Scoring the winning touchdown. Volunteering for blood drives or building houses. What you learned about poverty on your $9,000 trip to Africa.
These are a few topics on independent consultant Arun Ponnusamy’s list of what not to write about in your college application essay. (A few more: Don't write about mom and dad's divorce, and no general philosophizing—you're 17, get over yourself.) Admissions season is under way, and with early applications deadlines starting November 1, you've only got a few more days to polish your make-or-break essay. Straight As and stellar SAT scores won't be enough. In a year where 10 brilliant kids are vying for every one slot at your average Ivy League school (yes, that statistic is accurate), the personal essay has become a tipping point that can turn a deferral into an acceptance letter.
So The Daily Beast tracked down seven college admissions essays that did work—seven essays that helped get the kids who wrote them into one of the country's top schools. The essays were slipped to us by college professors, high-school guidance counselors, independent admissions consultants, and even staffers at student newspapers. For confidentiality reasons, admissions officers can't talk about these essays expressly, so we chose essays that demonstrate the most salient principles to abide by when writing them. (Scroll down to read the essays, unedited and in full.)
You'll need the help: Competition at these schools is fiercer than ever. For every kid who’s hung prayer flags on a mountain summit in Tibet, there are a dozen others who’ve studied a Bantu language in Rwanda, worked with Guatemalan orphans, cooked with a celebrity chef, or been on reality TV. "To be honest," says Ponnusamy, "if you're thinking about the most selective of schools in the country and the most interesting thing in your life is your parents' divorce, you're not going to get in anyway.”
But even if your life hasn't been filled with experiences worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, you can salvage an essay about a ho-hum subject by having a novelist's eye for detail. For Greg Roberts, the admissions dean at University of Virginia, one of the most memorable essays he read was about a single at-bat in a high-school baseball game. The applicant wasn’t the star of the team, Roberts remembers, and didn’t even like playing baseball much. “But he talked about being nervous and excited at the same time, about how the freshly cut grass reminded him of his grandfather,” Roberts says. “I just felt like I knew him.”
Roberts worries that students tend to be too conservative with essays and are afraid to take risks. “There are no wrong answers here, and the last thing you want is a dry or boring essay,” he says. “We have 22,000 applications, so it’s easy to blend into the crowd.”
• Kathleen Kingsbury: The Best College Food• Kathleen Kingsbury: How to Choose a College RoommateThis year that may mean students want to reconsider before giving their take on the recent financial meltdown or the national health-care debate. At California’s Pomona College, the admissions staff anticipates an influx of essays on the economy, similar to what they saw post-September 11, 2001, when nearly half the applications essays dealt with the terrorist attacks.
“But it’s a different story if you watched the towers collapse from science class at [New York City’s] Stuyvesant High School than if you live on a farm in Iowa,” Pomona’s admissions dean Bruce Poch says. “Families are going through hell right now, and it’s the very personal experiences that will resonate the most.” Then again, Poch adds, “Sympathy isn’t the only reason we let kids in.”
Despite what admissions guidebooks tell you, there's no surefire formula to the college essay. Poch confesses even a small error or two will not necessarily kill your chances of getting in—as long as it's not on purpose. "I once heard one [essay-writing] professional brag about slipping in mistakes to throw off admissions officers," he says. "That's just disgusting."
Rule #1: When Tackling a Global Issue, Make it Personal
Brown Freshman Nawal Traish could have chosen to write about U.S. relations with Libya or general unrest in the Muslim world. Instead, she speaks to her personal relationship with Libya, her father's homeland, and her own understanding of her Islamic faith. "It's a mistake for students to think that they have to come up with any deep or life-altering topic," says University of Virginia's Greg Roberts, who expects to read essays this year on Afghanistan, health care, and other hot political issues. Instead, Roberts advises, "It's OK to take on serious topics, but tell us how it relates directly back to you." ( Click here to read Nawal's essay.)
Rule #2: Show That You Have Some Perspective
Hallie Jordan knew not to pretend she'd had a hard-knock life with no options. If you're a white, middle-class kid, it never hurts to show that you realize how lucky you are—and that you sought out diversity. "I remember in the days after [Hurricane] Katrina, I had an otherwise thoughtful and engaged kid sitting across from me bemoaning how the kids in New Orleans were 'going to have awesome essays,'" says Ponnusamy. "This sense amongst upper-middle-class kids that 'nothing bad has ever happened to me' is always amusing. I don't care who it is, they all have 750 words of something compelling to say to an admissions officer." He adds, "They need to relax, think about what means a lot to them or gets them fired up, and then write about it." ( Click here to read Hallie's essay.)
Rule #3: Essays Succeed or Fail in the Details
The "hand-cranked" ice cream. The Richard Serra installation. The baby clothes she cut up and made into a quilt. The essay that got Isabel Polon into Yale swells with appealing and insightful details that show her meticulous nature. "If the essay mentions you going to dinner, I want to know what you were eating," says Ponnusamy. Adds UVA's Roberts: "A standout essay starts with good writing. Be as descriptive as possible about the moment you're writing—we want to see it, smell it, touch it." ( Click here to read Isabel's essay.)
Rule #4: Make Sure You're the Hero of the Story
By emphasizing her own personal challenges and then showing how she wouldn't allow them to subsume her, Hannah Edwards was able to make herself look good without bragging. "It's fine to talk about your dad being a coke fiend or your stint in rehab with your favorite WB crush," Ponnusamy says, "but unless you end up as the 'hero' in the essay, you will have done nothing to help you and it's the one place you're guaranteed to have the opportunity to speak in the first-person." ( Click here to read Hannah's essay.)
Rule #5: Make Your Intellectual Curiosity Clear
Rahul Kishore wanted Cornell to know how obsessively devoted he was to science, and his essay describes in great detail his fascination. "Talking about something meaningful can make you more likeable," says independent college consultant Stephen Friedfeld, "but it has to be executed to demonstrate your academic rigor." ( Click here to read Rahul's essay.)
Rule #6: Know Your Audience
Morgan Doff wasn't applying to a Christian school or one in an area that might take offensive to her lack of interest in religion, so she put it right out there on the page. "Students regularly conjure up who admissions officers are, what they look like and what they're interested in," says Pomona's Bruce Poch. "We purposely have a diverse staff with a variety of interests and backgrounds." That said, had Morgan been applying to, say, a school in the Deep South, she might have chosen her words more carefully. ( Click here to read Morgan's essay.)
Rule #7: Don't Be Afraid to Show You're Not Perfect
Abigail Hook was applying to Harvard—the one school you don't want to tilt your hand near. And yet she chose to write her essay about giving up on ballet, rather than persevering once she'd tired of it. "It's OK to let down your guard, not be safe and sanitized," says Poch. "It can allow us to relate to you as a real human being. ( Click here to read Abigail's essay.)
Nawal Traish Brown University Class of 2013
One glance out the window, where palm trees swayed as cars sped by, and I could have been at LAX. But when my gaze shifted to meet that of Muammar al Gadhafi behind his signature aviator sunglasses, I knew I was more than a few smoggy miles from Tinseltown. The larger-than-life portrait of the Libyan dictator sent chills down my spine, and I almost didn’t hear my older sister telling me to follow her through the customs line in her broken Arabic. Fumbling for a safety pin, I quickly converted my neck scarf into a traditional headscarf, unaware that my views on diversity would soon undergo a similar transformation as I assimilated into Libyan culture for two weeks.
It was my first time entering the country my father fled thirty years before due to political upheaval involving the man staring at me from the wall, and while I had met my paternal relatives as a child, I was apprehensive about doing so in their own country now that I had matured into a very American teenage girl. My siblings and I were raised as Muslims, but we adhere selectively to the various practices—fasting during Ramadan but not praying five times a day, attending the mosque but not covering our heads in public, and I sometimes feel guilty about wanting to handpick from both worlds—an American lifestyle but Islamic beliefs—because they are often seen as irreconcilable.
From the moment we touched down on Libyan sand, I saw that others didn’t have the same luxury of separating lifestyle from beliefs if they so wished. The call to prayer every morning at 4:30 left me sleep-deprived but more in awe at the homogeneity of the country’s devotion; the haunting Arabic wail penetrated the pre-dawn sky from minarets at every corner the same way McDonald’s jingles infiltrate American living rooms. The Mediterranean heat was oppressive under long-sleeve shirts and pants in early August, when I’m used to wearing shorts and T-shirts, but the fact that everyone else was donning the same conservative dress made me feel like I was part of something larger than myself and more important than the latest Pac-Sun fashions. However, as I constantly adjusted my head cover, I seriously questioned the rationale behind some of the cultural and religious practices I witnessed. I deeply admired the connection to their religion that my relatives showed, stopping to prostrate in prayer even at the beach, but also wondered whether the internal belief of five million Libyans could possibly be as parallel as their outward expressions of it.
Being in Libya impressed upon me that it is often such circumstantial, unchosen factors as place of birth that largely determine the paradigms by which we live our lives. As much as I enjoyed the exotic experience of being in North Africa and the not-so-exotic experience of reconnecting with my family, my time in Libya paradoxically strengthened the latter half of my Arab-American identity. I had taken for granted the fact that we are free to practice Islam the way we want here in the U.S. next to neighbors lighting menorahs and friends who are atheists, and upon my return to Boston I found myself immediately appreciating this diversity at a new level, starting with the group of strangers with whom we waited at baggage claim. We all shared frustration and eyes peeled for our suitcases, but fortunately, not much else. As I pursue my passions of philosophy and theology as an undergraduate, I will approach with a more open mind the vast array of angles from which people view the world now that I have experienced life in a country so different from the one I call home, yet one that has inevitably shaped my own perspectives as I’ve grown up.
Hallie Jordan Rice University Class of 2012
Standing on the second floor hall of my high school, I watch my fellow students swarm into the campus as the bell rings for the passing period. Leaning against the railing, observing, I reflect on how my life might be different had I chosen to attend a different high school. The scene below me feels like a little slice of the real world. A couple walks by and my ear quickly notices that they speak in Korean. I spot my Ethiopian friend Ike, almost dancing, as he moves through the crowd on the floor below me; his real name is so long no one can pronounce it. Later, my best friend will present me with some homemade Mexican Christmas ponche full of sugarcane to chew on. I reluctantly stop people watching and proceed to class. It always nice to stop and imagine all the different cultures and backgrounds can be found at my small school of barely 2,000 people. Everyone, I have realized, has their own distinct way of life defined by various situations from trying to succeed as a first generation immigrant to working to help their family make ends meet each month. There is nothing sheltered about Spring Woods High School.
Unlike many of my friends, I am a “privileged child.” I was born an American citizen. My parents have steady jobs. I live in a neighborhood zoned, if only barely, to a school called Memorial High School—the shiny, rich abundant school of the district. From my early childhood my parents had planned on me attending this high school, as supposedly it provides one of the best public school educations in Houston. At the end of 8th grade, a pivotal moment presented itself: I had to decide between the touted Memorial High School with all its benefits and clout or the “ghetto” Spring Woods where most of my closest friends were going. After much debate I finally settled on Spring Woods. Coming from a very small charter middle school, high school was rather shocking. I did not like it, and I blamed my unhappiness on my school—I thought I had made the “wrong decision.” At the beginning of the second semester, I choose to switch to the school I was supposed to go to—feeling that I would receive a “better” education.
On my first day I was astounded by the other kids. They all looked and acted alike. Almost all had the same clothing, hair styles, necklaces, flip-flops and backpacks with their names monographed on them. Nearly all of them also had iPods, this was almost four years ago when it was not so common to see iPods everywhere. I was amazed at how they treated their iPods so carelessly, when I have a friend who carefully saved her lunch money for months just to be able to buy one. Needless to say, she is very protective of it. Sitting in the cafeteria, I felt like I was back in fifth grade. Everyone brought nice neat little lunches, packet perfectly in expensive lunch boxes. Mothers stood at the lunch line selling cookies to raise money for various organizations, as stay at home moms they had nothing else to do with their time. Buying a school lunch, I found, was something only the “reject” kids did. I lasted only a week at this place. Suddenly I missed everything from Spring Woods, even its “ghetto” identity. I missed the teachers who taught about ideas instead of forcing us to merely memorize. I missed the general accepting feeling that comes from such a heterogeneous mixture of people. There are no “reject” kids at Spring Woods. I could now see that though.
Isabel Polon Yale Class of 2011
In kindergarten, I was the only kid who knew milk didn’t originate in the supermarket. This I attribute to my time at Emandal, a family-run farm that has opened its gates each summer since 1908 to those seeking an alternative vacation.
For the past 13 years my family has made the pilgrimage to Willits, California, to spend the second week of August at Emandal. What inspires a family to spend their hard-earned cash picking vegetables or milking cows while residing in prehistoric cabins without indoor plumbing? Well, only at Emandal can I husk corn at 5 p.m. to find it steaming on the dinner table at 6:30. Nowhere else do 13-year-old boys agree to square dance with their mothers or take the time to realize the solitude in knitting. It’s the only place where the national college debate champion enjoys the company of his oldest friend, a videogame-dependent junior college student who subsists on red meat, Coca-Cola and Red Vines. It’s where Berkeley yuppies and working class Oaklanders bake Snickerdoddles while discussing who’s gotten pregnant or divorced since last summer. At Emandal there are no social boundaries, no class distinctions. Any cabin’s the same as the one next-door.
It’s the satisfaction I came to associate with Emandal’s hands-on reality that inspired me to mark “agriculture” as my freshman PSAT preferred major. Following months of bombardment with pamphlets from Iowa State, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to “live off the land.” Without a local bookstore, Pad-Thai or a Richard Serra installation, my life would definitely be lacking some favored flourishes. But even in LA, Emandal has developed into a sort of Jiminy Cricket I interplay with daily. At Emandal, if there’s extra milk we drink hot chocolate. If fried chicken remains from dinner last night, you can count on it mysteriously resurfacing as Chicken Curry at lunch.
My boyfriend refers to me as “the doggy-bag-date.” I print rough drafts on the reverse side of harp music from last year’s winter concert. When my mother threatened to give away my baby clothes, I cut them up and made my sister a quilt for her birthday. Emandal’s compost lifestyle has caused me to realize creative forms of recycling beyond cans and cereal boxes, and embrace resourcefulness in every pursuit.
But the best part of Emandal is the food. With fresh bread at every meal, heirloom tomatoes the size of my head, hand-cranked ice cream over pie made from Emandal’s wild blackberries, no one refrains from unbuttoning their pants after dinner. But it’s the ideology behind the menu that makes it all the more appealing: the tangible connection with the food you eat. Long before the farmer’s market fad, my family went religiously each Saturday. We exchange CDs with Joel the carrot guy and the Japanese greens lady saves us the last bag of cucumbers. It’s a unique satisfaction and an exceedingly rare connection to be able to shake the hand of the person who grows your food, and in effect, “grew you”.
In my 13th year, when I had reached the stage where crucifixion was preferable to being seen with my parents, they asked whether I still wanted to go to Emandal. Thank goodness something inside of me was still smart enough to say yes. For it is there I have deduced what’s essential to harmonious living with our earth and all kinds of folks, erudition I can attribute only to Emandal.
Hannah Edwards UC-Berkeley Class of 2013
“Beautiful. B to the back, b to the back. So b first. beautiful. Next, it’s that French thing. Gosh ... Uea, no e … a … u. Eau. So beau. Beautiful. Ti. That’s easy. Beauti. Beautiful. Full. No not full: ful. They chop that l off, so b-eau-ti-ful.”
I’ve just spent 30 seconds agonizing over how to spell one of the more basic words in the English language and a good part of that time trying to remember how to write the letter b. That sequence is partially a flash back to a fourth grade spelling test, but honestly, it’s a thought process I will have to go through about a hundred times this year with equally basic words because I am, and always will be, dyslexic.
I have never been able to spell, but it wasn’t until 4th grade that I found out the, ironically hard to spell, word for my condition. When everyone did realize what was going on and why it was that I got Cs in spelling, I was packed off to resource room (i.e. Special Ed) to learn how to write pretty.
At first I liked it. Resource room gave me an excuse not to do well in spelling, and it let me spend class time doing silly spelling exercises. It let me avoid my problem and at the same time pretend I was doing something to correct it, but in all honesty it was just a waste of time. I didn’t want to recognize its futility at first, but eventually I couldn’t ignore it and had to come to terms with the fact that resource room was aspirin for a broken arm: It made things seem a bit better, but it did nothing to fix the problem. When I came to terms with this I convinced my mother to take me out of resource room and that I could take responsibility for my own problem, and that is exactly what I did, and have done ever since.
I was freed from resource room on the condition that I get A's on every other spelling test that year, which I did. Since then I have realized that I can never allow myself to live life in a metaphorical resource room. I must take accountability and responsibility for myself, and not accept special treatment where there is anyway I can avoid it. This philosophy was tested last year when I was signing up for the SAT.
My mother was handing over her credit card when she asked me if I thought extra time would be useful on the SAT.
“Well, yeah,” I said smiling as I took her credit card, “that essay is insane, 25 minutes makes for some nasty results.”
“Why don’t you apply to get some extra time? If it will help you should,” she suggested, “you’re eligible.”
“No. It’s an artificial compensation that would only last as long as schools are forced to provide it; the real world can’t make those kind of concessions so I can’t take that crutch.”
My mother offered no resistance to my stance and I typed in her AmEx number while I reflected on the implications of my denial. I have spent a lot of time agonizing over how to spell the simplest words, and I doubt anyone has quite attained my level of red underlines in a word document, but that just means checking the dictionary and an age spent poring over SpellCheck. I have never taken extra time or other benefits on standardized tests and I never will, because that is not how I want to succeed. I want to sink or swim on my own and not use water wings to get through the world. I don’t want to do well for someone with dyslexia; I want to do well period. At this point my inability to spell is more of a punchline to my friends’ jokes than a disability and I am determined to keep it that way, because I have worked too hard to let something so trivial in the grand scheme define me.
Rahul Kishore Cornell University Class of 2012
Complexity. Life is complex all the way down to the atomic level. Organ systems comprised of bits of tissue, formed by cells, made up of organelles, formed by carbon compounds. Throughout high school, I have been fascinated by the complexity of life. The relationships between micro organism and macro organism, and how nature, by trial and error, has created structures that allow us to hear, feel, and see.
My freshman biology teacher inspired me to think of the human body not simply as a single structure, but rather the mesh of different systems, working together to produce life. The human body, I realized, is beautiful in its complexity and cohesiveness. An organism was no longer just an animal, it was a complex machine comprised of millions of parts. I saw vivid pictures of organ systems neatly packed into organisms to meet their function.
I pursued my passion for science outside of textbooks. I shadowed the chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco, standing next to him as he performed a triple bypass. Most of the operating room was consumed by the heart and lung machine, a device designed to replace the body’s own heart and lungs during a surgery while both organs are temporarily shut down. The machine is infinitely larger than the actual organs, giving me a greater appreciation for how much each organ is expected to do. Since my experience in the operating room, I have volunteered at Stanford University Medical Center. During my first summer, a pathologist showed me a seemingly empty petri dish, swabbed it with a QTip and made a slide and put it under the microscope. The images I saw were amazing—thousands of microscopic organisms, moving together in large colonies. I realized that life could be as simple and small as a bacterium or as large and complex as a human being.
“Any Person, Any Study” is what I have been told by alumni from Cornell. The famous quote by Erza Cornell best describes the opportunities that Cornell provides. But for me, “Any Person, Any Study” means something very different. Cornell University has a long academic tradition of teaching the young and hopeful minds of a new generation the beauty of education. Cornell graduates question, they analyze, they comprehend.
Cornell for me is something more than just a university or an opportunity to further my understanding of Biology. Cornell is an opportunity to realize truths about the world, and about every field of learning. I see Cornell as a chance to expand the horizons of my thought, to think about the world as a bigger place, to think about its problems in a logical way, and see life as an opportunity to understand the world around us. A Cornell education provides a basis in many things, the ability to draw conclusions from Locke, Kant, or Smith, and use these ideas in conjunction with an in depth knowledge of one topic to excel in a field. Cornell will provide me the opportunity to understand Biology in an uncommon way. Cornell is a place to discover a new way of thinking, and also a place to find passion for a study. I want to learn about Biology beyond a textbook. I want to make those discoveries at Cornell.
Morgan Doff Reed College Class of 2010
“Morgan, say it slower and pronounce each word.”
I breathed deeply and began again. “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, / Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch, / If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you . . .”
When I was 6 years old, I had a slight speech impediment that made me far too shy to read aloud in front of my peers. My father immediately decided the only way for me to overcome my fear would be to practice reading out loud. Every day, my father and I sat together, and I read to him. After a few days of children’s books, my father—sick of listening to fairytales—gave me a book of poems. I read Kipling’s “If” over and over to him, and it become my favorite poem. I was incredibly grateful to him for not only helping me to overcome my fear of public reading but also for instilling in me a love of reading and words.
This love was consuming and when I was 12, I saw another child wearing a bracelet that read, “WWJD.” Excited, I asked if it referred in some way to JD Salinger, and if so, did the bracelet pertain to one character in particular? Maybe Holden? Franny? The other child just looked at me baffled and said, “It means, ‘What Would Jesus Do.’” I turned away sheepishly, as apparently my knowledge of literature had surpassed my awareness of religious catchphrases.
However, occurrences like these didn’t deter me from a zealous approach to reading. The more I learned to appreciate the beauty in a beginning, middle, and end of a story, the more I felt a desire to create my own. Now, I’m a storyteller—a far departure from my days of near silence. I like to play with words. I love knowing that everyone is listening to my story. In my writing, I’m honest; I don’t hide anything; I don’t want it to be guarded. I want my stories to demonstrate imperfection, because I believe it makes my writing more realistic. When I read words with a similarly imperfect tone, I feel comforted, knowing that someone else has felt the same way I have.
In my writing, I strive to infuse another kind of comfort as well—the reassuring feeling that comes when someone overhears what you are saying and agrees with you. I was once in a hotel elevator in France, complaining to my sister about how I had gotten lost earlier that day, and recounting wandering aimlessly in Paris and not speaking the native language. I was shocked when suddenly, a beautiful woman on the elevator said, “Pas le bien-aimé d’inquiétude, je me suis perdu une fois dans Amérique, je sais la sensation.”
I began to cry, because I knew she was trying to be helpful, and at the sight of my tears, the woman quickly said in perfect English, “Don’t worry sweetheart, I once got lost in America. I know the feeling.” To this day, I still clearly remember the feeling of relief that the stranger’s words gave me. I knew that I wasn’t the only person to ever feel overwhelmed in a foreign place or situation. I strive to capture that feeling—the soothing sense of comfort that the stranger gave me—in my writing.
I still sit and read aloud to my father. We sit on the same burgundy velvet sofa, my father on the left, and I as close to him as possible. The only differences are that now, he complains that I’m “too big to sit on his lap,” and that we no longer read fairytales or Kipling, but my stories instead.
Abigail Hook Harvard University Class of 2013
This past summer I was poised to jump. I was sure. I had convinced not only myself, but everyone around me that I was done. Come end of summer, I would pack away hundreds of pointe shoes in dejected cardboard boxes and they would instantly transform into unwanted memorabilia, identified only by a careless scrawl of Sharpie. My sweat and dedication were to be laid aside. I was through with pain, through with foot surgeries and obsessions and disappointments, and saying goodbye to a lifelong pursuit of ballet would be no exception. After the usual last six weeks of intensive summer training, my adieus were to be quick and painless; I would make sure of it.
And then Serenade happened to me.
Having made up my mind, I loyally warded off anything that might jeopardize my decision. My usual passion and enthusiastic spark were gone, replaced by a deep longing to understand why exactly I had ever fallen in love with this painful profession and an intense need for stability when my world was moving out from beneath my sore feet. Serenade took the remains of me, a frustrated and tired dancer whose only instinct was to fight, and gently illuminated the silver lining in my painful disaster.
My first exposure to the piece came from the splintery wood cabinet in the corner of the studio. I never liked using the sound system. Growing up in an intensely musical family who preferred to sing the nightly prayer, recordings frustrated me. Tonight the ribbons on my pointe shoes were as frayed as my sanity, and I was trying desperately to get motivated. Ballet had taught me from an early age that pain is only in the mind, and motivation is only a matter of psychological tricks. This ideology was working well for me, until I heard it. My sense of stoicism was instantly shattered. Something was amiss. I had witnessed my fair share of beautiful music and never cried. Yet Serenade for Strings in C Major sounded nothing like the Nutcracker or Swan Lake. The music was weeping and soaring and tired and energetic and everything, everything I was feeling. And that made all the difference. Serenade reminded me that beauty existed in the “why” of my pursuit of perfection; why I had done this—this crazy-overworked dream of a thing—and why I knew I would treasure it for the rest of my life.
Then I started dancing. George Balanchine somehow has captured the ephemeral, tragic side of beauty that Serenade sang of and transformed it into living art, and for a few weeks, I was his medium. For the first time I could remember I was looking forward to rehearsal at the end of eight-hour days; to those first few measures of music in which 17 girls simply stood, each hand raised to heaven, eyes searching through divine stratosphere, their light blue tulle—angelic. As the curtain rose opening night, the audience let out a murmur—a subtle appreciation for beauty in the raw. For weeks afterward I would enthusiastically lend my iPod to friends, brightly anticipating that they too would experience a revelation. I was mildly disappointed. For the most part they would smile sympathetically and say, “Oh yes, isn’t it beautiful?” and move on.
But then I realized, amidst my confusion, that the reassurance, the hope that I hadn’t just wasted my childhood, was something I so uniquely needed. Yes the music and choreography were genius, but Serenade’s magic lay in the ability it had to nudge me from frustrated to appreciative, from grief to celebration.
Perhaps Balanchine had seen this doubt, this questioning in a student before. Or perhaps this is how art works: One will never understand the power it has for the individual but not his neighbor, for the dancer but not the audience member, for the mother but not the daughter. I do know the experience of becoming that music—what seemed my story this summer—was paramount in my understanding of the person ballet has made me, and even when it came time to hang up my pointe shoes in exchange for a college education, Serenade reminded me of the power of pursuing a dream and the gifts that come with saying goodbye.
Kathleen Kingsbury covers education for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health, and education since 2005.
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As I sit there staring at the terminal window, all I see is a grey rectangle waiting and waiting for my response. Little does the rectangle know though its going to be waiting for awhile: its my first time using Linux and I do not know the language. But I must begin somewhere. After all in the words of Florian Cramer: “…until you plug it in, you’ll just never know.” I type cd Desktop. Success. But how to make the blinking grey box move with a command line that will really do something interesting?
I begin to experiment: just keep plugging it in, error messages occur, sometimes nothing really happens, and still the grey rectangle is waiting. And yet despite the frustration I cannot stop. There is something there — something exciting in the unknown, in the plugging in and in the liminality, between what I type and what actually happens. I am encouraged to continue to experiment.
Slowly the grey rectangle does not wait for long periods. I begin to create. From the use of primitive expressions or the simplest entities of the programming language to a combination of these elements, I turn an image into a text file and then put this text file on top of the original image to create a new image. But what is actually happening? Am I merely just manipulating through means of abstraction to get to another abstraction?
In other words, why do I enjoy this experience if I am merely using finite 0’s and 1’s to create other finite 0’s and 1’s within an interface? Are my creations more than just 0’s and 1’s? Does my experience with code, my perceptions, my dabbling in the unknown bring anything to code? Why is it aesthetically pleasing to manipulate 0’s and 1’s?
Where is the aesthetics of code?
The aesthetics of code will be argued here to locate itself in the limit of this very abstraction, the tipping point of the unknown, the liminality between the 0’s and 1’s, the excitement I felt as I waited for something to happen.
But where else do aesthetics and code meet?
Aesthetics has two definitions: aesthetics as sensuous perception and aesthetics as the philosophy or theory of taste. The aesthetics of code is often discussed as the latter: code is beautiful. It is finite, discrete and symmetrical. Basing much on Kantian ideology of beauty, code becomes the ultimate aesthetic through its relation to mathematics: “…beauty is reduced to a number and once we measure beauty of two objects, we can say one is nicer than the other if its measure is greater.” With code, harmony arises out of the 0’s and 1’s. Paul Fishwick takes this approach as he defines aesthetic computing: “…the application of the theory and practice of art to the field of computing.” In other words, computing is filtered through already existing theories of beauty to produce subject material for art. Badiou takes a similar approach in his Ontology of numbers in which numbers are the ultimate display of order and beauty in that: “…Number, which is an instance of being as such, can support no value, and has no truth other than that which is given to it in mathematical thought…” Taken along side Badiou’s theory of Inaesthetics, in which artwork “sets itself up as an inquiry into the question of its own finality,” numbers find their place once again in the aesthetics of the finite and beautiful.
But what new elements does code introduce and change to the way aesthetics is defined in these cases? What does my experience with manipulating code bring into code as beauty? Is there more to code than beauty?
On the other spectrum of aesthetics is sensation, and my experience and the body are once again considered. Brian Massumi discusses how the virtual is topological and cannot be sensed. And with the virtual, there are potentials, which can be seen as “a multiplicity of possibilities materially present to one another.” Thus, the potentials of the virtual as they mix with the actual that sensation occurs: “The actual occurs at the point of intersection of the possible, the potential, and the virtual: three modes of thought. The actual is the effect of their momentous meeting, mixing…the meeting and mixing is sensation.”
Within this sensation, lies affect: “Affect is the virtual point of view…For affect is synesthetic, implying a participation of the senses in each other: the measure of a living thing’s potential interactions is its ability to transform the effects of one sensory mode into those of another.” It is through an analog reading of the virtual that sensation or aesthetics through affect is produced. According to Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza’s affect, affect is understood as: “…a mixture of two bodies, one bodies which is said to act on the other, and the other receives a trace of the first. Every mixture of bodies will be termed an affection.”
Based on these discussions, aesthetics as sensation arises in a continuous virtual world of the infinite in which bodies mix with the fleeting world of the actual to create affection and as such sensation.
But if it is my analog interaction with code that produces the sensation, how does the code itself account for this aesthetic as sensation? If the virtual is topological and infinite how does the finite nature of code produce this analog interaction and sensation in the first place?
Florian Cramer in “Words Made Flesh” has attempted to answer the questions raised above through the idea of speculative software, or software as science fiction, in which codes themselves call for subjective experience: “…algorithmic codes and computation cannot be separated from cultural imaginations that reaches from magic spells to computer operating systems…In the end the decoding of the codes is not a formal operation but a subjective operation.” For Cramer, codes belong in a world of science fiction and magic. Even more than this, Anne Munster accounts for sensation in her approximate aesthetics:
Following this rethinking of art’s zone of operation as the affect, the aesthetic is concerned with a range of corporeal processes. It is about a plane of experience which allows for the intersection of the force a sense impression exerts upon the body to a mediated reflection upon this and of course the continual movements between these.
For Munster, the digital produces sensation, and in turn an interchangeable thought about this sensation, through proximity and relative speed. Munster’s argument is thus an important tool used to argue here that the answer to the above questions extends beyond culture and into the very codes themselves. From Badiou to Cramer and finally to Munster, this essay will use various and often opposing viewpoints to illustrate how code is not only beautiful but can be sensed as well.
And it was into the codes themselves that I kept plugging in and creating. An error message may have occurred, but I plugged along attempting to use primitive and compound language to make one abstraction after another. And it was not just beautiful to me; I could sense something more. This sensation came from the very idea of abstraction itself. Through abstraction numbers expose their finiteness and thus, their limit.
This paper will argue that this limit exposed through abstraction allows for the infinite. Through primitive expressions, abstraction wanes, but it will be argued that we are able to enter and sense the opaque interface of the code through its movement and finite difference to our infinite bodies, another limit will be revealed. And finally, as this paper moves to compound expressions, dreaming is revealed and its complex nature to the infinite and the finite, which eventually culminates in a crash. This once more reiterates how code has aesthetics of sensation. Thus, just as the finite nature of code finds its limits in aesthetics as beauty, the very limit of the finite opens up to the infinite and thus to aesthetics as sensation as well.
It is in the limit of the finite that aesthetics as sensation is triggered by the code itself and we can enter into the interface and sense the code; code has the power to become more than just beautiful, it gives the power to create and to dream.
Means of Abstraction
We are immersed in white numbers on a black screen, a constant stream of 1’s and 5’s and 3’s with no apparent order. Numbers are everywhere within our gaze. And yet, we see more. We see what is in between the numbers. We imagine the data that is producing these numbers. We see the void and the infinite, the potentials. We read between the numbers. This is the experience of Ryoji Ikeda’s Data.tron, his means of abstraction, his exposing of the limit of the numbers. In Data.tron numbers are calculated based on strict principles of math and the vast amount of data that exists in the world and are then project onto a large screen that immerses the viewer within the numbers.
Badiou also exposed of the limit of numbers. As the numbers appear on the screen they do not succeed each other: “There is another way to indicate the difference between successors and limits…This is related to a very important operator of the ontology of the multiple, the operator of dissemination.” In other words, since zero is a void and does not have a maximum element to succeed, a zero following this zero is one and a one following that zero is also one. Thus, a limit is created in which the number one disseminates itself across the code. And according to Badiou, between a limit there is infinity and with this infinity we must think: “The audacity of thought is not to repeat ‘to the limit’ that which is already entirely retained within the situation of which the limit limits; the audacity of thought consists in crossing a space where nothing is given. We must learn once more how to succeed.”
And despite Badiou’s limit not accounting for aesthetics as sensation; Ikeda’s example illustrates how the limit in fact does use sensation to teach us how to succeed. This is due to that fact that the limit of numbers allows us to enter the infinite, see potential and then succeed. Ikeda exposes the abstraction of numbers so that we do not see them within contexts, but as limited, finite beings. As such, we must imagine and create the connection between 5 and 3 and 4 and then next time 6 and 4 and 1 instead of reading the succession 1, 2 and 3: “…He can take anything and transform it into something, because he now has the means of abstraction…” And with abstraction, we do not just read a succession of numbers but enter into the virtual world of potentials:
The virtual center never appears as such. It is insensate. It cannot be felt. It appears only in the potentials it drives and the possibilities that unfold from their driving…Each event in a serial unfolding is a sensible analog of that unexpressed effecting: its sensible (embodied) concept.
We must sense the potential of what number is to ‘randomly’ appear as we cross the nothingness between 5 and 7 in order to succeed to 3. As we are immersed in Data.tron, we sense because “…with an infinite propensity for motion, and with an intermediate point itself, that in other respects is finite,” we cannot help but see the limits of this finite and plunge into the infinite world of sensation and potentials only to succeed with another finite number.
And the code of Data.tron does in fact move as it goes from the 5 into the virtual and on to 3. With this process of movement, sensation once again arises: “The appearance of the virtual is in the twists and folds of formed content, in the movement from one sample to another. It is in the ins and outs of imaging.” And this very movement, the twist from 5 to 3, stems from the code itself. Although not always related to science fiction in this paper, the movement of code coming from the actual code relates to Cramer’s idea of executable code in which code comes to take a life of its own.The aesthetics of sensation does not just arise out of a cultural relationship to code, but from the very movement of the code itself as it continues to generate numbers and this movement is then witnessed by other beings.
In other words, the code behind Data.tron’s change from 3 to 5 may be finite, but as the finite comes to be activated within movement and numbers continuously twist into various forms in front of our eyes, we can sense the topological change of the virtual. It is here, in the execution of code, that the aesthetics of sensation, of code can be located. After all, “…A design does nothing until an operating agent executes the design…” and it is the code that is its own operating agent, its very self-perpetual nature towards execution, it becomes more than beautiful as we sense.
With abstraction, the limit is clearly drawn, the infinite clearly open. Data.tron self-referentially refers to the finite if only to illustrate the infinite in its wake. But still, an interface exists between Data.tron and the person who experiences Data.tron’s sensations. An Interface that “…functions as an ontological gateway that transfigures its entrants into creatures of an entirely different order. Robust conscripts turn into disembodied concepts when they pass this portal and there’s no turning back.” Sensation happens if only to become finite again through Data.tron’s movement: another number appears. And yet, it is thus through abstraction that the infinite continues to be opened. Once a new number appears, the limit appears again and thus a descent into the infinite again and again. It is thus through abstraction that code is able to become a source of creation, a source of infinite limits and virtual potentials.
But what happens if this interface becomes even more opaque, if abstraction is not so clearly programmed? What happens if the code is even more hidden and it becomes harder to turn back?
As we leave the abstraction of numbers behind, we come across another type of movement, this time with words appearing on a screen. Some continue to move as others freeze in motion. We can make out sentences by taking these terms and making them complete: identities start to flash in our minds. Cold, expensive, my own company, better and better; and then the identity is gone and a new one appears. We must act fast to understand these brief flickering of identities before they disappear back into the continuous whole; we must be prepared for the analog, the event. We sense the words as they speed in front of us. And once again we do so because of limits; we descend into liminality. Through the opacity of the interface, we sense once more the aesthetics of code. And it is Troika’s Digital Zoetrope that we are watching.
No longer are abstract numbers used, but words are used that appear at various speeds on a circular screen. Through this installation, Troike made modern the Zoetrope. William Horner designed the Zoetrope in 1834 in which light and motion are used to animate frames. In the Digital Zoetrope, LED lights are used at different speeds to make words and alternating patterns. The viewer, due to an effect known as persistence, cannot see the flickering lights. But they do see speed and motion, and with this, arises the infinite and sensation. But there is more to it than that, instead of numbers, a direct relation to the code underneath, there are words; and with this level opacity, the mind not only senses but the body dances as well.
Much like Data.tron, the Digital Zoetrope’s code contains its own movements and limits, which encourages sensation in the viewer. It is the code itself, the inside that once again triggers an element of infinity. In this respect, If Leibniz’s theory of Monadology is taken alongside Rossler’s Endonomadology, perhaps code is not so different from our own mind and body: all that is understood comes from inside.
In Monadology, a Monad is described as a simple substance without parts and without windows. They have self-sufficiency and any change comes from within. In order to be, they must have limits. They perceive without sensation, as they do not yet have memory or a soul. They are not machines. Although the code of Digital Zoetrope is not made up of a simple substance but of different elements that trigger different speeds and although it is a type of a machine, it can be likened to the definition of Monad in the respect that the code not only contains its own form in the make up of the code (i.e. the syntax of a Perl script) but it is this very form of the code itself that encourages the code to execute or to ‘think.’ As such, much like the way Monadology reconciled the notion of mind versus body into one, it is the form of the code that helps to ‘think’ and execute itself. Although code does not fit exactly the definition of a monad, it resembles a monad through its nature of execution.
But Monads are only the beginning:
Thus, although each created monad represents the whole universe, it represents more distinctly the body which is specially assigned to it…; and as this body expresses the whole universe through the connection of all matter in the plenum, the soul also represents the whole universe by representing the body, which belongs to it in a particular way.
It is here where the code of Digital Zoetrope has a different type of limit: it is a monad without a soul. And yet we have a body and a soul in which we interact with the code of Digital Zoetrope through an interface. This interface exists in the very fact that we all at the base are monads and so all we perceive and sense comes from the inside: “We are living in the interface of consciousness. But consciousness is more than an interface. It’s all we have. There is no other reality than consciousness.”
As the words speed and slow across the Digital Zoetrope, we have our bodies and our souls to read these words. And it is in the difference of our infinite bodies to code that we come to see the aesthetics of code as perception and sensation: “They [monads] all move confusedly toward the infinite, the whole; but they are limited and distinguished through the degrees of their distinct perceptions.” The code of the Digital Zoetrope is limited in its speeds, codes, and randomness, it can only perceive so much, it can only be so random. And it is this limit that we can distinguish ourselves from code and sense. After all:
If it is true, that the world is an interface reality. If it is true that rationalism can be regained by taking into account the fact that you are with your own body part of the world and then only the difference between you and the rest of the world is accessible to you. Then part of the world would become infected by the fact that you are an element of the world. And if you really faced this strange situation, you are in the world, you could start to manipulate this interface.
We must make sense of the motion, the random words that become distinguished, and it is through code’s limited perception as a monad and nothing more that we feel this limit as a difference and use our bodies. We can manipulate the interface, get one step closer to the code, by sensing that there is more to the Digital Zoetrope than just beauty. We do not have access to the abstract code and yet we sense its presence through its movement, through its constant play on randomness, its construction of identities that may or may not exist. We sense there is more to the picture and yet all we get are words that freeze and then speeds that change. We are no longer merely facing an interface of opacity, but enter into the liminal space of this opacity, between machine and man, monad and soul.
And it is this liminality that allows our bodies to dance. In a discussion of Merce Cunningham’s choreography of dance, Jose Gil discusses how space becomes emptied: the stage is emptied as well as all representative and emotional elements of the dancer, “body awareness [comes to] command consciousness.” As the Digital Zoetrope moves from its flickering light of a word to the blurred motion of words becoming lights, it illustrates its limit and space is emptied. We no longer see a meaningful word occupying space but see space as a constant stream of lights with no apparent meaning — the void of the infinite is entered. And as our mind must transition from meaning to apparent nothingness, it is our body that is free to respond to movement, to ‘command our consciousness.’
It is only when we can no longer recognize the word that we become conscious of the very code, the apparent nothingness, and instead of meaning we sense. This becomes clearer if we consider it in relation to our difference to the code as a monad with limited perceptions and Munster’s theory of speed. Munster mentions:
It is in exploring a relation to the possibilities of machinic perception — the different speeds of engagement that it demands from the interactant and also the artist, its instantaneity coupled with the interminable frustrations, stoppages (the computer crash) and waiting periods — that we can begin to see the aesthesia of the digital operate.
The Digital Zoetrope is limited in that it is programmed to only do so much: it can only blur words into light at a maximum speed and reduce the blur to the minimum speed of the static words. As we see this happening before our eyes, we can begin to recognize this pattern, the code’s speed. And yet, taking Munster, it is through these very speeds, that expose the limits of the code and its difference to our own bodily speeds, that we come to sense: ““It is the differential relation of informational speeds to embodied speeds that has the potential to create turbulent “blocs” of sensation.”
And so we dance with the flickering lights of the Digital Zoetrope, responding to its patterned speeds, its limits, which reveal its differences between our own bodily speeds. We sense within liminality: “…dance is always a false totality. It does not possess the closed duration of a spectacle, but is instead the permanent showing of an event in its flight, caught in the undecided equivalence between its being and its nothingness.”
And yet it is this very being and nothingness that restores the finite to time and the infinite to space. Although Badiou discusses dance in its relationship to being and nothingness, he does not consider dance to be a real art since “it is the sign of the possibility of the art…” It is the very nature of Badiou’s concept of the event, however, that restores dance to art, and through the limit of the event, aesthetics of sensation to code. As both the Data.tron and the Digital Zoetrope illustrate, the limit creates a descent into the infinite, which always returns with another finite point of creation: the Digital Zoetrope blurs until a new word appears. This can be seen as the event, which allows us to sense and then create: “Nothing is prefigured in the event. It is the collapse of structured distinction into intensity, of rules into paradox. It is the suspension of the invariance that makes happy happy, sad sad, function function, and meaning mean. Could it be that it is through the expectant suspension of that suspense that the new emerges?” With this event, the virtual is entered through its construction of a finite element and thus a limit and dancing happens and “dance places time within space.” It is thus through dancing that the finite code’s relationship to space becomes a part of the continuous time of the infinite.
As we watch the lights of the Digital Zoetrope flicker on a word, we are constituted within space and meaning but the space has a time limit set within the code and the words begin to move, an event happens. We enter the infinite, the liminal space, and do so through continuous time. We once again can sense the pattern of code through its limits and difference to our body. The event as such brings continuous time to finite space, blurring the relationship of the two and creating potential:
At each jerk, at each cut into the movement, the potential is there for the movement to veer off in another direction, to become a different movement. Each jerk suspends the continuity of the movement, just for a flash, too quick really to perceive but decisively enough to suggest a veer.
It is, ironically, through the limit that time places on the space of code that the code itself enters into the continuous world of time and the virtual. And thus, we dance to the coded time — the pattern that makes us aware of the difference between code and our bodies — of the Digital Zoetrope, and as each word disappears we sense the aesthetics of the code and prepare for the potential to come: “To dance is to flow in immanence.”
The Digital Zoetrope used primitive language, words, along with movement to allow us to follow in immanence: our infinite beings can now enter the liminal space of the opaque interface of finite code. It is through the limits of code as monads, a body without a soul, that we can then use our different body with a soul to sense this interface. And it is through the flickering movement of the speed of code that our sensing bodies find the pattern of code and can sense this code through our own differing bodily speeds. Finally, it is in the event, the linking of time to the finite space of code that pattern is once again revealed and we can enter in immanence.
But what happens if primitive expressions are no longer used and code becomes more than words that we understand? What happens if code becomes compounded with other elements, with dreams, fears and the future; if the potential becomes more than us? What happens if the interface becomes so opaque that we can hardly dance?
And now as we leave the numbers and words behind, we find ourselves in front of a screen with shapes. These shapes appear to be flowers and trees but their edges are blurred and moving. We sense nature and yet this nature speeds between the blurred lines and into code. Trees become finite and yet they move and we can sense them. This is John Maeda’s Nature,one of his moving paintings in which images of nature are processed through code.
We continue along and find ourselves in front of a large mirror. We sit and stare. Delayed, our image appears as a blurred grey shadows. We are aware of our body and we sense. We become a shadowy ghost, and as we leave, our image becomes blurred with those around us. Delayed, our shadowy ghost image vanishes. This is an experience of the Venetian Mirror by Fabrica in which traditional Venetian glass is merged with digital technology to create a mirror image that appears on the screen as if a photo is being developed in front of the viewer’s eyes.
Our sensing body continues and we come to a computer screen. A terminal window is shown with three black blocks on it. But then an error message appears. We must restart. Our sensing body panics. We click restart and only the terminal window — no restarting needed — appears but this time with only two black blocks. The computer code has tricked our sensing body. This is all thanks to Peter Rice’s Erroneous Surprisein which a fake error message is used to distract the viewer from noticing that a black box disappears. All that is left to sense is fear.
But before fear, there is Nature. And as it has been illustrated above, the aesthetics of code as sensation gives us potential and with potential we have the power to dream: “Potential strikes like a motor force, a momentum driving a serial unfolding of events.” Due to potential’s power as “a felt moreness to ongoing experience” and the argument discussed in relation to Data.Tron and Digital Zoetrope, the sublime becomes coded within Nature. It is no longer an infinite sensation but becomes finite. The potential, in this case the fantasy of nature as sublime, becomes an actual, a finite element of code; and it is through the limits of this code that we can also sense the sublime of Nature. Our dreams of the sublime become encoded as we sense the limit of Maeda’s flowers blur into different light forms. And as the finite can also produce sensation, code comes to be our check on the infinite, our understanding of the continuous, our way of understanding consciousness as a monad with soul: “He views the dreams as a set of checks, either-ors, to ensure in him a waking efficiency of action. At time they are like asynchronous transmissions, starting and stopping with a shiver or shudder.” Our dreams become real as they become a part of code modeled after speculative imagination, the finite world of speculative software. And it is through the finite that we can also sense the sublime.
As code and the finite come to produce sensation of nature, where else can the potentials and dreams lead? As our dreams become finite and reality, the interface becomes more opaque. Code comes to stand even more on its own and even in place of us: “The step from writing to action is no longer metaphorical as it would be with a semantic text such as a political speech or manifesto. It is concrete and physical because the very code is thought to materially contain its own activation…it is not only words made flesh, but words being flesh.” It is the Venetian Mirror that we must wait on for our body to appear. And it is not even our real body that appears but a shadowy ghost of the code world. It is the code behind the Venetian Mirror that has all the control.
We loose our subjectivity to code and we sense as a sexual being: “The code in this fiction is sexual as it is attached to the subjectivity of the person who interacts with it.” Through the Venetian Mirror we not only sense the code through our sexuality, but become codified ourselves as well as we fall from the limit and into the opaque interface of dreams as real, dreams as finite, dreams as code. And it is here that the fear arises, as code becomes more than just finite but comes to take over our sensing world as well: “It is an ultimately magical hope: That computing may one day transcend formalisms, and thereby its own technical grounds and limitations, in a moment of ontological chance.”
But code cannot transcend its own limits, the very tool that brings code to sensation in the first place, because a cut always happens. Badiou discusses the cut to illustrate the order and beauty of numbers: “This concept [the cut] brings forth a singularity — and therefore a basis for distinction — in the fabric of the continuous, in the dense stuff of infinitely small neighborhoods.” But it is not beauty that this cut gives but the power to once again fall into the liminal space of sensation and to dream: “…and dreaming is the intersection, the cut, and where this universe is constantly created through the patterns of interference between two flows.” Erroneous Surprise helps us to, although the error message is fake, visualize the cut and the power behind it. As the code becomes its own flesh, it reaches a limit. As this limit appears on the screen, we once again can see the potential, we once again become aware of bodies and our sensations. We regain our subjectivity. The error message is a cut between the flow of the flesh of the code and our very bodies. It is the cut, as a limit, that helps us to enter and the exit the opaque interface with our own sensations: we once again have the power to dream.
As the sublime becomes sensed in finite code and as code becomes flesh and we sense its sexual sensations through the Venetian Mirror, code becomes compounded with dreams and fears. The opacity of the interface becomes difficult to escape. But then Erroneous Surprise happens, a cut and a limit of code is once again restored. A limit that only helps us to once again fall into the realm of the sensation of code. But what if there is more than a cut? What if Data.Tron, Digital Zoetrope and Nature stop moving, if the Venetian Mirror refuses to record? A crash happens: “…but the system, which sooner or later must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the world can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain life.” Even if code can have aesthetics of sensation and can enter the infinite, the very limit of code that brings this power eventually must reach its own limit.
But maybe the crash is not always a bad thing. It allows us to escape the opacity of this interface and sense once again beyond the code and the finite. We can be truly our infinite selves. After all, “If the computer truly loved its human, it would want the human to take a break once in awhile. To crash is a noble act of sacrifice by the computer.”
And “until you plug it in, you just never know.” You may not know what sensations will arise from plugging in code, but what you can know is that it is in fact more than just beautiful. The aesthetics of code can also be located in sensation. After all, if the virtual exists in its topological form everywhere, code can be seen as a very powerful tool to sense the virtual. Code has limits. It is the limits that help us to this sensation of the virtual, the continuous, because as we come upon this limit, we become aware of our infinite monad nature and its difference to the finite nature of code and can enter the opaque interface. The limit of code brings us into this awareness, it helps us to sense, and with that we can continue to create: “No actuality can be fully imaged, since it emerges from, projects into, and recedes into inactuality.”
With Data.tron, we see this abstract actual only to enter the infinite, the inactual. As the code executes, we once again rise to another actual and begin this process again. With the Digital Zoetrope, we see the primitive expression of words blur and form, and it is this movement that restores time to space and makes us realize we are different than code. We do have a soul and we can sense the patterns of code against our body moving at a different speed: we dance. And finally, we compound code with our dreams and get lost in the opacity of the interface only to remerge with the appearance of another limit: the cut appears and we begin our sensing process again.
Thus, although code is finite, symmetrical and beautiful, it is this very symmetry and beauty of code that allows the infinite to appear again and again. After all, “The analog and the digital must be thought together, asymmetrically. Because the analog is always a fold ahead.” And with the analog comes our sensing bodies. Code is more than just beautiful; it is limits that create immanence and immanence that allows for the aesthetics of sensation.