Thursday, 31 July 2008


And talking of McCay ...

I once published an essay on the relationship between the original film of King Kong and McCay's Little Nemo books. I'm sorry I missed this image, which has the clearest relationship with one of the key iconic images of the movie. The hand reaches into our bedroom as we sleep and carries us away. What's going on? It touches, partly, on the sense we have (in sleep) of being physically immobilised, as if gripped in a giant hand; and it also literalises the idea that sleep 'carries us away'. But it is the menace in the image that startles me (are we all, on some level, afraid of sleep? Is sleep a monster that abducts us?)

Wednesday, 30 July 2008


The solar system's newest planet. The name is pronounced 'mak-ay, mak-ay' apparently, in honour of Winsor McCay whose Little Nemo strips first speculated on the dwarf planet's existence.

But wait: "unlike Pluto or Eris, Makemake shows little evidence of nitrogen ice on its surface, suggesting that its supply of nitrogen has somehow been depleted over the age of the Solar System." This is evidence of life, surely! Like several Kuiper belt objects, Makemake has a transient atmosphere: heated and subliming, giving the indigienous life time to lock down its nitrogen, then cooling and freezing, preserving them in stasis.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008


Allen Page Fiske asks: 'how do people co-ordinate their relationships?' and answers his own question:

The answer, surprisingly, is that people use just four fundamental models for organizing most aspects of sociality most of the time in all cultures (Fiske 1991a, 1992). These models are Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing. Communal Sharing (CS) is a relationship in which people treat some dyad or group as equivalent and undifferentiated with respect to the social domain in question. Examples are people using a commons (CS with respect to utilization of the particular resource), people intensely in love (CS with respect to their social selves), people who "ask not for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee" (CS with respect to shared suffering and common well-being), or people who kill any member of an enemy group indiscriminately in retaliation for an attack (CS with respect to collective responsibility). In Authority Ranking (AR) people have asymmetric positions in a linear hierarchy in which subordinates defer, respect, and (perhaps) obey, while superiors take precedence and take pastoral responsibility for subordinates. Examples are military hierarchies (AR in decisions, control, and many other matters), ancestor worship (AR in offerings of filial piety and expectations of protection and enforcement of norms), monotheistic religious moralities (AR for the definition of right and wrong by commandments or will of God), social status systems such as class or ethnic rankings (AR with respect to social value of identities), and rankings such as sports team standings (AR with respect to prestige). AR relationships are based on perceptions of legitimate asymmetries, not coercive power; they are not inherently exploitative (although they may involve power or cause harm). In Equality Matching relationships people keep track of the balance or difference among participants and know what would be required to restore balance. Common manifestations are turn-taking, one-person one-vote elections, equal share distributions, and vengeance based on an-eye-for-an-eye, a-tooth-for-a-tooth. Examples include sports and games (EM with respect to the rules, procedures, equipment and terrain), baby-sitting coops (EM with respect to the exchange of child care), and restitution in-kind (EM with respect to righting a wrong). Market Pricing relationships are oriented to socially meaningful ratios or rates such as prices, wages, interest, rents, tithes, or cost-benefit analyses. Money need not be the medium, and MP relationships need not be selfish, competitive, maximizing, or materialistic—any of the four models may exhibit any of these features. MP relationships are not necessarily individualistic; a family may be the CS or AR unit running a business that operates in an MP mode with respect to other enterprises. Examples are property that can be bought, sold, or treated as investment capital (land or objects as MP), marriages organized contractually or implicitly in terms of costs and benefits to the partners, prostitution (sex as MP), bureaucratic cost-effectiveness standards (resource allocation as MP), utilitarian judgments about the greatest good for the greatest number, or standards of equity in judging entitlements in proportion to contributions (two forms of morality as MP), considerations of "spending time" efficiently, and estimates of expected kill ratios (aggression as MP).

It's a fascinating matrix of points of analysis; but its emphasis on parsing vertical and horizontal social perceptions of self/other it ignores, or has no place for, some key ways in which relationships are formualted. The most obvious missing element is the aesthetic: the connection we feel, or to which we aspire, grounded on beauty.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Trinity hunting

The closer you examine the New Testament, the more types of the trinity you find. Take the name Jesus: a common enough cognomen in the area at the time. It is applied to precisely three figures in the NT. In his Epistle to Colossians St Paul identifies one of his co-workers as 'Jesus, who is called Justus' [Col. 4:11]; and Acts 13:6 reads: 'and when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Bar-jesus' --which is to say, 'the son of Jesus'. So the NT contains three Jesuses, one of them the messiah, one of them the son, and one 'Justus' ('Lawful'). A Jesus who embodies the Law, a Jesus identified as the son, and a Jesus who transcends materiality.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Hughes's Pike

Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast

But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move
The still splashes on the dark pond,

Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night's darkness had freed,
That rose slowly towards me, watching
. [1960; pp.85-6]

That 'deep as England' is the key: this fish is the grotesque pre-ichthus that lurks beneath Christian England. That sense of this country as a place where the sleep of trees produces monsters (owls hushing the floating woods). Don't stir up the ancestral waters; you won't like what you rouse.

There's context, too: Hughes's 1960 'three-inch long' pike has a 'silhouette/Of submarine selicacy and horror./A hundred feet long in their world'. HMS Dreadnought, Britain's first nuclear-powered submarine was 265 feet long, and was launched by the Queen on Trafalgar day in 1960. What secret business was it about? Hush those floating woods ... don't tell them, Pike.

Saturday, 26 July 2008


Holocene means 'wholly new'; an ironic description, since of all the geological epochs it is the only not to show new faunal stages or geological transformation. But it is that epoch that includes the rise of us, homo sapiens sapiens ... how could that not be radically new?

Friday, 25 July 2008


Monotheism is a very rare phenonemon in human affairs; most monotheists are actually henotheists.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Potted Imperial History

Losing the American colonies in the eighteenth-century freed Britain up to develop the largest empire the world has ever seen in the nineteenth. Losing the Indian colonies in the twentieth-century inaugurated the terminal decline not only of the British Empire but of Britain itself. Why might this be?

Wednesday, 23 July 2008


The whole discipline of psychotherapy (whatever our doubts about the solidity of its scientific ground) is based on one rather counter-intuitive truth about human beings: it is easier to tells the truth about ourselves to other people than to ourselves. That's a strange thing, when you come to think about it.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Child's Play

It's an old observation that children take their play very seriously indeed. And rightly so.

Monday, 21 July 2008


What would the unbeliever equivalent of Christendom be called? I'm torn, as the moment, between Athiessa and Athiestan.

Sunday, 20 July 2008


Vegetarianism is required, clearly enough, by the Bible: Leviticus 17:14 "You must not eat the blood of any sort of flesh" (Some Christians ignore this, and eat black pudding and anything else they fancy; some Christians interpret this injunction to forbid the eating or drinking of blood, and live accordingly; other Christians believe it also forbids blood-transfusions). But even if we take the words in their most straightforward way, we have to concede that some blood remains in any flesh that we might eat. We've seen the Merchant of Venice; we know that the idea of separating out flesh and blood is a no-no. So we're to eat only bloodless vegetables. And what of all the other dietary laws from this corner of the Bible? (Not seething a calf in its mother's milk and so on). To be consistent, we must regard these are making assurance double sure; reinforcing the fundamental commandment that blood is impure.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Lear poem

Those things which distinguish Man—
His thumb,
His tongue—
In fact let him do what all beasts can:
Strip Gloster of his eye;
Moisten Edmund's lip.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Between Issac and Christ

Consider the sense in which the Bible is balanced between two sacrifices of children by the father: between Issac on the one hand and Christ on the other (between the Old and New Testaments, in other words). But the rule of three suggests there should be a third. In the first sacrifice, death is averted at the last minute; in the second death is rescinded after the fact; what's needful is a third sacrifice, to make plain the truth of existence, that death can neither be averted nor rescinded, but must be encountered fully, in itself, as itself. A third sacrifice in which the sacrificial victim actually dies.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Alice's Caterpillar

I'm rather intrigued by the notion (which, I'm surprised and a little ashamed to confess, has only just occurred to me) that Tenniel's Alice's Caterpillar is a satirical dig at the British judiciary. Martin Gardner notes how Tenniel made the first two rows of caterpillarian legs the being's nose and chin, which is very neat; and I remember thinking as a child how like a treble clef the curling of the hookah's line is. But to look at the image is to note the resemblance of the caterpillar's back to a judicial wig (Ede and Ravenscroft's Legal Habits: a Brief Sartorial History of Wig, Robe [pdf] makes plain that in the nineteenth-century (and unlike today) Judges wore 'a larger full-bottomed stle of wig' where attorneys and lawyers wore 'bobwigs' and 'pigtails' respectively); and the sleeve looks very like the sleeve of a judicial gown. The question is whether Tenniel had any larger point, beyond linking Judges with the indolence and orientalism associated with the hookah?

Wednesday, 16 July 2008


What does the sternum resemble, if not a trilobite fossilised and locked under the skin of our chests?

Tuesday, 15 July 2008


David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary (1741-2): 'Art may make a suit of clothes; but nature must produce a man' [Essay XV, 'The Epicurean'].

Science Fiction, of course, has spent the twentieth-century splendidly contradicting the second part of Hume's little assertion here. What it needs to do, in the twenty-first, is to contradict the first part too.

Monday, 14 July 2008


'It would be possible to describe everything Scientifically,' Einstein once said [quoted here, p.32] 'but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation in wave pressure.'

But the senselessness here isn't in the description (after all, a Beethoven symphony is a variation in wave pressure) but in our lacking the capacity to translate that description into a somatic apprehension. Translating the sounds of that symphony into msuical script is only senseless for the person who can't read music; for the person who can it is intensely senseful. Variations in wave pressure is the same thing.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

On watching Scorcese's Last Temptation of Christ

For much of the film I found myself (in a good way) thinking of Deckard's words: 'how can it not know what it is?' The more I think about that question, the more profound and spiritual it seems to me.

The news on the BBC earlier this week was about the Church of England ordaining female bishops, and those members of the Church so outraged by this decision that they are planning to leave. At root (since none of those upset could be coaxed into saying but women are inferior to men!) their outrage was based upon: but this is not what I am used to! To say that something violates tradition is always, at root, to denigrate it because it's not what we're used to. And part of me thinks, fair enough: continuity and tradition and important props to help human subjectivity along its torturous path. But it also makes me want to say to one of these anti-female-bishop Anglicans: have you even read the New Testament? It's a text open to a number of interpretations of course, but one thing that comes unambiguously out of it is the message: everything is different now. It is a book that says, in its whole as well as in numerous specific places: give up your attachments to the old ways, however comforting you find them. It's all new. To live according to the logic of the Gospels, surely, must be to live as thoroughly as you can the everythingness and the difference and the nowness of everything is different now.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Industrial Revolution

There's the chance I should have made more of that portion of the iceberg that necessarily lies below the waterline visible. For instance, an 1848 shaped by the discovery and exploitation of both Liliputians and Brobdingnagians. What might such an 1848 be like? Would it be an 1848 still rooted, for the most part, in late 18th-century? Or would it be more like 1914?

"Actually that is something else that bothers me about the book. Why did he very deliberately choose 1848, the year of revolutions? The Franco-British war (what pitifully small portion of it we glimpse) bears more relationship to Napoleonic era warfare nearly half a century earlier. "

Or: Liliputians might be exploited to make smaller and more intricate machines; but in a C19th context such machines are really just toys. On the other hand, Brobdingnagians would be used to do the super-heavy lifting, and for that reason the big machines of the C19th industrial revolution need not be invented. Since it is the big machines that made the industrial revolution happen, this would surely have an effect of stagnating technological advance. It's different now, of course: although culture is often strangely enamoured of enormities of scale, in fact the late 20th-century technological revolution was all about miniaturisation (about the Lillis, not the Brobs).

Friday, 11 July 2008


Blogs: tamagotchi for the computariat.

Thursday, 10 July 2008


The first two human tales in Genesis, that of Adam and Eve and that of Noah, are clearly making points about the virtue of obedience. But the book as a whole then moves from synthesis to antithesis; the stories of Abram, Lot and Abraham and Isaac equally clearly make points about the necessity of disobedience, or more specifically the need to temper obedience with disobedience. Blind obedience is a terrible thing; absolute loyalty is incompatible with free will; authority is to be respected only insofar as it does not become arbitrary tyranny. The moral of the story of Abraham and Isaac is the same moral as the story of Adam and Eve, which is to say, in both cases the protagonists act the wrong way. Just as it was wrong for Adam to blight his descendents by disobeying God, it was—patently—wrong for Abraham to make such a fetish of obedience to a cruel, arbitrary and tyrannous command as that of God in Genesis. To too great a degree, religions descended from this book have learnt the first of these lessons but not the second.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Lip service.

Lip-service--as opposed to, what? Genuine service ... 'troth', as it used to be called? But troth in which nothing is said: nothing promised, sworn, communicated? That sounds much worse. What can a poet, or a kiss, offer except lip service?

Tuesday, 8 July 2008


I've a fanciful notion that we strap time onto our wrists not so much because it's nicely accessible for our eyes, but because subconsciously we like the idea of time dangling in the region of our hips. Our hips are the true benchmark of time, because the fruit thereof, children, are its true scale.

Monday, 7 July 2008


Melville's lonely old whale has died and gone to a sky-swimming school where he and his swagbellied friends can drift endlessly through the blue together.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Pink Moon

Nick Drake's spare, aching, beautiful final album; his death album. Its moon is pink because his heart's blood is mixed with its whiteness. The white goddess accepts such sacrifices, from time to time.

Saturday, 5 July 2008


Once the Mongols ruled the largest empire the world had ever seen; now Mongolia is a backward nation, and 'mongoloid' a term of medical abuse for Down's Syndrome children. Thus does the resentment of the conquered work itself out upon the fallen empire: in a few century's time a Chinese blogger will observe that 'England' is a backward nation, and 'English-looking' a description of genetically deformed children.

Friday, 4 July 2008


Scholars derive the word from the same root as woods, assuming this creature is a wood spirit ('The Woodwose [Anglo-Saxon: wuduwasa] or hairy wildman of the woods is a mythological figure that appears in the artwork of medieval Europe ....') But, fancifully, I enter into the wodwo's state of mind, of exclusion and abjection, and wonder whether the name doesn't incorporate a doubled sorrow: woe-and-woe.

Thursday, 3 July 2008


'Born from the oxymoron of agreeable horror, Romanticism was nursed on calamity' [Simon Schama]. This is on the right lines; although it would be closer to the truth to say that 'agreeable horror' (which is a very ancient human idiom) unveiled for the Romantics a new perspective on subjectivity. To put it another way: Romanticism asks what part of us finds horror so agreeable?

Wednesday, 2 July 2008


One of the main characters in Greg Bear’s recent novel, City at the End of Time (2008) is a far-future superevolved human ‘Tall One’ or ‘Eidolon’ called Pahtun. Here he is in conversation with some less-evolved individuals:

'He waved a long-fingered hand, and Tiadba noticed that on the tip of his sixth-finger—he had six fingers and an odd thumb, mounted in the center of his palm—there was a pink flower. Patient observation, as Pahtun spoke and waved his hand some more, rewarded her with the realization that this flower was in fact a cluster of six-smaller fingers—perhaps used in delicate tasks’ [Bear, City, 287]

What makes this little image so striking is its peculiarly fractal logic, its extension of our sense of a human being as (to appropriate Lear’s words) a poor forked thing: a unitary, single ‘body’ (which we tend to mistake for ‘us’) branches into two arms, into two legs. Each arm branches at its end into five digits. Bear simply imaginatively extends this logic: it is hard, I submit, to think of the finger branching into six miniature fingers without wondering whether each of these mini-fingers does not also end in even smaller fingers—perhaps . Our hands, howsoever useful they are as manipulators and signifiers, also represent one place where our body frays.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008


We've been looking in the wrong place for intelligent alien life; that we have achieved consciousness (though of a freakishly rapid and temporary sort) in the crushing basin of a gravity well is a bizarre thing. Most intelligence in the cosmos lives, slow, diffuse, in the enormous intergalactic spaces, as far as possible from the contamination of gravity. Clearly life was meant to exist in these spaces, because they constiute most of the universe.