Oct 17 2021

When Nothing’s Not New and Everything’s Always Random

typewriter

Some Recent Encounters with Surrealism in Contemporary Literature

I.

I recently reread the Surrealist Manifesto (1924), a habit which, it seems, occurs every five to ten years.

So it was fresh on my mind when I reviewed Nicole I. Nesca’s short-story/poem “Child” (2017).

And maybe, as Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman says, my attention is too “anchored,” too primed and predisposed to see the surreal when reading recent works of prose, poetry, or something in between.

But it can’t be all that. There must be (a little) something more. For, as Kahneman points out, simply being aware of the biases brought on by an anchor is still only half the battle:

You are always aware of the anchor and even pay attention to it, but you do not know how it guides and constrains your thinking, because you cannot imagine how you would have thought if the anchor had been different (or absent). (Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) p. 128)

II.

One of the things (I think) Breton is getting at in the Manifesto is that surrealism existed long before he (or anyone else) gave it a name. Breton, moreover, didn’t let himself be lured by the temptations of Originality. He knew he didn’t invent surrealism. Nor was he afraid to list his precursors on the subject:

Swift is Surrealist in malice,

Sade is Surrealist in sadism….

Hugo is Surrealist when he isn’t stupid…

Poe is Surrealist in adventure.

Baudelaire is Surrealist in morality.

Rimbaud is Surrealist in the way he lived, and elsewhere.

Mallarmé is Surrealist when he is confiding.

And, as I discussed in the Nesca review, part, but not of all, of the “game” (Breton’s word) of surrealism is radical juxtaposition. Let’s let Breton explain again (and admit his unoriginality again):

A man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing:

The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality. (Nord-Sud, March 1918)….

Now, it is not within man’s power, so far as I can tell, to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas, such as we conceive of it, militates against it.

This radical juxtaposition, however, at least in my (mis)understanding of surrealism, brooks no endorsement or herald or call for absolute randomness, á la pseudo-Dadism, anarchism, nihilism, the Voynich manuscript, etcetera. For if surrealism is a “game,” then it must have certain rules. Games remove a certain amount of randomness from any situation. If a game contains so many rules that it (theoretically) removes all randomness from (or within) the game itself, the situation is no longer a game: the situation is a machine: it is completely predictable and repetitive in its outcomes. Or, as anthropologist Gregory Bateson once put it, “Without the random, there can be no new thing,” (Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) p. 147).

On the other hand, as Bateson elsewhere pointed out, pure randomness, whether in literature or natural science, can only be achieved via infinite means across an infinite amount of time:

It may well be that any particular pattern (or redundancy) in the method of search will necessarily blind the searcher to certain possible patterns in the universe; and that only RANDOM search can ultimately catch all possible regularities. This ideal will be achieved, however, only by a searcher with infinite time and in a universe which makes available infinite series of data.

(“The Message of Reinforcement” (1966) in A Sacred Unity: Further Steps in an Ecology of Mind, ed. Rodney E. Donaldson, (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) pp.141–42)

Part of this is because of the difficulty of defining the word “random”:

In both the theory of evolution and the theory of learning, however, the word “random” is conspicuously undefined, and the word is not an easy one to define. In both fields, it is assumed that while change may be dependent upon probabilistic phenomena, the probability of a given change is determined by something different from probability…. The word “random,” upon which all of these explanations turn, appears to be a word whose meaning is hierarchically structured, like the meaning of the word “learning.”

(Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) pp. 254–55)

III.

All this is to say that the game of surrealism strikes a balance between pure randomness and absolute predictability. Surrealism, at its best, offers moments of such balance, often through radical juxtaposition, as Margaret O’Brien has recently pointed out:

It’s an odd one, this painting but I’m around long enough to know that when something gives me that little tingle, that draws me back even though I might be perplexed, I know I ought to pay attention. So it is now with The Listening Room. Look at it. It’s either an oversized apple or a very, very small room. Its surrealism stretches my thinking, as Magritte no doubt playfully intended. 

Some recent encounters with surrealism in literature I’ve had include the following emboldened quotations:

The world is a broken lightbulb / no one cares enough about to sweep up. / Please, Marshmallow, lick the glass/ until your tongue bleeds sunlight.

(Austin Davis, “Marshmallow,” Some Houses Are Built with the Wrong Bricks, Massachusetts: Moran Press, 2020)

*****

At first he is ecstatic and brings in his wife who is overjoyed at the lively giant baby. The joy turns to panic soon when they realize the baby is still growing at an alarming rate. After an hour young Philbert is too big to hold. After his nap he is to [sic] big for the house and eats his parents. By the time for “One Life to Live” he had gone through the beach homes of the rich and famous, and working on the western half of Fire Island. By the third rerun of the “Simpsons” he had devoured four million people including the staring back line for the Islanders.

(James Thornton, “Tony Randall vs. the Giant Baby Who Ate Long Island,” Meaty-Ochre no. 1, Austin, Texas: Self-Published, 2019)

*****

Cool sea water sweeps away his jetlag for the time being. Dried off, we eat ice-cream and return to the airport.

(Anthony Rudolf, “Pedraterra,” Two Fables: Pedraterra, Angleterre, (Les Brouzils, France: The Fortnightly Review, 2021) p. 5)


Jul 31 2018

To Learn a Language, You Must Live in that Language

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

To Learn a Language, You Must Live in that Language

At least according to Gregory Bateson (1904-1980):

Perhaps a curriculum is like a hand in that every piece and component of what they would call a curriculum is really related ideally to the other components as fingers are related to each other and to the whole hand. In other words, it is nonsense except as sort of a Faustian shortcut to learn large quantities of listed material unless the learning of those lists can be developed into some sort of organic whole. I am not against the learning of lists. I am against the failure to assimilate the components of lists together into a total vision, a total hearing, a total kinesics, perhaps, of the wholes with which we deal. We are all familiar with the difficulties that Anglo-Saxons face when they learn languages. Englishmen and Americans are notoriously stupid and awkward when they come to a foreign country and try to talk the native language. This is a sharp and clear example of exactly the point that I am trying to make, that we Anglo-Saxons do not learn to live in a language because we believe that it is made of separate parts. We calls these “words” and we make them into dictionaries. But that is not how the natives of the place learn to speak as children nor how they speak today. It is not even how we speak our own English—a language notorious for the number of poets it has produced. We have lost by the time we are twelve the idea of language as a living organized pattern. (“Last Lecture” (1979), A Sacred Unity: Further Steps in an Ecology of Mind, ed. Rodney E. Donaldson, (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) 311–12.)

wood

 


Jun 29 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 08: Comedy and Calamity

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Midwest Mod Squad no. 08: Comedy and Calamity

I.

What is my method for reviewing short fiction in this series? Basically, I’m just comparing things I’ve recently read (or reread) to the texts and topics at hand. I read quite randomly, so the comparisons and contrasts I make follow my reading habits. But as the great anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) once put it: “Without the random, there can be no new thing.” [1]

What do I mean by the “essence of a story” (besides this and this)? I mean when the reader of a story asks (or determines) at what point do the most essential components of that story intersect. This is the essence. For in that hub––“aye––there’s the rub….”

II.

The essence of “Racquetball,” a very short story by Don Waitt[2] of Tampa, Florida, told by a never-named narrator in the first-person perspective, may simply be the death of the father in the backstory. This single, simple incident (occurring in some nameless America locus) reminded me somewhat of the essence of Paul Yoon’s 2016 short story “Vladivostok Station,” where the essence occurs immediately in the opening line as the narrator reunites with his friend Kostya, and everything that follows in the story is a result of this temporary reunion.[3]

As Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) once put it: “precision and brevity—these are the two virtues of prose.”[4] And, under that Russian rubric, Waitt’s story is certainly virtuous in terms of length and exactness; but, considering the length of Yoon’s narrative, I find the latter to be a bit underwhelming. To complicate matters, James Gallant’s short story “The Adjunct” (discussed below in part III. of this review) mocks the concept of “flash fiction” but not so literally that it ends up being a “long” short story.

The dad in “Racquetball” died from an ambush with a heart attack while playing ball; the narrator of “Vladivostok Station,” however, is concerned with his ambush (or intersection) with an old acquaintance. Both deal with interruptions: via death for one and friendship for the other. For both stories, I am reminded of a line from a recent novel by Stephen King when the alcoholic protagonist realizes: “he had come to believe that life was a series of ironic ambushes.”[5]

“Racquetball” deals with a dead dad who, in terms of the narrator’s memory, is still somewhat part of the narrator’s community. And this reminded me of a passage from Alfarabi (872–950 CE) on how the dead nonetheless remain a part of a living community:

“City” and “household” do not mean merely the dwelling for the Ancients. But they do mean those whom the dwelling surrounds, whatever the dwellings, of whatever thing they are, and whether they are beneath the earth or above it—being wood, clay, wool and hair, or any of the other things of which the dwellings that surround people are made. [6]

Or as sociologist Thomas Laqueur has most recently put it:

It is still common; there are cultures today in which the living regularly speak to the dead. We endlessly invest the dead body with meaning because, through it, the human past somehow speaks to us. [7]

In other words, everything above and below and surrounding a living individual should be consider a part of the individual’s community, both the living and the dead. And in “Racquetball” the death of the dad still lingers––as when the narrator-son has to make an annoying trip to the airport to pick up his dead dad’s wallet. Whether the sports projectile that ended his life was launched with violent intent or was merely accidental, I recall the sentiments from Dune: “There is no escape—we pay for the violence of our ancestors.”[8]

In ‘Racquetball,” this idea of the dead still being a part of a living community is made apparent to readers through the storyline of the narrator’s mother becoming emotionally apoplectic from the horror/grief of her husband dying in the prime of life at age forty-eight. As Seneca once put it: “Nothing makes itself more unpopular quite so quickly as a person’s grief,” which is why the narrator of “Racquetball” has given up on overly comforting his widowed mother, though he hates himself for doing so.[9]

III.

The essence of “The Adjunct” by James Gallant[10] (who has written books about Atlanta and Ohio) seems to occur when the main character Aurora Magnusson decides to start a literary magazine at a college in the Ozarks, a college that hasn’t quite decided to hire her, that is, until she pitches her plans for a publication with the college’s name in the title. While her scheme turns out (at least temporarily) to be self-sustaining, it also appears to be something of a racket of the humanities. For in this story would-be writers pay “entry fees” to have their work published, and Magnusson, meanwhile, pockets the fees without disclosing this revenue stream to her college employers.

Gallant’s story (told in the third-person perspective limited to Aurora’s point of view) seems to silently mock grad-student lingo, particularly phrases like “self-sustaining” and “job security,” which aren’t even mentioned in the story proper but seem apparent (at least to this reader).

Magnusson’s self-sustaining scam to publish a literary magazine is divorced from any ideals of quality in the literature it publishes, as evidenced in her speculation as to how she will operate the publication: “The editing probably wouldn’t take that long once the magazine was up and running.”

It’s also not even clear if Aurora Magnusson wants to be a full-time professor, much less an adjunct one. She is (like a good middleclass American) only interested in paying her bills (particularly her rent). In a grander sense, she seems to be going through the motions in order to maintain the appearances of having graduating from graduate school.

IV.

For both narrators of these stories, there is a kind of defiant smiling in the face of utter hopelessness, which isn’t (I think) quite the same as whistling in the dark through a graveyard. Magnusson certainly gains power over the writers whom she now edits; but it remains unclear what power (if any) she wields over her readers. The narrator in “Racquetball,” meanwhile, seems similar to the powerless tenant farmers described in Georgian writer Harry Crew’s (1935–2012) memoirs:

They spoke for a while about the weather, mostly rain, and about other things that men who live off the land speak of when they meet, seriously, but with that resigned tone in their voice that makes you know they know they’re speaking only to pass the time because they have utterly no control over what they’re talking about: weevils in cotton, screwworms in stock, the government allotment of tobacco acreage, the fierce price of commercial fertilizer. [11]

Both Waitt and Gallant’s stories deal with kinds of powerlessness: “Racquetball” about death; “The Adjunct” about job drought, that is, a writing/teaching career thwarted by economic desperation. Both stories remind me of a remark by social philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983): “The powerful can be as timid as the weak. What seems to count more than possession of instruments of power is faith in the future.”[12]

And both stories might be about what Crews once realized: “The only way to deal with the real world was to challenge it with one of your own making.”[13] In “Racquetball” the narrator has to make his own life better by ignoring the undue, continuous grief of his mother. In “The Adjunct” the main character Magnusson literally creates a literary enterprise to “deal with the real world.”

Both stories are by “expert” readers, that is, “established” writers. They know what they’re doing whatever the reader knows, agree with or not. And this brings me back to Pushkin:

In a draft letter to Ryleev of June–August 1825 Pushkin contrasts Western writers who all wrote for money with the situation of poets in Russia where ‘(except for me) they write from vanity … There if you have nothing to eat, you write a book; here if you have nothing to eat you enter government service and dont write.’ [14]

Finally, it needs to be pointed out that both stories are very funny. But when one analyzes humor, she or he too often ends up like those who stare at the countenance of Medusa: silently frozen in perplexity.

NOTES

wood

[1] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 147.

[2] Don Waitt, “Racquetball,” NewPopReview.com.

[3] Paul Yoon, “Vladivostok Station,” Harpers, July 2016.

[4] Elaine Feinstein, Pushkin: a Biography, (Ecco Press/Harper Collins, 2000) 80.

[5] Stephen King, Doctor Sleep, (New York: Scribner, 2013) 64.

[6] Alfarabi, The Political Writings, trans. Charles E. Butterworth. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2004), “Selected Aphorisms” p. 22, no. 22.

[7] Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: a Cultural History of Mortal Remains, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2015) 6.

[8] Frank Herbert, Dune (1965), (New York: Ace Books – Premium Edition, 2010) “I. Dune,” 237 (from “Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan).

[9] Seneca, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Letters from a Stoic), trans. Robin Campbell, (New York: Penguin, 1969) Letter LXIII, p. 116.

[10] James Gallant, “The Adjunct,” Fortnightly Review, May 28, 2018.

[11] Harry Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) 16–17.

[12] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §4, p. 18.

[13] Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place 126.

[14] Feinstein, Pushkin: a Biography 125.


Apr 16 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 03: What is the Essence of a Work of Fiction?

book spines

Midwest Mod Squad no. 03: What is the Essence of a Work of Fiction?

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 02 here)

The age of argument appears to be over…. (Is that what’s implied when someone says we live in an age of anxiety?) … But let’s walk away from that question and leave behind the game of Who Can Best Guess this Zeitgeist? Leave that contrivance to the book peddlers….

All I can do is read a story and see what grabs my attention. And what grabs my attention is usually the essence of the story. (I say usually, because any first appearances that grab one’s attention can of course be deceiving.) And just because the essence of a story grabs my attention doesn’t mean I’ll be able to articulate a definition of that essence.

By essence I mean the thing (moment, symbol, character, idea, etc.) that the entire work of short fiction seems to hinge on—the essential thing without which the story would have no reason to be read by the average casual, curious reader. It may or may not mean a Joycean “epiphany,” or an Aristotelian catharsis, or the thesis of a classical rhetorician. The essence may even be something “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”[1]

To find the essence of a story, a reader asks questions, like the four questions of Alfarabi, or other things like:

  • What topics does each story contain and concern?[2]
  • What of things I’ve previously read that concern and compare and contrast with those topics and subjects?
  • Who is the storyteller of each story? (Which is not the same as asking, Who is the creator of each story?)

And in asking these questions I assume the storyteller is separate from the story creator, but I don’t assume or deny any reliability in what that storyteller tells me the reader/listener. At this early stage in the investigation, I don’t even have to worry about defining the word reliability.

The next two posts in this series will examine a pair of short stories by a pair of New York writers: Chris Arp and Nicole Cuffy. And while no one ever confused the Big Apple with the Midwest, Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern (2016) does include much of Upstate New York to be, in terms of regional dialects, part of the Midwest. Keep in mind, however, that both Arp and Cuffy have written pieces of historical fiction set neither in New York or the Midwest.

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 04 here)

NOTESwood

[1] Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus § 7.0.

[2] An infinite number of topics might exist for any story, sure, but see Bateson on Kant:

Kant argued long ago that this piece of chalk contains a million potential facts (Tatsachen) but that only a very few of these become truly facts by affecting the behavior of entities capable of responding to facts. For Kant’s Tatsachen, I would substitute differences and point out that the number of potential differences in this chalk is infinite but that very few of them become effective differences (i.e., items of information) in the mental process of any larger entity. Information consists of differences that make a difference. (Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 81, 99.)


Jan 30 2018

Community and the Lack of Originality

porticos in Bologna, Italia

COMMUNITY AND THE LACK OF ORIGINALITY
Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part III of III

(Read Part I here, and Part II here)

If we can’t think without others, if we can’t conceive of reality without community, then it follows that there is often no such thing as originality, as Goethe once observed (via Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980)):

Goethe voiced the same insight in his own, characteristically more positive manner: “All that is clever has already been thought; one must only try to think it once more.”[1]

Director Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) used to say the same thing about each camera shot for each scene in a movie: every shot has already been done. The goal, therefore, is to make the shot a little better than what has been done before. Or, as Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) once put it: “Without the random, there can be no new thing.”[2]

And after we communed with the community, we should step away and contemplate what that communion accomplished. As Plutarch puts it:

[The student,] In making his examination and forming his judgement of the lecture he should begin with himself and his own state of mind, endeavouring to estimate whether any one of his emotions has become less intense, whether any one of his troubles weighs less heavily upon him, whether his confidence and his high purpose have become firmly rooted, whether he has acquired enthusiasm for virtue and goodness. As a matter of course, when he rises to leave the barber’s shop, he stands by the mirror and feels his head, examining the cut of his hair and the difference made by its trimming; so on his way home from a lecture or an academic exercise, it would be a shame not to direct his gaze forthwith upon himself and to note carefully his own spirit, whether it has put from it any of its encumbrances and superfluities, and has become lighter and more cheerful.[3]

And Tolstoy adds:

When you are in company, do not forget what you have found out when you were thinking in solitude; and when you are meditating in solitude, think about what you found out by communicating with other people. [4]

Beautiful wall of old books…📚📚📚#reading #igreads #dustyatticrarebooks

A post shared by Rich Pellegrino (@dustyatticrarebooks) on

NOTES

wood

[1] Walter Kaufmann, “Goethe and the History of Ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas 10 (October, 1949): 503–16 at 503–04 quoting Goethe’s Maximen und Reflexionen.

[2] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York, NY: Dutton, 1979) 147.

[3] Plutarch, Morales. Vol. I, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP; London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1927) “On Listening to Lectures” 8, p. 227.

[4] Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, trans. Peter Sekirin, (New York, NY: Scribner, 1997) 100.


Nov 10 2017

An Attempt At Meditating on Metaphor

porticos in Bologna, Italia

An Attempt At Meditating on Metaphor

A metaphor is just a particular tool for mythmaking, and as C. S. Lewis points out, there are two ways in which we use metaphor: one for teachers, another for students. When a metaphor starts with a teacher attempting to teach a student, the teacher is free to choose the metaphor because the teacher already knows the meaning behind it. Here, one might say the teacher’s myth is certain. It is either true or false, and can be proven to be one or the other, because the teacher, by definition, knows the meaning of what he teaches and can, therefore, provide the evidence of the meaning behind the myth that would necessarily make it certain. [1]

On the other hand, as Descartes observed, “One cannot so well seize a thing and make it one’s own, when it has been learned from another, [but] as when one has himself discovered it.” In a state when learning has decreased, as when the teacher is unavailable or inaccessible to the student, or when communication overrules conversation, the student, suffering confusion, is left in Lewis’s words, “to the mercy of the metaphor.” She must make her a myth on her own. But the student’s metaphor is never true or false. No matter how true it “feels” it cannot be made certain. For when the student creates an original metaphor, she is bound by her subjective certainty and is not free to choose it the way the teacher did. She thinks and feels, and indeed may know it to be an appropriate metaphor but is probably unable to explain why. [2]

Metaphors are fine; but they need to be labeled says Gregory Bateson:

The conceptual models of cybernetics and the energy theories of psychoanalysis are, after all, only labeled metaphors. The peculiarity of the schizophrenic is not that he uses metaphors, but that he uses unlabeled metaphors. He has special difficulty in handling signals of that class whose members assign Logical Types to other signals.

That is to say, he must live in a universe where the sequences of events are such that his unconventional communicational habits will be in some sense appropriate. The hypothesis which we offer is that sequences of this kind in the external experience of the patient are responsible for the inner conflicts of Logical Typing. For such unresolvable sequences of experiences, we use the term “double bind….”

Among human beings we meet with a strange phenomenon—the unconscious falsification of these signals. This may occur within the self—the subject may conceal from himself his own real hostility under the guise of metaphoric play—or it may occur as an unconscious falsification of the subject’s understanding of the other person’s mode-identifying signals. He may mistake shyness for contempt, and so on. Indeed, most of the errors of self-reference fall under this head…. He may learn to learn.[3]

Compare Wittgenstein’s Investigations: we concurrently play two different games with the same word at the same time:

It can never indicate the common characteristic of two objects that we symbolize them with the same signs but by different methods of symbolizing. For the sign is arbitrary. We could therefore equally well choose two different signs and where then would be what was common in the symbolization.[4]

NOTES

wood

[1]. C. S. Lewis. “Bluspels and Flalansferes” Rehabilitations and Other Essays, (London: Oxford University Press, 1939). Quoted from Max Black, ed., The Importance of Language, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1962) 39–40.

[2] René Descartes, Discours de la Methode, § VI. For the differences in “belief” versus “certainty” versus “truth,” see: Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, (New York, NY: Viking, 1976) 108; Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1958), 112–13; Plato, Meno 79C–81A, 85C–86E; John Searle, “Language and social ontology,” Theory and Society, (October 2008): 443–59 at 445.

[3] Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia,” (1956) in Theories of Schizophrenia, eds. Arnold H. Buss and Edith H. Buss, (New York, NY: Atherton Press, 1969) 132, 130–31.

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus, Translated by C. K. Ogden, (1921) 3.322.


Nov 6 2017

Digitally Transferring Authority: On Geography, Technology, & Power

typewriter

Digitally Transferring Authority: On Geography, Technology, & Power

Numbers are the product of counting. Quantities are the product of measurement. This means that numbers can conceivably be accurate because there is a discontinuity between each integer and the next. Between two and three, there is a jump. In the case of quantity, there is no such jump; and because jump is missing in the world of quantity, it is impossible for any quantity to be exact. You can have exactly three tomatoes. You can never have exactly three gallons of water. Always quantity is approximate…. In other words, number is of the world of pattern, gestalt, and digital computation; quantity is of the world of analogic and probabilistic computation.

––Gregory Bateson (1904–1980)[1]

As I said in my previous post, while I initially found much to be lacking in David Sax’s book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (2016), it was worth reading, particularly for what I consider to be this book’s most profound passage, found amid a discussion concerning new digital/analog challenges at Camp Walden:

“Let say a kid is getting bullied in a cabin by another camper,” he [Sol Birenbaum] said, using a recent example. “If she writes an e-mail home on her phone, her mother reacts immediately, advising action to her daughter, and contacting me to remedy the problem. The mother retains authority. But with a six-day delay from the time the daughter sends her letter to the mother’s response, the camper has to deal with the problem of the bully. Eventually, the camper realizes that ‘Hey, maybe I should talk with’” and you suddenly achieve that transfer of authority from parent to counselor that is crucial for Walden’s social cohesion. Birenbaum believes the elevated anxiety he’s observed in this generation of campers is directly related to the constant hovering of their parents, who use digital technology to keep tabs on their children around the clock. They cannot surrender their authority. Many of the phones that Birenbaum has seized from campers over the past few summers were sent on the insistence of parents, who wanted to remain in touch. [2]

With regard to how those transfers transcend geography, let me note that I just finished Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, and some of what Sax’s example shows seems to be what Anderson was getting at when he showed how maps are an essential part of the way modern communities and nations imagine, reimagine, (or distort) themselves as well as their neighbors.[3]

Digital mapping (through GPS, Google Maps, satellite imagery, etc.) might very well offer examples of transfers of authority that lead to social cohesion. For example, the famous nighttime photos of North Korea apparently show that the Hermit Kingdom is geographically quite cohesive in its lack of electricity.

These questions surrounding transfers of authority via technology are a part of our liquid modernity. As Kevin Kelly writes in The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future (2016): “In order to run in real time, our technological infrastructure needed to liquefy. Nouns needed to be verbs…. Liquidity offers new powers.”[4]

But as Bateson reminds us—Lord Acton’s dictum was a little off—for power alone doesn’t corrupt; it’s the myth of power that leads to corruption.[5]

NOTES

wood

[1] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 49.

[2] Sax, The Revenge of Analog, (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2016) 234–35.

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (New York, NY: Verso, Revised Edition 2006) 170–78.

[4] Kelly, The Inevitable, (New York, NY: Penguin, 2016) 65, 74.

[5] Bateson, Mind and Nature 223.


Oct 31 2017

Initial Thoughts on the Breech between Digital and Analog

analog book spines

Initial Thoughts on the Breech between Digital and Analog

The steam engine with a governor provides a typical instance of one type, in which the angle of the arms of the governor is continuously variable and has a continuously variable effect on the fuel supply. In contrast, the house thermostat is an on-off mechanism in which temperature causes a thermometer to throw a switch at a certain level. This is the dichotomy between analogic systems (those that vary continuously and in step with magnitudes in the trigger event) and digital systems (those that have the on-off characteristic).

––Gregory Bateson (1904–1980)[1]

While Baylor University is not my alma mater, its Distinguished Professor of Humanities Alan Jacobs has been my teacher for the past few years. While I did not formally audit Jacob’s course this semester “Living and Thinking in a Digital Age,” I did recently finish the principal texts: Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future (2016) and The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (2016) by David Sax.

Writing about what I’ve recently read at Bookbread.com #tech #books #writing #digital #analog

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What follows are initial thoughts only. I intend to think more about these books and write something more in depth soon enough.

 Initial thoughts on Kelley: While it’s a Penguin paperback, the aesthetics of the book are wanting: pretty bland for a book told in such a cheerleading tone––just flat white pages printed with what looks like Times New Roman––as if it were a newspaper. Was this irony intentional? On the other hand, unless I’m a sucker for novelty (and I am), Kelly’s twelve trends in emerging technologies came across to the present writer, for the most part, as an interesting essay with many things to think about. Whether or not one agrees with the “inevitableness” of Kelly’s thesis, there are things to ponder further. But its cheerleading tone seems similar to feelings held by students whom Leo Strauss (1899–1973) once addressed:

We [moderns] somehow believe that our point of view is superior, higher than those of the greatest minds [of the ancient world]––either because our point of view is that of our time, and our time, being later than the time of the greatest minds, can be presumed to be superior to their times; or else because we believe that each of the greatest minds was right from his point of view but not, as be claims, simply right: we know that there cannot be the simply true substantive view but only a simply true formal view; that formal view consists in the insight that every comprehensive view is relative to a specific perspective, or that all comprehensive views are mutually exclusive and none can be simply true. [2]

Initial thoughts on Sax: With its hardcover, Baskerville font, cream-colored pages, and embossed dustjacket, I regard this book very highly in terms of aesthetics. Its contents, however, aren’t (at least initially) very captivating. Then again, maybe this was because (1) I was born in the analog era, so much of Sax’s book is review for me, and (2), because it’s review––by definition––it cannot be novel. Nonetheless, I found the most interesting portion to be Chapter 7 “The Revenge of Work” because here Sax (unlike Kelly) doesn’t explain his pattern finding in the voice of a utopian cheerleader. While Chapter 7 discusses Shinola watches made in Detroit in a hopeful manner, Sax’s writing remains quite sober and never pretends to offer easy answers.

Initial thoughts on reading and writing: Both Kelly and Sax write in a “breezy” style suitable for airport consumer readers—a strong contrast to say, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) where readers find a much slower-paced “storytelling”[3] style that demands reflection, review, rereading, and repetition.

Initial thoughts on technology: In the spirit of neo-analogic Zeitgeist, I confess I wrote the first few drafts of this blog post by hand (as I often do). I also printed Jacob’s syllabus for the “Living and Thinking in a Digital Age” course and read through it. Then, with regard to reading the books by Kelly and Sax and writing about them, I physically underlined what I thought were the important parts of the syllabus:

How is the rise of digital technologies changing some of the fundamental practices of the intellectual life: reading, writing, and researching? ….  So we will also spend some time thinking about the character and purposes of liberal education…. This is a course on how the digital worlds we live in now — our technologies of knowledge and communication — will inevitably shape our experience as learners. So let’s begin by trying to get a grip on the digital tech that shapes our everyday lives.

Finally, to find the quotations I needed, I consulted my previous digital notes on Strauss and Bateson, then copied-and-pasted where appropriate.

Initial thoughts on spirituality: (1) When I first came across Kelly’s line––

[Google] takes these guesses and adds them to the calculation of figuring out what ads to place on a web page that you’ve just arrived at. It’s almost magical, but the ads you see on a website today are not added until the moment after you land there. (181)

––it reminded me of an observation from the atheist anthropologist Gregory Bateson:

My view of magic is the converse of that which has been orthodox in anthropology since the days of Sir James Frazer. It is orthodox to believe that religion is an evolutionary development of magic. Magic is regarded as more primitive and religion as its flowering. In contrast, I view sympathetic or contagious magic as a product of decadence from religion; I regard religion on the whole as the earlier condition. I find myself out of sympathy with decadence of this kind either in community life or in the education of children.[4]

(2) Kelly’s last line of his book––“The Beginning, of course, is just beginning,” (p. 297)––seems highly suggestive, perhaps because it seems highly biblical. But it might also be a tip of the hat to Joycian recourse. If digital technologies and patterns are as inevitable as Kelly says they are, then Analog’s Wake might’ve made for a more appropriate title.

More to come.

Great to see @ayjay and @austinkleon at @bookpeople tonight #books #thinking #literature #ATX #Austin

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NOTES

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[1] Mind and Nature, (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 110–11.

[2]What is Liberal Education?” Address Delivered at the Tenth Annual Graduation Exercises of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. June 6, 1959.

[3] With regard to “storytelling,” early in his magnum opus, Taylor writes:

I ask the reader who picks up this book not to think of it as a continuous story-and-argument, but rather as a set of interlocking essays, which shed light on each other, and offer a context of relevance for each other…. I have to launch myself into my own story, which I shall be telling in the following chapters… One important part of the picture is that so many features of their world told in favour of belief, made the presence of God seemingly undeniable. I will mention three, which will place a part in the story I want to tell…..  And at this point I want to start by laying out some broad features of the contrast between then and now, which will be filled in and enriched by the story. (A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP) ix, 21, 29)

[4] Gregory Bateson and Mary Catherine Bateson, Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred, (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc., 2005) 56.


Oct 31 2016

More Money = More Theology

pencil shavings

More Money = More Theology

Recall some maxims from William James:

Religion basically means something solemn or serious.[i]

Spiritual ideas are based on instincts, not intelligence.[ii]

We adopt creeds only when they make us feel happy.[iii]

Today at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher writes:

At the present moment, the literature professor, Dante scholar, and orthodox Catholic Anthony Esolen is under severe attack at his own institution, Providence College, for having recently written a couple of essays criticizing the present conception of “diversity” on his Catholic campus, and reflecting on the persecutorial phase of our culture (here’s one, and here’s the other)….

But where would he go? I can think of a few colleges that would love to have him on faculty. Ten years from now, will they? Besides, what about the younger orthodox Christian scholars who, unlike Tony Esolen and James Davison Hunter, don’t have tenure?

Do oRTHODOX Christian plumbers, truck-drivers, oil rig workers, insurance salesmen, and bank tellers, feel the same urgency?

Or is this only a worry for Christians affluent enough to attend universities in the first place?

Do the forgotten citizens of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward or Houston’s Fifth Ward really feel the same threat from Social Justice Warriors and Moral Therapeutic Deists as those who live in the Woodlands and send their sons and daughters to private universities like Baylor?

It is an unfair simplification to be sure, but, as an outsider to most things theological, it often seems like in America, the more complex and rigid the theology one believes, the more money one’s got in their wallet.

Let us return to some words from William James:

We despise any one who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life.[iv]

NOTES

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[i] James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lecture II,” 1902. NY: Modern Library Classics. 2002. p. 44.

[ii] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lecture III,” p. 85.

[iii] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lectures IV & V,” pp. 90–91.

Following the thought of Gregory Bateson, I abide that explorations are self-validating, and therefore, nearly always successful. Or in Bateson’s words, explanation is “the mapping of description onto tautology,” and this is probably what Thoreau was getting at when he remarked, “whether we travel fast or flow, the track is laid for us.” (Bateson, Mind and Nature 139; Bateson, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia.” 82; Thoreau, Walden, “Chapter I: On Economy.”)

[iv] James, Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lectures XIV and XV – The Value of Saintliness” 401.

 


Aug 2 2016

Questions and Comments for Folks Who Like to Read

bookbread Canterbury

Questions and Comments for Folks Who Like to Read

The eighth-century monk Bede charitably advises “good luck” to his readers,[1]  and twentieth-century bard Bruce sings that tramps are born to run: some sprinters, others marathon runners, but in all ages, the writer is a tramp who begs readers for charity. Yet what, exactly, is a charitable reader? How do readers convey caritas? And how do they express their gratitude toward writers who help them? Do readers feel in debt to such writers? Do they owe them something? Is this what Rod Dreher felt when he wrote How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015)? Is this what I do when I blog about Dreher’s work? Is that how Dante felt about Boethius’s Consolation (523 AD)?—and Boethius had felt about Plato?

How, for example, did someone like Martin Buber want to be read? And how did he read Torah and Talmud? It is an exaggeration, though only a slight one, to say that Buber begged for Jewish readers but received only Christian charity. Buber’s translator Walter Kaufmann once complained that Buber indulged in much unnecessary wordplay,[2] but do we not play and joke (most frivolously, most unnecessarily) with our intimates rather than strangers?

My collective answer to these questions is that the mind of the active reader renders an alternative present time to encounter an imitative presence of the writer.[3]

When I read Buber, a self-described philosophic anthropologist, I understand him (I think) because he was a writer who tried engaging in an I–You mode of discourse with his potential readers. It is all quite mundane and requiring nothing supernatural to understand a text as, to a certain extent, imitating the writer who wrote it—that it contains the spirit of the writer. For even an adamant atheist like Gregory Bateson (a scientific anthropologist) could admit that his thoughts would exist after death:

When you’re dead you’re dead, living on only in the sense that your molecules recycle to the maintenance of the biosphere and your ideas recycle to the maintenance of evolution. The supernatural and miracles, [Bateson] liked to say, “are a materialist’s attempt to escape from his materialism.”[4]

Now Kafka was a writer who never begged a reader for anything. One can say that in his works he essentially communicated in an I–I mode of discourse. Nonetheless, he remains insightful, as when his character of Raban discusses the frame of mind of the reader:

Books are useful in every sense and quite especially in respects in which one would not expect it. For when one is about to embark on some enterprise, it is precisely the books whose contents have nothing at all in common with the enterprise that are the most useful. For the reader who does after all intend to embark on that enterprise, that is to say, who has somehow become enthusiastic (and even if, as it were, the effect of the book can penetrate only so far as that enthusiasm), will be stimulated by the book to all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise. Now, however, since the contents of the book are precisely something of utter indifference, the reader is not at all impeded in those thoughts, and he passes through the midst of the book with them, as once the Jews passed through the Red Sea, that’s how I should like to put it.[5]

Compare Emerson:

A page which is tedious to me today, tomorrow becomes precious because I read in a book that it is precious to another man… You do not doubt that the same book, the same history yields different light to a boy & to a man. Last year you were a boy[;] now you are a man. Again; today you are a boy, & next year you shall be a man.[6]

Chosen by fortune, thrown by fate, the elect reader of Kafka and Emerson passes through with ease while the others left behind—the unchosen, illiterate Egyptians in pursuit of escaped slaves––are to be engulfed in the oceania of biblioteca, falling off the cliffs of Parnassus, to be, in Bateson’s terminology, “recycled.”

I have written more than I planned, though not more than I wished.

­­––Alcuin of York (735–804 AD)[7]

NOTES

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[1] Bede, Venerabilis. “Table of Contents for Books II and V” Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.) Translated by Roger Collins. Edited by Collins and Judith McClure. NY: Oxford UP. 1994. p. 64.

[2] Kaufmann, Walter. “Prologue to I and Thou,” Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) By Martin Buber. 1923. Translated by Kaufmann. Scribner: NY. 1970. p. 19.

[3] For Buber:

What is essential is lived in the present, [dead] objects in the past…. Presence is not what is evanescent [vaporous] and passes but what confronts us, waiting and enduring. And the object is not duration but standing still, ceasing, breaking off, becoming rigid, standing out, the lack of relation, the lack of presence….(Ich und Du, I § 17)

Creation is the origin, redemption is the goal; but revelation is not a datable, determinate point poised between them. The center is not the revelation at Sinai but the continual possibility of receiving it. That is why a psalm or a prophecy is not less “Torah,” teaching, than is the story of the exodus from Egypt. (“People Today and the Jewish Bible: from a Lecture Series.” Die Schrift und das Wort. (Scripture and Translation.) By Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Translated by Lawrence Rosewald with Everett Fox. Indiana UP: Indianapolis, IN. 1994. p. 8)

[4] Nachmanovitch, Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 117.

[5] Kafka, Franz. “Hochzeitsvorbereitungen Auf Dem Lande.” (“Wedding Preparations in the Country.”) Translated by Tania and James Stern. Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories. Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. NY: Schocken. 1971. 74–75.

[6] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol. V. 1835–1838. Edited by Merton M. Sealts, Jr. 1965. Belknap Press, Harvard UP. November 24, 1837, Journal C, p. 435 and December 3, 1837, p. 440.

[7] Alcuin of York, “Letter 126,” Alcuin of York: His Life and Letters. Edited and Translated by Stephen Allott. York, England: William Sessions Limited. 1974. p. 133.