From Phenomenon to Consciousness: How Reality Overwrites Illusion

The ambiguity between the real space-time and its representation is deliberately rendered in experimental mockumentary Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Each Other, which films with realistic austerity the process of crafting an exact replica of a custom-confiscated ivory tusk. With the camera aimed at the objects and the hands that manipulate them, the replica’s details and textures are an impeccable replication at high granularity, and even the original’s imperfections were copied perfectly on the replica. An object that hasn’t experienced a specific history has registered the marks left by that history. There is one scene where the original ivory and the replica undergo testing using some imaging technology that supposedly gives evidence of the age of an object. Here comes the anticlimactic, short, and barely noticeable detail – the technology reveals that the original, which the replica is modeled on, is tested to be a replica. The shot then jump cut to a different scene, leaving no language, no music, not even a contemplative pause for the perhaps most revelatory detail of the film, silently questioning the non-self-verifiable truthfulness of our world. Is there a distinction between the real and the counterfeit? Does that even matter?

The replica tusk in the process of molding and polishing, still from film Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Each Other, by Jessica Sarah Rinland

The motif of the above-interpreted mockumentary echoes with Borges’ short fiction Circular Ruins, in which a wizard creates a young man through dreaming but in the end discovers through a fire that leaves him intact that he, too, is the dream projection of someone else. This is a fiction that discusses illusion, and even more so a piece that discusses the role of reality. Dream is the filter of reality, the projection of the psyche, and the transfer of consciousness, in which reality is replaced by illusion once a phenomenon is at odds with the “reality.” Since the Enlightenment, the world-system of the majority formed on the rational reality as the foundation. A phenomenon at contradiction with the rational reality is an illusion, and the way people reconcile with such contradictions is to render the phenomenon with representational lens (it is a dream, a hallucination, a tale) and reaffirm the singularity of rational reality. Once the phenomena at odds with people’s known truth is categorized as illusion in people’s mind, they can continue to live in consistency and coherence, like the wizard in the circular ruins before walking in fire unburnt.

Profoundly influenced by the Enlightenment, our modernist culture makes us live in many self-evident, non-self-verifiable truths that together compose a reality. But traced to the root of humans’ epistemology, our cognition of the external world emanates completely from perception, from the sensory organs, translated through the neural system. Just as neuroscientist Christof Koch puts it, “the only way I know anything is because I feel.” When the conduit of reality, our neural system, make us disagree on phenomena, the foundation of rationality of reality is shaken. The downstream of reality’s conduit is the formal system of signs, of language, of a culturally constructed system of drawing meaning from chaos before phenomena enter consciousness. Because meaning is inevitably embodied and the sign is the means of embodiment, the foundation of an absolute reality now collapses. Reality is only relevant in the dynamic state. Imaged through the neural system and then embodied in the formal system, phenomenon becomes reality. What was once on the level of physicality is now transcribed to the human-level reality, as formulated by Edward Slingerland, which replaces phenomenon and becomes the reality that is more real to us than anything.

1. The Inversion of Reality-Illusion Transfer

How phenomenon becomes consciousness in the continuous and seamless phenomenon-perception-sign-reality becoming.

Both Circular Ruins and Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Each Other tell the story in the order that what was once perceived as reality collapses and becomes illusion, but the relationship between phenomenon and reality is exactly the inversion of that – there is no a priori reality, and consciousness replaces phenomenon as the human-level reality. Religion and non-religious belief strive to shape our senses of reality as we seek for a unity. The epistemological trajectory of forming a reality is the reverse of the fictional account, starting from phenomenon, passing through and being altered by neural system, formal system and arriving at consciousness.

The legacy of religion that influences modern human beings regardless of their religious status is the introduction of the idea of soul, which is synonymous to self for atheists. For the human with a soul/self-consciousness, the world has many non-verifiable truths. One may believe that objects farther would be smaller than objects closer, just as Alberti perspective drawing and photography both testify, or believe that human rights are the fundamental and universal truth. But in both cases, the truths don’t exist in the physical world: Alberti’s perspective is premised on a PoV, which is a property of seeing, not a property of the object seen; human rights are a thought framework originating from the Euro-American West with a long history, contingent on the geographical and cultural context that relies on such a “contract” which regulates and restricts the hierarchical society. Perhaps to our distaste, all of these truths are more tied to the soul/self than physicality, but just as Edward Slingerland theorizes, these truths nevertheless feel indisputably true to us.

Darwinism severs the biblical ties between the notion of God and the notion of human, ties which couple two paradoxical properties of being collectively exclusive to all other beings and exclusive to each other.

That is why Darwinism clashed so impactfully with the Christian society – not necessarily that Darwinism contradicts with the Creationist narrative, but primary because it shatters the Christian concept of the human being as the spirit of all life forms subordinate to only God. The evolutionists and Creationists do not debate over the origin of plants and animals – it is in the human realm where the schism manifests. Darwinism severs the biblical ties between the notion of God and the notion of human. It presents two contradictory realities, one in which humans are the active agent and subject under an omnipotent supernatural entity, and the other in which such subjecthood is diffused among all life forms. To a Creationist, that human is no different than animals is an illusion; to a Darwinist, the special condition of human as the sole subject of consciousness is an illusion. Neither is discussing pure physicality in this debate, just using physical evidence (ex. fossils and fabricated fossils) as tools of their respective argument of what reality is. In the constant, dynamic negotiation between the physical world and the self, the human-level reality is constructed and overtakes phenomenon.

2. Phenomenon Translated through Neural System: Perception

 Phenomena first pass through senses of the neural system, which acts more like a selective filtration than a documentation. Filtered through the neural system, a phenomenon that contradict its physical properties impedes the absorption of the concept of reality as a unity. Used to describe such discrepancy, the word illusion originates from Latin root “illudere,” to mock, which sets a distance from the reality. Illusions are gaps between physicality and perceived realities. Auditory illusions are an example of humans’ limitation: the world you perceive is filtered. Bach as a classical composer addressed the gap in his creation of Ant Fugue, a musical experimentation of a series of repetitive rising tones that people perceive as one continuous tone rising into infinity. The listener does not perceive the frequency drop when several identical audio tracks overlap with a slight stagger. Cyclic repetition, as it passes through our neural system, becomes translated to linear infinity

Like Bach’s Ant Fugue, there are numerous illusions happening at the neurological level. American psychologist Diana Deutsch devotes her career into a marathon research of all kinds of auditory illusions and their attributions. For instance, octave illusion describes the asymmetrical perception of soundtrack frequencies in the right and left ears, an effect that is mediated by right- or left-handedness. The most strange and riveting auditory illusion is the famous Yanny-Laurel experiment – a bi-syllabic sound that is heard as either “yanny” or “laurel”, dividing people into two groups who cannot hear what the other group hear. The trick is simple : people differ in their hearing range, and the soundtrack’s higher and lower frequency intervals alone sound different. These illusions show that humans’ epistemological channel is far from cognitive since perception can never be liberated from a selective filtration by the neural system.

Octave illusion, image from Diana Deutsch.

Once the discrepancy in perception and physicality is empirically evidenced, it supersedes phenomenon and becomes termed “phenomenon” in the new context: we say that octave illusion is a phenomenon that the left ear and the right ear perceive different frequencies from a composite soundtrack that is played in both earphones. To call something a phenomenon implies a habit of keeping a distance from it. Phenomenon is a substance, a physical process, an object that is being framed by the gaze from the subject. Compared to perception and sign downstream, phenomenon pertains less to the psyche, therefore making less sense to the human-level reality. In drawing, phenomenon can be compared to parallel projection in which spatial relationships reflect properties of the object depicted, while perception can be likened to perspective in which objects are deducted from the viewer’s  PoV. Once translated by sensory organs and neural system, phenomenon transitions into perception, moving closer to human’s subjecthood.

3. Perception is Embodied through Formal System: Sign

Humans do not ingest perception directly from the neural system – perception passes through a culturally constructed, implicit layer that treats it as a signifier, deciphers it according to rules and experience of the society inhabited, before it appears in consciousness. Our world is full of numerous signs, materially and immaterially, which mediates the experienced reality. One type of auditory illusion, named the McGurk Effect, shows the participant a video of an English-proficient person mouthing the word “far,” while playing the audio clip of “bar,” and vice versa. The listener would strongly bias toward hearing the word mouthed by the person in the video, as humans disproportionately rely on vision than other senses in negotiating with reality. The McGurk Effect’s scope of impact far exceeds octave illusion, scale illusion and Bach’s Ant Fugue in that the McGurk Effect extends beyond the laboratory setting into a common experience in the mundane world. With a non-anglicized name in an English-speaking country, I live intimately with auditory mishearing as my shadow. Every time I clearly articulate my name Yiou (pronounced as E-O), in an English-speaking environment, people likely hear Leo. I often receive a Starbucks coffee labeled Leo, and in the most extreme case, the Lyft car I called picked up a wrong person who declared that he was Leo, which was misheard by the driver as E.O. Where does that consonant “L” come from?

McGurk Effect mouth shape during word utterance, still from video by Mark Mitton and Josh Aviner.

The daily ambiguity of our experience stems from the misalignment of formal systems. In every language, a set of vocabulary with fixed meanings are the “passive signs” as defined by Hofstadter, whose meanings are relatively stable, with “difference in kinds” as characterized by Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto. Leo in the English language is one of such stable-meaning signs, so are far and bar. The beginning consonant is not important when the listener can only make meaning out of the sensory stimulus by approximating it to a stable-meaning sign. Like an image of a geometry with a dent is perceived as the whole geometry with the viewer mentally completes the dent, people find it much easier to comprehend when the sound heard is mentally completed to be a word registered in their language. Embodiment of meaning among phenomena is like the process of searching for some small fishing boats in an extremely vast sea – people subconsciously latch on to passive signs before they consciously feel something makes sense.

Reiser an Umemoto. Image scanned from Atlas of Novel Tectonics.

When the addition of a sign changes the structural meaning and the sign acquires new meaning in relation to other signs, it is an “active sign” defined by Hofstadter, and its distinction from others is a “difference by degree” as characterized by Reiser and Umemoto, contextualized, playing a role in relation to other signs. The Chinese character, or the prefix and root in a Romanized language, is an example of the active sign because its heterogeneous meaning depends on what it is combined with. The game Baba is You by Arvi Teikari is an excellent simulation of a formal system of active signs. The blocks in this minimalist, nostalgic pixel game can be moved by the player and their functions can be redefined by the player, who not only behaves according to a set of rules but also changes the rules. The role of each block in Baba is You is an active sign that is embodied not only in kind but also in context.

Active signs and passive signs not only apply to abstract systems like language, but to all dimensions of our life, folding into a three-dimensional space that is immeasurable and infinite – the formal system is a system of signs, consisting of icons, indices, and symbols. Defined by Charles Sanders Peirce, an icon bears a factual resemblance to the signified, such as a yellow flame to fire; an index shares a logical correlation with the signified, such as the smell of smoke to fire; a symbol has neither a factual resemblance nor a logical correlation, but shares an arbitrary correlation with the signified, such as the English word fire to fire.

There is an even stranger case of embodiment, as the subjective detection of color is mediated by the native language one speaks. In English, and most of the Romanized languages, blue and green are two categories of colors adjacent on the color wheel, but in terms of wavelength (physicality), blue and green are a gradient on the light spectrum. The question is, where to draw the separation line to turn a continuous spectrum into two categorical colors? In many non-Romanized languages and archaic languages, the blue-green range of colors is termed singularly, or with breaks at different locations of the gradient. For instance, in Kannada, there is a word for blue/green and a word for dark blue/green; in this case, these two Kannada vocabulary cannot be translated into English with exact fidelity – in fact, they are usually translated into “blue” and “dark blue.” People who speak a language that colexifies (terms singularly) the blue-green spectrum can also see the difference between the bluest blue and green, they can also express the exact color they see with a specifier, such as yellowish.  However, when the English-speaking person encounters the nuanced color on the range between blue and green, her formal system compels her to categorize it in her mind according to the color’s closeness to one of the signs. Perception is continuous but meaning embodiment is categorical. This is the gap between perception and consciousness: in the quest for meaning, we inevitably mentally distort physicality and draws phenomenon closer to subjecthood.

The relationship between perception and formal system is one between feeling and rationalization, the former is neurological reaction, and the latter is an arbitrary, artificial construct imposed by society. There is another large category of illusions that are not due to the neural level, but due to the signification level. Perception is like a hole in consciousness, and the brain will search exhaustively from its pre-existing repertoire of puzzle pieces for one puzzle piece to fit in the hole to complete it. This repertoire of differently shaped puzzle pieces is the formal system and each puzzle piece is a sign. The hole completed is the meaning.

The formal system is a system of myriad signs, not on paper but existing in a three-dimensional space. Phenomenon is filtered through neural system, and flushed through the formal system in a way similar to pouring a bucket of water into a three-dimensional field of drawers – most of the water is contained by the drawers, some drawers are empty, and some water that could not fill in the drawers spills over and evaporates.

4. The Constructed Reality: Alphabet-ness

In Burkina Faso, the French language dominates in schools and official institutions, partially because the country was recently liberated from colonization, and partially because the 59 tribal languages spoken in Burkina Faso long lacked a written language – a problem that shut Burkina Faso’s national identity from the third stage of culture, a symbolic culture as posited by Merlin Donald. Following Burkina Faso’s 1983 coup d’état, a nationwide campaign of literacy invented written language for the country, encoding the tribal languages with a European alphabet. This anti-colonialist language reform that borrowed the alphabet of the past colonizer provokes contradictory connotations, but the Burkinabé modernist creation marks an alignment of their language to a common sign system which, in this case, is a readymade alphabet. The alphabetization is not only a construction of a native language, but also the construction of the Burkinabé’s modern self. The self puts together a collection of non-empirically verifiable properties that stem from feeling, which is the fundamental paradox of consciousness – different from physicality, consciousness cannot be conceptualized or consolidated without an “alphabet,” either linguistic or non-linguistic.

The alphabet extends beyond its literal utility into a massive metaphor that people make sense of everything in signs of every means, formulated by Matthew Spellberg as “alphabet-ness.” Human-level reality is hinged on the familiar signs and rules of their own society as humans have an inward-looking tendency, a penchant to alphabetize our internal self, as well as alphabetize the external universe. An overactive formal system is accompanied by pareidolia, the overflowing false recognition of animated beings in objects, such as seeing a lion in the cloud or seeing faces almost everywhere: on a building façade, a sewer lid, or a pile of dirt. Pareidolia is caused by an overactive projection of alphabet-ness to the world of rich information and sensations. It may be meaningless in the practical sense in the modern society as it disregards physicality, but it is so inevitable and powerful that we cannot evade the feeling of moral extension to nonhuman and even nonlife substances. The human mind cannot help but extends our pain to empathize the pains of non-human animals, although we cannot access the phenomenological knowledge of whether animals feel pain in the same way we feel pain (scientific knowledge on the experience of pain is a different type of knowledge from the phenomenological knowledge – the direct, bodily experience of pain in the subjecthood of the other being); although modernity has long passed the mythical stage, the modern human mind still inevitably projects its own morality to land, life forms, and places as we fantasize about the “wrathful” storm and the “proud, black demon” of a storm petrel, the “abysmal” sea and the “safe” harbor.

But such single-directional fantasy, such pareidolia, and such overactive projection of our own alphabet to the world are not humans’ problem; in the contrary, this over-performing formal system is an utterly valid way to mediate the reality, real and meaningful to us humans. Despite the critique on alphabet-ness as the categorization of things for more convenient cognitive access, the visions of human-level reality feel true to us, are deeply believed by us, and actively facilitate economy, participate in society, help regulate human behavior, and maintain human conscientiousness. The projection of human pain to nonhuman animals activates strong ethos over that promotes animal welfare awareness and environmental protection; the extension of ethics to all lives, land, and natural phenomenon frames the modern relationship between human and nature; the projection of human values onto objects facilitates the ontological perspective on design.

The filtration of the neural system and the embodiment of the formal system are not reductive mechanisms as they may seem; these complexities work together to constitute the reality, which can be increasingly multiplistic.

How reality overwrites phenomenon: A review of the overarching argument as diagrammed in the loop.

5. Conclusion: Reality Overwrites Phenomenon: The Unity

 To feel real, is not the synonym of to feel rational, but it is to make sense. A reality that makes sense to one is far more powerfully real than a reality that is empirically evidenced. At some point of our social life, most people are exposed to contradictions in realities, and begin to realize that your reality is not the same as my reality. Discrepancies are either caused by differences in how the phenomenon is processed by the neural system or due to subtle differences in the formal system that turns perception to embodiment of meaning. The way reality is constructed is characterized by an extended analogy of a conduit where the raw input, phenomenon, is filtered and translated by the neural system, and then embodied in the formal system, before arriving at consciousness, with each step enacting a little bit more meaning, and pulling physicality a bit closer to subjecthood. The resulting mental image is the reality.

The notion of passing through the conduit consisting of the neural and formal systems leads to the unity of phenomenon and reality. Once a pattern in perception or embodiment is discovered and a reality is formed behind consciousness, it is equated to the phenomenon as its replacement. For instance, before discovering the auditory illusion of Ant Fugue, we speak of Ant Fugue as an infinitely rising tone, while after understanding the illusory mechanism, we speak of the same thing as the phenomenon of perceiving an linear infinity in a cyclic repetition. People’s desire for a unity in phenomenon and reality and their distaste of paradox explain why reality will eventually overwrite phenomenon; they instinctively only accept one reality in their cognition. I term this tendency to let a single human-level reality dominate our life veritocracy. Veritocrats seek to unify physicality and reality, but only the reality constructed through the conduit of consciousness makes sense to them, so they replace the initial phenomenon with the human-level reality. The conduit is not linear but cyclic.

By shaping the reality, we also shape the way we inhabit the world. The conduit has limitations coming from the translation mechanism and embodiment mechanism – neural system and formal system. Consciousness needs a formal system to operate and even over-function to prevent people from falling into the Sisyphus trap – that is, the inability to feel and loss of motivation in an estranged world of utter meaninglessness. People can escape the fate of becoming Sisyphus because they find sense from the mediation of some symbolic system, no matter it is religion or other formal systems. Coming back to the question at the beginning: does it matter whether the ivory is true or fake when truthfulness is just a mind image? It is a question of value. From an ontological stance, it matters when the two ivory are compared in one context; from an epistemological stance, it does not matter as long as there is no way to tell. From a partially ontological, partially epistemological stance, reality is only relevant in the dynamic sense.

Otherness | Digital Wunderkammer

A concept and an object.

Domenico Remps, Cabinet of Curiosities, 1690s, Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence


– Name: Otherness

– Origin and Brief Explication:

The origin of this concept is the essay “the Myth of the Other” by Zhang Longxi. The Other is created in a relative sense. It is the culture, nation or civilization different from which one identifies with. Foucault remarks observantly that one’s way of sensing and judging is so deeply rooted in the collective history to which one belongs that one ceases to be conscious of that. But he also states, in contradiction, that one enjoy art and music of many different cultures and historical periods with “equal preparedness for understanding.” However, if certain non-innate appreciative abilities are so deeply rooted in one’s cultural and historical upbringing, then one cannot possibly epistemologically treat different artifacts with the same readiness. Those phenomena that no one would question in a certain group in a certain period, those tacit puns that no one would hesitate to respond with a knowing laugh, may not be received with the same degree of understanding when presented to members of another group, because they don’t share the local, deeply wired, subconscious knowledge with them, and without information or immersive experience, may not know what to associate those phenomena or puns with. The epistemological preparedness is unequal — this is where Otherness manifests itself.


– Name: A Digital Wunderkammer (Cabinet of Curiosities)

– Explanation:

After the West and the East met, just as people are always curious about those far away places, different people, and various extremities, Renaissance bourgeoisie in Europe went through a frenzy of collecting specimens of flora and fauna from all over the world. Every upper-class family owned a “Cabinet of Curiosities,” as a way of collecting, archiving, and flaunting their curiosity for knowledge, desire for treasure, and vanity. But most of all, it is the early modern man’s attempt at probing Otherness, even by an object or a few, or just a scrap.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is an archive of Otherness. It sets up an angle, and mediates the relation between the looker and the looked, between the here and there, in which the cabinet as a piece of furniture becomes situated in the cultural zone of familiarity which the owner identifies with, and places the collection of objects in the cabinet somewhere that’s distant, as the looked. There ought to be a cabinet, as a symbol not only of ownership, but of distance. The Westerners hunted many exotic animals to extinction by the frenzy of the Cabinet of Curiosities, competing who was it to proudly claim the largest, longest, most beautiful or strangest creature in their Cabinet. Before animal protection and environmental awareness came to be, the Cabinet of Curiosities induced plenty of dark trades and vicious effects on ecology and colonialization. The Eighteenth Century’s enthusiasts for the Cabinet of Curiosities were unaware of the mediating effects of the Cabinet.

On my trip to and during my stay in the Domain of Unexpected Beneficence, I will also carry a “Cabinet of Curiosities,” but with the awareness of its mediation of Otherness. I want to bring with me a thing to collect, study, and commemorate the finds of the Domain and to document my own thoughts and emotions that arise from them, but due to the historical scar left by the Cabinet of Curiosities, I will only collect a digital picture, text, and model for each find. Therefore, I propose to include the Digital Cabinet in my carrier.

There are three types of people classified with regards to their ways to treating the Other. The first type of people worship the Other. Once they travel to a new land or place, see architecture and social customs that are different from what they identify with, they are as subsumed in awe as a pious connoisseur in Renaissance standing in front of the largest alligator skull in his friend’s Cabinet of Curiosities. These people tend to copy the elements of the Other, especially, as I am most concerned, in the way of architecture. The second type of people condescend upon the Other. They self-identify as coming from a more advanced civilization and dismiss the tangible and intangible culture of the Other as primitive and need to be enlightened. They tend to “offer help” to the Other. I, with my Digital Cabinet, am the third type that looks at the Other eye to eye, with respect, dignity, an open mind and intellectual curiosity. This intellectual curiosity is not material in that I do not desire to possess parts of the Other. All I need is a Digital Cabinet that would help me collect, document, and archive my finds in the form of digital images so that I stay clear of relics.

After all, the reason why I travel to the Domain of Unexpected Beneficence — similar to the reason why I travel at all — is to break the boundary between the Other and the Self. Too often we tend to accentuate our differences, as Borges formulates his view on Otherness, and I completely agree with Borges that we should venture into the Other, not because we want to possess the Other, but totally the opposite, because only through immersion in different peoples, cultures, and civilizations that we could gradually open up our provincial understanding, cease to indulge in our single-sided narratives of the Other, and desensitize ourselves from the shocks produced by the differences from our deep-rooted ways of appreciation.

Maze, Labyrinth, and the Search for Consciousness

The garden mazes and labyrinths existent today are pleasurable structures, innocuous relics from a foregone time, with their recreational duty so pure that an interest in them would be associated with childlike propensities. The fear for the labyrinth only existed in the deep past, from the fantasized conjecture of its criminal nature intertwined with our anxiety. In Greek mythology, the king Minos of Crete commissioned the most prominent architect of the country, Daedalus, to build the most intricate structure in the world to permanently imprison the cursed monster Minotaur. Daedalus built a labyrinth to which any person who entered could never find the way out. It was a black hole. The lost would wander forever, doomed in the fatalistic prophecy of the encounter with a human-feeding monster. At that time, Crete, the regional dominance, demanded its subservient state Athens to send Athenian youths to the labyrinth to feed Minotaur each year. The tribute continued until the heroic Theseus successfully slayed the monster and navigated his way out the impossible labyrinth with the help of a thread offered by Crete’s princess Ariadne.

The key notion of Ariadne’s thread was the distinction between one path and many pathways. The modern consensus on the difference between a maze and a labyrinth is that a maze is multicursive and the labyrinth unicursive, the labyrinth of Minotaur was multicursive, or people would escape just by reversing their direction and following along the single pathway whereby they have entered. Without the thread, any mortal darer of the labyrinth would find himself lost at the intersection of multiple pathways whose progressions couldn’t be seen through and such uniquely human myopia renders him mad. The explorer is myopic; God is omniscient. The labyrinth’s function is to entangle, to confuse, to arrest the explorer’s ability to discern truth from fallacy. Everyone is rendered myopic except the architect. In a way, this architect is omniscient just as God is. The implication is that for a totalitarian monarch to secure his absolute power the architect must be put to death. Indeed, architects in the ancient empires were killed for the cryptic labyrinthine structures they made. Built in 208 BC, the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor was an intricate and complex underground network of cryptic chambers and pathways designed and constructed by the master architects of the time to defend it against tomb raiders. Unbeknownst to the architects and workers, once the mausoleum was near completion, every one of them was buried alive inside the underground maze of their own ingenuity. The secret of navigating out would never surface.

The labyrinth and the maze are both centripetal in the way they are repetitive. A round plate looks the same from the center whichever direction the gaze is fixed, disabling human’s visuospatial perception. But when you are located away from the center of the circle, distance measurement becomes meaningful. The mechanism with which the maze confines people is that it always put the explorer at its center, psychologically and experientially. The repetition of structure in the maze and the repetition of turns in the labyrinth appear as the numerous exit points on a circle’s circumference. Having too many choices is the same as having no choice. In Borges’s allegorical story Two Kings and Two Labyrinths, the antithesis of a complex built labyrinth, the desert, powerfully symbolizes this frustration. Whichever direction the confined king looks is infinite uniformity; wherever he moves, he is at the center. He eventually dies in the labyrinth, although there is no labyrinth. He cannot escape the center, although there is no circle. This allegory hints at the architecture we build on a spectrum of complexity: the most intricate structure that human can achieve and the simplest structure both evoke the long-lost, ancient fear for labyrinthine non-consciousness. Both ultimate deliberation and ultimate randomness are labyrinths, and everything built in real life is in between two labyrinths of opposite but convergent natures.

The fear for labyrinths and mazes is long since abandoned, and gone with it is perhaps the obsession with the repetitive loop-like sublimity. Duality has become the leading mode of thought in Western, Christian civilizations. Christianity is monotheistic. One end of the game is Heaven, and the other end is Hell. The Gothic spires endeavoring to reach Heaven are the remnants of the biblical Tower of Babel, embodying human’s bipolar mindset of the high and the low, and a desire to intersect with the divine. The labyrinth ceased to evoke awe or fear for its convoluted centripetal forces, and the upcast eye adopts a new sublimity formed by the Heaven-Hell divide. Such a philosophy underlies the phenomenon that the subjectively perceived center of a landscape is not necessarily its geometric center, but usually the building of vertical dominance, especially when this structure is a church. The labyrinth had religious and symbolic significance only in the pre-Christian period, and finds little relevance in the Christian admiration for soaring verticality derived from the Heaven-Hell duality. The enigmatic fatalism that one will always arrive at the identical place doesn’t contain this duality.

In the spirituality of Christian-based cultures, the labyrinth is irrelevant. Terracotta artist Jacques Kaufman built an indoor installation consisting of an undulating pathway that rises from the floor to an exit on the ceiling, a symbol for human’s journey from Hell to Heaven. This is a wonderful architectural translation of the duality concept. The labyrinth is only relevant to people who don’t regard the church with any spiritual associations. Contrary to the duality, the Oriental myths are usually characterized by a non-bipolar, loop relationship between cosmic elements, forces, morals, and states of existence. For instance, the ancient Indian fable collection Panchatantra documented a classical paradigm of circular worships. In the myth, the Sun was thought to be the most powerful in the Universe, but he is overcome by the Cloud; the Cloud is more powerful than the Sun, but even he is overcome by the Wind; the Wind is overcome by the Mountain; the Mountain is overcome by the small mice, who are considered inferior to the Sun. In the mutually generative and mutually conquering relationships, each part is the center of the whole chain, and starting from any place you will eventually return to the same place – it relates to the unraveling of a labyrinth. The centripetal labyrinth was found in physical form, including one in Gedimedu over 2000 years of age, and the serpentine coil on which Vishnu sits. In cultures that relate to a convoluted, non-dual sublimity, monuments rarely exhibit great verticality.

The maze and the labyrinth symbolize the journey in search of consciousness. As a common practice in recreational corn mazes, the “destination” where people can climb stairs to an elevated viewing platform reward the seekers with omniscience that is transient. Soon the explorers, in navigating their way out, will again be submerged in myopic pains of repetitions, lest their memory of the structure viewed from above can sustain for a long while. Bjarke Ingels built a centripetal maze in Washington D.C. that reversed the practice of elevating the “destination,” but lowered the walls surrounding the center of the maze. The same effect of omniscience is achieved. Compared to the sudden enlightenment in the destination of the corn maze, the Bjarke Ingels maze makes this transition from the non-conscious to the conscious state more gradual, with more visual information of the structure revealed at locations closer to the center. The contemporary survival of mazes and labyrinths are the ones that emphasize the process in which consciousness is attained through physical movement and the enigmatic pleasure from it. The original labyrinth of confinement continues its crime in reminiscence of an archaic past.


   Each city has one or two trees that grow best in its climate and suits best in its urban fabric. When you see roads canopied by rows of huge trees, bifurcating at the trunk, you know you are in Nanjing. The trees are oriental planes (Platanus orientalis), the characteristic tree seen on the sides of every street, in every neighborhood of the former capital. In summer, giant green canopies on both sides of a typical Nanjing street interlace in the middle, like two arms crossing into an embrace, shading people and traffic. The warm, gentle green giants have been nourishing Nanjing, and nurturing each Nanjinger. When you see small trees with delicate, alternate leaves in many leaflets, you are in Beijing. The tree is Japanese pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum), which is unfortunately named because it is native to China, and introduced to Japan. The pagoda tree flower is one of the 50 core essences of Chinese herb medicine, and its Chinese name has a mythological origin. The pagoda tree is one of the two signature trees of Beijing. The ginkgo is the other one. The gingko is a living fossil, quite an unusual plant whose presence on earth can be traced to the Permian. Although the gingko is cultivated all over the world, the only natural habitat for the gingko is Beijing and its surroundings on the same latitude. The gingko’s natural specificity interwoven with the city officials’ programming efforts creates a golden autumn in old Beijing alleys when the trees all dress themselves up in cascading, pure lemon yellow leaf fireworks. The golden gingko and the dark-barked S. japonicum have delineated the identity of Beijing.

   The urban planners of Nanjing and Beijing have followed nature’s call in the choice of their city trees, not imposing artificial selection on altering the existing nature of the cities, but accentuating the natural condition. The trees’ nativity and the city’s municipal design had together created a beautiful and long-lasting urban ecosystem and streetscape, and they have been successful in making the signature tree species known to the people living in the city. Beijingers are proud of their trees! Oh my! When I see a Japanese pagoda tree, I immediately feel a connection — it may be a psychological, social, or ecological connection to my city. As an avid traveller I have seen gingkoes in many cities abroad, and every time I encounter one, I shout out: “it is MY gingko!” I don’t say it is “a gingko,” I am used to saying it is “my gingko.” Often people don’t perceive how much information their word choice contains. I realized that certain trees to certain people have become a cultural tie to a city, a type of city identity that I call “arboridentity.” In the age of globalization, gentrification, and modernization, cities tend to grow to be alike, instead of growing to be unique. On the road to conformity, some cities are losing their traditional identities or altering them. While it is a controversial process, arboridentity remains stubborn in the wave of change since native vegetation has an unsurpassable affinity to the land it owns. Already more than a natural phenomenon, trees in certain cities have become an embodied cognition, profoundly embodied in this area’s history, atmosphere, climate, hydrology, folklore, and everyday language.

   When I came to America, studying at Duke, I was quick to discover, with some surprise initially, an aspect of American culture that I wasn’t aware of before. Americans don’t know their trees. Beside a small number of tree huggers and outdoor hobbyists, most inhabitants of a city can’t name the species of their prevalent trees. Tree identification is perceived in the expert realm, not culturally embedded. There are exceptions too. If you ask a random Durhamite, what kind of tree is the large evergreen with smooth leaves and snow white, lotus-shaped flowers? You will probably get the answer “it is the southern magnolia,” which sounds just as magnificent as its flowers look. It is one of the most common trees in Durham, North Carolina, and many southern states. But I’ve noticed that in the North Carolinian cities the southern magnolia functions primarily as an ornamental backyard tree, whereas it rarely appears on the street side or in public spaces. The magnolia is the opposite of low-key, but has a particular, showy, flamboyant character that may create a spectacular alternative effect if planted along streets and incorporated in the city view. While it is an attractive hypothesis, we will need more information on how the tree alters landscape both above and underground and how it manages hydrology before proposing to establish it as the city tree or state tree of any place.

   If small cities like Durham really want to fasten their process of development, they will inevitably face the issue of tree choice, because urbanization requires intentionality to every detail. Hypothesize that we hired a team of researchers, and surveyed native-born Durham inhabitants with questions: what are the tree(s) in your memory of childhood? What tree(s) first come to your mind when you think about Durham? Have you experienced encounters with familiar trees that brings you feelings of home when you traveled outside of Durham? Synthesizing the results with gardening and ecology experts’ analysis, we can be intentional and thoughtful of the big picture in making decision on how to form and express an arboridentity of the developing Durham. Since the arboridentity has always been latent in the area, but never has been articulated, the underlying insects and birds local to the area will stay compatible with the new municipally established arboridentity. Not limited to trees, there are many currents, forces, elements, and systems always existent in a city but never articulated. In the ideal city I envision, one of the major goals is to articulate the unarticulated.

   To articulate is to delineate, to educe the essence from a place, without exerting arbitrary forces upon it. Too often decision makers start from the question what trees cope best in the climate, whether people need big shades or small shades, whether planting this species of tree does damage to the construction of the site, etc. While all of these are valid questions and some are necessary to every design, I think we should start by asking this first question: what has been already existing in the city, and what is embodied in the city dwellers’ cognition? To educe is to bring the essence out and make it pronounced. I spent my first two college years only knowing the spring and fall of North Carolina. Due to an internship in the summer between my second and third years, I stayed two months in Raleigh and I was stunned.  Raleigh by the way is nicknamed the Oak City. Having never experienced summer in North Carolina, for the first time, I witnessed the passion of the Oak City — fiery red and pink crape myrtles blooming like a beautiful parade along city streets, roads, they were everywhere. Being continuously amazed on my daily commuting trips, I realized how impactful trees can be to the perceptual, atmospheric and cultural qualities of a city. And on the other hand, it made me ponder why I hadn’t noticed such a breathtaking arboridentity before. Coming from a large metropolis, I easily falsely assumed that the Raleigh-Durham downtown area was duller than it actually is. That summer of fiery crape myrtles opened my eyes to a kind of arboridentity that is wildly seasonal, and perhaps a more important insight is you can never fail to discover the excitement of a place as long as you’ve stayed there long enough. I was also incredibly lucky, I admit, to have traveled extensively which fostered a sensitivity to arboridentity and other parameters of uniqueness that differ across cities. So it is important to articulate arboridentities through investigation and implementation, to make them salient to a wider population. That summer, that awakening of Raleigh’s passion, was unforgettable because this particular facade of city identity was unseen in other cities. Crape myrtles in Beijing are more sparsely planted, primarily a small residential yard plant, and Chinese prefer light pinks and light violets to bright saturated varieties. Crape myrtles are not unique to Raleigh, but this passionate, seasonal carnival is. When you live enough time in a city, you will feel an irresistible cry from the land: “Love the trees of the city you dwell upon!” The crape myrtles that made me love Raleigh, which many people always pass by but rarely see, are the awakening of the city’s passion!

Who Is Il Sodoma and Who Perpetuated His Ghost

When people think of Il Sodoma, more myths come to their mind than knowledge, more questions are raised than answers found. Il Sodoma was the name given to the painter whose real name was Giovanni Antonio Bazzi,  because Vasari suggested that he had taken an indecent interest in “boys and beardless youth” (Vasari).

Because Vasari disliked Giovanni Antonio, Vasari created a defamatory portrait of him as bestial, licentious, capricious, and undeserving of his artistic achievement.  Despite many modern scholars’ effort to deny this perpetuating image, evidence has shown that Sodoma deserves his nickname. There has been immense attention disproportionally directed to his personal life compared to his career, but he was the leading painter of Sienna in the early 16th century.

Sodoma was a prolific artist of frescoes and easel paintings. Born in Vercelli in Piedmont in 1477, Sodoma studied under a local Lombard artist, the “archaic” Matino Spanzotti. He also studied under the painter Giovenone. Mastering the strong coloration of Lombard school, he absorbed the sfumato of Leonardo Da Vinci in his style.

After early years of study, Sodoma settled down in Sienna, where he was commissioned his first important commission—the frescoes of a little convene, ST. Anna, in Creta. Then he executed the Life of St. Benedict frescoes at Monte Oliveto Maggiore, perhaps his most successful, though controversial commission. His other important works include the fresco despicting St Catherine in the Basilica of San Dominico, Allegory of Celestial Love, Deposition of the Cross, The Marriage of Alexander and Roxanne, The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine, St. Sebastian (1525), and Trequenda.

Giovanni Antonio Bazzi was born at Vercelli, in Piedmont, in 1477. His father Giacomo was actually a descendant of a Vercellese noble lineage, but due to unfortunate fate reduced to a shoemaker. Although not affluent, Giacomo Bazzi was a master of shoemaking that he was considered a social equal to a bourgeois (Cust, 1906). Settling in Siena afterwards, Sodoma became one of Siena’s most beloved children “by adoption” (Cust, 1906, 54), due to his long-term contribution to her school of painting.


Spanzotti’s Influence

Martino Spanzotti, one of the leading artists of Lombardy of the time, accepted Giovanni Antonio as his apprentice, since he reached age twelve orthirteen. His father Giocomo signed a conventional, seven-year contract with Maestro Spanzotti, that his eldest son would be a faithful servant of Maestro Spanzotti’s in exchange for the master’s teaching.

Maestro Spanzotti had a style that could be characterized by some sort of dignified simplicity. Spanzotti was traditionally trained and very few of his works survived to present day, but he left a trace in his pupils’ paintings that were very different in their own sense but shared a taste in beauty that reflects his training. Spanzotti had a pronounced influence on Bazzi could be seen not from the apparent, superficial coloration and composition, but from the aesthetics and the eye of Bazzi that in his whole artistic career yearned for beauty.


Leonardo’s Influence

At the turning of the century, Leonardo Da Vinci had achieved enormous popularity around Vercelli and his influence was seen in many artists’ works.  At that time, our artist Giovanni Antonio already had his own style established. And it was not clear whether Bazzi had apprenticed directly with Leonardo, but like many of his contemporaries, Bazzi absorbed his own sip of the strong “Leonardorian” flavor in his soft, multi-layered, and almost therapeutic treatment of textures that was not distinct in his old master Spanzotti’s works. The technique, known as sfumato, is unmistakably Leonardo.


Vasari’s Representation of Il Sodoma: The Lustful, Animal Man

While we can’t discount the value of Giorgio Vasari in bringing life to the prominent Renaissance artists and architectures even six centuries later, that Lives recorded Vasari’s biases and willful distortions is undeniable. Usually, the painters, architects or sculptors who were alive during Vasari’s time and who maintained a good relationship with Vasari, and those artists who met his standards, enjoy a flattering tone in his narration. Whereas the less fortunate ones, who Vasari disliked or rivaled against, suffer undeserved obloquy originated from Vasari’s deft rhetoric of their vices, substantiated or not.

Giovanni Antonio Bazzi is among these unfortunate ones. Vasari prefaced the chapter on him by a metaphysical discussion of how people sometimes owe their success to talent, while other times to fortune. He explicitly attributed Bazzi’s accomplishments simply to his good fortunes. Vasari famously suggested that “Il Sodoma” was the name Giovanni Antonio went by proudly, a nickname that did exist, but due to Vasari, has become the first thing that comes to mind when the world comes to appraise this great painter of multi-faceted personality.

The core criticism that Vasari placed on Sodoma, obviously centers on immorality, because Sodoma supposedly lived in a “Noah’s Ark” (Vasari, Lives, 1550) with a variety of animals, and because he was often seen frolicking with boys and young men (1568), which couldn’t be more scandulous during his time. Some scholars validate this nickname, “Il Sodoma,” by stating that evidence was found that Bazzi indulged in the company by young men and that his wife left him in disgust (Freedberg, 1993), while some argue that the exact historical fact is hard to tell (Cust, 1906).

Apart from his ambivalent sexual orientation, Bazzi’s depiction of animals in his frescoes somehow provoked anger in Vasari, leading him to conclude that Bazzi was just as wild, as licentious, and perhaps as primitive as his artistically expressive animals. It should be an instrument with which Vasari confirmed his judgment of the immorality of Sodoma.

Sodoma, a Nickname Immortalized

“Giovanni Antonio, when young and in good repute, took for his wife in Siena a girl born of a very good family, and had by her in the first year a daughter. But after that, having grown weary of her, because he was a beast, he would never see her more; and she, therefore, withdrawing by herself, lived always on her own earnings and on the interest of her dowry, bearing with great and endless patience the beastliness and the follies of that husband of hers, who was truly worthy of the name of Mattaccio which, as has been related, the Monks of Monte Oliveto gave him.”

— Vasari, Life of Sodoma


Out of all the sins Vasari alleged of Sodoma, the nickname itself is the most damaging and yet probably the most interesting to take a close look at.

It is notable that Vasari’s Lives was published 19 years after Sodoma’s death, and Sodoma did not leave any progeny close to him or pupil devoted to him to defend his reputation by that time (Cust, 1906). Furthermore, unlike Michelangelo or Leonardo, Giovanni Antonio was born to a declined noble lineage and a shoemaker father. Without influential powers in the society to speak for him or elevate his success, Giovanni Antonio acheived his knighthood and artistic accomplishments on his own. After he died, his lack of well-off social connections may play into Vasari’s courage to attack him outside the realm of art. Vasari placed the defamatory line about how the painter acquired his nickname Sodoma in the beginning of Life of Sodoma, as if being a knight and a prominent master of Siena, or having painted the frescoes at Monte Oliveto suddenly lose their glamour, and that the first and foremost quality of the man is his indecent interest in young men.

Giovanni Antonio Bazzi was not documented to have any nickname before Olivetan friars called him Il Mattaccio, the Madman, around 1512. Another circumstance related to the name Sodoma was the Palio in Florence, in the year of 1515. According to Vasari, Sodoma, who was always fond of animls, owned a Barbary horse and it won the race. When asked the name of the owner, he exclaimed “Sodoma! Sodoma!” However, Cust suggests in his 1906 study of Giovanni Antonio that he was invited to participate in racing horses by his friend Jacomo V’ d’Appiano, with a group of people, and that Sodoma was one of their usual racing appellations.

Many of the Renaissance painters and sculptors had ambivalent relationships with young males. The amiable Leonardo and the godly Michelangelo, who also sought male companionship of their pupils or models, both were able to escape Vasari’s poisonous verdict. Just as Ladis claims in “Victims and Villains,” Lives is more of an artistic and literary effort to tell a story, which is compiled from stories the author had heard during his travels, distilled by the author’s own lens of judgment, than a scholar’s rigorous research in pursuit of historical verity.

Name, an important label and the most succinct identification card, deserves due respect or will be prone to misinterpretation that perpetuates generation after generation. Because of Vasari’s Modern debates around the name Sodoma is more like a tug-of-war than an actual evidence-based research, and the latter seems impossible from the scarcity of documentation available. One question to raise, however, is to what extent we should associate one person’s artistic merit with this person’s personal life and idiosyncrasies, if we should at all. Certainly, an artist is not an isolated entity, nor the artist’s works. But inference drawn upon arbitrary guesses can do more damage than justice, as demonstrated by Vasari’s prejudiced account of Sodoma. Once the past is past, nothing can resurrect it better than artworks, but artworks only solidify moments; therefore when we say, let artworks speak for the artist, what they respond is not the full, live person. It is an ongoing debate.


What Exactly is Vasari Criticizing Sodoma about?

A wild and eccentric individual in most Vasari readers’ eyes, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi lived a more ordinary life than people conjure. However, completely whitewashing this artist is not attempted in this book. The man is a mixture of complex characters, which Vasari and modern art historians explored alike. Some art historians chime in to voice a different perspective, that they believe that the main criticism of Vasari was on Bazzi’s intemperate conduct, that caused him to lose his wealth in his late years, and (as Vasari claimed) to have died in want.