, and technical drawings—comprised of illustrative artifacts in the service of exposition. The Exploded Car is exemplified by its namesake—an illustration in a car-repair manual—but not all manuals have this sort of relation to their particular car, and The Exploded Car is certainly not limited to the car manual itself.

The Exploded Car is a type of representational ideal. The Exploded Car ostensibly attempts to give us a clear picture of the mechanical itself. It attempts, or articulates the idea of an attempt, to expose components. However, it never really arrives: it is instead a performance of exposition, not a rendering of truth. The explosion is quite the show. The Exploded Car’s nature as a precise tool, a guide, or a blueprint, ultimately becomes secondary to its abstract and expositional nature. That method of performed illumination is a conspicuous act of opening up inner forms, and what appears is actually fictional to the point of physical impossibility. The act of “explosion” relates components in interesting new ways, ways unique to the illustration itself. Opening up a Honda manual, we stare at our car and realize that it is in no way similar to the exploded drawing depicted on the page. It is literally not that, and the spectacle of that “explosion” results not in revelatory exposition that renders things true, but an irony of interpretation. That representation is an aesthetic thing, but also in light of its explicit application as a tool of enlightenment, an eerie one.

In other words, The Exploded Car represents (and is the inevitable conclusion to) the compulsive need to perform uncovering and dissecting, but also the ultimate inability to follow through in full. Yet it is, also, an odd thing of beauty.

Let’s say we pick up the car manual and, attempting to divine some inner truth from the myriad of components within the machine, consult the diagrams inside. When we do get to actually examining our car (shaking away the eeriness of the diagram’s illustration), we see that our problem is the result of something wholly different in form than denoted in the troubleshooting guide. The problem of The Machine is the result of a distinct set of rendered objects that form their own unique relationships: a system of things. The diagram is not a platonic ideal of that machine, but it is wholly different as a thing, even though both the diagram and the machine have similar features. Its objective goal is different. Even if we were to say that the illustration represents an object to an “accurate” degree, it is in no way that machine that sits in front of us. Our car is a distinct object, with its own history, which is separate from the product line it represents, which is separate yet again from the design that made them. Designs are systems of objects, but they are separate from the objects they attempt to systematize.

What’s more, The Exploded Car is separate from all of these. It is a very particular type of representation that stands apart even from other designs and diagrams. Even if your car was identical to the others in the factory, it has become worn, it has weathered different conditions, it has seen different days: it has been in the world. This is not to say that the car manual as a whole is not immensely helpful, but it is a particular visible spectre of a car that attempts to uncover visible components; it has a separate intent other than “truth”, or really even diagnostics. The Exploded Car claims to provide diagnostic help, but it ultimately prizes “illumination” before actually helping you understand fixing our machine. If only your car was exploded! The hermeneutic use of the text is an interesting one, as it can only ever be a subtle aid, since it neither illustrates nor prescribes a machine which could be possible. The relation between our car and The Exploded Car, then, is a deeply abstract one; a virtual and symbolic one. The diagram also has precedence over the device, and over matter, and this is not just the intent of the manufacturer, but the illustration. It is the thing it could be, if perhaps you repair it perfectly (and yet, it is not, nor can it ever be)! The figure of The Exploded Car is not simply just an impossible form, but as representation it represents an perfect object which can never exist. This is not to say that the objective system described in the book is sterilized and perfect as-is; it is a unique absurdity. It is disfunctional in its own unique way, or perhaps totally functional in the same.

That representational ideal which compares the machine against the design encompasses an aspect of our relationship to machines: we take our car to a shop, and each part is checked for relevant aspects according to this plan, and thrown out and replaced at any sign of failure (running up a high bill, of course). We expect the car to be like the one in the manual, but it is something which can never occur: it is truly an impossible thing that can never be materialized. The Exploded Car is not really a “blueprint” in the strict sense of the word (although it does take precedence over physicality, insofar as the blueprint is interested in being the guide to internals). However, a blueprint can be An Exploded Car, and vice-versa, and The Exploded Car is not strictly blueprint, diagnostic, nor plan, but something more eerie, something else. While The Exploded Car does expose what it intends to represent as a pure object, it is more interested in the exposition of these components and exploded bits than the prescriptive status that is its pretense.

The Exploded Car is interested in the process of exposition as rendered by emulated action or movement.

The "falsehood" of The Exploded Car does not take away the pleasure of that exposition it represents. It is a myth about the nature of internality, and it is about the glory of exposition as an act beyond what real experience or even other representation would allow. It concerns sights that by definition cannot be seen by eyes. It becomes an aesthetic act, taking glory purely in that form which is obscured. The Exploded Car is, in its glorification of exposition as a process (and as a kind of movement), interested in an economy of appearance and disappearance, related specifically to the topology of the diagram's effects. It is not related by positions of objects in space, but rather, as Joanna Newsom quips, “The space of their gone-ness” (Newsom). Obscurity is not a physical property, not something you can touch, but it is a mode related to a kind of existence. In that action of The Exploded Car, devices are obscured, or, obscurity is lifted conspicuously, as the space between the parts is increased by the explosion–as internalities are made external to thing itself. Systems of objects become alien to the collections they were wards of before. This new space we have—both literal and symbolic—lets us lay out components in entirely new arrangements. If we looked under our “actual” hood, it would all be packed in there, but not here! The act of exposition here is never just about mechanical aid, but a commentary on things and the process of taking things apart, both literally and symbolically. It is one with the unfurling of meaning, the uncovering that occurs in analysis. Like textual reading, listening to machines is an act of discover and uncovering. This action delights in thing-ness, in the demarkation of things in their distinct objectification. Everything has its pieces, right down to the atom, and each must be revealed. Things are opaque and that opaqueness is our machine; it is the veil that must be removed.

All things must be opened up.

2.    The Ornament and a New Formal Relation

As Sigfried Kracauer says in The Mass Ornament, “The ornament resembles aerial photographs of landscapes and cities in that it does not emerge out of the interior of the given conditions, but rather appears above them.” This ornament is not something exterior to its parts or subsidiaries, but rather a way of describing a practically topographical relation. It lays out all subsidiaries in space. The components are there, but for all intents and purposes appear as a new thing under a distinctly unique view, and more importantly, become aligned. The Exploded Car makes individual parts conspicuous, makes them available in different capacities than in other views. Furthermore, it makes this idea of parts themselves visible: the explosion creates room to run a full inventory on all internals, and these internals are meticulously listed and named.

The view that The Exploded Car provides reminds me of the “geoglyphs”: massive drawings in the Peruvian sand made by the ancient Nasca people, visible only from the air, to which they had no access (UNESCO.org). At lengths of as much as 600 feet, some of the drawings are so large that they are unnoticeable as coherent figures on the ground. Now, with Google Maps, anyone can access the view once reserved for the gods with great ease. At the time they were made, the geoglyph’s makers’ only view would have been vague geological features, landscaping, if anything: accessible through another way of seeing. Features with no discernible alignment or relationship gain new meaning in this new angle of display; as we ascend above the ground, individual lines in the sand coalesce into a figure of an animal (astounding!). The parts enter a new alignment, an alignment a world away from the car itself: we are opening up the car, taking out the parts, and subjecting them to something new. And while The Exploded Car is in no way the thing that it illustrates, it is by nature specifically about the materiality of that object, and by nature of its separation from material things does it explore their materiality. It is illustrating a material thing, not something more abstract or ethereal; it is not similar to a metaphorical relation, for instance.

Gilles Deleuze presents an idea of the visible in his work Foucault to talk about ways in which the artifact appears. The Visible is not really a literal sight, or even a representation, but it is a post-semiotic idea that resonates on a different level than linguistics (this is not to say that it is “more illuminating”, or that it is a stand-in for actual truth or actual visions). Deleuze’s use of a visual metaphor in order to convey the appearance of objects in Michele Foucault's work (and by extension, representation) has several important ramifications. For Foucault, analysis occurs as a specific and symbolic event, and that event transpires as a becoming visible. Deleuze uses this idea to go beyond semiology to talk about the representational quality that form has, which is beyond language (and yet is unveiled through language). As Paul Virilio remarks in Eye Lust, what can be seen, or what can be made visible, has important ontological significance, and the act of “seeing” is seen as a stand-in for “revealing” (a wholly different, and symbolic act) (Virilio). Visibility is not just related to the eye, but to the illumination of objects which needs no organ to be verified, in the sense that illumination can be imagined as an act of God, of truth. Illumination is an act of great rapture. Its signification is that of a “grand unveiling”, but this is not entirely what Deleuze is saying, as he speaks about shades of illumination, or states in between obscurity and illumination. Machines, too, seem distinctly related here: many are specifically related to uncovering, seeing, or becoming. Deleuze claims machines are not necessarily optical in nature, but “an assembly of organs and functions that makes something visible and conspicuous” . He cites Foucault’s panopticon, the machine-prison (a machine whose effect is visibility) which makes prisoners (and, by extension: the state of being a prisoner, or in this case, discipline) conspicuous. Illumination is not just a matter of lighting up, or in having a Eureka! Moment, but it is “…not immediately seen. Visibilities are not forms of objects, nor even forms that would show up under light, but rather forms of luminosity which are created by the light itself and allow a thing or object to exist only as a flash, sparkle, or shimmer.” Deleuze obviously does not believe in the pure forms of things (shades of visiblity, not pure illumination), and this is part of the problematic of illumination and obscurity: its object is never fully revealed. The appearance of the illuminated thing is the result of an effect that is alien to it.

The Exploded Car is the machine that renders distinct objects in unequal visual amounts.

3.    The Emulation of Movement

The Exploded Car in the car manual has explosion as a symbolic and illustrative movement which renders that car in a new relation. New iterations of The Exploded Car (CAD drawingsCAT scans) have as part of their function the emulation of movement and the creation of dynamic diagrams, which, instead of archive, model. They have the ability to emulate movement on a much different level. CAT scans often render information on screens as “slices;” a certain style of exposition, certainly an internality, an exposition of human components. The result is a parsing of the “whole”, the human brain, for instance, into cross-sections, and is a two dimensional representation of the scanning process - a process both temporal and three dimensional.

Similarly are illustrations which project into this new temporal dimension. The cut-away and the “slice” are examples of illustrative movement, just as the exploded car wants to explode off the page. David Rokeby’s installation Long Wave, installed in the Allen Lambert Galleria in Toronto in 2009 (homepage.mac.com/davidrokeby), is an example of an emulation of movement[3], one which brings figures into new relations depending on the position of the viewer. In Rokeby’s own words:

It is a 380 foot long, 60 foot high sculpture tracing a helix through the entire length of the galleria. The helix is constructed from 63 large red spheres hanging from the Santiago Calatrava designed arches of the galleria, rising from just above visitors' heads right up to the vaults of the ceiling. "long wave" is a materialization of a radio wave, a normally invisible, but constantly present feature of environment. It represents the length of a radio wave in the short-wave radio band, in between the sizes of AM and FM radio waves. (ibid)

Long Wave is not visible in its overall form when one is standing directly underneath, or even at a high vantage point on the other side of the mall. The wave forms as you walk along, underneath in relation to the length of the piece, just as radio waves themselves are only visible as distinct shapes when the viewing area is increased or decreased on an oscilloscope or monitor. The Long Wave is only available when it is plotted over time, and appropriately over time: a movie could not be produced by a single frame, nor would it appear the same way if the reel was run twice as fast. So, it must be in time, and in a new space: just as aerial photography is for the mass ornament. The materialization of an invisible wave is not just an exposition, but similar to The Exploded Car, it is a fantasy: it plays with that materialization, with the literal obscurity of radio waves, which somehow appear when rendered as data on a car radio or monitoring equipment: technology and representation.

4.    A New Visible World

Even in standardized technical drawings (though they often explode), there is the amplification of fiction, that bending of realism that illustration allows[4], in order to manifest assemblages of machines. Specifications include "impossible" angles–auxiliary views, similar exploded views, internal views impossible for a human viewer (although perhaps for the x-ray), small parts made impossibly detailed, large parts scaled down. Just as the standardizing system in machining created a new visible world, a new scale of articulation, such does The Exploded Car create a new world of visibility, a new mode of representation that changes our relation to machines. Interestingly enough, the object of technical drawings in fabrication is the completeness in articulation: all surfaces and features are given distinct values and aspects. Truth appears through fantasy: as the character of Rose says in James Cameron’s Titanic, “...there is truth, without logic…” She is speaking of Picasso, himself interested in intensely on the visible.

Stephen Biesty’s Cross-Sections (a long series of books encompassing the artist’s career) is a perfect example of The Exploded Car, and the diagram as a device for the production of visible things. One of particular interest is Stephen Biesty's Man-of-War, a historical overview of a British Man-of-War in the Age of Sail for children. Each page is a separate “slice” of an British warship, and each separate slice advances us one “division” into the ship: The mess hall, the sailmaker, the magazine. It advances us divisionally through the subjects of the Britsh Navy: the admiral, the captain, the powder-monkey, the draftee. It advances us in narrative: one page is labeled “Leisure and Supplies,” and we see sailors drunkenly getting tattoos or killing rats with a hammer. A particularly unsettling page is “Battle Stations,” where multiple cannonball-induced shrapnel explosions impale the hapless crew, and in the next cut-away we see the ship’s medical officer amputating sailors’ limbs (but not before liberally prescribing liquor as an anesthetic). Here, the illustrated movement is synonymous with the unccovering of knowledge, the literal peek inside, and the advancing of the plot of the book.

The act of revealing goes past the literature which illustrates the symbology of the act. Matthew Crawford ends his introduction to Shopclass as Soulcraft with the following phrase: “The cover is cracked. It is time to rip it off, look directly at the inner workings, and begin to fix things for ourselves.”. He is not speaking about a literal engine casing; it is the end of his prologue, and the beginning of his book and thesis. The “cracking” is the opening of his book. There is no doubt that he, like Foucault, saw no difference between the engine cover and the cover of a book. Deleuze, in Foucault, urges us continually to open up Foucault’s work, just as Foucault opened up the archives. Foucault was ultimately opening up the technique of discourse, observing the practice of psychoanalysis and concentration of psychiatric information, as being no different from the product testing in the factory. The effect of the analysis at the archives was (as Deleuze argues in Foucault) an exaltation of power out of obscurity. Inside the object of the factory or the clinic were the internal mechanisms which channeled and exercised power, and these were exploded in things like The Birth of the Clinic or Discipline and Punish. But Foucault and Deleuze are only two figures among many who are interested in uncovering; and uncovering is a broad act in no means isolated in “theory.” Ultimately, the mechanic and the handyman were always analytical figures.

In the end, people who attempt to use The Exploded Car must weigh its benefits. When we fix an automobile, are we not defined by our difference in abilities from the factory that made the machine? The machine is rusty, dented: it reflects the terrain it has trekked across and the locations it has frequented. We mechanics are not the (imaginary) army of Japanese robots that stamped these hatch doors, milled these aluminum pedals. As engineer Henry Petroski says, machines are defined by how they do not work. Our meager tools are inadequate, minimal, jury-rigged, the replacement parts third-party or as old as the car itself. Repair, fabrication: we never truly replicate any diagram that could exist, but must find a “third way.” Function and form are ultimately in the eye of the beholder; which is not necessarily to say they are subjective, but relative.

Just as representations of the mechanical that I have listed are steeped in topologies of disappearance, so has the form of the mechanical disappeared and rematerialized; systems of objects have worlds of their own, languages of their own. Mechanical watches and skeleton watches are no exception. The technology of mechanical watches is particularly old, and yet fascinating and advanced–the sustaining of precise forces over long periods of time in a tiny package. While Georg Simmel may be right that the ideological advancement of the pocket watch (as the parser of labor time) was a function of the industrial revolution (and moreover, a tool of temporal organization representing the era), the machine of the clock is much older. Early seventeenth century mechanical clocks were famously inaccurate, and were more generalized mechanical spectacles. And yet, something about the spectacle of that machine was worth the trouble (and it seemed not to be tied to actually using the clock!). Then again, I have a smart-phone which gives me “exact time”, so I guess I do not really use my wristwatches either.

Regulating and converting the force of a wound spring to that of a watch movement is extremely fascinating, totally a spectacle in and of itself.  So-called “skeleton” watches make a play on this, usually with the subtraction of the dial face, or the addition of a transparent one, allowing a peek into the works of the movement. Recently, I encountered an interesting advertisement for skeleton watches in the Skymall Catalogue. The advertisement touted the machine as an “old art”, but more importantly, as a spectacular and complex one. Although skeleton watches are an old idea, as the advertisement suggests, they are still popular; and their advertising is based on the spectacle of mechanical movements. The complexity of a mechanical watch has, perhaps like the steel bicycle, become an impractical machine reserved only for luxurious conspicuous consumption. The only mechanical wrist watches being made today are by the major European luxury manufacturers, for whom the mechanical watch seems to signify traditional methods of fabrication, and therefore old nobility. But why a mechanical watch in Skymall magazine, now, in 2011?

Donald Norman says of “complex machines”:

Some of my students did a study of office copying machines. They discovered that the most expensive, most feature-laden machines were best sellers among law firms. Did the firms need the extra features of the machines? No. It turns out that they liked to put them in the front offices where clients were waiting—impressive machines, with flashing lights and pretty displays. The firm gained an aura of being modern and up to date, capable of dealing with the rigors of modern high technology. The fact that the machines were too complex to be mastered by most of the people in the firms was irrelevant: the copiers did not even have to be used—appearance alone did the job. Ah, yes, the worshipping of false images, in this case, by the customers.

Norman is talking primarily about a fetishization of complexity[8], which is very much tied to the consumer image of the contemporary skeleton watch, and indeed, clockwork things for all time. There are mechanical things which, as complex organisms, or as automated organisms, inspire awe and elicit a spectacle. It is not surprising that Pierre Jaquet-Droz, creator and exhibitor of the Musical Lady, a popular harpsichord-playing automaton of the mid-18th century, is also the father and trademark of one of Switzerland's oldest clockmakers. This idea of complexity is very closely linked to the illustration or naming of material internal parts. This is an ideology which understands the internals of things as being immensely complex: parts, interlocking in obscure ways, made of alloys, made of molecules, made of atoms. The more we illustrate, the more we analyze, the more we actually increase obscurity. When the encompassing methodology is to expose things as componentized in elaborate detail, we realize that the act of opening up is infinite: we must continually delve deeper, seeking more precise definitions and smaller pieces. This is not to say that illustration does not illuminate or provide frameworks of reference—they produce fictions.

The quartz watch, as an improvement, followed design considerations you might imagine, such as the reduction of moving parts (prone to mechanical failure and disrepair) and the introduction of simpler, elctromechanical ones. The quartz watch’s movement is hardly even a “movement” anymore, compared to the complex running gear, jewels, and brass gears of another time. Mechanical movements are exactly that, a spectacle of movement, of mechanical properties of jewels, brass, steel, all seamlessly combined. Guido Mocafico’s book of photography Movement exposes slices of Swiss luxury watch movements, in high detail: an “Exploded Watch” (just as the skeleton does, and it needs no close-up shots or disassembly). And it is the mechanical aspect of the skeleton watch that gives it its spectacular feel–not simply that aesthetic, but its literal movement. The transparent dial makes visible the mysterious internals–indeed, the skeleton watch would rather give us a glimpse inside than give us a dial we can read. As a spectacular event, it suggests that we are witnessing something special and hereto unknown.

The mysticism of the car mechanic analyst–she who “unpacks,” “opens up”; it is a pleasure we enjoy witnessing and coveting personally. We feel privileged to that knowledge, as we are privileged to partake in the mysterious internals. We are the sharers of the light, the mechanics of obscurity. It is an aesthetic of exposition, and aesthetic of complexity. This particular watch, however, clings to the spectacle of its unveiling in a nostalgic way. It is made overly complicated in form and extravagant in its mechanical aspects for the sake of exposition itself: the exposition is not a pure one, but mediated. This is not to say that it is inefficient. In fact, it is very efficient at what it does. The bourgeois tchotchke-ism that created the watch's aesthetic values a certain type of conspicuousness above all else. And along with the exposed clockwork, signifying another time and another visible machine, so are nostalgic and historic modes of labor exposed. We buy the skeleton watch to briefly forget the status of the commodity in late capitalism, while at the same time ironically fulfilling its mission and full status. The watch is deliberately a traditional thing–look at the glory of our mechanical past! So the mechanical becomes an aesthetic in its own right, not bound to design constraints, or even the history of the fabrication of skeleton watches even, nor “use value” (that tarnished and problematic Marxian adage). It is something else.

The skeleton watch is not really the sum of the working parts it needs to exist; it is the sum of its expositions, like acts in a play, succeeding slices of a CAT scan: timely explosions of that Exploded Car. In this way, the mechanical is the physical production of the act of appearance or the potential for appearance; as I said, it functions within an economy of obscurity. The mechanical is a transferral, amplification, or direction of forces in a way that provides a window into the works. The mechanical does not always have to be a literally mechanical thing, just the same as how it does not have to even be a thing. It is an idea. It is the exposition of a machine aesthetic, a machine visibility. The construction of the mechanical, today, is a conscious act, one in which the individual principles of “aesthetics,” “utility,” “form” and “function” cannot be extricated from each other. It is one with The Exploded Car.