giovedì 1 dicembre 2016

Announcing the workshop "Principles of Composition: Towards a Laocoon for Works of Technological Art"

Principles of Composition: Towards a Laocoon for Works of Technological Art

International Workshop

Sponsored by: University of Padova (FISPPA, CIGA) and TU Darmstad, Institute of Philosophy



December 5-7, 2016, University of Padova
Aula Nievo, Antico Palazzo del Bo, via VIII Febbraio 2, Padova, Italy

Steering committee:
Alfred Nordmann (TU Darmstadt, Institute of Philosophy)
Fabio Grigenti (University of Padova, FISPPA)
Luca Rivelli (University of Padova, FISPPA)

Get the programme here  (PDF)

The workshop

Principles of Composition is an international workshop will take place at the University of Padova, organized by the local department of Philosophy (FISPPA) in collaboration with The Institute of Philosophy of TU Darmstad. Here is an introduction to the aim and scope of the event.


The 250th anniversary of the publication of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoon - On the Limits of Painting and Poetry provides the occasion for an experimental exploration of works of art that decidedly include the works of technological art. Historians and philosophers of technology meet theorists of art, philosophers of music engage manuals for the composition of machines or software programs. These conversations are informed by a general work program that can be derived from Lessing’s Laocoon. It concerns the consideration of the working order of signs in different genres of art. Arguably, on one reading of Lessing’s text at least, Lessing presents the ancient Laocoon sculpture as producing a sequence of events that implies as a next step the anguish and death of Laocoon. It is the composition of the work that reliably produces its effect on the viewer. And if the principles of composition vary between poetry and painting, they vary similarly in the composition of machine parts, electrical circuits, or lines of code. In all these cases, manuals of composition tell us about the grammar of artistic and technological artefacts, whilst teaching collections of exemplars articulate this as a grammar for handling, arranging, and combining things.



This workshop takes an experimental approach in that it brings together themes and research questions that signify an emerging interest in the production of what is sometimes called design knowledge (e.g. Ammon und Froschauer 2013, Ehn 2011, Simon 1988), working knowledge (Baird and Nordmann 1994, Nordmann 2015) or gestural knowledge (Sibum 1995). This is objective knowledge of what things can do when they are put to work in an organized way. As such it is knowledge of how to compose things in a work such that they produce a desired effect or display a behavior (on composition vs. construction see Simondon and Latour and a rich literature on composition with six entries, for example, in Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopedie).

Rather than discuss these proposals in the context of a narrowly focused fledgling engineering epistemology, the workshop seeks to establish and explore exemplars for studying this form of knowledge production. These exemplars are on the one hand specific practices of composition in music, mechanical and software engineering. These exemplars are on the other hand the concrete metaphors of practice – the notion of a work in which things work together (clockwork, needlework, network), of a grammar of things (shape grammars, the grammar of Lego), of composition as a rule-guided, implicitly normative process, and thus of the Laocoon as a genre of manuals of composition that for specific times and notions of style are to constrain and enable well-made works of poetry and painting, of music or moving pictures, or of the various technologies.


The workshop will be experimental in its design. Rather than enumerate aspects, it seeks productive confrontation. Several arenas of historical and philosophical research will be represented by two to three scholars each. While speaking from their expertise about their own arena, they will make their insights relevant for others, and they will test what others present against their own knowledge and experience. Each of the thematic blocks will be kept distinct such that no general blurring of boundaries takes place but only specific connections become visible. For example, a clockwork and a modern artwork are normally quite distinct and one may question, indeed, whether the reference to the “work” of art is still appropriate. But when focusing on works as grammatical structures in which particular things are brought to work together, a common denominator comes into view. It leads to manuals of composition and teaching collections of parts as an important source for the epistemology of engineering. Inversely, it leads musicologists to also consider music that is not a product of creative genius but a kind of technology that can, in fact, be largely automated.

Each of the seven thematic blocks has its own state of the art (which cannot be documented here), its own problems and controversies, some pertinent to the workshop program, others not.

1. Laocoon

Lessing’s Laocoon provides a historical prompt to these discussions. There are very distinct traditions of understanding Lessing’s text, and only one highlights its semiotic aspect and its emphasis not on the productive imagination of the beholder but on the productivity of one objective state that gives rise to another – just as one state of a machine implies another for the person who can follow the arrangements of parts in the machine. Accordingly, Lessing’s conception of the “pregnant moment” concerns the working order of signs in different genres of art. Arguably, Lessing discusses the ancient Laocoon sculpture not as an object of contemplation, interpretation, or reflection, but as a work that leads the viewer through the arrangement of signs from the snake bite and the contraction of the torso finally to a facial expression that implies as a next step the anguish and death of Laocoon. It is the composition of the work that reliably produces its effect on the viewer. To study the artwork in this manner makes it available as an epistemic object unencumbered again by theories of the later 18th, 19th and 20th centuries that view art in terms of aesthetic judgment and aesthetic experience.

2. Francis Bacon's Works of Art and Nature

Recent decades witnessed a resurgence of interest in Francis Bacon as a philosopher of science. Some of these studies placed him in the context not only of natural philosophy but especially of the mechanical arts of his day. This invites consideration of Bacon’s concept of “works” which includes the works of nature and art along with the good works performed by humans. Just what is a work for Bacon – the focus of his question is not merely antiquarian or philological. It concerns the semantics of work that may still be at play today, especially as the notion of work is deeply embedded in a conception of knowledge that includes as a special case the knowledge of modern science. If “working knowledge” stands in the background even of representational knowledge of how nature effects its works, what and how one learns of specific principles of composition takes on special significance.

3. Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Things

Wittgenstein came from engineering to philosophy. And yet, aside from some scattered, often cryptic remarks, he is not at all concerned with philosophy of technology or engineering. But as has been pointed out, his thinking about language often proceeds in the idiom of engineering. Several authors have recently asked, therefore, whether a grammar of works, compositions and things could be constructed in analogy to the grammar of facts, sentences and things – allowing us to raise similar questions and discuss similar difficulties. This serves once again to show the priority of working knowledge vis-à-vis the knowledge of the truth and falsity of sentences (see, e.g., Wittgenstein’s “in a sentence a world is put together experimentally”). It also highlights the difference between personal, embodied, tacit “thing knowledge” from knowledge of what things can do within the working order, say, of a machine – to put it in Kantian terms: the thing in itself is not an object of knowledge when one learns how things are composed in a work so as to produce an effect or exhibit a behavior.

4. Reuleaux and the Alphabet for Machines

Franz Reuleaux provided what became the most influential theory of machines as resulting from the proper, indeed logical, arrangements of machine elements or parts. With his Theoretical Kinematics came teaching collections of machine parts – to become a mechanical engineer was to learn how to form sentences with this alphabet of parts. Since the 19th century, our conception of what machines are and what are the working parts of a machine has changed, thus underscoring that rules of composition delineate a genre of artefacts. Similarly Reuleaux’s collection of levers and gears can be viewed in analogy to galleries of plaster casts as a teaching tool to socialize the hand and the eye within a style of composition.

5. Musical Composition

Manuals and exemplars of composition are most prominent, of course, in music. The history of these manuals can be understood as history of technology. When software engineers invoke the notion of composition, they often explicitly liken their design process to that of the musical composer who needs to establish what works, and who develops this on the page for an orchestra and its performance in a specific social context. These two panels represent two interrelated case studies that will be discussed in light of the previous panels.

6. Concluding Panel: Manuals of composition and teaching collections

Historians of art, science, and technology have investigated museums and teaching collections not only as sites for assembling, organizing, presenting things but also as sites of knowledge production and the acquisition of knowledge. Following the thesis of this workshop, the consideration of manuals of composition and teaching collections invites an open discussion among all presenters. Casts of the Laocoon sculpture group appeared in collections of great works of antiquity, Wittgenstein and countless other engineering students learned from Reuleaux’s collection of machine elements. Manuals of composition abound in the history of music and of gardening. It is here where the different strands of the workshop come together, allowing for synoptic observations.



Ammon, Sabine und Froschauer, Eva Maria, Hrsg.(2013)Wissenschaft Entwerfen: Vom forschenden Entwerfen zur Entwurfsforschung der Architektur, München: Wilhelm Fink.
Baird, Davis and Nordmann, Alfred (1994) “Facts-Well-Put”, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, vol. 45, pp. 37-77.
Ehn, Pelle (2011) "Design Things: Drawing Things Together and Making Things Public”, TECNOSCIENZA Italian Journal of Science & Technology Studies 2(1), pp. 31–52.
Latour, Bruno (2010) "An Attempt at a" Compositionist Manifesto", New Literary History 41.3, pp. 471-490.
Nordmann, Alfred (2015) “Werkwissen oder How to express things in works”, Jahrbuch Technikphilosophie 2015, vol. 1, 2015, pp. 81-89
Sibum, Otto (1995) “Working Experiments: A history of Gestural Knowledge”, The Cambridge Review,  Vol. 116, no 2325, pp. 25-37.
Simon, Herbert (1988) “The Science of Design: Creating the Artificial”, Design Issues, vol. 4, No. 1/2 (Designing the Immaterial Society), pp. 67-82.