Chance and Estrangement: Toward a Personal Equation

by Mariana Castillo Deball

How does your specialization look like?

In the last years my practice is based in a kaleidoscopic approach to language, in the sense that different disciplines and ways of describing the world collide with each other, generating a polyphonic voice. Another important aspect is the dialogue with institutions and museums, not necessarily linked to contemporary art, with whom I establish collaborations in different ways.
Putting an accent in the exchange process rather than on what is being exchanged, my work takes a journey through archaeology, science, literature, and technology to observe that the principle of reciprocity is never equal, that every exchange implies a transformation of all the parties involved.
I am very interested on the notion of Potlatch, in the sense that Potlatch is a gift, an offering of no saleable goods. The dictionary defines Potlatch as to consume, but the context the word calls upon is not commercial consumption but consumed by the fire: it means a gift that had to be returned until there is nothing else to give. The game might begin with the presentation of a necklace and end up with the burning of a town, thus raising the obligations of its rival to an almost impossible level. The dance of throwing away property, a form of communication between people who held nothing back, an economy of emotion and play. Potlatch is just a metaphor by means of understanding the way the small becomes huge. Its ability to simultaneously symbolize dissolution and community. Within my practice, I constantly adopt methodologies from other disciplines.
My approach to knowledge is playful. If I chose a particular discipline, the charm would be gone, because choosing this one would mean dismissing the other ones. Foremost, I respect my ignorance; otherwise it would be impossible to maintain a sense of humor. In order to solve this dilemma, I tried to find an activity in which I could keep the amusement, the pleasure, but within certain rules. As an artist, I can play this intermediate game, between science, storytelling, fiction and visual arts.

Chance and Estrangement: Toward a Personal Equation
by Mariana Castillo Deball
Translated by Jen Hofer

Somebody invented a device for making distant objects appear nearer and larger. He observed a cosmic entity that held his attention for years, finding no point of comparison in the immense firmament with what he could see through the lenses. It was colorful and changed very quickly depending on alterations of light. He made a precise cartography of the object, describing and naming seas, mountains, and slow motion thunderstorms. His discovery was so important that he let nobody touch the instrument, scared that his images would be stolen. One night, while his eyes slowly closed from exhaustion, a curious colleague furtively entered the room and looked through the instrument. The intruder realized that the inventor was not looking at a special entity in the sky; the object in question was even closer than he could ever expect. It was a magnified image of his own iris in the lens.1

In astronomical observatories, a routine aspect of the measurement process is determined at the moment that a planet or star crosses the meridian. As researchers make simultaneous observations of the same object, their measurements differ systematically; the same observer might even encounter distinct results depending on his or her concentration and habitual manner of executing a particular measurement. The difference may be minimal, yet significant when it comes time to perform large-scale calculations. This is represented by what is known in astronomy as the personal equation, an element of correction that is added to the measurements performed by a particular individual. Each individual is defined by a curve that represents her or his personal process of measurement adjustments, with a custom-designed margin of error.

The establishment, in the 19th century, of a methodology for including the personal equation as a further variable within observations was important in astronomy, but it was also one of the first methods through which chance, probability and systematic measurement came together to create a consensus. However, it was in the field of experimental psychology where the personal equation radically changed the parameters, contributing to a completely different conception of the subject.

Around 1850, the brilliant and strange Gustav Fechner, one of the pioneers of experimental psychology, began to wonder – as simple as it sounds – how well a person might distinguish among objects of slightly different weights. In his experiments, he used a method of trial and error. The subject, usually Fechner himself, would encounter two boxes, one heavier than the other, and would have to indicate, in a series of tests, which was the heavier one. The proportion of correct judgments indicated sensitivity to differences in weight. But did a general rule exist regarding a subject’s personal capacity to discriminate? In effect, this question had to do with a probability curve similar to the personal equation.

In other experiments, Fechner was interested in after images (images we continue to see after we shift our gaze from a well-lit form). He believed that it was more credible to use his own body as an object of study, since he was intimately familiar with his own reactions and could distinguish the most subtle variations with precision. Looking directly at the sun for hours, he tried to study the behavior of the ghost image, the afterimage that is created when we cease to look directly at a light source. Through these experiments, he demonstrated that the contrast of collateral images depends on the subject and not on the photic properties of the object, as had been thought previously. He likewise realized – first-hand – that afterimages are the result of retinal fatigue following prolonged stimulation. These experiments led Fechner to a nervous collapse, exacerbated by an eye injury that caused him to become temporarily blind. Secluded in a dark room for three years, with a paper mask on his face, Fechner began to write his metaphysical lucubration regarding the relationship between mind and body.

We can observe two opposing currents within the history of subjectivity. On the one hand, throughout the 19th century, the issue was to make experimentation objective; among other things, this entailed the retreat of the scientist as subject. Once an experiment becomes standardized, mechanical or automated tools should be responsible for making measurements, thus assuring objectivity.

Exploring a completely different territory, auto-experimentation and introspective methods dilute the border between subject and object, body and mind, scientific experiment and personal experiment. The object and subject thus share a generative process that terminates in their differentiation. Like Fechner, auto-experimenters ran the risk of being excluded from the academy, as their practice questioned the very foundations of scientific method.

In addition to Fechner, other researchers like Moreau de Tours and William James continually traversed the borders of subjectivity. It’s important to note that despite the poetic or subjectivist bent we might infer from these investigations, Fechner’s intention, for example, was not to exaggerate the details of his individuality; on the contrary, in order to control it, he tried to measure and calculate variability in the reactions of an individual in a particular circumstance. Auto-experimentation put a new conception of the subject on the table – one in which the subject and its object of study were reciprocally transformed.

Fechner attacked the problem with an astronomical mirror, but instead of directing it toward the stars, he focused on his own reactions, so much so that he managed to become estranged from himself; as he minutely observed his internal and perceptive processes, what was most familiar became suddenly alien. His attention crossed the border of the familiar, reaching a new territory in which the subject dissolves the membranes that distinguish him from the exterior world.

The notion of the stranger refers to an individual that has experienced a process of exclusion and is different from or alien to a particular circumstance. On the contrary, the notion of estrangement recalls a gaze that becomes diluted in undifferentiated territory, immersed in a moment in which the cohesion of the individual disappears.

Estrangement is therefore the result of a meticulous gaze cast onto things, discovering aspects never before seen. In this sense, estrangement does not imply a distanced attitude, but rather a continual and active observation of the surroundings.

In his essay on estrangement, Carlo Ginzburg writes: ‹Tolstoy viewed human conventions and institutions with the gaze of a horse or a child: as strange, opaque phenomena, emptied of the meanings generally attributed to them. In his eyes, simultaneously impassioned and distanced, things revealed themselves as they really are.›2

In relation to artistic practice, research and even the construction of history, estrangement is closely linked to chance. There is a point at which the observer, in the attempt to erase all preconceived notions, to take estrangement to its ultimate consequences, finds her or himself before a world that lacks categories, a collection of materials linked only by chance.

In an interview, Ginzburg spoke of his working methods: ‹It all began by chance – like most of the other discoveries I have made in my career as an historian. I believe that at decisive junctures in the research process one must allow oneself to be stupid – simply to dwell in the state of not understanding. That leaves one open to those chance occurrences from which unexpected discoveries spring… Isn’t it true, though, that everything is connected with everything else? I’m convinced that it is. That’s not as ridiculous as you are trying to make out. But we must remember not to formulate this idea as an answer. As an answer, it is totally trivial, a complete dead end. If we turn it into a question, on the other hand, then it’s just a matter of getting started.›3

The construction of identity is not a simple linear process; it is an epileptic process in which the membranes of the individual and the transit of indigenous and alien elements are continually negotiated. Italo Calvino refers to this movement when he speaks of the author as a spasmodic machine that attempts to reconcile chance and determinism in a single mechanism, a system of relationships among things that aspire to a map – a catalogue or encyclopedia of the possible, harkening back to a genealogy of causes and further causes, aspiring to link all histories in one in the heroic attempt to liberate itself from the density of facts, constructing in opposition to them a cognitive tangle, a personal equation.

Estrangement thus becomes a tool that is part of the creative process, implying an oscillation between understanding and not understanding. Making us conscious of the way we create narratives, discourses and histories, it alerts us to the opposition between the fragmentary nature of knowledge and its inherent tendency toward completion.

In the interview previously cited, Ginzburg recounts: ‹I came across this way of setting out material when, as a young man, I read an essay by Luigi Einaudi, a distinguished economist and economic historian who eventually became president of Italy. He was the father of Giulio, the well-known publisher. The essay was constructed as a series of numbered paragraphs – a device which appealed to my own fascination with cinema and montage. Montage corresponds to what I consider to be the constructive element in historical studies: it makes it clear that our knowledge is fragmentary and that it derives from an open process. It has always been my ambition that the uncertainty of the research process should come through in what I write – I try to portray my own hesitation, so to speak, to enable the reader to make his own judgment. Historical writing should aspire to be democratic, by which I mean that it should be possible to check our statements from without, and that the reader be a party not only to the conclusions arrived at but also to the process that led to them.›4

The writing of history that Ginzburg proposes is an open process in which the reader can follow the trajectory an author took in order to arrive at certain ideas. In this open journey, which illuminates bifurcations, omissions and intentional temporal leaps, montage plays an essential role as a combinatory tool, as it implies a mixing of styles, influences and voices which converge in the text, generating a polyphony. In some way, what Ginzburg proposes entails putting his cards on the table and encouraging the reader to participate in his game. The surrealists undertook a similar experiment when they created a repertoire of their favorite concepts, with the goal of creating new narratives via chance operations.

‹Created between 1940 and 1941 by certain members of the group (Victor Brauner, André Breton, Oscar Domínguez, Max Ernst, Jaques Hérold, Wilfredo Lam, Jaqueline Lamba, and André Masson), this deck of cards substitutes the traditional four suits – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades – with the four ideal concepts of surrealism: Love, Dreams, Understanding and Revolution. Likewise, the monarchical cards are substituted by more democratic characters, closer to the oneiric orientation of Surrealism: the Genius, the Mermaid and the Magician, in each of the suits. Among them are included: Freud as the Magician of Dreams; Baudelaire as the Genius of Love; Hegel as the Genius of Understanding; Lewis Carroll’s Alice as the Mermaid of Dreams, and others that are equally suggestive. In place of the joker appears the figure of Ubu, the bizarre monarch created by Jarry. Pancho Villa as the Magician of the Revolution is not only of interest, but is also very significant as it represents certain important aspects of what Mexico symbolized for the surrealists.›5

The deck of cards, acting as an identitary toolbox of Surrealism, unites the movement’s basic concepts and amalgamates them through a game of chance.

‹Chance, that dark deity that so mysteriously erupts into our existence, sometimes radically changing its course, was of central concern to the Surrealists even before they formed as a group. Adventure – in language, in the street or in dreams – arrives to shatter the immense wall of ennui created by predictable situations and daily routines. Through the gap opened via a collision with fate, an encounter with the marvelous might arise, and we must remember that for the Surrealists, ‘only the marvelous is beautiful.’›

‹The notion of chance, linked to a concurrence with the extraordinary, acquires in Surrealism very special characteristics. The concept of ‘chance objective,’ associated with Hegel and with Engels, recalls a situation in which, according to Breton, relationships that exist between ‘natural necessity’ (phenomenology) and ‘human necessity’ (psychology) are elucidated. In this way, suddenly (and ‘to tell the truth, rarely’) we see, as if by magic, the coincidence of occurrences whose super- position is surprising and gives off an unusual radiance.›6

While the design of the deck was executed by various members of the group, the drawings on the cards have no signature or author, emphasizing the power of polyphonic and collective creation. It is difficult to ascertain how much the surrealists employed the deck to shape their actions via chance operations.

The surrealists utilized chance as a poetic catalyst, a tool that governs and determines the creative act, but is distinct from daily life. This vision of chance generated a significant argument between André Breton and Roger Caillois. The confrontation originated when they discovered Mexican jumping beans – beans that make sudden movements and leap in the air. Caillois conjectured that there was some larva or other animal making them move. Breton denied this theory, accusing Caillois of being a closed-minded positivist who negated the marvelous and the poetic in his attempt to find rational explanations. For Breton, absolute or objective chance blurred the borders of rationality, proffering a chaotic and stimulating universe: convulsive beauty. Caillois wrote a letter breaking with Breton, declaring that his was an attempt to reconcile research with beauty. Caillois sought to examine chance, chaos and the irrational with the goal of finding a pattern similar to the structure of coral. This structure should combine in a single system everything that until then had been systematically excluded, with the aim of constructing an ever incomplete model of reality. Caillois’s position approximates what we defined at the beginning of this text as a personal equation, a model of thought that attempts to integrate the convulsions generated by the indeterminate, together with a rational structure.

In his story The Lottery in Babylon, Jorge Luis Borges imagines a state controlled by chance, the inhabitants of which experience a fate that has been shaped in accordance with a secret, general lottery system. The main character, enmired in uncertainty, declares: ‹Mine is a dizzying country in which the Lottery is a major element of reality›.7 This dizziness results from the constant transmutation of the fate of this country’s citizens:

‹Like all men of Babylon I have been proconsul; like all, I have been a slave. I have known omnipotence, ignominy, imprisonment. Look here – my right hand has no index finger. Look here – through this gash in my cape you can see on my stomach a crimson tattoo – it is the second letter, Beth. On nights when the moon is full, this symbol gives me power over men with the mark of Gimel, but it subjects me to those with the Aleph, who on nights when there is no moon owe obedience to those marked with the Gimel. In the half-light of dawn, in a cellar, standing before a black altar, I have slit the throats of sacred bulls. Once, for an entire lunar year, I was declared invisible—I would cry out and no one would heed my call, I would steal bread and not be behanded. I have known things that the Greeks knew not – uncertainty.›8

In The Lottery of Babylon, no individual has a fixed identity, as the lottery changes each person’s social role constantly. We might think that this model, originating in chaos and probability, would generate a more equitable world in which all individuals experience first- hand the fate of every social actor. This combining of identities implies a distinct notion of subjectivity, in which individuals are defined not by where they belong or where they are excluded, but rather by the sequence of transformations that carries them from one moment to the next. Though the story seems to be a futurist nightmare, it is easy to find parallels with contemporary society, insofar as the construction of identity has become an unstable process, and a single individual might be a stranger in a number of different places or moments. The story begins by describing the ‹primitive› use of the lottery, which functioned simply as a game of chance: ‹Naturally, those so-called ‘lotteries’ were a failure. They had no moral force whatsoever; they appealed not to all a man’s faculties, but only to his hopefulness›.9  Borges’s lottery grew more and more sophisticated until it became a secret mechanism running every aspect of the lives of the people living under its influence, unawares.

Other authors, in addition to Borges, have played with the idea of absolute chance and the divinatory possibilities of the novel. Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle was written using the I Ching, throwing the coins at each step to determine the fate of the characters. Italo Calvino wrote The Castle of Crossed Destinies imagining that a group of survivors was left mute after experiencing an unnamed trauma and must recount their tale through the use of a pack of tarot cards. The tarot was useful to Calvino because of its possibilities for combination, because it encompasses a collective unconscious in its images, composed of symbols that all individuals might use to trace their history.

The idea of a society ruled by a secret system based in chance resonates with Suely Rolnik’s reflections in her text New Figures of Chaos: Mutations of Contemporary Subjectivity. For Rolnik, ‹The word ‘chaos’ is currently one of the most often uttered. As a cult theme of conferences, books of scientific revelation, journalistic work and even television programs, chaos is spoken of in every realm of culture. In fact, it isn’t merely a fashion, but rather a demand that contemporary reality imposes on us: to confront chaos, to rethink it, to reposition ourselves in the face of it, though at times the constant evocation of that word avoids actual confrontation conjuring the terror chaos generates. Which changes are currently operating in subjectivities, and lead us to revise our concepts of chaos and order, and likewise the relationship between the two? Every sociocultural environment consists in a dynamic combination of universes. These universes affect subjectivities, translating into sensations that involve desires of different degrees and intensities. These sensations make subjectivity vibrate at every moment, forming constellations with shifting force. The contours of a subjectivity are delineated based in a singular composition of forces, a certain map of sensations. As it incorporates itself into each new universe, new sensations appear on the scene and a new relational map is established. Subjectivity is thus inclined to be taken over by an uneasiness that tends to become other than itself.›10

The notion of subjectivity that Rolnik posits seems to lead us to a point in which chance is figured as dogmatic, a vortex of occurrences that force the subject to be continually transformed in aleatory fashion. But can we conceive of a subjectivity capable of generating meaning while also accounting for chance?

Monsieur Teste is one literary figure that navigates chance with mathematical precision. His task is to follow the trajectory of his thoughts, the blueprints generated in the interactions between his minute attentiveness and the world. For Teste, the universe is contingent by nature, and not even his deepest desires or most basic certainties are permanent: his world is a world of ephemeral patterns. ‹It is impossible to receive the ‘truth’ from oneself. When one feels it forming (this is an impression), one forms at the same moment another self, an unaccustomed self… and is proud of it – jealous of it…›11

This unaccustomed self recalls the notion of estrangement employed at the beginning of this text. Estrangement is embodied in a subjectivity that encompasses all its singularities and its possible transformation. The subject is estranged from itself, from the place it happens to live and from its ways of relating to its surroundings. Estrangement harbors or encompasses chance as a critical tool, a distancing mechanism.

‹It is what I contain of the unknown to me that makes me myself.
It is my clumsiness, my uncertainty that is really myself.
My weakness, my frailty…
Gaps are my starting point. My impotence is my origin.
My strength comes from you. My impulse goes from my weakness to my strength. My real poverty generates an imaginary wealth; and I am that symmetry; I am the act that annuls my desires.
There is in me some faculty, more or less active, to consider – and it even must consider – my tastes and distastes as purely accidental.If I knew more about them, perhaps I should see a necessity – instead of this accident. But to see that necessity is still different…What compels me is not myself.›12

Through his personal equation, Monsieur Teste describes how chance gains space in the interior of ordered structures and how order and chaos coexist, creating what we might call their zones of influence. He also describes how our lives (their narratives, their archives) swing like pendulums between these two extremes. Taking up the creative role of chance within processes of subjectivization, to be a stranger becomes a dynamic equation.

‹The stranger’s way of looking at things, the eye of a man who does not recognize, who is beyond this world, the eye as frontier between being and nonbeing – belongs to the thinker. It is also the eye of a dying man, a man losing recognition. In this, the thinker is a dying man, or a Lazarus, as he chooses. Not much choice.›13

  • 1. Mariana Castillo Deball, Blackboxing, 2007.
  • 2. Carlo Ginzburg, Ojazos de madera: Nueve reflexionessobre la distancia. Editorial Península, Barcelona, 2000.
  • 3. ‹On the dark side of history. Carlo Ginzburg talks to Trygve Riiser Gundersen› Online version. http://www.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Lourdes Andrade. “Villa en la Baraja Surrealista”, in Artes de México, el Arte de la Suerte, No. 13, 1997. Trans. Kurt Hollander, p. 96.
  • 6. Ibid., p. 96.
  • 7. Jorge Luís Borges, “The Lottery of Babylon” in Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. Penguin Books, 1998, pp. 51-52.
  • 8. Ibid., p. 51.
  • 9. Ibid. p. 52.
  • 10. Suely Rolnik, Novas figuras do caos: mutações dasubjetividade contemporânea, online version:
  • 11. Paul Valéry, Monsieur Teste. Trans. Jackson Mathews.Princeton University Press, 1973, p. 37.
  • 12. Ibid., pp. 38-39.
  • 13. Ibid., p. 79.