Mechanology (4)

This is my summary in English of part 4 of a 5 part video interview of Gilbert Simondon by Jean Le Moyne.


Further, by diving back in time one can find the poetic power of that which was once extremely perfect and which one day will perhaps destroyed, by the progression of an evolution which is extremely and very dramatically negating of that which was once nevertheless an innovation; Look at the steam locomotives or the great ships that have been set aside because they are outmoded. « Obsolescence » is an economic reality, but alongside economic obsolescence there is a sort of poetic ascent which has not been sufficiently highlighted. We lack technological poets.

Q: Perhaps here we can talk of reveries related to diverse machinic orders: reveries of steam, or of electricity. Determining very external imagery of alternation and of power, or determining reveries of certitude and of continuity. Should our research go in this direction?

S: I am not competent enough. Do you mean to link continuity and electricity?

Q: Yes, because of the rotatory motion. I was thinking of course of the alternator, which gives an illusion of continuity and certainty, as the cycle is conserved and speed is conserved.

S: And the other characteristic, that of alternation, corresponds to steam?

Q: It’s a manifestation of power by gesticulation, by a sort of cinematic frenzy.

S: Yes, of course, it’s an interesting point of view. But the turbine, for a steam engine is rotative and not at all alternative.. Further, even when it is alternative the steam engine differs from electricity in that it possesses an internal power, a considerable internal accumulation of energy. I used to use a « locomobile » to saw wood, a mobile sawmill. At a pressure of 8k it could still keep a sawtable active for an hour and a half, without heating up. No electric motor could do that. The electric motor is a poor thing which needs a network., as soon as the network breaks down the motor stops. Even a three-phase motor ceases to function when just one of its phases fails, whereas a steam engine is the sovereign of continuity, because it contains a powerful reservoir. During the war we were happy to have steam engines on the disassembled networks. They could go almost anywhere, as long as there were rails, even if they were damaged.

I agree with this poetry, but it must not be too pointillist, too phenomenological, as phenomenology relies only on perception, and that is terribly dangerous. We must go to the bottom of things, and see reality, and above all the user must feel the reality, and not the spectator.

Q:I was very surprised to hear you say that the alternator is a poor machine because it depends on the network. Isn’t this rather an advantage, whereas the steam engine is isolated?

S: Yes, but the steam engine is more universal. It can run on wood or coal, even low quality coal. You can heat it with anything, whereas the alternator needs a source of energy of several kilowatts, or at least of several hundred watts, which can hardly be supplied by the network. The network (the grid) is fallacious (deceptive): it is not absolutely constant. It’s very useful, but it is a servitude to be plugged into the network. For example, a car doesn’t need the network, it carries its own reserves of fuel, it goes further, it is more supple.

Q: But its autonomy is temporary, it depends on the network in many ways.

S: It depends on a different type of network, on a network where the contact does not need to be constantly maintained, whereas the alternator must maintain its contact with the network by pole, trolley, or socket, or some other permanent system.

Q: But the fact that we can say that electricity is always of good quality, doesn’t that have ny consequences for our poetic and rational understanding of electric machines. Electricity can be weak, but its quality is invariable.

S: Yes, but only if its frequency is constant! Is it? Yes, in general, in a well-constituted network, the frequency is constant.

Q: But you can never say that electricity is of low quality, there is nolow quality  electricity. Whereas coal can be of low quality, and wood, and any fuel.

S:Yes electricity can be of low quality, it all depends on the use. If you use it just for the energy, to make a universal motor turn, or to heat an iron … which amounts to degrading energy, it is always good for that. But if you want to use electricity as a starting point to produce a pure sound of frequency 50 Hertz, there is a problem, because as well as the fundamental sine wave you have tiny supplementary irregularities, which are not very pleasant when you want to visualise the sine wave.

Q2: I think Jean means the structure of the atom, the electrons, etc…

S: OK, it’s a question of purity, of electrons in transit, and not of chemical matter, of chemical substances that can be more or less refined. From a fundamental and essential point of view, I understand that purity. But from an informational point of view, it is not always the case that the currrent is what you would like it to be. A continuous current often has an important musical component, and a three-phased alterating current does not always have perfect phase relations between the three phases, nor a perfectly stable frequency, nor above all an absolute absence of harmonics.

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