Nebula Rasa: Exploring the Diaphanous, #6.

Mr Nemo
7 min readMay 27, 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 seven installments; this is the sixth.

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

Apart from the concepts discussed previously, how can we think of diaphaneity as generative stimulus in its own right? I propose that we turn to the work of the French sinologist and philosopher François Jullien, who compared Western (Greek) and Eastern (Chinese) thinking, and acutely analyzed the “blind spots” of Western thinking in conceptualizing the notion of transformation. One of the topics that Jullien analyzed at length is the theme of “efficacy,” or “inherent activity” implied throughout various areas of Chinese thought.

Let’s start with an idea that does not fit into the cognitivist paradigm: the dialectic interplay between “springing up” and “settling.” As Frascari emphasized, architectural ideas have to settle gradually, thereby “sedimenting” themselves. Jullien provides an alternative formulation of this idea. Visual representations that are open and seemingly unfinished are not determined completely. Not every element in them is finished, unambiguous, or clearly demarcated. As such, the representation remains “at work.” In doing so, it invites new readings and stimulates thinking. As Jullien argues, new elements “spring up” out of the drawing. Those elements that “settle” are determined for the time being:

[T]his fundamental fact … [is] that the determination (any determination) grasps what is settled and not the springing up; that the definition is situated downstream rather than upstream, in a state of flatness that is sterile and not fecund. (Jullien, 2016: p. 49)

So, (Greek) logos or deliberative reason can grasp only what is determined. In cognitivist terms, it reads representational contents as informational contents. But many representations are not just vehicles for transmitting information. By definition, information is already settled — it is circumscribed and determined. Once it is determined a flatness enters. The suggested depth disappears, and its stimulating potential fades.

Instead, many representations in architectural design processes are best understood in a generative sense (Jullien, 2016: p. 48). They constitute an “effective present.” That is, their presence renders creative thought effective in the here and now. Rather than transmitting informational contents, such architectural drawings drive the development of an idea. Their generative characteristic is due to elements that “spring up” and that evade the determinations of logos, as for example in the following drawing:

Figure 3. Visual filtering effect of sketch paper in the diaphanous effect of semi-transparent paper (left of the dotted line), combined with black lining and the original image (right of the dotted line). The play of elements and suggested “depth” creates an “effective present.” Drawing by author.

This explains why some architectural sketches have such an expressive and creative appeal: their unfinishedness keeps them effective. They keep exerting tangible generative effects, allowing the designer to dwell in the ideas that they suggest. But the more one finishes and refines, the more the sketch becomes settled, losing the critical edge of its generative power (Jullien, 2012: p. 60). Its incompleteness causes its efficacy:

In revealing to us the power of incompletion (or by revealing that plenitude is not completion), the sketch makes us feel the infinite richness of the indefinite, or the fecundity of the beyond and of possibility — in short, what we ordinarily understand as the powers of the virtual. (Jullien, 2012: p. 61).

The “indefinite” is the operative realm of the diaphanous: the domain of (visual) suggestion and springing-up as opposed to the domain of settling down and defining. Every sketch that is an “effective present” is suffused with diaphaneity. Its openness forms an integral part of its visual texture. While the cognitivist paradigm viewed representations as the endpoint of a determinative process, Jullien emphasizes the fact that “availability” or space for development is the most effective moment in the creative process (Jullien, 2012: pp. 69–70). Only once a designer realizes how much can still be changed, accomplished and how many possibilities are still waiting to be worked out, can the creative process unfold and open up again.

Through diaphaneity, visual elements like texture, border and volume coalesce into new configurations — worlds of fluidity and availability rather than fixation and definition. In this openness, half-visible in the margin of suggestion, resides its developmental potential. The diaphanous is the opposite of definition: it is nichtfestgelegtheit (not-being-defined) as a constitutive condition (List, 2009: pp. 319–332; Forster, 2019: pp. 126–127). The diaphanous opens out into new aesthetic domains staging the “impossible ontological encounter” previously mentioned. The fact that not every element is determined, or that multiple readings are possible, creates opportunities to revisit familiar ideas in a new setting, thereby making them literally appear strange and novel again.

That brings us to the issue of form. What then, should be drawn? Should we make only vague drawings that suggest ideas rather than representations meant to developing them? This question is justified, but also deeply cognitivist — it wishes to return to the process of determination, as it fears insecurity and ambiguity. As Jullien notes, the Aristotelian tradition saw form as the end result of a developmental process (telos). The Chinese line of thinking turns this thought upside down. It views the sketch as a locus of forces and vectors, rather than a depiction or illustration. If a sketch is viewed in this manner, it follows that the dots, lines, planes, and scribbles possess a certain propensity, or agency of their own. Indeed, that is what renders them effective (Jullien, 2016: p. 50). The sketch is no longer a neutral surface, but an in-between space of openness and architectural creation (Kuch, 2019).

The art of sketching centers around evolving from one property of the drawing to the other, freely navigating the new, diaphanous space that emerges between the elements. Jullien speaks here of a “divergence that is provoked” within the work. Each new line extends the play of forces and the architectural design process in its entirety (Jullien, 2016: 74). The diaphanous creates divergencies in the form of new possibilities, foregrounding certain elements while our blurring others out. There is an inherent, organic dynamic at work in this process, a play of forces that involves our embodied cognition as much as our interpretive capabilities.

The skill of organizing this dynamic constitutes the craftsmanship of architectural design. Jullien emphasizes the importance of shi (efficacy) in this process. Not every scribble or sketch drives the design process forward or creates fruitful thinking. Discipline and exercise are required to draw well and to imbue sketches with an affective force that makes them truly come alive:

[I]t is shi that “gives life” and that makes the slightest dot or stroke vibrate, as if we were reliving the moment of its execution. Shi always enhances what would be mere empty representation without it, for shi gives depth to a representation and exceeds its concrete limitations by revealing within the actualized static form, a dimension of perpetual, soaring flight. (Jullien, 1999: p. 78)

Once more, the Chinese line of thinking subverts the cognitivist paradigm, and simultaneously extends and supplements the phenomenological approach. If drawings are seen as static carriers of information, their empirical content is what makes them useful or valid. By contrast, if drawings are regarded as active catalysts in a thinking process, their “concrete limitations” are not important: instead, it is far more important how they unleash the process of “perpetual soaring flight” or intense creativity. The property of nichtfestgelegtheit is that which urges on forward, inviting growth and change.

To create an “effective present,” a drawing needs to be shot through with diaphaneity, that nebulous property which stimulates the creative dynamic which Immanuel Kant so aptly called the “free play of the imagination” (Kant, 1790/1997: p. 102, Ak 5: 217). This rhythmic process is distinctly organic and defies notions of efficiency in mechanistic terms. Here, then, we encounter a core idea that should be regarded as central for any organicist theory of aesthetics: the notion that images are processual entities that entangle with human imagination. The ensuing play underlies creativity and even grounds heuristics thought. But above all, it exists on its own terms, and cannot be reduced to mechanist models for the sake of explanation.

An organicist theory of aesthetics fully involves embodied capacities and subconscious as well as self-conscious modes of thinking and experiencing that entangle with the real world, in this case as presented by the image or the topos that it affords.

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Mr Nemo

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