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Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art__by Laura U

Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art

by Laura U. Marks
The MIT Press, Cambridge, London, USA, UK, 2010
3952 pp., illus. 140 b/w, 31 col. Trade, $37.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-01421-2.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


If I had to use one word to describe this book, it would have to be fascinating. It is a courageous Westerner who analyses and writes about Islamic art and culture itself, but to draw parallels with new media art and develop a sophisticated aesthetic philosophy of these connections shows a fearless and confident scholar. As she writes: "I intend to use classical Islamic thought to discuss new media art as if it were the most natural thing in the world. If someone puts down this book believing that the Mu'tazila atomists invented the pixel or that the concept of artificial life originates with the carpet weavers in the sixteenth-century Caucasus, that is fine with me" (p. 26).

Enfoldment and Infinity is a fast paced, scholarly tour de force. Mark's depth of understanding of Islamic culture and the various philosophies that historically have been used to produce its art - including poetry, architecture, utensil decoration, music and of course carpets - is quite profound. Perhaps more than any other religion, an understanding of the political influences involved is as important as understanding the various scriptures and their interpretations. Marks considers these factors and describes clearly how and why the various forms of Islamic art were created the way they were. She argues "that new media art, considered Western, has an important genealogy in the aesthetics, philosophy, and science of classical Islam" (p. 149).

The book has a centre, colour plate section together with numerous black & white illustrations. As Marks mentions herself, the photographs cannot do justice to the texture and relief features of carpets and the domed ceilings of mosques. There are ten chapters, followed by an extensive Notes section and an excellent Index. The chapters are as follows:

1 - Getting Things Unfolded
2 - Islamic Aesthetics and New Media Art: Points of Contact
3 - The Haptic Transfer and the Travels of the Abstract Line, Part I
4 - The Haptic Transfer and the Travels of the Abstract Line, Part II
5 - The Haptic Transfer and the Travels of the Abstract Line, Part III
6 - Baghdad, 830: Birth of the Algorithm
7 - Baghdad, 1000: Origin of the Pixel
8 - Cairo, 972: Ancestor of the Morph
9 - Herat, 1487: Early Virtual Reality
10 - Karabagh, 1700: Seeds of Artificial Life

Chapter 1 is basically an introduction and description of the approach taken in the following chapters. Chapter 2 proposes several properties that are common to Islamic art, regardless of its historical period, and contemporary abstract and new media art. Chapters 3 - 5 follow the westward travels of Islamic aesthetics, from the twelfth to twentieth centuries. Chapter 4 argues that by the nineteenth century, the subjective states that accompany Islamic art had without doubt begun to manifest in Western art and popular culture. Chapter 5 suggests that Islamic aesthetics subtly informed the aesthetics of aniconism and algorithmicity in the cybernetics of the 1950s and 1960s. This chapter ponders whether networks are the haptic space of our age. Chapter 6 proposes a historical parallel to new media in art of the Sunni world from the tenth and eleventh centuries that privileged geometric forms. Chapter 7 is mainly devoted to atomism, a brief and fascinating movement in ninth-century Iraq, which holds that the world consists of accident and fluctuation, changing at God's command. Chapter 8 looks at calligraphy whereby letters and words start to look like bodies. While chapter 7 shows that in some contexts the point or pixel is thought to be the inner limit of thought chapter 9 examines the infinitesimal dimension - the idea that the smallest point has an inside. Chapter 10 explores that unfolding is like life itself. This chapter is devoted to another fascinating commonality between new media art and much Islamic art: qualities of nonorganic life, self-organization, or autopoesis (pp. 33 - 35).

Marks covers a huge amount of ground with this book and as such leaves her self open at times to criticism for inadequate support for her occasional "throw away" statements. As an example her brief discussion of feminist perceptions on page 145 seems trite to me and her assertion that, "Craft, in Western contexts almost always considered feminine..." is simply incorrect. Surely, the crafts of the silversmith, blacksmith, potter, cooper and so on were all male dominated. This is a minor criticism and does not detract from the importance and depth of scholarship of the overall study.

I am surprised that Marks does not consider fractals and associated Chaos Theory in far more detail. There are a few short references throughout the book to fractals, however, given that the main subject concerns - enfoldment, immanent infinity, aniconism and the expansion from the point to infinity - I think a chapter itself devoted to an analysis and comparison of fractals (a purely new media phenomenon, not realisable without computers) would add depth to her thesis of the connection of new media art with Islamic art. Perhaps this and a far more detailed discussion concerning quantum theory, especially, field theory and the zero-point field could form the basis of further investigation.

Because of its wide scope, this book will appeal to a fairly wide range of scholars, especially critical theorists, art historians, new media artists and clearly, those interested in metaphysics.

Last Updated 1 December 2010

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