Posted by: glue | August 3, 2008

Spill Ratio

The lawyer Schlichtmann (John Travolta, A Civil Action ), his small firm ruined by the case representing the families of Woburn against the corporations allegedly responsible for polluting the town’s drinking water, is in a diner. He turns at the sound of a breaking glass, to glimpse a scene at another table of a spilled water glass, with the waitress rushing over to wipe up the spill.



Later, reflecting on the scene, in the context of his continuous puzzling over the case, Schlichtmann has an epiphany, or at least, an insight into a new approach to the problem posed by the case. He has not been able to find workers willing to testify that the tanning company dumped toxic chemicals on the grounds of the plant that eventually polluted the water of the community. The scene in the diner supports an inference: what he should have been looking for is someone who helped clean up the site before it could be inspected.


A : B :: C : D

The water glass is the star prop of the film, playing a part in a number of important scenes (children drinking the town’s water at lunch; the uncooperative witness illustrating how the poisonous chemical was applied to the leather to waterproof it by pouring his glass of water onto the conference table). The motif demonstrates a vernacular theory of cognition: the proportional analogy as an inference procedure. The lawyer reasons from the waitress cleaning up the water spill, to the workers cleaning up the toxic waste site.



  1. This proportional analogy as inference procedure is often the “genius” behind Dr. Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie, in the series House. House (character) typically avoids patients (odd move for a medical practitioner) and instead prefers to reduce them to a list of symptoms (effects) on a white board (would this be the dis/eased version of a CV?). For House, each course of action (or sometimes non action) produces more and more effects/symptoms. His procedure seems to move in a very cause/effect (effect/cause) manner, a restrictive diagnostic practice, but House’s game/approach is more generate: produce enough symptoms (even in an attempt to treat symptoms) and one will be able to pinpoint the diagnosis (as without “new” symptoms, House is rendered useless). Of course, often, after more and more symptoms start to fill the white board and the dis/ease takes on more complexity (if not a semblance of an identity), it is this moment of proportional analogy (the cupcake in the cafeteria or the little boy squinting at the Christmas lights) that “reveals” the “true identity” of the dis/ease. I often wonder if this same “revelation” would come if House hadn’t spent his time generating (unintentionally or not) more symptoms, creating more to work with on his way to affixing a label (a proper/improper name) to the dis/ease, thus “curing” it (or controlling it) through language (or through a medicine of language).

  2. GCI

    The example from House helps clarify the nature of this trope. Lev Manovich argued that the new General Cultural Interface is no longer argumentation (as it was in literacy) but cinematography (both the filmic devices and the narrative storytelling typical of Hollywood). Any body of information could be organized, Manovich proposed, in the manner of a movie. What natural language (Greek) was to the inventors of literacy, this filmic pop is to electracy. The insight of grammatology is that the invention of electracy does not end with the formation of this GCI, but starts from there. Philosophy was a specialized practice for the creation of word metaphysics out of the syncretism of spoken Greek and the technology of alphabetic writing. Electracy requires the same arrangement: a specialized practice for inventing image metaphysics out of the syncretism of popular culture with digital technologies. The EmerAgency is one candidate capable of doing for electracy what philosophy did for literacy, assuming that enough *”heuretics” embrace the practice.

    *HEU-re-tic: a person who practices heu-RE-tics. (Term introduced by Clay Arnold, U of Florida).

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