Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Birth of the Red and White Pole

Paul Seletsky, the Digital Design Director for the global firm SOM based in New York, spoke yesterday more or less about the digitization of design process, and using the datasphere to keep tabs on and manage all aspects of the design in a single coherent data tracking system. I am not going to relay his presentation, really, (a video should be online soon enough) but something he pointed out in his introduction I found particularly, well, subtopian, I guess I will say.

He began by making an analogy to the use of the old bloodletting and purging techniques from the second millennium, as a way of exorcising ailment, pinpointing the arteries of disease, acting upon an assumed geo-anatomy of bodily sickness, which often times -- to the lack of their knowledge -- caused bodily damage in other unknown places, if not exacerbated whatever problem the practitioners thought they were addressing. Seletsky stressed the cause and effect interconnectedness of the body, and specifically referenced an ancient device known as the ‘scarificator’, calling it an early type of architecture. Built with multiple blades it was used to exact precise cuts into the body in a way that was actually much more merciful than previous tactics and tools.

[Image: A schematic drawing of the "scarificator", a primitive multiple -bladed device used in exacting precise forms of bloodletting.]

This was all, he seemed to imply, suggestive of the kind of dissective nature of architectural development, where treating one aspect of the building may have considerable repercussions on the rest of the building. An odd metaphor, I thought, and was quite surprised he began with this. Also, being the large corporate firm that SOM is, starting his talk about the ancient technique of bloodletting was a little eerie. But it made sense when he went on to discuss the notion of using a dataspheric approach to designing buildings more surveillance-consciously and respective of their entirety, rather than not using the power of data and digitization to track the effects of the architect's tweaking and design manipulation and how that might have an undesired or unknown consequence on the rest of the design.
However, what is interesting to me is how this ancient practice has made its permanent mark on some level of architecture today. Back then, the duty of bloodletting was assigned mostly to the barbers. And when I looked this up on wikipedia what Seletsky had to say seemd also verbatim, so let me just quote from this short history lesson here:

Even after the humoral system fell into disuse, the practice was continued by surgeons and barber-surgeons. Though the bloodletting was often recommended by physicians, it was carried out by barbers. This division of labour led to the distinction between physicians and surgeons. The barbershop's red-and-white-striped pole, still in use today, is derived from this practice: the red represents the blood being drawn, the white represents the tourniquet used, and the pole itself represents the stick squeezed in the patient's hand to dilate the veins.

Needless to say, I had no idea where the red and white striped pole came from, which is really pretty creepy actually, if you think about it. The idea that we have over time cast this primitive medical treatment (bloodletting) which in some cases was associated with torture, as a classic symbol on the streets for barber shops today. At some point the blue stripe was added and I am not sure why exactly. Perhaps to round out the other two colors with a show of patriotism, I don't know. Either way, now that I know, the barber shop seems like the last place I want to go for a good old fashioned shave.


Blogger javier arbona said...

you hardly ever shave anyway, buddy! (Same goes for me almost, though my sister gave me a speech about it). These fantasies that we're getting so much closer to total knowledge... well, they must have had the same hope when calculus was invented but it's such a myth. They actually obscure the very origins of their own biases and hardly seem aware at all that they have them.

2:22 PM  
Blogger javier arbona said...

and gimme a call when you get a chance...

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i was looking for blue blood and found this to share.

[Q] From Jennifer Bunner in the USA: “I was wondering about the origin of the phrase blue blood.”

[A] Unlike so many other expressions, this one is well documented.

It’s a direct translation of the Spanish sangre azul. Many of the oldest and proudest families of Castile used to boast that they were pure bred, having no link with the Moors who had for so long controlled the country, or indeed any other group. As a mark of this, they pointed to their veins, which seemed bluer in colour than those of such foreigners. This was simply because their blue-tinted veins showed up more prominently in their lighter skin, but they took it to be a mark of their pure breeding.

So the phrase blue blood came to refer to the blood which flowed in the veins of the oldest and most aristocratic families. The phrase was taken over into English in the 1830s. By the time Anthony Trollope used it in The Duke's Children in 1880, it had become common:

It is a point of conscience among the — perhaps not ten thousand, but say one thousand of bluest blood, — that everybody should know who everybody is. Our Duke, though he had not given his mind much to the pursuit, had nevertheless learned his lesson. It is a knowledge which the possession of the blue blood itself produces. There are countries with bluer blood than our own in which to be without such knowledge is a crime.


10:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"An odd metaphor," that's indeed correct.

2:33 AM  

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