Nebula Rasa: Exploring the Diaphanous, #7.

Mr Nemo
13 min readJun 3, 2024

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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 seventh and final installment.

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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7. The Diaphanous as Generative Stimulus

Summarizing so far, in the diaphanous, relations and ideas spring up. They seemingly foreground themselves as the eye ranges over the surface. Even in the moment when the pen touches the paper, the new already emerges. Between the body and the efficacy of the drawing occurs an active entanglement that touches on the potentials residing in an idea. But even if the eye repeatedly scans the drawing surface, the image and eye are not the same as on the first occasion. Freed from the process of ceaseless determination (and therefore fixing) by the logos, the diaphanous literally renders new ideas and associations visible.

The movement of springing-up is not the same as the Derridean notion of différance, whereby the ultimate meaning of a drawing is ultimately postponed and closure never arrives (Derrida, 1982, 2011: p. 71). Instead, there are multiple openings-up and settlings-down at work, and the issue of closure or ultimate meaning is once again an attempt to determine and fix the generative process that occurs in a drawing. A better way of thinking about such processes is to embrace the instability and experiential richness of the diaphanous, accepting the occurrence of singular events, unexpected combinations, and unforeseen turns in the road.

Creation in design processes requires indeterminacy. In the diaphanous, we witness a process of becoming-form (Formwerden) and form-fading (Formvergehen) that continuously unfolds. When Palmboom discussed forms that “shine through,” he did not just state a fact about the visual properties of architectural drawings but indicated what makes the effective present truly effective. These are the relations and elements that present themselves in the diaphanous zone between determinacy and indeterminacy, causing the movements of “settling and springing-up,” as well as foregrounding and gradually unfolding.

To unfold, then, means to be involved in a process of becoming-form and form-fading in which non-determinacy is utilized in ways that are not merely differential or divergent. We are not speaking of unconstrained elation, but of a developmental, sedimental process in which some elements and relations “sink” and others “float.” The creative process organizes its contents without the pressing need to freeze, to fix, and to determine. Taking the freedom to let things run their course, it lets them sediment into coherent and surprising structures.

This requires a methodology or regimen of openness, a nebula rasa. Openness is not just the absence of constraints, but a visual organization in which alternatives spring up, ideas crystallize, and relations settle down. In a nebula rasa, the designer engages in a fine-grained, ever-shifting geography of creative possibilities. It is constituted by temporal stabilities and modalities of being-present, such as foregrounding, self-presenting and self-suggesting, or even being-promising. By engaging with the diaphanous space in all its concreteness, and by fully embracing this shifting presence on “face value,” logos loosens its determinative hold, and the representational contents acquire an agency of their own.

We can now rework the Aristotelian notion with which we started. The diaphanous enables indeed a form of visibility, not just because it is a visual characteristic, but because it is a generative stimulus that directs its own development. As Aristotle argued, the diaphanous is a mediating phenomenon: it is not a void, nor is it ossified in determinations and fixed, rigid notions and concepts. It is the medium through which representations are viewed, while it suffuses them, without being an entity itself. When the propensity that is characteristic of the diaphanous inhabits drawings, its presence there turns it into an aesthetic potential that drives architectural design processes. The virtual space afforded by the diaphanous represents a domain in which (half-formed) concepts and notions shade into the foreground or fade into the background, mingling with non-conceptual contents and affects to produce a range of aesthetic effects that surpass deliberative reasoning, but that stimulate concept-blending and emotive, associative thought (Fauconnier and Turner, 2002; Taura and Nagai, 2013) — and above all what Jullien called shi — the presence of efficacy.

The generative impetus of diaphaneity resides in the fact that it avoids all-too-quick determinations and categorizations, creating material-perceptual conditions under which new relations can be perceived. The diaphanous is a visual environment in which fuzziness, vagueness, and blurriness, the oblique, the opaque, the nebulous, and the suggestion of an additional dimensionality, all productively conspire together. By suggesting a different (hypothetical) order of things, an order made visible without being fully determined, the diaphanous drawing creates an effective, organic regime of visibility that inspires and generates new options and configurations.

Such visual representations are continuously in play, both content-wise and through the medium in which they present themselves. As Emmanuel Alloa argues, the medium contains an inherent instability:

[T]he irreconcilability of the image-carrier and image-appearance–in covering each other, the two can never coincide–expresses, once more the lack of a specific place granted to images within a traditional ontology of objects. (…) Images are singular because of their intrinsic tension between facticity and unreality, which does not resolve in a unity and always already veer from a classical logic of identity. (Alloa, 2021: p. 193)

In this medial surplus resides the potential for efficacy. The surface of the drawing is no longer a neutral surface on which marks or traces are inscribed, but becomes a figure-ground playground, a topos in which relations dynamically form, settle and spring up. The Greek logos framed the drawing surface as a tabula rasa, or empty surface on which marks are made in order to determine and fix a creative concept or idea.[1] By sharp contrast, Chinese thought and recent phenomenology conceive of the surface as a nebula rasa: a representational space of diaphanous indistinction in which a creative play unfolds. In this space, the diaphanous exerts its generative impetus, turning the nebula rasa into a non-geographical, layered space in which relations, possibilities and constellations emerge, morph and fade.

The differential and sedimentary play of visual properties and allusions makes the present continually effective. That is, it constitutes its inner life that, as Jullien puts it, represents “perpetual, soaring flight.”

8. Conclusion

The cognitivist paradigm in many cases relies too heavily on the visual representation as a carrier of information. But if we combine insights from the phenomenological approach and the agentive paradigm, the notion of the diaphanous suggests a different account of architectural drawing. This does not imply that all drawings in an architectural design process should be diaphanous. Indeed, there is a case to be made that precise, technical drawings tap into a very different aspect of our creative capabilities (see also Ursprung, 2016. With this in mind, we should raise the question of how to utilize the potentials of different types of drawing throughout architectural design processes? These processes could take place in a professional as well as a non-professional educational context.

One suggestion is to foster visual literacy, in the sense that practitioners should actively practice producing drawings that cover the full range of architectural expression, from the precise to the allusive. Especially in a time where digital technology affords the possibility to rapidly create countless variations, the phenomenological side of the design process become extremely important. The idea that technical competence can replace the existential, lived side of architectural design is prevalent, but learning to “love uncertainty” may balance these digital designing and lived experience.

As I’ve argued, drawing is not just a skill to communicate ideas or information. It is also a fully developed way of thinking-through-making that is unique for many design disciplines. As such, acquiring a degree of visual literacy is a prerequisite for learning to think well through visual representation. As the heuristic side of design processes can be relatively easily digitized, the skill to critically discern which design options make sense, which potentials are worth developing further and which questions are addressed can all be trained through engaging with diaphanous representations.

The hypothesis that could be raised here is that practitioners who grow accustomed to work with diaphanous media will be more at ease and more attuned to the ceaseless play of options, and correspondingly more comfortable with the absence of clear, settled information. Moreover, an auxiliary hypothesis that could be raised is that training the skill to work with the diaphanous activates the recognition of different patterns and relationships. The sense of openness that permeates all creative endeavors becomes the standard modus operandi in the diaphanous. Therefore, it would be quite easy to test whether a group of participants working with conventional media, and a group working with diaphanous media, actually develop different styles of cognition, association, and perception and ultimately designing.

I’ll make a concluding suggestion concerning the notion of “sedimentation.” As both Frascari and McKinnon remarked, the creative process is distributed in time. There are episodes of creation and novelty, as well as episodes of detachment and revisiting old ideas. Put differently: things “spring up” and “settle.” The visual realm of the diaphanous can be revisited again and again: it can be “taken into possession” once the need for (further) exploring ideas makes itself felt. Time and “letting things settle” is a prerequisite for deepening and developing design ideas. Just like producing ideas, so too letting them rest can also be thought of as a skill and can also be taught as such. Learning to revisit the diaphanous and letting the “effective present” exert its formative influence on design thinking is part of developing visual literacy and effective creative thinking alike. What is needed is to embrace the efficacy of the drawing, navigating its openness and fostering the willingness to be changed by it.

NOTE

[i] In image theory — following up on the linguistic work on iterativity and tracing by Derrida — the idea of tracing has been worked out in different directions to blend the conceptual frameworks of linguistics and visual arts, e.g., by Hans-Jörg Rheinberger in his philosophy of science and in Sybille Krämer’s work on tracing and performativity. However, as I’ve argued, the origin of this philosophical approach can readily be traced back to the Greek logos.

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Mr Nemo

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