Monday, July 14, 2008

L’Hôtel des Spheres

Johann Dieter Wassmann, L’HÔTEL DES SPHERES, 1896.

At this point in the proceedings, I thought it apropos to make a slight digression from our current discussion of Daniel Birnbaum’s 50 Moons of Saturn (for reasons that will become apparent post-haste), looking for a moment at one of Johann Dieter Wassmann’s most charming and enigmatic works, L’Hôtel des Spheres.

Completed in 1896, the work’s origins can be traced to a place and time some 20 years earlier – 1876 – the year Johann commenced his teaching post at the University of Leipzig. Among his students was a Moravian named Edmund Husserl, who from the start impressed this young lecturer with his grasp of the notion of the subjectivity of experience. Husserl was studying astronomy in Leipzig, while also attending classes in mathematics, physics and philosophy, thus sharing many of Johann’s interests. Two years later, Husserl moved on to the University of Berlin, studying with Karl Weierstrass. Johann would not hear of him again until 1891, with the publication of Husserl’s THE PHILOSOPHY OF ARITHMETIC, the first step on his meteoric rise as the father of 20th century phenomenology. Here Husserl provided an account of number as a categorial or formal feature of the objective world, with arithmetic as a symbolic technique for mastering the infinite field of numbers for knowledge. Or more specifically, it provided explanation of how formalized systems of symbols work in providing access to our world. Husserl put forward that “number is a multiplicity of unities,” with multiplicity defined as the “collective connection” of, for example, “something and something and something etc.”

L’Hôtel des Spheres was Johann’s playful homage to his former student’s early achievement. Here the “collective connection” becomes the containment of individual units – individual spheres – within a single unity, which Johann coyly describes in French as “l’hôtel”. What were once non-descript toy balls transform with age to return in a state of suspended “otherness” when housed with like, but different kind.

Some hundred years later – 1998 – we witness the publication of Daniel Birnbaum’s widely-read doctoral dissertation, THE HOSPITALITY OF PRESENCE, a study of the concept of otherness in Husserl’s writing. Several years on still, at a symposium in Amsterdam, Prof. Dr. Birnbaum gave a lecture he called Time and Trauma, in which he explained, “When I worked on Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, I was particularly interested in the concepts of alterity and otherness.”

What goes around, comes around and around and around and around.

50 Moons of Saturn
Curator: Daniel Birnbaum
Torino Triennale
6 November 2008 – 1 February 2009

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