Contextual study point: Lines – A Close Reading

My close reading was of the chapter 6; How the Line Became Straight, Lines by Tim Ingold, 2016, which explores the theoretical notion of lines and their relevance to design.

Firstly, Tim explores how the line is defined by equations in algebra and that by plotting the values of two variables the result is a perfectly straight line. It would be obvious that by plotting variables on a graph in this way the line will become straight as there are only 2 points to connect the line. But I also understand why he would question why the line should be straight. He then goes on to talk about how we see lines everywhere, even when they do not really exist. That just by using our imagination and thinking about the things we feel, we see the shapes of things as straight. To me if I see straight lines it’s more precise, to see a wobbly line creates chaos in my mind. If we were to plot two variables on a graph and were to draw an uneven line, in which way would we draw it? Reading this chapter does makes you look at lines in a way you wouldn’t normally, even looking at the natural world around us, there are lines, the natural curved lines of the animals, the human being, the land against the man-made world we have created full of concrete jungles, roads, office blocks, windows – lots of straight lines!

How interesting that the so-called ‘modern humans’ are shown in pictures as standing tall compared with the slouching Neanderthals that are stooping. He states the obvious by saying that we are left with just two grand classes: lines that are straight and lines that are not, the first are associated with humanity and Culture, the second with animality and Nature. How that plotlines go back to the days when people first began to mark out plots of land by means of strings stretched between pegs or stakes struck in the ground. How land surveying and measurement was of importance in Ancient Egypt since the year the flooding of the Nile would bury or destroy boundary markers which had then to be reset in order to establish rights of ownership, this is still with us today. He then talks about how plotlines can be referred to roads, railways and canals, joining specific locations by a route that pre-exists the traffic that flows between them. Again we see lines painted down the centre of the road as well as on each side, which separates oncoming and outgoing traffic, imagine if no lines divided busy roads, there would simply be chaos on the roads.

The long straight roads built by the Romans wherever they conquered have, in many cases, become just as famous names in history as their greatest emperors and generals. Building upon more ancient routes and creating a huge number of new ones, Roman engineers were audacious in their plans to join one point to another in as straight a line as possible whatever the difficulties in geography and the costs in manpower. (Cartwright M, 2014)

An interesting line – Chaotically tangled threads – this could relate to a number of instances. The first that springs to my mind is a ball of tangled wool, different colours wound in different directions, but all the while creating a shape that is curved. It could also refer to relationships between humans and manmade products, a chaotic platform in a train station full of straight lines mixed with people busying around made up of curves and different shapes and colours.

How true – A ruler is a sovereign who controls and governs a territory, it is also an instrument for drawing straight lines. I find it amazing how Tim uses ‘his’ and not ‘hers’ or ‘its’ when referring. In our modern world, is the ruler still referred to as ‘he’ ? Maybe the straight line originated after finding out that no matter how many lines are drawn freehand, they would never be completely straight. He refers here to John Ruskin and how Ruskin allowed the draughtsmen to use rulers in their work to practise drawing straight lines.

This is my first close reading since being at school, over 30 years ago, which I found quite interesting. I will admit that I was a little daunted at first, it certainly wasn’t an ‘easy’ read, I did have to read 3 or 4 times before breaking down each chapter to understand his theories but I believe he covered all bases and explained how lines are connected with life and the ancient and modern world of design. His understanding and explanations of how lines are open-ended as in lives, relationships, histories and processes of thought, how true this is.


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