About the PENELOPE Project

Coding weaves in the Museum for Plaster Casts, Munich

The PENELOPE project builds on the hypothesis that there was a significant but tacit contribution of textile technology involved in the advent of science in ancient Greece. The philosopher and sociologist of science Bruno Latour recently claimed that technologies require an original mode of existence that accounts for their particular form of detour. We propose the technological labyrinth of threads in weaving as a paradigm for this mode. In contrast to the well-known but insufficient idea of hylemorphism (a form/idea applied to matter) we suggest the concept of penemorphism (a co-existence of shifting and un-shifting threads, “pene” in Greek) that enables to describe the integration of various levels and elements that are included in each and every technology, especially the digital ones.

We focus in theory and practice on the technological principles of ancient weaving. In archaic Greece, we detect an instance of veridiction, a very particular way of telling the truth in weaving terms that is hidden behind the relations of metaphor and concept or mythos and logos. This veridiction emerges from all sorts of ancient texts, be they philosophical, poetical, mythographic, cosmological, or mathematical. Ancient weaving contains framing features that are lost in modern clothing technology but were decisive for their use as a model of order in ancient times. Weaving therefore is an integral part of city state rituals like the Panathenaic festival in Athens; it acts as an appropriate concept for referring to the formation and harmonic arrangement of ritual choruses; it is used as a means for metaliterary stances about novelty in compositional and performance poetics; it fosters cosmological as well as materialistic ideas of production or generation; it is key to the shape and idea of dyadic arithmetic as the first formalized mathematical knowledge and the basis for mathematical proofs ; and shapes concepts of transformation and composition. Early cosmology employs this weaving order for descriptions of the order of the cosmos, a concept that is still (or again?) at work in Einstein’s metaphorical phrase of the cosmos as tapestry of space and time.

For this investigation we set up a PENELOPEan laboratory where we (1) detect the models and topologies of weaves (ancient and modern), (2) develop codes to make them virtually explorable, and (3) compare different types of coding and their scope with regard to their dependence on specific systems. The laboratory work is accompanied by a comparative investigation of archaic Greek texts, a selective investigation of scientific theories that employ concepts analogous to my weaving paradigm, and an anthropological investigation of the relation of codes, notations and conditions for the development of notation systems.

The project is situated at the Research Institute for the History of Technology and Science at Deutsches Museum, Munich. It will start in November 2016 and will last until 2021. The interdisciplinary research team consists of Ellen Harlizius-Klück (Principal Investigator, philosopher, artist, mathematician), Alex McLean (Postdoc, programmer for the Arts, Sheffield), Flavia Carraro (Postdoc, anthropologist, ethnologist, Copenhagen), and Giovani Fanfani (Postdoc, Classical philologist, Copenhagen).