The Theoretical Train Set, or Once More, with Feeling!

v0_masterThe BBC have repeated a documentary about the people who play with model railways…you can watch it on the UAL streaming site, Box of Broadcast, at

www.bobnational.net

Just log-in with your UAL username and password, and search for The Joy of (train) Sets…

Box of Broadcasts is a fabulous resource, and everyone at UAL should use it.

The BBC iplayer page is here

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01q9vhy

Now, back to the railway…

I’ve posted before about model railways…and I’ve recently been thinking about how the psychogeographic reality of a railway could be modelled…and looking at fair ground track rides as a source of inspiration, especially the ghost train…

A lot of modern philosophy is about trying to figure out whether our primary engagement with reality is intellectual or sensory. This re-casts the familiar chicken and egg conundrum as, which comes first, ideas or feeling?

The Enlightenment philosophers, Diderot and Rousseau, had this argument in the middle of the 18C. For practical purposes, and because the world of feelings seemed arbitrary and inconsistent, the late 18C social philosophers rejected feeling in faour of a steely-eyed moral calculus of ends and means (utilitarianism, for example)…thus was the brutality of modern political administration begun.

Taken to its extreme, this administrative precision always ends in a terrible, and sterile, beauty, with everything in its place and everything accounted for…it’s as though the absence of feeling provides for a sort of death…a truth, but without meaning…

The British, pragmatic as ever, have tended to focus on what can be be measured…even if it is the wrong thing! Indeed, modern science suggests that measuring is not neutral…it tends to alter wahat is being measured…and quantum physics tells us that it is impossible to measure with complete accuracy.

So, if it’s all an approximation anyway, why should anyone have to suffer? That’s the question for our administrators…

 

It turns out that model railways can provide a helpful way of thinking about all this…The theoretical train set is not an imaginary model railway…it’s a model railway as a framework for thinking, and feeling, about the world…

The model railway starts out as a project based on the methodology of observation and measurement. The vocabulary of railway modellers is all about accuracy, detail and engineering precision. Observation and meaurement are the foundation of empirical science, and of philosophical enlightenment…

It turns out that accuracy and precision also define another characteristic of the model railway…it’s historic context. But, it is impossible to consider the historic context of a model railway without the consideration of memory and feeling…there’s a little space, just there, for emotion; and it creeps in…

Memory and feeling are things that can’t be exactly observed…indeed, the railway modeller crafts the buildings and trains, and lets the feeling emerge in the spaces around the layout. The emotional power of the layout is contingent on the material accuracy of the model.

You can’t have feeling without accuracy; but you can definitely have accuracy without feeling.

So, feeling in models (and art, and science, and life, and everything) is not inevitable…it’s perfectly possible to imagine an exquisitely accurate model that is real…but not convincing. We recognise this in dramatic or musical performance, where we demand more than the accurate repetition of dialogue, or notes.

The test for a convincing expression of intelligence proposed by Alan Turing suggested that machine communication would have to be indistinguishable from human. Manuel de Landa claims that, by this measure, successful AI will depend on empathetic intelligence…that’s not what the ultilitarians, nor first computer engineers, were thinking of; it means that intelligence and feeling are both true…

The train set models our material reality and suggests the associated emotional reality. What we see, and what we feel are different things. From a human point of perspective, I would say that feeling is the more meaningful of these realities…it is overwhelming and sublime, in the best possible way…and resistance is futile.

Technical accuracy as an end-in-itself is a dead-end, and a bit pointless. In life and art, as in model railways.

Empathy is not just a feeling though, it is a moral quality…it turns out that feeling and ethics go together. I suppose that is what is meant by good work: technically accomplished and emotionally nuanced.

The post-Freudian philosophers of language in France, notably Monsieur Derrida and Madame Kristeva, have analysed language in terms of its spaces and silences…it turns out that not saying is just as important as saying…

Personally, I wish that more philosophers had had train sets…next stop, Wittgenstein!

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