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The Illogic of Straight Lines

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

After much introspection and discussion with Anne, I'm totally revamping this blog. Refractions is now a space for me to muse on the connections and interactions between ideas I encounter in the broader world of ideas, especially academic works, and Pagan ideas, themes, and practices, playing with the ways each contribute to or change the vision of the other, refracting these ideas through multiple lenses. For this re-inaugural post, I start with a simple observation: my car's GPS has trouble finding the shortest routes through Washington DC. When I started thinking about this in the context of ideas about humans and computers, it turns out that this is a refraction in microcosm of something important Paganism has to say about the macrocosm and our need for the natural world.

I coined a name for my observation: the illogic of straight lines. The programming of my little device seems to be stubbornly convinced that because a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, a straight road must be the fastest path as well. DC abounds with straight roads, thanks to its extensive planning, starting with L'Enfant's plan for the city layout. This physical manifestation of Enlightenment rationality relied on a grid of streets interpenetrated by major diagonal avenues which should, in theory, provide excellent access to any location. My GPS, nicknamed Betty, certainly buys into this theory. Time after time, it will insist on sending me down miles and miles of roads constantly interrupted by streetlights and traffic circles, which make the "expected arrival" times anywhere from laughably optimistic to just wildly inaccurate.

In the case of DC streets, the mismatch between theory and practice creates some alternatives. The theoretical street grid is built on top of a non-manmade landscape which doesn't always go in straight lines. In fact, in nature, truly straight lines are incredibly difficult to find. In some parts of the city, a mostly-level topography with few insurmountable interruptions makes the grid neat and dependable, much like the checkerboard pattern of easily-surveyed lands in the Midwest. In other areas, the environment could be made to accommodate the vision of ruler-wielding surveyors, as testified by former wetlands that now support urban densities. But some things were too much to deal with, especially Rock Creek. Now there's a beautiful parkway which follows the meandering path of the creek, providing drivers with a view of mostly-natural surroundings that seem worlds away from the nearby grids and highrises.

Rock Creek Parkway isn't just prettier, though: it's faster. Sure, the speed limits aren't any higher than the grid roads - and in some areas they're lower! - but it tends to have a constant flow of traffic movement. The parkway is incorporated into the grid with sporadic connecting-points, but these mostly take the form of ramps back to the fickleness of the lights, letting the road imitate the more consistent flow of the waterway it follows. After a few years of learning these alternate ways, I now defy my GPS, pointing my car towards Rock Creek Parkway or the GW Parkway along the banks of the Potomac, while Betty frantically recalculates, desperately trying to get me back onto stop-and-go streets.

I don't know how quickly someone in L'Enfant's day could navigate the city's streets by horse or in a carriage, but I suspect that the hyper-rationality of the original grid fell prey to changes in the very technology it was trying to accommodate. I also suspect that Rock Creek Parkway gets a little less traffic precisely because it is less logical; whether people or machines are looking at the map, it's a bit less predictable. If you miss the turn-off that you needed to get back to the grid, you can't just go around the block to get back there; you'll have to go a lot further and run the risk of being much later. Regardless of the reasons, in its own way the seeming illogic of this meandering, low-speed, indirect road has become more efficient than the predictable, carefully-planned and gridded alternative.

The role this green space plays with respect to the rest of the city reminded me of how Paul N. Edwards describes the difference between the "closed world" and the "green world" in his book, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America. Edwards writes about the interaction between machines and mentalities in the Cold War, when "computers and the political imagination reciprocally extended, restricted, and otherwise transformed each other." (Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World (Cambridge: MIT Press) 1996, 7) He explains the title by saying, "As metaphors, [Cold War computer] systems constituted a dome of global technological oversight, a closed world, within which every every event was interpreted as part of a titanic struggle between the superpowers." (Edwards, 1.)

In a way, the street grid of DC and the navigation information and software I use - which relies on a quintessentially Cold War technology, the GPS system - are part of a discourse about travel. Betty's insistence on returning me to the grid reveals that although they were created centuries apart, they rest on shared assumptions about what creates the greatest efficiency in transportation, but those assumptions don't prove true in the real world. Hemmed in by these assumptions about efficiency, the device is prevented from achieving that very goal. When I circumvent the artificially-imposed boundaries and assumptions, going back to the less-predictable, less-planned spaces where nature insistently weaves her erratic embroidery through the interstices of the tightly-regulated warp and weft of the grid, I find a better solution.

Edwards explains that he drew the term "closed world" from literary critic Sherman Hawkins:  "A 'closed world' is a radically bounded scene of conflict , an inescapably self-referential space where every thought, word, and action is ultimately directed back toward a central struggle. Turned inexorably inward, without frontiers or escape, a closed world threatens to annihilate itself, to implode." (Edwards, 12) In contrast, "The alternative to the closed world is not an open world but what Northrop Frye called the 'green world.' The green world is an un-bounded natural setting such as a forest, meadow, or glade. Action moves in an uninhibited flow between natural, urban, and other locations and centers around magical natural forces - mystical powers, animals, or natural cataclysms (e.g., A Midsummer Night's Dream). Green-world drama thematizes the restoration of community and cosmic order through the transcendence of rationality, authority, convention, and technology. Its archetypal form is the quest, in which characters struggle to integrate (rather than overcome) the world's complexity and multiplicity." (Edwards, 13)

Notice the important contrasts there: no world is entirely open, but the "green" spaces, which are less ordered and bounded by human planning and control, have more options and opportunities. They are home to the unexpected, to the non-human, and hence are the abode of magic. The "complexity and multiplicity" there can be "transcended" rather than "overcome." That idea of transcendence, with inherent transformation, echoes the idea of alchemical synthesis and transformation.

One of the great gifts Paganism has to offer the world is the restoring the value, in our own minds and hearts, of green space. Not just physical green space, but this kind of metaphysical green space, a green world, which we desperately need. Taken to extremes, many forms of rationality will turn inwards on themselves until they become self-defeating and even self-destructive, threatening the very safety of the creators ensconced inside the structures they thought would protect them from uncertainty. Sealing ourselves away intellectually is inherently dangerous; we have to live with some openings, and we have to go back to the boundaries to refresh ourselves with the green world. It offers us wonder and whimsy - was that a noble stag stepping through the misty glen, or a bumbling buffoon with the head of an ass? It offers us alternatives we never would have dreamed of. It offers us a way forward.

We need the green world, both literally and metaphorically, because no matter how many straight lines we draw on a map, life doesn't always follow the paths laid out for it.

Note on comments: None of this has to do with whether Masonic symbols played a role in DC's design. Please take those conversations elsewhere; comments solely on that topic will be deleted.

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Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on the history of magic with the support of her husband and four cats. Please note that all opinions expressed here are Literata's alone and do not reflect the positions of any organization with which she is affiliated.


  • Editor B
    Editor B Thursday, 25 October 2012

    True wisdom here. Thanks for this.

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