Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Bagdad, 1000: The Origin of the Pixel"

I have been looking at a recent book by Laura U. Marks, Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art.  Chapter seven is entitled "Bagdad, 1000: The Origin of the Pixel".  Did the pixel really originate in Bagdad around the year 1000?  Well, no.

From about the eighth century to the thirteenth the Islamic world was the place to be: the arts, the sciences and philosophy flourished in a manner not matched in the Christian West.  The West indeed learnt from the Islamic world: "algebra", "alkali" and "sugar" are Arabic words, as are the names of some of the prominent Northern hemisphere stars such as Algol and Betelgeuse.  One of the first mathematics books printed with movable type was Euclid's Elements (Venice 1482); the text was in Latin, translated from the Arabic, as a Greek text did not become available in Western Europe until after 1500.  The contribution of the Islamic world to Western civilisation has been under-appreciated, and attempts are now being made to better recognise this contribution.  Enfoldment and Infinity is a very well-informed addition to this discussion.

Marks's book compares two bodies of art, Islamic art and new media art, especially that based on computer algorithms; she calls both "aniconic": the perceptible image is not the most important part of the art.  Islam generally prohibited the use of images of people or animals in religious contexts; in some places (though by no means everywhere) the prohibition was extended to secular works as well.  An extraordinary aniconic art arose as a consequence, based on calligraphy, geometric forms and plant motifs, incidentally giving us the word "arabesque".  Marks's book makes numerous and striking comparisons between Islamic art and art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including cinema and new media art.

How does the history of the pixel come into this?  In Chapter seven, Marks discusses two constructs in Islamic art and philosophy that might relate to the pixel.  One is an architectural technique based on the repetition of a single cell-like form and used to construct remarkable domes.  The other is an atomistic philosophy holding that the created universe consists of indivisible atoms, developed in the ninth century by philosophers known as the Mu'tazila.  At least one writer conceived of these atoms as square or cubical.  But this tells us nothing about the genealogy of the pixel, and Marks does not make any historical link between these developments in the Islamic world and the pixel as we now have it.  Nor does she discuss a much more obvious predecessor of the pixel, the mosaic tile.

So, let's make up another origin of the pixel.  A fundamental property of a pixel in a raster display is that it is addressable: I can specify a pixel with a notation like (2, 21), meaning a pixel that is two along in the horizontal direction and 21 down in the vertical direction.  Iannis Xenakis considered coordinate geometry to be a gift from music to mathematics: on a musical staff time is measured horizontally and pitch vertically.  Furthermore in Western musical notation both pitch and time are discrete; time is measured in multiples of some small unit (the semibreve in older music) and pitch in semitones.  I can specify both coordinates with a phrase like "the G (or, the note on the second line of the staff) on the first beat of bar 17".  So we have a two-dimensional addressable array of discrete entities.  I conclude that the pixel originated in Western musical notation of the thirteenth century.  Except that it didn't.  (And I don't think there is an Islamic link here.  Some Western musical instruments derived from Islamic sources, but the notation is indigenous to the West.)

In fairness, Marks warns us that her genealogies may be fictitious.  In the first chapter she says "I exploit ... unsought connections perversely, to behave as if there were a historical continuity where at times there is not".  Indeed she tells us that Islamic atomistic philosophy was not transmitted to the West.  She goes on to say: "if someone puts down this book believing that the Mu'tazila atomists invented the pixel ... that is fine by me".  A strange attitude for a scholar and teacher, but one that is necessary to bear in mind while engaging with the book; and it is an engaging book.

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