The Grid Book by Hannah G. Higgins

by David Banash

16 April 2009

cover art

The Grid Book

Hannah B. Higgins

(MIT Press)

When we think about them at all, grids seem forbidding, claustrophobic, the antithesis of spontaneity and pleasure. Grids seem to be all about the rules, be they the rules of the game, the corporation, the school, or the city. Lines make the grid, and their intersections form cells: the very unit of a prison.

Rosalind Krauss, probably the most influential critic of those austere grid-paintings by Piet Mondrian and Agnes Martin, finds in them “no echoes of footsteps in empty rooms, no scream of birds across open skies, no rush of distant water—for the grid has collapsed the spatiality of nature onto the bounded surface of a purely cultural object.”

For Krauss, the grid is the mythic form of modernism, incarnating its desire to overwrite the vagaries of the natural world with the projection of absolute, inhuman reason. In large part, Hannah B. Higgins works to complicate such interpretations of the grid, for in them she does not find sterility and silence but an undulating net of desires, concepts, and possibilities that animate and structure every aspect of our lives.

Venturing far beyond the confines of Art History, Higgins traces the grid from its origins in agriculture and urbanism of 9000 BCE to the developing architectures of digital computers. Indeed, a complete list of the grids she uncovers would mean nothing less than offering a full index of her book, which would include everything from the Code of Hammurabi to meditations on mail-order catalogs and fractal geometry. In the introduction she lays out the overwhelming scope of this project:

This book tells the story of the evolution of each grid from the handmade brick through the ethereal Internet in the language of a generalist so that the provisional history laid out here is accessible across many fields. In this narrative, the Paleolithic brick of ancient Mesopotamia, the first grid module, is rolled into a slab and stacked to make buildings and cities.

These city grids in turn are projected onto the landscape as maps and coordinate systems whose measure suggests the measure of time that is foundational for musical composition. The “looking through” of map projections suggest, by various turns, moveable type, and, when peeled up as a screen, the rudiments of Renaissance space and photography and the evolution of the Newtonian universe. With the invention of movable type and modern mechanics, grids could be mass produced, effectively becoming a universal space.

This universal space takes the form of the modernist boxes of architecture and painting alike, which then melt away into the ether of the Internet’s World Wide Web.

This ambition is breathtaking but deftly handled, as Higgins metaphorically detaches the grid off a brick wall, throws it down on city streets, plucks it up into a stave, stretches it into a screen, a net, and finally the web. Though it sounds as if this project would be endless, in fact the book comprises ten intimate and compelling essays, written with a light and playful touch.

Indeed, given the vast research that went into this book Higgins deserves high marks for not including a weighty academic apparatus, minimizing quotation and citation, opting for a truly essayistic style that gracefully formulates years of research into page-turning, provocative prose that concentrates its intellectual force.

Higgins begins with an account of that most gridded, modernist city, Chicago. The myth is that its hodgepodge streets and cow-sheds were burned in the great fire of 1871, making way for its reconstitution in a regular, modern gridiron, those straight streets supporting the implacable grids of modern skyscrapers: the triumph of reason pushed beyond all human scale.

The most exciting parts of Higgins’ book come as she complicates the story. She reminds us that Chicago’s streets were already a grid, its homes and barns and pasture lots already at right angles. Modernity emphasized and externalized that ur-form that has been there all along.

The ur-form is, of course, the grid itself, and Higgins finds it first in the humble brick. The first chapter on the brick is the most compelling in the book, with surprising moments of lyrical formulation. Modernist grids of steel, glass, or abstract painting have defined the form as alienated and cold.

The ancient brick is the stuff of domesticity, hearth, family, and fire. As she writes, the module of our earliest grid “begins in the flesh of the hand; the hand is the agent of its incarnations, the instrument of its personality.” Made of mud and straw, the brick is the very stuff of earth and flesh:

In the Babylonian creation myth, God turned men out like bricks from clay molds. It was men who built bricks into walls. The first grid, the brick wall easily evokes associations with the human body. The wall of handmade, hand-moulded clay brick, which is any clay wall made before the 19th Century, has a rich and varied surface texture, like skin.

These ancient brick grids built the cities of Mesopotamia. Time and conquest shattered these grids, which where then rebuilt, one atop another, over centuries, one grid after another.

As she traces this rich history, she reveals how the grid is the very story of civilization: “If the brick is the elemental self-portrait of the human species in this account, rubble is the unofficial portrait of a shattered civilization.”

This is a grid of life, and one that seems fully human in its scale, most unlike modernist skyscrapers, though they both share a deep structure, but their affect is utterly different: “The much vaunted ‘warmth’ of brick walls comes from their relationship to their makers—a human warmth that is added to the real warmth of fired bricks.” The unforgiving grid begins to look much more varied and surprisingly intertwined in our everyday lives.

Much of the book follows the mainlines of media history. Readers of Marshall McLuhan and Friedrich Kittler will feel on familiar ground as Higgins traces the grid in the technologies of writing and visual representation that begin with the ancient tablet, develop into moveable type, maps, optical perspective, and finally transform into communications networks of the 19th and 20th centuries.

By concentrating on the form of the grid, she suggests a deeper continuity in these developments, giving her a conceptually solid ground to tell this story in a remarkably unified way. Indeed, the grid allows for a story far more concise and immediate than McLuhan’s shifting literary sands, though it is certainly indebted to him.

Throughout, Higgins is at pains to emphasize that the rigidity of the grid undergrids practices that feel more organic, binding together the expression of culture rather than suppressing life. Writing about rise of scared texts and standardized, alphabetic grids that would much later become modern books, she observes that: “We should not infer from this, however, that regularity would render the language ‘dead’ for those who read it ... remember that grids are brought to life in their use.” This point is made throughout the book, letting us see that some of our most pleasurable activities as cultures and individuals—reading, seeing, traveling, singing—are all played out on the field of the grid.

The most delightful moments in the book are Higgins’ asides, observations, and multiple connections that exceed the strict themes of each chapter. For instance, in chapter six, devoted to the ledger, she writes: “Indeed, it would not be inaccurate to observe that the chained together form of the grid is common to both perspective images and ledgers and that both at least at this foundational time, suggested ways in which the entire world could be conceived in homogeneous and interrelated terms. In perspective, space is homogeneous. In ledger, capital is. The implications are vast.”

Frustratingly, Higgins often does leave it to the reader to work out those larger implications. Nonetheless, we learn that both Shakespeare and Marx were obsessed with the balance sheet, and that its early incarnations made the personal computing revolution happen. She presents to us the cardboard box as “a many-sided portrait of modernity,” and explains how the fabrication, assembly, and shipping of the Barbie doll is made possible by the grids of cardboard boxes stacked in shipping containers and caught up in the grids of shipping networks and corporate distribution networks.

The kindergarten pedagogy of Freidrich Froebel’s gridded tables and geometric shapes is connected to modernist architecture and painting, demanding as it did that Frank Lloyd Wright and Piet Mondrain “incorporate all the embodying and embodied geometries into their world view.” In the final chapters of the book, the seemingly ubiquitous grid is radically resituated with cutting edge geometry: “Fractal scaling means that the grid in general, like nature, in perceptible only as the result of a relationship between the object and the observer.” That most seemingly cultural product, the grid, is thus returned speculatively to the deepest structures of nature.

Given that The Grid Book is a meditation on media, representation, and technology, its heavy, glossy pages, elegant design elements, and generous black-and-white illustrations and reproductions of brick making, walls, ancient tablets, monuments, corporate offices, factories, old master paintings, city plans, skyscrapers, looms, IBM punch cards, illuminated manuscripts, and concrete poetry make for a deeply textured and luxurious reading experience, and the images knit together, amplify, and concretize the essays. Its form a fitting match for the intellectual ambition.

The Grid Book


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