The Switch Theory

Laurent de Sutter

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  • w.n. [G. Magniat]

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  • Annuaire de l’Essonne, p.340


On. Off. There’s nothing simpler than a switch. Set in one position, it is used to connect and disconnect one circuit with another. Occasionally aspiring to a sophistication that ill suits their fundamental functionality, some of them are called “rheostats” and “dimmers,” and try to give their user the impression of mastery over the intensity of the passing electric current. But that little trick doesn’t change anything with respect to the principle, i.e., the switch is the control by which a choice is made, a choice that can only be formulated in a binary way. There is of course something frustrating in that constraint – as if the world, via the switch, were challenging us to invent a third way, a receding line, a tangent that would redistribute the terms of the problem it was aiming to solve. Yet the simplicity of the switch recalls that not only most of the choices we have to make are not determined by us, but also the most important of them can be stated in a pure and simple alternative, namely, either the light is on or it is off. This reminder of what the constraint of choosing always draws from the outside, and that that outside usually takes the form of a stubborn materiality, forces us to inscribe each of the choices we pose inside a vaster context – which is called a “circuit” in electricity. The switch is indeed what effects a break in the circuit when what as a rule permanently passes through there is no longer wanted, or simply no longer useful. Instead of making available the coordinates of a vertical decision, it means in reality that the decision has already been taken – and that the choice of overturning it forms but one possible reaction to what constitutes the adjusting of the circuit by default, i.e., its continuity. Such that, rather than a choice in the traditional sense, the decision we make to cut off the electricity (or water or gas, etc.) is literally a cutout or circuit-breaker decision – a decision of temporary removal from a flow which, otherwise, would go through us continuously. Electricity, water, and gas indeed are not goods that we are free to order up in packets, like articles of clothing at an online sales site; they define the movements, gestures, and folds of a milieu that takes shapes around them. From this point of view, a switch’s “off” position signifies the eventuality of an island on a sea of energy – but an island that depends, for its existence, on the ocean’s stretching out all around it. Cutting off the current doesn’t mean then tearing oneself from the flow of energy circulated by the world’s organization of logistics. Rather it is redirecting it, let’s say, towards other points we know nothing about. Because electricity is not behind the switch waiting at our pleasure, nor water in the tap; even if they are interrupted, their movement continues because it is the movement of the world itself. Just as the world turns, energy flows flow – in keeping with a physics of human ecology over which nobody can exert any control, except maybe to reduce one’s electric bill. Such that the switch, more than a simple control put at the disposal of a room’s occupants, is a kind of navigator, or rather interface. It is what operates the connection with the logic of the flows that support human lives – and probably the only contact that most of those lives will ever have with its own conditions. To put it another way, the switch is that which teaches those who use it what the conditions of its existence are by giving them the chance to suspend those conditions (and to experience the consequences of that suspension). The binarity then of the choice it proposes isn’t that of knowing whether the light has to be on or off, but rather in what way the fact of turning it on or off constitutes a necessity – that is, something without which something else would immediately be rendered impossible. As an interface, the switch clarifies the conditions of life in that these are deployed as a network that is tangled up with many consequences, in which there is no choice that does not immediately imply innumerable others, in a cascade that ends up looking like two drops of water in the flow they claim to master.

Laurent de Sutter (2020)

Invitation made on the occasion of the season Esthetics of Use, Uses of Esthetics, first movement, artifice