Dots, Secrets of the Universe…

These are printer’s dots, also known as Benday Dots. You can see them in paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, who was obsessed with them, or you can take out your trusty magnifier (you have one, don’t you?) and look at your newspaper photographs. Best to look at black and white, rather than color. These little dots hold the secret of the universe, and they are responsible for one of the most wide ranging transformations of human conciousness ever…and they are also one of the most neglected, ignored, and unsung elements of the modern world. I’m on a quest to change that!

In William Ivins’ heroic and too little known epic, Prints as Visual Communication, this former curator of prints at the Metropolitan Museum lays out the history of mankind’s efforts to convey information visually over the last 600 years in Europe. The quest was for a repeatable, mechanical (and presumably objective) pictorial statement of … anything. First, there was only drawing. Each effort was one of a kind, not to mention the fact that the image shown was refracted through the mind of the artist.  Then there were woodcuts, which allowed people to produce the same image over and over, within the limits of the technology available, but the initial image was still created by an artist who drew, and then carved a design.  Repeatable, but not mechanical.  Then there was metal plate engraving, which simply increased the detail and longevity available from the individual incised images while the basic process was unchanged.  Then, ta da!, there was “light drawing,” photography.  At last, a means of creating images that was mechanical – perhaps not objective, for there is always style, artistic choice at work – but a darn shot closer than anything else ever seen short of brass rubbings.

The problem with photography was that there was no way to reproduce the images except to print them one at a time in a darkroom.  Early publications with photos had to specially bind them into the book, and they were expensive, and had limited editions.  Photography existed for generations before popular magazines and newspapers could use it, for there was no way to transfer the image to a printing medium analogous to that used for type and engravings.  In fact, publications hired artists to transform photographs, e.g. those by Matthew Brady, into line-cuts, i.e. two-color (binary) engravings, that could be easily printed on the same page as columns of text.  Pretty incredible!  What to do?

Imagine the world as it was. There were photographs, but they weren’t distributed widely – only seen in expensive books and galleries.  Imagine trying to study art history and having to use engravings of famous paintings for your source!  (Ivins reproduces some of them in his book. The difference between the original – shown in photographic prints – and the engraving is staggering. And scholars were trained with this?!)  Or internal anatomy, or botany…etc.  (Some of the earliest books of woodblocks were botannicals, by the way.)  And think of the present day torrent of visual images in print we have now, on shopping bags, sides of buses, book covers, inside textbooks of all kinds, posters, newspapers, pens, mousepads – all because of dots.

Dots came to the rescue. Dots, the quantum principle.

By taking the photographic image and ‘screening’ it, i.e. projecting the image through a plate with a grid of very tiny holes, the information in the photograph is broken up, quantized, into bits that can be printed.  The photographic grain is nearly molecular – it is a chemical matrix – but the metal screen transforms it to the level of a mechanical matrix.  The amount of light passing through each hole determines the size of the dot that is chemically sensitized on a plate.  From that, a more or less traditional plate of recessed and raised surfaces can be created, and from that a print can be made over and over again.  Similar to how an etching plate is produced.  A gray-scale photograph can be printed using two colors, black and white!  The smaller the dots, the less black, the more gray they look on a white ground, and from two colors you get a full gray-scale range of tones! Known as half-tones. (Why? I don’t know.  I guess, because they’re not whole, i.e., fully black or white.)

And here we see the mechanical analog of the mind at work in the universe. Taking the unitary and indivisible fact of the world, its energy and physicality, and breaking it into discrete bits that convey information.  Information is conveyed only by a difference: ON – OFF; BLACK – WHITE; GO -STOP; YES – NO; ONE – ZERO.  PRESENT – ABSENT.  Our computers all work with binary math; from great streams of ones and zeroes we get…everything. Consider Thomas Pynchon’s take on this in Gravity’s Rainbow:

Back around 1920, Dr. Laszlo Jamf opined that if Watson and Rayner could successfully condition their “Infant Albert” into a reflex horror of everything furry, even of his own Mother in a fur boa, then Jamf could certainly do the same thing for his Infant Tyrone, and the baby’s sexual reflex. … Shoestring funding may have been why Jamf, for his target reflex, chose an infant hardon…A hardon, that’s either there, or it isn’t.  Binary, elegant.  The job of observing it can even be done by a student.

Dots?  Think of your retina with its rods and cones.  Taste buds.  Quanta everywhere, biting the big cheese of the world into bite, byte, size bits we can manipulate to create meaning.  To learn and to know, you must ignore much, simplify much.  Everything is connected to everything else, all things flow together in a continuum, but if we are to mentally progress beyond the all enveloping womb of Being, we must create distinctions.  So says the Bible, for in the beginning, there was the word.  The word, that allows a distinction to be made between light and not-light, sea and land, being and nothingness?

But, are these distinctions real? Of course not, but that’s all there is.

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