Wayfinding in Wittgenstein’s World: 88 Constellations
By Kirstin Butler
How do you represent one of history’s famous philosophers, a man who wrote abstruse texts about the nature of representation itself? If you’re Canadian artist David Clark, you create the ambitious online art piece 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (to be played with the Left Hand).
Clark wrote, produced, and directed the Flash-based site 88 Constellations, a kind of stream-of-consciousness narrative-as-game and an ingenious treatment of some of the 20th century’s greatest cultural touchstones, from the highs to the lows. Navigating its universe is like playing a Choose Your Own Adventure with one of history’s greatest philosophers as the protagonist. The best part is that you can play without any prior knowledge of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which makes the work a bravura feat and great fun all at once.
You start out with the introductory animation, which invites you to “join the dots together; make pictures in the sky. Connect the muddle of our thinking to these drawings in the sky. This story is about a man named Wittgenstein. He was a philosopher. His life was a series of moments, and our story is a series of constellations.” From there, you’re presented with a celestial map and an intricately interlocking set of ideas and images that unfold from the central point, Orion, the constellation chosen to symbolize the philosopher himself.
“Who is Ludwig Wittgenstein?” asks the narrator in a voiceover.
There were so many… He was a boy who didn’t talk until he was four years old. he was an engineer who designed propellors. He was a schoolteacher in rural Austria. He was an architect who designed an elaborate modernist house for his wealthy sister. He was one of the richest men in Europe after his father died but he gave all his money away and lived off of his wages. He was a whistler and a lover of music. He was an aesthete. He was a homosexual; he was an exile…”
All that and we haven’t even gotten to the philosophy yet.
Like its subject, 88 Constellations is in fact many things: an interactive online film, a biography of the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and a selective history of Europe over a period spanning both World Wars. Whatever you call it, it’s a satisfyingly rich, fully realized experience that could be used as a case study in maximizing the web’s narrative capacity.
From Orion, you can branch out in any order to other stellar clusters on topics ranging from Godard to the Twin Towers. Each constellation launches a short animated film, from which point you can connect to other stars along the same vector. This is how, on one particular journey, we learned such arcana as the fact that Psycho was the first film ever to show a toilet flushing, and that the widow of the film’s lead actor, Anthony Perkins, perished on American Airlines flight 11 when it crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
Such a seemingly random connection is typical of 88 Constellations, a quality that makes it a very clever conspiracy theorist’s dream; because the cumulative effect of these pieces is the feeling of a system that’s not so random after all. Perhaps, we found ourselves at one point thinking, there was some heuristic as rigorous as Wittgenstein’s philosophical logic that could illuminate all of the connections — if only we could figure it out. Clark skillfully plays to this sensation of mastery just beyond our reach.
For example, on the significance of the number 88: the number of constellations in the night sky; the number of keys on a piano; a component of the year 1889, in which Wittgenstein, Charlie Chaplin, and Adolf Hitler were born within days of each other; the age at which Chaplin died; and an integer no longer found on the back of German athletic jerseys (the eighth letter of the alphabet is H, and so the number 88 could be taken to symbolize “HH,” or “Heil Hitler”).
Sometimes the revelations provide pure entertainment. On constellation number 55, Leo, the narrator tells us the following:
[A] lion appears on the screen and roars. if lions could talk then we wouldn’t understand them,’ Wittgenstein wrote. ‘Language is about sharing a view of the world. A lion and a man could never share their world view.’ Leo, the mascot of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer got this name from Samuel Leo Goldwyn, one of the founders of the studio. Goldwyn, a Polish emigre, was famous for his propensity to mangle the English language in paradoxical ways, something that became known as Goldwynisms. ‘A verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.’
The piece, which was started in 2004 and finished in 2008, brings the ideas and life of a commanding intellectual figure from another era into our own digital one, while retaining all of his complexity. You can learn more about 88 Constellations on the project’s blog, including the meaning of its ambiguous southpaw-referencing subtitle.
Take a trip down the rabbit hole that is 88 Constellations — and find out why the rabbit itself was an important part of the philosopher’s seminal treatise, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
Published February 3, 2010