Programme 2018

Auto/biography, disorder, entropy

XVII International Symposium of the Scientific Observatory

for Written, Oral and Iconographic Autobiographical Memory

ROME 18-19-20 June 2018

by Mediapolis.europa ass. Cult.

in collaboration with the

Istituto Centrale per i Beni Sonori e Audiovisivi

Biblioteca di Storia Moderna e Contemporanea

Istituto Storico Italiano per l'età Moderna e Contemporanea

Palazzo Mattei, Via Michelangelo Caetani 32 – 00186 Roma



How are uncertain, unexpected, entropic events integrated into self-narration?

The term ‘entropy’ derives from thermodynamics and physics, and it has subsequently been applied to other fields pertaining to the Human Sciences. Today, when constructing theoretical hypotheses and conducting related research, it is a current practice of scientific procedures to include possible agents of disorder. Several autobiographies by scientists adopt this perspective. (Cfr: Mnemosyne, o la costruzione del senso n. 6 and 7,

If entropy is a consubstantial part of the universe and of existence, what is of interest here is how this disorder is made plausible and structured in self-narration.

Narrations in the first person integrate disorder, the unexpected, the irreversible, through various conceptions and various registers: from the literary-philosophical (see later about Diderot); through the psychological (see Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, 1903,by the magistrate Daniel Paul Schreber, who intended to find coordinates through rigorously logical notes on his own pathology); through the artistic, as in Sophie Calle’s work When and Where (Où et quand,2008): “I had asked Maud Kristen, clairvoyant, to predict my future so that I could go to meet it, anticipate it with speed”; to the mystical, as in the autobiographical notes of a certain pilgrim, a 19th-century aimless traveller who carries with him the book Philokalia and, perpetually resigned, regards everything that happens to him as extraneous. On this Pasolini writes: [“There is nothing that proves power wrong so much as Resignation, which is actually a refusal of power in any form (that is, it makes it what it actually is, namely an illusion)”] (Pasolini P.P., 1973). (The quotations in square brackets have been translated by the translator of this text).

In several folktales we can sometimes see that the possible, the unexpected, logically become part of the growing difficulties involved in achieving a positive goal. By ancestrally following the structure of fairy tales (Propp V., 1928) – as an example among many – a peasant constructs an epic vision of his betrothal.

In antiquity, the possible, the unexpected, was evoked through the word fate.

Volentem ducunt fata, nolentem trahunt (Seneca, epistles XVII-XVIII). Fate leads the willing but drags along the reluctant. Is this an affirmation of resignation? No, it is a way of entering into the logic of a life that eschews projects ante res. Nietzsche defines as amor fati the ethical and intellectual prerogative to accept everything that occurs in one’s life. He criticises genealogy and philology, disciplines that aim at finding origins, thereby vertically aligning the data of knowledge.

By way of example, we present some writings – from many possible ones – which take shape in three separate typologies for the construction of an autobiographical discourse, and which incorporate entropy into the logic of the text: Rameau’s Nephew by Denis Diderot, The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino, and “Autoreferat” by the mathematician and icon-art expert Pavel Florensky. Each of these authors adopts a method to circumscribe the possible, harnessing it in a precise argument.

The dialogue as a maieutic agent

Rameau’s Nephew, or the Second Satire (1762 and 1773) is a work by Diderot that finds a place in the great tradition of the dialogue as an instrument of dialectic and debate.

I (Diderot) and He, the young nephew of the famous musician Rameau (whose identity is revealed to us in his deictic coordinates only at the end), compare their divergent lifestyles. I and He interpret the author-narrator and his alter ego, whose disposition drags him here and there in a disjointed fashion, depending on meteorological, vestimentary, alimentary circumstances. Not even his appearance has continuity: “Nothing is more unlike him than himself” (Diderot, D. 2016, p. 16).

Amongst the initial lines, the I says: “[...] In my case, my thoughts are my sluts” (Ibid. p. 15). Although Diderot admits to being someone who loves solitude, he reveals himself in the ‘erotic’ formulation of his thoughts.

The encounter with such a different and unprincipled He allows Diderot to open up towards diversity, contrasting his ideas inspired by rationalism and firm morals with the fickle and capricious young Rameau. The fecundity of the exchange, of the miscegenation between two in principle opposing visions is revealed through the dialogue. Relating to one another allows for the emergence of similarities in conceiving the meaning of experience as the creation of the here and now. Thestraight line of the principles on which Diderot forges his life is transformed into a zigzag line.

In this dialogue, recurring words such as ‘hybrid’, ‘yeast’, ‘fermentation’, recall the scientific dictionary that Diderot had already used in another text, D’Alembert’s Dream, which, among other things, discussed the purity of species in botany and in the animal world, the incongruity of restricted and abstract moral principles, and not respecting a varied and multifarious nature, full of contaminations. [“Perfection consists in reconciling these two points”] (Diderot D., 1876, p. 6) [summer 1769].

Diderot, un diable de ramage by Jean Starobinski, (devil is he who divides, a term cited 27 times in Diderot’s text), shows how the meaning of life is the result of the interaction between the philosopher and the ‘original’, of ‘order’ and ‘disorder’. Revealing oneself, discussing, permitting to know, to arrive at deeper awareness ([“knowledge unmasked”], writes Starobinskij). (2012, p. 117).

In Diderot, the figures of chiasmus, anadiplosis and antitheses constitute linguistic strategies that anchor the time of reflection to the present, placing opposites on the same level.

The game of tarot, the elegy of entropy

Divination and its im/plausibility are at the centre of many works. Dürrenmatt deals with this topic in The Death of the Pythia (1988), using the register of the grotesque.

The Tarot Garden by Niki de Saint Phalle is an autobiographical and divinatory work ( a sculpture garden in which her colourful work plays with her own self and with the interpretation of destiny.

Italo Calvino’s book The Castle of Crossed Destinies deals with this theme. It is composed of a first part dealing with the 15th-century tarot of the Viscontis, which was first published in 1969, and which was followed a few years later by a second part, The Tavern of Crossed Destinies, dealing with the tarot of Marseille of 1761. In a late-medieval universe, some people who got lost in a forest take shelter in a castle, realising that they no longer have the faculty of explaining themselves verbally. One of them opens his self-narration through the game of tarot: “we thought we understood that, with the card, he wanted to say ‘I’ and that he was preparing to tell his story” (Calvino I., 1998, p. 12). Laying card after card, however, he finds himself – without talking, and therefore we, as readers, rely on the narrator’s interpretation – before an ensemble that cuts off his destined path as he had intended to communicate it to us, and he ends up in a dead end with no way out. Calvino attributes the following words to the High Priestess card, while the handsome youth who narrated himself through the tarot cards seems disconcerted: “Now the forest shall have you. The forest is self-loss, mingling. To join us you must lose yourself […]” (Ibid., p. 18). Thus, although the first person who intervenes begins his recitative path thinking of governing it, he finds himself governed by the context of the tarot cards. His prediction clashes with the unpredictable that stems from the combination of the cards that take on different meanings in relation to their overall position. It happens that other people at the table – as they narrate themselves – use the same cards, which, like in a crossword puzzle, (Ibid., p, 114), horizontally intersect those narrations that develop vertically. The meaning of each figure is therefore virtually polysemic because it is determined by the relationship that it maintains with other figures. According to Calvino, tarot cards represent a combinative narrative machine, and this literary game allows the many I present in the castle to delude themselves into thinking that they can construct their own story, alas without succeeding.

In the divergent final destinations of these destinies, we see the influence of “The Garden of Forking Paths”by Borges (1964. [1944]). Moreover, Calvino knew various studies of cartomancy as a narrative engine (Lekomceva M. I., Uspenski B. A., 1969); and he certainly knew the famous game of the Surrealists, who, in 1940-1941 in Marseille, had reinvented the tarot game on revised portraits. In short, at the basis of this game was the theme of divination and identity.

Some of those present seek to identify themselves in famous literary characters from stories already written, but they want to get out of their codified destiny, thereby scorning it. Roland, who has descended into the chaotic heart of things, is identified in the last card with The Hanged Man, upside down, finally serene: “Leave me like this. I have come full circle and I understand. The world must be read backward. All is clear” (Ibid., p. 37).

Narrating one’s own destiny is therefore impossible; it cannot concretise into a linear process because it clashes with the combinative logic of the tarot cards, where not even the characters that have already been written (Roland, Astolfo, Faust or Parsifal) intend to, or can, remain in the ranks of known stories.

The explicit in Calvino is heir to On the Nature of Things by Lucretius (II, 112-141)

“[...] An endless war racks the universe up to the very stars of the firmament and spares not even spirits or atoms. In the gilded dust suspended in the air, when a room’s darkness is penetrated by rays of light, Lucretius contemplated battles of impalpable corpuscles, invasions, assaults, tourneys, whirlwinds…” (Ibid., p 46). Calvino talks about Lucretius in “Lightness”, the first of his American Lectures (Calvino I., 1993).

Entropy versus perspective

Different reflections of scientists, art historians, anthropologists, lead to a vision of a life journey which is more spatial than temporal and progressive, where contiguity wins over continuity.

In reconstructing the history of lines, the anthropologist Tim Ingold highlights how geometry has seen the dominance of Euclidean thought that considers the line as a primary vector of the very perception of space: “Euclid believes that rays shone out of the eyes to illuminate the objects on which they fell, and depicted them accordingly – as straight lines connecting the eye and the object” (Ingold T., 207, p. 159). All the laws of optics are based on this arbitrary concept.

Western civilisation has exalted linearity as a specific factor of evolution. Homo sapiens sapiens walks erect, a word that has also ethical specifications. The word contorted, devious, generally has a negative significance in our history of culture. In life experience, a destination becomes more important that an itinerary. (Ibid., p. 89)

This critical view had been at the heart of the thought of Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), a mathematician and philosopher who, in a few autobiographical pages of his “Autoreferat” written for an encyclopaedia (1925-1926) introduces himself in the third person:

[“A fundamental law in the Florensky world elects the second law or thermodynamics, the law of entropy, which he accepts broadly as a law of Chaos in every place in the universe. This dynamic of the world is contrasted by Logos or the principle of ectropy. Culture is the conscious fight against general flattening; culture is detachment as resistance against the levelling of the universe, it is the growth of the potential difference in every field that rises to a living condition, it is the contraposition to homogenisation, which is synonymous with death”]. (Florensky, P., 2007: 6)

Florensky addressed very many and very intense letters to his family. What emerges is a very rich autobiography: the account of his imprisonment and the observation of the context place the big and the small on the same level, minute observation of nature, memories evoked as a mine from which to draw on for the future.

Florensky’s vision in his autobiographical writings finds an important foundation in his studies of Renaissance perspective and Euclidean space. According to Florensky, the vision of reality, one’s own experience, are enriched by becoming estranged from the viewpoint of perspective and from a Euclidean conception of space, which formulates abstract laws that are drawn with difficulty by concrete experience. No gestural expressiveness makes sense if it is inscribed within the homogeneous, infinite, isotopic Euclidean space. Space is anatropic (Florensky P., 1993: 236).

In Florensky, these convictions also stem from his studies of iconostasis and of the conception of space and time in figurative art. Perspective as a geometric rule is an invention of the Italian Renaissance which has rationalised the representation of the visible (Florensky P.,, 1977 and 2003). Instead, in icon art every viewer can choose their own individual perspective, according to their feelings and their ways of looking. In short, “Stupor and Dialectics” (Florensky P., 2013). Every autobiographical writing by Florensky is a lesson that orients us towards individuality, discontinuity, entropy.

The proposals that we are awaiting can come from various disciplines, from literature, through cinema (among many films, think of Otar Iosseliani’s ‘Favorites of the Moon’, 1984),to the scientific world, and many more. They will have to analyse the form of autobiographical narrations, how order and disorder are legitimated and articulated, and how unexpected events and uncertainties are anchored to a common thread.

Theodor W. ADORNO, The Stars Down Earth, Fankfurt am Mein, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1975.


ANONIMO, La via di un pellegrino. Racconti sinceri di un pellegrino al suo padre spirituale, tr. Di Alberto PESCETTO, Milano, Adelphi, 1972.

Beatrice BARBALATO, «Telling It Like It Is: Autobiography as Self-definition and Social identification» avec K. EBLE, in From the margins of the cutting edge – Community media and Empowerment, Hampton, NY, 2006.

Jorge Luis BORGES , «Il giardino dei sentieri che si biforcano», in id. Finzioni, Einaudi, Torino, 2014. [1944].

Sophie CALLE, Où et quand, Arles, Actes du Sud, 2008.

Italo CALVINO, Il Castello dei destini incrociati, Milano, Mondadori, 2016. [1969].

I. CALVINO, Lezioni americane. Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio, Milano, Garzanti, 1988.

Denis DIDEROT, Le neveu de Rameau, Intr. de Charles Asselineau, Paris, Paulet-Malassis, Libraire-éditeur, 1862.

D. DIDEROT, (été 1769), «Suite de l’entretien», in Œuvres complètes de Diderot, Éd. Assézat Tourneux, Paris, Garnier Frères, 1875, tome 2.

Friedrich DÜRRENMATT,La morte della Pizia, trad. di Renata COLORNI, Milano, Adelphi, 1988) [Das Sterben der Pythia, 1976].

Pavel FLORENSKIJ, «Autoreferat», in (a cura di) N. VALENTINI e A. GORELOV, Il simbolo e la forma. Scritti di filosofia della scienza, trad. de Claudia ZONGHETTI, Milano, Bollati-Boringhieri, 2007.

P. FLORENSKIJ, La prospettiva rovesciata e altri scritti, a cura di Nicoletta MISLER, trad. di Carla MUSCHIO e Nicoletta  MISLER, Roma, Gangemi, 2003.

P. FLORENSKIJ, Le porte regali. Saggio sull’icona, a cura di Elémire ZOLLA, Milano, Adelphi, 1977. [1922].

P. FLORENSKIJ, Lo spazio e il tempo nell’arte, a cura di Nicoletta MISLER, Milano Adelphi, 1993. [1923]

P. FLORESKIJ, Stupore e dialettica, a cura di N. VALENTINI, trad. di C. ZONGHETTI, Macerata, Quodlibet, 2013 [ Dialektika 1918-1922).

Danièle GIRAUDY, Le jeu de Marseille: autour d'André Breton et des surréalistes à Marseille en 1940-1941, Éditions Alors hors du temps, 2003.

Cfr :,106473.php

Tim INGOLD, Une brève histoire des lignes, Zones sensibles, 2014. [2007]

M.I. LEKOMCEVA, B.A.USPENSKIJ, «La cartomanzia come sistema semiotico», in Il sistema dei segni e lo strutturalismo sovietico, in (a cura di) Remo FACCANI e Umberto ECO curatori, Milano, Bompiani, 1969.

Pier Paolo PASOLINI, «‘Come pregare?’ ‘Come mangiare?’ Esperienze di un Prete e di un Letterato», in Il Tempo, 11 febbraio 1973. [Sull’Anonimo citato supra].

Daniel Paul SCHREBER, Memorie di un malato di nervi, trad. di F. SCARDANELLI e S. DE WAAL, Milano, Adelphi, , 2007 [1903].

Jean STAROBINSKI, Diderot, un diable de ramage, Paris, Gallimard, 2012.

On the Surrealists’ tarot game:


A) The deadline for the submission of papers is 20 February 2018. Candidates are asked to present an abstract of up to 250 words, with citation of two reference texts, and a brief curriculum vitae of up to 100 words, with possible mention of two publications, be they articles or books. These must be submitted online on the conference registration page of the Website.

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Beatrice Barbalato, Mediapolis.Europa

Fabio Cismondi, Euro Fusion

Antonio Castillo Gómez,Universidad d’ Alcalá de Henares (Madrid)

Irene Meliciani, Mediapolis Europa

Albert Mingelgrün, Université Libre de Bruxelles

Giulia Pelillo-Hestermeyer, Universität Heidelberg

Anna Tylusińska-Kowalska, Uniwersytet Warszawski


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