Lost in Space, Episode 2: The One About Progress or What’s in a Line (On a Line? Is It Even a Line?)?

“How shall man measure Progress where the dark-faced Josie lies? How many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat? How hard a thing is life to the lowly, and yet how human and real! And all this life and love and strife and failure, — is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush of some faint-dawning day?” ~ W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

At the behest of Professor Lytton Smith we rove around Welles 216 like pinballs, attempting to consciously consider the space and our mosey about it in the context of the concept of line. We circle around one another, around desks, a few circle around the desk at the front (The back? The north? The whiteboard-side? In any sense, it is an area generally designated as the professor’s space when class is in session), some change direction, and someone exits the room and strolls down the hallway and back.  In both this session and another that Professor Smith leads later in the semester, he focuses us on line (in line!). Lines in poems, lines in maps, lines in prints, in paintings, in drawings, lines in code, lines in roads, lines in paths. It was fascinating (at least to me) to dive deep into the spatial connotations that the concept of lines brought to these many various contexts.

Sometime later, Professor Levy, of the Philosophy department, bisects the room with an imaginary line and steps along the line, from one side of the room to another, commenting that Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox states that movement is impossible; in order to reach any one end-point you must complete an infinite number of tasks in order to reach this point — to get across the room he must first get halfway across the room; to get halfway across the room he must first get a quarter of the way; to get a quarter of a way he must first get an eighth, to get an eighth, first a sixteenth, and a thirty-second, and a sixty-fourth, ad infinitum. The number of tasks that must be first accomplished in order to get across the room are so infinite that it basically becomes impossible to move from the original location in the first place.  To move forward is, in Zeno’s theory, impossible. And yet, Professor Levy points out as he walks back and forth along his line, we do it anyway — thus, a paradox. In the context of this paradox and in the context of W.E.B. Du Bois’ thoughts on progress in “Of the Meaning of Progress,” from The Souls of Black Folk, Professor Levy asks us to consider whether progress — social progress, educational progress, personal progress — is possible.  Can we truly move forward? Or are there such an endless number of steps to be undertaken that we will never truly be able to free ourselves from our starting point, our “point zero?”

In my first “Lost in Space” post, I explored the many ways in which individual conceptions of our own spaces are deeply shaped by social and structural influences and the effects of these conceptions upon our ability to communicate and relate our own perceptions of the world to one another.  As Professor Levy’s discussion continued, I began to think of progress in terms of our spatial conceptions and spatial applications to the word. After all, when we think of progress do we not think of that endless march forward (the one seen the prints shown to us by Professor Cope; the one seen in John Gast’s famous 1867 painting American Progress), onward into the unknown, but better, future? Our perception of progress — to return to a previous blog post, the concept which is signified by the word “progress” — is linear.  Just search “progress” on Google images (or whatever search engine you use) and look at the asymptote-like lines meant to signify progress as they move onward and upward.  I began to wonder about this linearity and its effects upon our perception of progress and, thus, its effects on how we choose to enact progress.

In Professor Nicodemi’s (of the Math department) lesson on perspective, she led us through a graphing exercise wherein we created a polygon that when viewed from the right perspective, from the right angle and distance, became a cube.  Through this exercise, we were to understand that while the graph — the canvas, the representation of reality which we were creating — was two-dimensional, that is, operating on x- (horizontal) and y- (vertical) axes, the reality which we were representing or imitating (signifying?) through our graphed pseudo-cubes was actually operating on (at least) three axes: the x-axis, the y-axis, and the z-axis (depth).  Reality, is, in fact, composed of at least four dimensions, with the fourth being time and the “at least” being another six dimensions which, in theory, reconcile the theory of relativity with quantum physics — these I do not entirely understand and, thus, will not make any attempt to explain here. A line — that which we perceive progress to be — connects two points, possesses no height or depth and composes the x-axis, the first dimension.  Thus, while all other dimensions are predicated upon the line, the line exists only in one dimension — and while a line, when on a graph can be graphed along the y-axis (as a curve, an asymptote, a vertical line), and can represent time, a line does not function within depth and height and time, cannot be reality.  What does this then say about our conception of progress as a line, as a movement forward or backward along the x-axis?

My thought is that our understanding of progress (and thus our actions undertaken to promote progress) is limited by our spatial conception of it.  If we conceive of progress as solely linear, solely one-dimensional, this ignores the reality that progress occurs within. Progress operates within a four-dimensional reality and should be understood — and represented — in this context. After all, progress occurs in all directions — as Du Bois touches upon in his writings, what is progress for some can be a reversal for others (the progress of the Southern economy being continually based upon the oppression and exploitation of African Americans);progress can arise and then turn in upon itself; progress can occur in certain spaces — certain cities, countries, populations, even in certain policies, certain areas of the economy, certain bureaucracies.

Looking to the definition of progress, we find this spatial conception within the definition of the word in terms of movement; however, in terms of improvement and development there is less focus on this spatial conception and more focus upon the term “better.”

Progress (noun): 1. a royal journey marked by pomp and pageant; a state procession; 2. a forward or onward movement (as to an objective or to a goal); 3. gradual betterment, especially: the progressive development of humankind;

Progress (verb): 1. to move forward; 2. to develop to a higher, better, or more advanced stage

Representations of progress — while often occurring in two-dimensional representation — can assist in this alteration of our conception of progress.  Take, for example, Steve Prince’s work, primarily Flambeau (which I addressed in the previous Episode of this post) and Urban Mixtape.  Flambeau, in its reversal of the expected direction of progress, in its spiraling circularity (wherein it seems that the progression of humans and horsemen may potentially return back to its place of origin, or may continue to spiral in upon itself), represents a different, new conception of progression. Urban Mixtape, in its mixture of artistic forms and genres and its cross-canvas progressions — that is, the music emanates in one direction, and the forms emanate in the other (thus, both emanations are reflecting a type of progress, different types of progress occurring in different genres, different directions, different forms) — reflects the myriad of forms that progress can take.  

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