Nebula Rasa: Exploring the Diaphanous, #2.

Mr Nemo
5 min readMar 18, 2024

By Otto Paans

“Diaphanous” (2024) (Author, AI-generated via Freepik.com)

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

1. Introduction

2. Two Suggestions about the Diaphanous

3. Historical Background

4. Cognitivism and Creativity: A Concise Overview

5. From Cognitivism to Propensity

6. The Work at Work, or, the Effective Present

7. The Diaphanous as Generative Stimulus

8. Conclusion

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This essay was previously published in a slightly different form as (Paans, 2024a), except for the Introduction, which was written specifically for APP.

It will be published here in eight installments; this is the second.

But you can also download and read or share a .pdf of the complete text of the essay, including the REFERENCES, by scrolling to the bottom of the post and clicking on the Download tab.

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2. Two Suggestions about the Diaphanous

Not every design idea starts with a flash of insight or a clear-cut notion. Often, articulating an idea is painstaking work, subject to many dead ends and frustrating episodes of stagnation. Discarded sketches and scribbles — often on top of one another on a single sheet of paper — can be found in design studios throughout the world. So much so, that this feature has generated considerable academic attention within design theory literature. Correspondingly, the so-called “image sciences” (Bildwissenschaften) have steadily developed, signaling a philosophical shift away from text and towards visual media (Bredekamp, 2015; Krämer, 2016; Alloa, 2021). In particular, image sciences elucidate (i) the generative role of aesthetic experience in creative processes, and (ii) identify relationships between various modes of representation, media and creative pathways.

Against the background of that context, I would like to make two suggestions regarding the phenomenology of images, in particular those that play generative roles in architectural design processes.

My first suggestion is that the generative agency of these images derives from their diaphaneity. Diaphaneity is the visual characteristic of being indistinct, blurry, nebulous, open, vague, or ambiguous. I will suggest that diaphanous images possess a dimensionality that extends well beyond them actually being two- or three-dimensional images and that turns them into effective creative operators.

My second suggestion advances one step further and examines the diaphanous as a generative stimulus in its own right, and not just as a particular property of an image. To formulate this as a statement: to achieve progress in a creative design process, a degree of diaphaneity is essential to their generative efficacy.

Figure 1. Three examples of the visual characteristic of diaphaneity. (A) the indistinct, blurry line of two cloud formations; (B) the translucence of the glass partially obfuscates the figures behind it; © the reflection of the window replicates the view, visually overlaying it on the surface and suggesting additional depth. Photographs by author.

Therefore, I explore the diaphanous as a nebula rasa — a nebulous realm of open and suggestive representation that is not reducible to either axiomatic understanding or Cartesian geometry or to two-dimensional representation on a neutral plane — the tabula rasa.[i] I aim to present and defend the claim that in the diaphanous as visual characteristic (point 1) and as generative stimulus (point 2) resides an underexplored theoretical concept that accounts for creative development, and that we have to understand it on its own terms.

This essay provides a theoretical perspective on the diaphanous as generative stimulus. It does so in a synoptic manner, discussing selected sources on architectural sketching and illustrating the influence of the diaphanous in architectural design. The generative characteristics of the diaphanous as driver of architectural design are explored by engaging with architectural theory (notably the so-called “phenomenological approach”), recent and classic accounts of creativity, and with selected works of the French sinologist and philosopher François Jullien on the concepts of the “effective present” and “propensity.” The examples shown and discussed here should therefore be understood as thematic examples rather than targeted research results that would allow for generalizing the conclusions of this article across the entire domain of sketch-driven architectural design. This essay provides the preliminary (theoretical) foundations for further investigating the diaphanous with precision, so a relatively well-circumscribed initial definition is required. To that end, I’ll present a concise historical overview of how the notion developed and relate it to architectural theory. The concluding section provides suggestions on how the role and influence of the diaphanous could be investigated in a systematic study and outlines some repercussions of the diaphanous on architectural design.

First, I discuss some historical background of the notion of the diaphanous, even if this account is meant only to introduce a key distinction between cognitivist and agentive paradigms that I use throughout this essay, and which I introduce in the third section. Second, following the presentation of this distinction, I turn to the role of the diaphanous as visual characteristic in architectural design processes. Third, this exposition is followed by a discussion of Jullien’s concept of the “effective present.” Fourth and finally, I explore the diaphanous considered as generative stimulus.

NOTE

[i] Aristotle discussed the concept of the tabula rasa (“empty plane”) in De Anima, just like the concept of the diaphanous. While Aristotle’s discussion takes place in the context of formulating a theory of mind — or, more precisely, the mind as an empty surface to be inscribed — it would later be interpreted as the plane on which ideas are inscribed by reason (logos).

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.