The Quality Without a Name at the Betsy Ross Museum

Warning: some of the haiku and tweets reproduced herein contain naughty language and references to having intimate relations with an inanimate national symbol.

Is beauty subjective? People have strong feelings in both directions. A stylized representation of possible opinions about the nature of beauty might look like this:

  • Strong Subjectivism: the phenomenon of beauty is essentially random with little regularity, a purely personal response that is not predictable across time and person.
  • Weak Objectivism: the phenomenon of beauty can be partly predicted by definable regularities in its perception as a result of our specific environments of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA).
  • Strong Objectivism: the phenomenon of beauty can be predicted by definable regularities because of regularities in our EEAs and in the phenomenon of intelligence itself.

The architect Christopher Alexander is an advocate for an objectivist position. Just as people have strong emotional responses to the question of the subjectivity of beauty, they often have polarized reactions to Alexander’s poetic language:

There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.
The Timeless Way of Building, p. 19

Here I will present some of the components of Alexander’s Quality Without a Name (sometimes called by other woo-sounding synonyms like “wholeness”), with reference to new and old art forms. Alexander was obsessed with Turkish carpets (those same carpets that W. Somerset Maugham hints hold the secret of life in Of Human Bondage) and often uses examples from his collection to illustrate the Quality Without a Name. I have much more experience with lace knitting, twitter, and haiku than with rugs, and will use examples from those domains. Finally, I will try to show how Alexander’s theory of beauty and wholeness fit with information theory and the nature of intelligence.

Deeply Interlocking

One property of the Quality Without a Name is that it is composed of deeply interlocking units that are themselves composed of such units (Alexander calls them “centers”). He gives a concrete example of this recursive definition:

Imagine a prefabricated window which sits in a hole in a wall. It is a one, a unit; but it can be lifted directly out from the wall. This is both literally true, and true in feeling. Literally, you can lift the win-dow out without doing damage to the fabric of the wall. And, in your imagination, the window can be removed without disturbing the fabric of what surrounds it.

Compare this with another window. Imagine a pair of columns outside the window, forming a part of the window space. They create an ambiguous space which is part of the outside, and yet also part of the window. Imagine splayed reveals, which help to form the window, and yet, also, with the light reflected off them, shining in the room, they are also part of the room. And imagine a window seat leaning against the window sill, but a seat whose back is indistinguishable from the window sill, because it is continuous.

This window cannot be lifted out. It is one with the patterns which surround it; it is both distinct itself, and also part of them. The boundaries between things are less marked; they overlap with other boundaries in such a way that the continuity of the world, at this particular place, is greater. . . .

The Timeless Way of Building, pp. 522-523

In Alexander’s second window, many patterns interlock to support each other and create a space with “wholeness” or “life.” The window is not alone; it is supported from outside as well as inside.

Compare Alexander’s notion of “positive outdoor space.” What predicts whether an outdoor courtyard will be pleasant and well-used or dead and empty? One predictor is the nature of the space defined by the buildings and boundaries. If the space defined is more or less convex – not counting proper entrances – the space will live; if it has no defined shape, it will be dead.

A Pattern Language, p. 518

A Pattern Language, p. 518

When the outside is as strong as the inside, the space created inside and out can have wholeness. The two create a figure/ground system in which neither is dominant; both build up the boundaries to create and define each other, like symbiotes or two intelligent beings interacting.

The many levels and subsystems “fit” each other because they are allowed to define each other, created from intelligent processes that resemble biological ones. This kind of complex interaction is hard to fake with industrial processes.

Local Symmetries

Within the deeply interlocking spaces in architecture and art, there is often an overall symmetry, but more importantly, there are many local symmetries within the overall structure. These are symmetries within the strong “shapes” created by both figure and ground.

Pure symmetry is boring (a circle, a square). Complexity with many interlocking local symmetries is interesting.

Lace knitting is a relatively ancient craft offering austere obstructions: forms can be created using only a small library of stitches. Ultimately, lace is constructed of stitches and tiny holes. Classic laces clearly illustrate the interlocking nature of the Quality, with strong figure and strong ground.

Fountain Lace is the simplest lace here, composed of only four pattern rows. Its figural “fountains” made of holes interlock with boomerang shapes made by the ground stitches:


Strong shapes and boundaries interlock in Dayflower. Hanging flowers are composed of simple convex shapes, and lines of stitches wind around them, swaying back and forth:


The half-drop principle in lace knitting is frequently used to create figure-ground tessellations. In many patterns, you alternate knitting bottom halves and top halves of motifs, then reverse the pattern and knit the tops on the bottoms and new bottoms on the tops. An example is Oriel Pattern, composed of many interlocking centers and local symmetries:


The Oriel Pattern itself represents and architectural form, the oriel window. Here is an example:


This is a window of Alexander’s second kind, profoundly located, a shape composed of many smaller shapes with many local symmetries.


Hand knitting exhibits the property of roughness – not that it is imprecise, but that effort is spent creating the pattern, rather than making each stitch identical. The fabric need only be precise enough that the pattern is evident.

Alexander says that “Each pattern is a generic solution to some system of forces in the world. But the forces are never quite the same.” This is the reason for roughness – slight variation in the exact instantiation of forms, just as ocean waves have a common form but are each different.

Roughness (not sloppiness) in art and architecture is difficult to produce from mass-produced materials. Alexander says:

We have become used to almost fanatical precision in the construction of buildings. Tile work, for instance, must be perfectly aligned, perfectly square, every tile perfectly cut, and the whole thing accurate on a grid to a tolerance of a sixteenth of an inch. But our tilework is dead and ugly, without soul.

In this Mexican house the tiles are roughly cut, the wall is not perfectly plumb, and the tiles don’t even line up properly. Sometimes one tile is as much as half an inch behind the next one in the vertical plane.

And why? Is it because these Mexican craftsmen didn’t know how to do precise work? I don’t think so. I believe they simply knew what is important and what is not, and they took good care to pay attention only to what is important: to the color, the design, the feeling of one tile and its relationship to the next—the important things that create the harmony and feeling of the wall. The plumb and the alignment can be quite rough without making any difference, so they didn’t bother to spend too much effort on these things. They spent their effort in the way that made the most difference. And so they produced this wonderful quality, this harmony . . . simply because that is what they paid attention to, and what they tried to produce.

“The perfection of imperfection,” 1991, quoted in Richard Gabriel, Patterns of Software.

Roughness “not because it is less precise, but because it is more precise” is the reason that Chinese characters are more beautiful than Roman characters. Each character is composed of radicals that change size, shape, position, and exact structure depending on the demands of the form of the character as a whole. This is also why simplified Chinese is less beautiful than the classic forms.

Tweets and Haiku

Can the Quality Without a Name exist on twitter? The tweet is a tiny and highly constrained form (though not so constrained as a haiku). If these properties of the Quality Without a Name are universal, they should be found in the best tweets and the best haiku.

Consider the now-classic tweet mentioned in the title of this post:

This tweet is composed of three interlocking parts of approximately equal strength: setting the surreal scene (volunteering at the Betsy Ross museum), introducing a surreal and ribald problem as if it were an everyday irritation, and revealing that the surreal longing is shared by the narrator with a bump of intimacy (“buddy,”). The author does not use capitalization or standard punctuation on the final sentence: precision in spelling and punctuation does not contribute to the wholeness of the tweet, and so is ignored. The tweet does not progress randomly, but follows an internal logic by which all its pieces fit together. There are internal symmetries between the longing of the public and the longing of the narrator.

Compare its structure to Robert Hass’ translation of Issa’s competition haiku:

Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.

Here there are also three equally strong interacting parts, but the naughtiness is introduced early, and the sacredness comes later to show what could be instead. In the Betsy Ross tweet, the sacred item is introduced first, and then recursively, subjectively violated. The three parts work together to create a frisson.

Similarly, in Robert Hass’ translation of Issa’s patriotic poem:

These sea slugs,
they just don’t seem

This is more similar to the Betsy Ross tweet: a patriotic sacredness is humorously contrasted with something slimy and weird.

Here is a more recent tweet that I think is already classic:

This tweet is also composed of three pieces, and uses roughness in its construction even though the author is completely capable of writing standard english (dropped period on final sentence, “its” for “it’s”). Here, an obvious assumption is presented (your brain is not a supervillain), and then two surprising pieces of evidence are deployed in turn to call this assumption into question. Part of the local symmetry is the coincidence and equal strength of the two odd pieces of evidence; another symmetry is how they answer the original assumption.

“Snowclone” tweets are combinations of joke forms; the more elegant and unexpected the connection between the combined forms, the more pleasing the result. The parts of the tweet can be more or less deeply interlocking, with each part supplying a strong perspective on the other. A coincidence is itself often a symmetry; for instance, a tweet that once had a specific meaning and now, because of a change in the world, has acquired a different meaning, may be funny because of the coincidence of past and present meanings, supporting each other like figure and ground.

It may be entirely spurious, but note that many of the concrete objects mentioned in these tweets and Issa’s haiku themselves possess many local symmetries, roughness, deep interlockingness, etc. Sea slugs are obvious (do yourself a favor and spend a few minutes looking at pictures of them). The human skull has many local symmetries and is composed of an actual biological process, in conjunction and tension with other processes creating flesh, eyes, brains, etc. It fits together perfectly (but roughly, every skull is different), and it fits within its system perfectly. Finally, consider old flags like this one:


Instead of the rather banal pattern we are used to, this old flag uses different-sized stars and arranges them in order to create locally symmetric background spaces with strong shape (circled). Old flags have much more roughness than industrially produced flags; the creators of the old flags were capable of making perfectly linear stripes and evenly spaced stars, but did not put their effort into this kind of precision, preferring instead to focus on achieving forms in harmony with each other.

Alien Beauty

Would species with different evolutionary conditions, but that are still intelligent, experience beauty much differently from us? A strong form of beauty objectivism, as mentioned at the beginning, asserts that our perceptions of beauty would have a lot in common with those of intelligent aliens.

Haley Thurston summarizes Schmidhuber on the information theory aspect of beauty:

In his Formal Theory of Creativity & Fun & Intrinsic Motivation, AI scientist Jürgen Schmidhuber suggests the idea of “compression” as the explanation for both why art exists and why it is pleasurable. The gist of Schmidhuber’s concept of compression is that the human brain is itself a kind of hard drive with a limited amount of space. Given that the brain is space-limited, it makes sense that information that uses that space efficiently might reward the brain with pleasure. It’s in our interest, in other words, to find patterns so that we can get rid of extraneous data and use our brain for more things. This reward system explains why things like stereotypes (all people are X) or religion (everything happens because of X) feel good; it also explains why we’re drawn to symbolism, metaphor, and succinctness.

Essentially, Schmidhuber posits that an intelligent system must have a good way to know what to pay attention to in order to learn. We pay attention to beautiful things because they are elegant compressions of many interacting forces. We find things interesting when they offer the opportunity for quick compression progress. Perfect symmetry is boring, but local symmetries and rough symmetry offer a balance of complexity and compressibility.

Aliens much more intelligent than us, with fewer constraints on storage and processing power, might enjoy much more complex art than we can appreciate. But it is likely that their appreciation would be balanced between compressibility and complexity, if a feature that goes along with intelligence is a regular “appetite” for information, with “taste receptors” reflecting the amount of information represented succinctly.

This kind of alien, in the form of mathematicians, may already be among us:

About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. >>(your brain is not a supervillain)<<

    I'm pretty sure it is….

  2. Neither of the “objectivist” positions strikes me as particularly objectivist, i.e. mind-independent aesthetic standards.

    • I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “mind-independent”, but I think the idea advanced here is not that a thing could be objectively “beautiful” in the absence of a perceiver (perceiving mind), but that there may be properties of (or relations between) things that would be perceived as beautiful or pleasing by any mind. –However, if true that would seem to open the door to a re-definition of “beauty” such that it is not dependent on a perceiver. –Or, perhaps, to a re-definition of a “perceiver”: so…not only a recipient, but any participant……?

      • …On the other hand, the danger of defining “beauty” in a way that makes it completely independent of (conscious, sentient) perception is that we may be simply reassigning that word to designate some other concept (such as “harmony” or “synthesis” or perfect potential) for which there are already other words; thus leaving nameless that condition/relation that we currently designate as “beauty”. [Which would only encourage contemporary language “innovators” to describe, say, the Mona Lisa as “having a high trending-plateau.”]

  3. Thank you for this fascinating post. I’ve read it several times and will probably read it more. I pointed my partner to it; she said it was the best thing she’s read all year. I’ve only just discovered ribbonfarm and it feels like the blog I’ve been looking for, for years, without realising it. (I ordered your book, too.) Thanks again!