Friday, 31 December 2010

Kipling's Changelings

One of Rudyard's more bellicose poems, this; but I like it nonetheless. Published 1915, 'The Changelings':
Or ever the battered liners sank
With their passengers to the dark
I was head of a Walworth Bank,
And you were a grocer's clerk.

I was a dealer in stocks and shares,
And you in butters and teas;
And we both abandoned our own affairs
And took to the dreadful seas.

Wet and worry about our ways--
Panic, onset and flight--
Had us in charge for a thousand days
And thousand-year-long night.

We saw more than the nights could hide--
More than the waves could keep--
And--certain faces over the side
Which do not go from our sleep.

We were more tired than words can tell
While the pied craft fled by,
And the swinging mounds of the Western swell
Hoisted us Heavens-high...

Now there is nothing -- not even our rank--
To witness what we have been;
And I am returned to my Walworth Bank
And you to your margarine!
What I like is the sea-had-soaked-his-heart-through way marine terminology haunts even the landlubber existences of these two characters: 'Walworth Bank' sounds like a rival to Dogger Bank; 'Margarine' sounds like a sea-y 'mar' word.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Ontological Turing's test

There ought to be, where the larger philosophical questions are concerned, a kind of ontological Turing's test. Take Substance. Say Aristotle was right all along; that there is such a thing. What difference does that knowledge make to us? If the answer is none: which is to say, if the Cosmos can convincingly give the appearance of functioning in a non-Substantive way -- then au revoir to that theory irrespective of its inherent rightness of wrongness. Surely.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Cola poem

Drink poured, dark.
Layered actres of bubblewrap
shrunk to the two-inch
Munch-scream 0 of the glass.

The texture of complexity,
But not the actuality of it.
It looks mind-blowing, the
myriad tiny bubbles. It's not.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Truth in religion

"The way, the truth, the light ...' Not, it's always struck me: 'a way, a truth, a light ...' Or to put it another way: I've read several contemporary theologians this year (either them, or reviews of their work) who have advanced variants of the following move: 'there is obviously such a thing as scientific truth, but to this is an insufficient criterion of veracity by which to live life. Atheists share with scientists too narrow a conception of truth; religious truth is not so narrow ...' Which is fine, although it always makes me want to replace the word 'narrow' with the word 'precise' and see how the argument looks ('scientific truth is too precise: religious truth's glory is its imprecision ...' and so on)

Monday, 27 December 2010


I propose we replace the word 'ecosystem' with the word 'ecodynamic'.

There. My work here is done.

Sunday, 26 December 2010


I've been reading a number of 19th-century attempts to reconcile Science and Biblical literalism recently, for slightly obscure reasons. I've read enough to know I've barely scratched the surface of a vast area of human intellectual endeavour. So here's my question: presumably (I say so because it seems to me very obvious) somebody somewhere has argued that evolution happened as scientists suggest, but that God intervened in 4004 BC to gift two individuals in the Middle East with 'soul', so distinguishing them from the animals? But who?

Saturday, 25 December 2010


The Catholic Encyclopedia has no entry on 'meekness', but this is what it says about humility:
The four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and all other moral virtues are annexed to theses either as integral, potential, or subjective parts. Humility is annexed to the virtue of temperance as a potential part, because temperance includes all those virtues that refrain or express the inordinate movements of our desires or appetites.
So humility is actually a sort of temperance. Really? 'The meek shall inherit the earth' surely means something very different to 'those who have temperance shall inherit the earth.'

Friday, 24 December 2010

Browning's 'Amphibian'

Browning's 'Amphibian', one of his late poems, was fairly important to my doctoral work.
THE fancy I had to-day,
Fancy which turned a fear!
I swam far out in the bay,
&nbps;Since waves laughed warm and clear.

I lay and looked at the sun,
The noon-sun looked at me:
Between us two, no one
Live creature, that I could see.

Yes! There came floating by
Me, who lay floating too,
Such a strange butterfly!
Creature as dear as new!

Because the membraned wings
So wonderful, so wide,
So sun-suffused, were things
Like soul and naught beside.

A handbreadth overhead!
&nbps;All of the sea my own,
It owned the sky instead;
Both of us were alone.

I never shall join its flight,
For, naught buoys flesh in air.
If it touch the sea--good night!
Death sure and swift waits there.

Can the insect feel the better
For watching the uncouth play
Of limbs that slip the fetter,
Pretend as they were not clay?

Undoubtedly I rejoice
That the air comports so well
With a creature which had the choice
Of the land once. Who can tell?

What if a certain soul
Which early slipped its sheath,
And has for its home the whole
Of heaven, thus look beneath,

Thus watch one who, in the world,
Both lives and likes life's way,
Nor wishes the wings unfurled
That sleep in the worm, they say?

But sometimes when the weather
Is blue, and warm waves tempt
To free one's self of tether,
And try a life exempt

From worldly noise and dust,
In the sphere which overbrims
With passion and thought,--why, just
Unable to fly, one swims!

By passion and thought upborne,
One smiles to one's self--"They fare
Scarce better, they need not scorn
Our sea, who live in the air!"

Emancipate through passion
And thought, with sea for sky,
We substitute, in a fashion,
For heaven--poetry:

Which sea, to all intent,
Gives flesh such noon-disport
As a finer element
Affords the spirit-sort.

Whatever they are, we seem:
Imagine the thing they know;
All deeds they do, we dream;
Can heaven be else but so?

And meantime, yonder streak
Meets the horizon's verge;
This is the land, to seek
If we tire or dread the surge:

Land the solid and safe--
To welcome again (confess!)
When, high and dry, we chafe
The body, and don the dress.

Does she look, pity, wonder
At one who mimics flight,
Swims--heaven above, sea under,
Yet always earth in sight?
It didn't occur to me before, but I wonder if this is the product of some late reading of Plotinus?
Plotinus envisions psyche as having an amphibious nature (Ennead IV.8.4); the human soul has a 'double life' and a 'double nature' participating in both the intelligible and the perceptible realms (Ennead IV.8.8.11-13). It occupies a 'middle rank' at the boundary between the higher intelligible world of the Forms and the lower corporeal nature of the perceptible reality (Ennead IV.8.7.5). Plotinus' famous metaphor of the soul is that of a 'double city, one above and one composed of the lower elements set in order by the powers above' (Ennead IV.4.17.30 ff.). On this basis, Remes maintains that Plotinus conceptualises two notions of the self: the higher rational self and the lower corporeal self. Whereas the former marks soul's goodness, knowledge and intelligence, the latter signifies imperfection and opinion. The author supports the position that, for Plotinus, there is unsubstantiated connection between the higher self and the faculties and capacities of the embodied self such as that of sense-perception and phantasia. Remes correctly states that 'through its share of these capacities, the lower part does tend towards a rational organization even if it does not succeed in expressing this tendency. The inner self is the spring of the self-conscious and deliberative life of the composite. The rational or intellectual dimension dominates the whole picture, but the bodily dimension is not neglected' (p. 256)

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Writing of Time

As far as I can see, the convention that Christ was born on the 25th December dates from the early 3rd Century AD, and is the invention of this neat-minded individual (here's his 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entry):
AFRICANUS, SEXTUS JULIUS, a Christian traveller and historian of the 3rd century, was probably born in Libya, and may have served under Septimius Severus against the Osrhoenians in A.D. 195. Little is known of his personal history, except that he lived at Emmaus, and that he went on an embassy to the emperor Heliogabalus to ask for the restoration of the town, which had fallen into ruins. His mission succeeded, and Emmaus was henceforward known as Nicopolis. Dionysius bar-Salibi makes him a bishop, but probably he was not even a presbyter. He wrote a history of the world (Chronografiai, in five books) from the creation to the year A.D. 221, a period, according to his computation, of 5723 years. He calculated the period between the creation and the birth of Christ as 5499 years, and ante-dated the latter event by three years. This method of reckoning became known as the Alexandrian era, and was adopted by almost all the eastern churches. The history, which had an apologetic aim, is no longer extant, but copious extracts from it are to be found in the Chronicon of Eusebius, who used it extensively in compiling the early episcopal lists. There are also fragments in Syncellus, Cedrenus and the Paschale Chronicon. Eusebius (Hist. Ecc. i. 7, cf. vi. 31) gives some extracts from his letter to one Aristides, reconciling the apparent discrepancy between Matthew and Luke in the genealogy of Christ by a reference to the Jewish law, which compelled a man to marry the widow of his deceased brother, if the latter died without issue. His terse and pertinent letter to Origen, impugning the authority of the apocryphal book of Susanna, and Origen's wordy and uncritical answer, are both extant. The ascription to Africanus of an encyclopaedic work entitled Kestoi (embroidered girdles), treating of agriculture, natural history, military science, &c., has been needlessly disputed on account of its secular and often credulous character. Neander suggests that it was written by Africanus before he had devoted himself to religious subjects. For a new fragment of this work see Oxyrhynchus Papyri (Grenfell and Hunt), iii. 36 ff.
This now-lost Chronographiae, 'Writings on Time' interests me very much. As Hagith Sivan notes, 'Africanus' chronological system, underpinned by the Judaeo-Christian conviction that the duration of history as a whole amounted to 6000 years, in accordance with the six days of creation. This straitjacket forced Africanus to be both ingenuous and imaginative in devising a system that ... was, on the whole, internally coherent.' (Alden Mosshammer 'determines that Africanus dated the Incarnation to the 25th of March in the year 5501 from Adam (= 1 B.C.), and the Resurrection to March 25th, Olympiad 202.2, year 5532 from Adam (= A.D. 31)') This will to neatness is the most fascinating thing of all: for why should time be neat? That other great innovator in the chronographic arts, H G Wells, didn't think it did.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Retrospective happiness

I've been pondering the strange phenomenon of being happy without realising you are happy; or more to the point, of realising only retrospectively that a period of your life -- perhaps a period during which, at the time, you were aware only of busyness and low-level anxiety and tiredness (let's say: to do with kids and your job and the like) -- was actually the happiest of your life. How can that be? I mean, how can a person not know they're happy? Yet it strikes me as a very common phenomenon. (I'm reminded, not for the first time on this blog, of the line from Blade Runner that works as a superbly profound gloss on human nature itself, 'how can it not know what it is?')

There's an SF story about this, by I-can't-remember-whom, that I read in the Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus volume. I can't remember the title of the story either, and don't have the volume to hand.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Unbirthday poem

It's usually a good idea that the heart be moved,
from time to time, at least.
There's no call for self-pity, or the scarifying
of one's own clubfooted breast.

My days are now a bright banana yellow
The kids' rooms decorated with a flowers-and-fruits motif;
Warm and canny, Charlie Brown's good grief,
It's a gold-mine.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Ruskin SF

More inadvertent Victorian sciencefictionalising, this time from Ruskin's 'Work of Iron' essay (1858), which includes this rather splendid description of that worthy genre trope, the Trantor planet:
You think, perhaps, that your iron is
wonderfully useful in a pure form, but how would you like the world, if all your meadows, instead of grass, grew nothing but iron wire--if all your arable ground, instead of being made of sand and clay, were suddenly turned into flat surfaces of steel--if the whole earth, instead of its green and glowing sphere, rich with forest and flower, showed nothing but the image of the vast furnace of a ghastly engine--a globe of black, lifeless, excoriated metal?

Sunday, 19 December 2010


Superstition? Substition, surely?

Saturday, 18 December 2010

SF Alphabets

Why are SF and Fantasy so drawn to the making of new alphabets? This doesn't seem to me a so much a feature of culture outside SF (though I mention Voynich, below); but 'alphabetogenesis' is a hardy perennial of science fiction and Fantasy. I've talked about Tolkien's contribution to this body of work before on this blog. What else?

Klingon—the letters seem to be fashioned from knives and swords, or perhaps are as-it-were cuts made into the parchment. There is a telling literalism about this, a kind of grapheme conceptual short-circuit embodied by the alphabet itself.

Voynich—what’s significant here, surely, is that not only has this ‘code’ baffled the most sophisticated attempts at translation or solution—although it has—but that it is a script that prioritises a larger aesthetic logic above the alphabetic principle that each distinct grapheme represents a different phoneme. Voynich doesn’t do this (if it did, we would have cracked the code), but it does manifest the appearance of an alphabet, and in ways that connect it with the logic of the visual text. Which is to say these letters look like organic forms and shapes.

The Matrix—the baseline reality is precisely a mysterious alphabet. The atoms of the oppressive world of the machine intelligence, in which humanity is trapped, are literally made-up of made-up letters, the fabric of reality itself is an invented alphabet.

This, then, is my thesis; that SF’s fascination with invented alphabets is precisely a mode of apprehending apocalypse, the world-turned-upsidedown entailed by its novum.

Fantasising the new alphabet is the dream of grasping the root of the world. Plato speculated about learning the alphabet of nature, out of which all specific complexes are formed (Statesman, 278, Sophist 253a, Philebus 1bc). Even Heidegger—in the Heraclitus Seminar (1966-67)—saw ‘genetics’, or as he puts it ‘the alphabet of nucleotides’, as the most prodigiously significant development in human culture (‘in comparison the explosion of the hydrogen bomb means little’)

This in turn connects with a kind of contemporary, SFnal variety of magical thinking—that if we remake the alphabet we remake the world. More, we might say that this is a way of defining SF: it writes the world, and the world it writes is our world; but it does so in a modified alphabet.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Art is the objectification of feeling

Here's what Susanne K. Langer thinks of art:
The artist's eye sees in nature and even in human nature betraying itself in action, an inexhaustible wealth of tensions, rhythms, continuities and contrasts which can be rendered in line and color;a nd these are the "internal forms" which the "external forms" -- paintings, musical or poetical compositions or any other works of art -- express for us. The connection with the natural world is close, and easy to understand; for the essential function of art has the dual character of almost all life functions, which are usually dialectical. Art is the objectification of feeling ... Natural forms become articulate and seem like projections of the "inner forms" of feeling, as people influenced (whether consciously or not) by all the art that surrounds them develop something of the artist's vision. Art is the objectification of feeling, and the subjectification of nature. [Langer, Mind. An essay on human feeling, 87]
I like the emphasis on 'feeling' here, and I'm prepared to go a certain part of the way along with the Wordsworthian 'nature' stuff. But all the 'exterior' and 'interior' talk strikes me as too crude; a questionable binary at the best of time, and one, even if we take it as a longstanding metaphor, that is deployed with too clunking a binarism in this instance. Surely part of the point of art is precisely its capacity for threading together a 'pong'-style bounceabout between 'inward' and 'outward'?

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Vampires and zombies

Vampires are huge right now, as are zombies (though zombies aren't quite as huge). What's the ground of their success? Well in their current, Twilight-y/True-Bloodish iteration, fairly obviously, vampires mediate sex via death. That there is such a huge cultural appetite for this morbid erotics is interesting in its own right, but I'm more concerned at the moment with what it is that zombies mediate via death -- since, like vampires, its their thanaticism that evidently grounds their appeal. What do zombies mediate via death? What else but death itself? -- the short-circuit of non-existence not existing, 'being' itself burnt out and blasted? Vampires are the dead who are really alive. Zombies are the dead who can nevertheless die, the tropes of an uncanny reduplication of death: an unsettling potlatch of death exchanged for death.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Setting Free

The truth will set you free, they say. But what of the many people who don't want to be free?

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Rev J Mellor Brown

The Rev. J. Mellor Brown was a devout Victorian reconciler of Genesis and geology. There were a great many of these (P H Gosse being, perhaps, the most famous), and most of their theories were spectacularly silly. Mellor Brown's theory was as silly as any, but I like it a great deal. Why? Because the magic glue he uses to link the incompatible geological account of the Bible and science is .... science fiction!
God's most tremendous agencies may have been employed in the beginning of his works. If, for instance, it should be conceded that the granitic or balsaltic strata were once in a state of fusion, there is no reason why we should not call in the aid of supposition to produce a rapid refrigeration. We may surround the globe with an atmosphere (not as yet warmed by the rays of the newly kindled sun) more intensely cold than that of Saturn. The degree of cold may have been such as to cool down the liquid granite and basalt in a few hours, and render it congenial to animal and vegetable life; while the gelid air around the globe may have been mollified by the abstracted caloric. [Mellor Brown, Reflections on Geology (1838)]
Marvellous. 'The gelid air around the globe may have been mollified by the abstracted caloric' is currently my favourite sentence.

Monday, 13 December 2010


Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.

Sunday, 12 December 2010


Peter Iver Kaufman's 1994 essay 'Augustine, Martyrs, and Misery' starts with a nice line from Augustine's Sermones (105:7:10):
Augustine said that Rome fell frequently, all too often into "utter moral depravity," occasionally into the hands of the city's enemies. Maybe Aeneas was to blame. He had shown poor judgment, hauling to Italy the gods that failed to save Troy. Subsequently, when the Gauls came to Rome's gates, those divine and purportedly vigilant protectors did remarkably little protecting. They later offered no resistance when Nero reduced Rome to rubble. Augustine held Aeneas's eulogist responsible for the terribly inflated expectations that made the city's humiliations all the more demoralizing; Virgil misled citizens, suggesting that Rome would stand forever. Christians should have known better. They had it on higher authority that heaven and earth would pass away.
I like this: the idea that the penates were 'failed gods', because they had not prevented the destruction of Troy (where Christ, who failed to prevent the destruction of Jerusalem is ...?) Or maybe there's something else going on here. The penates were 'originally the tutelary deities of the storeroom, Latin penus, the innermost part of the house, where they guarded the household's food, wine, oil, and other supplies. Cicero explained that they "dwell inside, from which they are also called penetrales by the poets. The 2nd-century A.D. grammarian Festus defined penus, however, as "the most secret site in the shrine of Vesta, which is surrounded by curtains." Macrobius reports the theological view of Varro that "those who dig out truth more diligently have said that the Penates are those through whom we breathe in our inner core (penitus), through whom we have a body, through whom we possess a rational mind."' In other words, the gods who failed were the inward gods, the gods of interiority, of consciousness. The God who succeeded, in Augustinian idiom, was the exterior God of outside judgment. There's a moral there, I suspect.

Saturday, 11 December 2010


I'm struck by the fact that 'misery' ('great sorrow or mental distress; a miserable or wretched state of mind; a condition characterized by a feeling of extreme unhappiness') and 'miser' ('a person who hoards wealth ... an avaricious, grasping, or stingy and parsimonious person') are versions of the same word; that, in fact, the former is a version of the latter ('Anglo-Norman and Old French miserie unhappy state < classical Latin miseria wretched or pitiful condition < miser(see miser adj. and n.1) + -ia-y suffix' OED) I wonder how far we can push this? It would be tempting to argue that a miser is so-called because his parsimony means he lives a miserable life, if this didn't get the etymological relation the wrong way about. Could it be that people are miserable, in an existential sense, because they are hoarding something?

Friday, 10 December 2010


In Das Kapital (and how much more forceful do German 'd's and 'k's seem, when set against the watery 'th's and 'c's of English words like 'the' and 'capital'), Marx writes:
The poorest architect is distinguished from the best of bees by the fact that before he builds a cell in wax, he has built it in his head. The result was already present at its commencement, in the imagination of the worker, in its ideal form. More than merely working an alteration in the form of nature, he also knowingly works his own purposes into nature; and these purposes are the law determining the ways and means of his activity, so that his will must be adjusted to them. [Capital, 193]
But this seems a little negatively suppositious with respect to the imaginative capacity of beekind. If only Marx had been alive to read Robert Adams great novel, Watership Beehive ...

Thursday, 9 December 2010


Towards the end of his life, Aldous Huxley said: 'it is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than Try to be a little kinder.' And it does look a little banal, doesn't it? The modest dimensions of 'little', the watery semantic field of 'kinder'. It's not banal, of course; it's enormously and startlingly profound. Its apparent banality is a kind of optical illusion generated, in part, by the distorting mirror of 'tragic dignity' and 'elevation' with which we are in the habit of melodramatising, and thereby rendering more piquant, our lives. But 'try to be a little kinder' takes its prodigious force in part from its implied dismantling of that prior habit of being.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Come, meet

We've been pronouncing it wrong.
The word comet came to English by way of the Latin word cometes. This word, in turn, came from the Greek word κόμη, which means "hair of the head". The Greek scientist and philosopher Aristotle first used the derived form of κόμη, κομήτης, to describe what he saw as "stars with hair."
That eta deserves its place in the word: comeet. Not the hairy star, so much as the welcoming one.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Eyes poem

Eyes of amber, not the colour
But the hardness, and the sense
Of something gnarly, tangled, insect
Inembedded, inward lurking.

Eyes of sapphire, not the hardness
But the colour, and the knowledge
This is beauty long gestated
Pressure-crushed and cataclysmic.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Sunday, 5 December 2010


Speaking confessionally, Rousseau announced: 'je commençai ma réforme par ma parure; je quittai la dorure.' Indeed, he claimed this not once, but several times: 'Je quittai le monde et ses pompes, je renonçai à toute parure ; plus d'épée, plus de montre, plus de bas blancs, de dorure, de coiffure'. This is not quitting 'the world', though; this is performing for the world in a different, less kitsch costume. It's not beginning one's reform so much as beginning what one performs.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

What a work of art knows

Louis Arnaud Reid wrote an essay called 'Feeling and Aesthetic Knowing' in 1976, which begins:
The Exclusiveness of Propositional Claims. The Western world and its education have been dominated by a prejudice about the nature of knowledge so powerful that it is hard to know how to begin to question it with any effect. The prejudice is, briefly, that all that can genuinely and properly be called "knowledge" can be adequately stated or ex- pressed in true propositions for which sufficient reasons can be given. The prejudice is not in the positive claim that knowledge can be so stated and justified, but in its denial, implied in "all that can properly be called 'knowledge' " is of that type - i.e., nothing else can. Of course any philosopher who assumes this common view does not deny that there are other words claiming to be knowledge words. One "knows" a person or a color; one "knows" mugging to be wrong; one "knows" this symphony or this picture. But, except as far as those can be translated or analyzed into true propositional statements, they tend to be dismissed as mere "intuitions," "hunches," or sayings which ex- press feelings or emotions. Some attention has been given in our own time to "knowing how," but it is knowledge like science and mathe- matics which remains the paradigm of genuine knowledge. And this for a plain reason: the unchallengeable development and success of science and mathematics since the seventeenth century, the develop- ment of systematic conceptual thinking coupled with understanding and cognitive and technological mastery of the world of fact, of "what is the case."
This doesn't seem so very radical. He goes on to argue that affect is a mode of knowing: that 'the intuitions and feelings we have in these matters are cognitive experiences, and that they make knowledge claims' [12]
Feeling is not of course the whole of this knowing; to say that would once again be to abstract and isolate it. But it is an intrinsic part of knowing. In a moral situation, for example, perhaps someone may be in need and in dire distress. Compassion and help seem to be called for. What it is wise and right to do in that situation may require in- vestigation and understanding. A moral problem may often require a great deal of cool impersonal analysis - though done within a con- text which requires a cognitively intuitive feeling for the whole situa- tion. But on the other side, one cannot be truly compassionate, one can- not even know what compassion is, without at some stage feeling it. The wisdom of compassionate action, its rightness and appropriateness in that particular situation, its instrumental values-these are matters of a partly intellectual judgment that may be required to "prove" the action right, so far as the term "proof" can be relevant here. But the intrinsic goodness of compassion must be felt (at some stage) in order to be known; it can never be shown by purely intellectual means, by "knowing about" compassion and its uses, by being able to make cor- rect propositions about it. (A moral psychopath can do that.) There is a sense in which the intrinsic goodness of compassion must be tested "upon the pulses."
Where things get stickier, I'd say, is when he moves to the aesthetic. A fatal vagueness enters, cloaked as necessary brevity:
It is impossible in a short paper to do any justice to how feeling operates in our knowledge of the arts - one reason being because dif- ferent arts are so different from one another. In reading a good novel, for instance, our attention seems almost "transparently" directed towards the characters, ideas, and events depicted and imagined. Our cognitive feelings are the feelings mainly of all that; and although of course the scenes are conveyed in the medium of skillfully chosen words, focal attention to the feeling of the words can be distracting. In read- ing poetry it is very different. Poetry, of course, is about things as felt by the poet, but the feeling for the spoken, sounding, rhythmical, dynamically directional quality of the word pattern is central to the poetic meaning. Yeats's poem "Never Give All the Heart" is about its title, but every sounding word of the poem makes its contribution to the passion and the bitterness of the poetic meaning.
We need more, here. It's not enough to say that what King Lear 'knows' is that 'life is sometimes heartbreakingly sad'. Reid's example of the novel describes the empathy a reader feels for the characters about whom she is reading; but empathy is a very limited sort of knowledge. What separates out better art from lesser art is that the better art knows more; is wiser, is more effectively and potently demonstrative. One of the things that interests me about this is that this knowledge is very often a separate quality from the technical or formal accomplishment. Frankenstein is a very clumsily written novel, in many ways; gauche and melodramatic and lunkishly plotted. Yet Frankenstein 'knows' something eloquent and important about science: about the psychological logic of scientific discovery, about the balance of ambition and payoff, unintended consequence and violence. There are plenty of other examples: the Harry Potter novels are derivative, slackly written and sprawly; but they know something so significant that they connect, expressively and genuinely, with millions of people: they know that school, when you're of school age, is much more than a place you go to get educated, that it's the arena for all your most intense dramas, interpersonal and personal.

Friday, 3 December 2010


Bang bang bang.
Bang bang bang.
Bang bang bang.
Bang bang bang.

It's the pauses at the end of the lines that make it.

Thursday, 2 December 2010


I assume Bergman's quotation about self-portraiture ('self-portraiture is something one should never get involved in, since it is wrong to lie even though one endeavours to tell the truth') is ironic, at least to some extent. It is wrong to lie even if you're trying to tell the truth: wrong to attempt with all your heart to be truthful but, inadvertently, or because of the nature of the material with which you are working, to miss it? Surely not. Of course, that's not what Bergman means: he's saying where self-representation is concerned, and therefore presumably self-understanding, good intentions do not amount to veracity. That's fair enough. But neither do they necessarily amount to mendacity.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010


Nassim Nicholas Taleb opens his aphoristic The Bed of Procrustes, with this: 'the person you are most afraid to contradict is yourself'. But it's not really a question of fear, surely. Isn't it more a matter of inertia, a kind of existential indolence? Indeed, there are rare qualities of pleasure to be had from contradicting oneself: humour, sense of wonder, that tingle of the hairs shifting at the back of one's neck ...

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Durer's hands

The fascinating thing about Durer's famous drawing is the way the image is all about the texture of the skin of the hands but not about the fingerprint lines. Texture, here, defines space; that's its purpose. But it leaves little for the criminologist.

Monday, 29 November 2010


Πολύφημος (Polyphēmos), the Cyclopic giant from Homer's Odyssey, who imprisons and eats many of Odysseus' crew in his cave, such that only Odysseus's polymētis many-wittedness saves the day. There's a lot to say about him. For the minute I'm interested in one thing only, the 'many-' prefixity of these two names.

When I was a student I was taught that the name Πολύφημος means 'many voices', which is to say 'loud'. But there are other derivations, since φημη means, L&S tell us, pretty much the same as the Latin fama, from where, etymologically speaking, that word is derived. ('a voice from heaven, a prophetic voice'; 'a saying or report'; 'the talk of report of a man's character'; 'a song of praise'). Taking 'Polyphemus' as 'Polyfamous' sets up a nice allegory of the lumbering one-eyed, dinosaurian brutality of 'fame' versus the small, mammallian, quick-wittedness of Odysseus' 'nobody'. No question as to who will win that battle. A lesson for our times.

Sunday, 28 November 2010


vice versaversa vice

wiki worser
worse wiki

versa vicevice versa

Saturday, 27 November 2010


Toying with what amounts to a new reading of this famous poem:
My Last Duchess (1842)

That's my last duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Fra Pandolf" by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
That depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 't was not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps
Over my lady's wrist too much" or "Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:" such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart - how shall I say? - too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed: she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 't was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace -all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush,at least. She thanked men - good! but thanked
Somehow - I know not how - as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech - (which I have not) - to make your will
Quite clear to such a one, and say, "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss
Or there exceed the mark"- and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse
- E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will 't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count, your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.
I haven't time, here, to go into all the detail I'd like; but I wonder if the missing context to the understanding of this poem is: Protestantism. In 1849 Browning reprinted the poem with 'Ferrara' added: the speaker. Scholars have identified various possible Renaissance Italian Dukes of Ferrara; but I wonder if Browning doesn't intend us to make the connected with Renée, Duchess of Ferrara, a celebrated friend of early Protestantism. John Calvin visited her, she gave sanctuary to a number of persecuted Hugenots, and was eventually interrogated and forced to recant by the Roman Counter-Reformation.

According to this reading, the 'Duke' is a kind of caricature of repressive Catholicism, his 'nine-hundred year old name' (taking his family back to the 400s; or perhaps more specifically to the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, by which Theodosius I officially made Trinitarian Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire). One would not have to search far to find nineteenth-century British Protestant representations of Catholic authority as violent, repressive, motivated by a tacit sexual possessiveness and hostility and ultimately murderous. The Duchess represents a new open-hearted spirituality: whose love is untrammelled, and who finds a kind of spiritual beauty in various fundamentally religious icons: the white mule, the bough of cherries, the sun -- all artistic icons of Christ.

Needs work, though, this reading.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Carroll's Name of the Song

In her essay 'Metalanguage in Lewis Carroll', [SubStance 22: 2/3, issue 71/72: Special Issue: Epistémocritique (1993), pp. 217-227] Sophie Marret considers 'the name of the song':
The White Knight's suggestion to sing a song to Alice gives rise to the following logical imbroglio:
"Let me sing you a song to comfort you." [...] "The name of the song is called 'Haddock's Eyes'."

"Oh, that's the name of the song is it?" Alice said, trying to feel interested.
"No, you don't understand," the Knight said, looking a little vexed. "That's what the name is called. The name really is 'The Aged Aged Man.'"

'Then I ought to have said 'that's what the song is called'?" Alice corrected herself.

"No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The song is called 'Ways And Means': but that's only what it's called, you know!"

"Well, what is the song, then?" said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

"I was coming to that," the Knight said. 'The song really is 'A-sitting On A Gate': and the tune's my own invention."(Through the Looking Glass, 305-306)
There is no doubt that the White Knight's logic is faulty, but the reader still finds it hard to grasp his mistake unless he takes a closer look at the text. One could think, like Alice, that he is the victim of a semantic confusion, and that he should have said "The name of the song is 'Haddocks' Eyes'," but he points out that he did not make a mistake and that he knows the difference between the name of the song and the name of the name of the song. Alice is mistaken when she thinks she can make a distinction between "the name of the song" and "what the song is called." The difference, if any, the White Knight points out, is purely semantic, because of the ambiguity of the expression "what it is called" (in French, the distinction has to be made between "c'est ainsi qu'elle s'appelle" and "c'est ainsi qu'on l'appelle"). Alice's error thus finds a logical justification in the explanation of the White Knight, who takes advantage of it to underline his mastery of the subtleties of semantics, preventing us from interpreting his first assertion as a faulty performance. Equivalents may actually be found for the expression "what the name is called," such as "a title" or even "a noun phrase." The most disconcerting thing in the first assertion of the White Knight is that he should choose an expression from the same level as the name to qualify the latter. He remains within the register of the specific, instead of finding an equivalent in a generic category-a class of names. If he makes it a point of honor to distinguish between the level of language and metalanguage (the name of the name), he contents himself with bringing metalanguage down to the level of language, thus confusing these two levels again.
I'm not sure this is right. There are plenty of examples from ordinary usage where 'the name of the name' does not elevate us into metalanguage. Marret is thinking of an exemplary instance such as (as a guess) 'the song's name is 'To Be Or Not To Be'; this name is a quotation': but not all name-of-the-names are like this. To pluck one from the top of my head: "The name of the song is 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. This song is called (ie the name of this name is...) 'the Anfield Anthem', on account of its close association with Liverpool Football Club." Other examples suggest themselves: for example, the distinction between the name of the play 'Macbeth', and the name of this name, 'The Scottish Play' -- because the name of the play itself is deemed unlucky to utter. Besides, as Marret goes on to say:
In order to make the White Knight the victim of such a confusion, it seems that Carroll himself had to be able to make the distinction between these two levels, and we may go as far as saying that to set his paradox, such an intuition was necessary. In both cases he seems to point out that the distinction between language and metalanguage does not go without saying. In contrast to Alice's discourse that remains concerned with the relationship between name and thing ('That's the name of the song;" "that's what the song is called;" "what is the song?"), the White Knight sets the subtlety of his own logical processes, which imply the necessary distinction of the level of metalanguage ("what the name is called") although he immediately makes it equivalent to the level of language. The White Knight thus stands out as a parodic double of the author.
Quite right.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Second Law of Theologico-thermodynamics

Roger Penrose's Cycles of Time (2010) addresses the oddness of the big bang, with respect to the Second Law of thermodynamics. That law applies to discrete systems, and does so, the physicists assure us, ubiquitously. But as Penrose notes, the Big Bang presents a problem. For the Second Law to hold, the Big Bang 'must have had, for some reason, an extraordinarily tiny entropy' [51]. He goes on: 'the issue of the Big-Bang specialness is central to the arguments of this book'; and his explanation for the counter-intuitive low-entropy initial cosmic singularity is an idea he calls 'Conformal Cyclic Cosmology', according to which our Big Bang is merely a transition in the longer history of the universe, such that the Second Law obtains in the larger system.

Now, it goes without saying that another way of solving the apparent problem of the Big Bang and the Second Law of thermodynamics would be theological. That, in a nutshell, it is not the case that the Big Bang developing into the Cosmos is a closed system; because God was there too, a kind of mega Maxwell's demon,* to steer the high entropy big bang into a low entropy early universe which could then, Second-Law-ishly, gradually become high entropy again. It should also go without saying that I do not personally see the merit in this explanation, although of course many people do, implicitly or explicitly. But what interests me is the broader parameters of this explanation; or more specifically, what those broader parameters mean for theological explanation.

In a nutshell what I mean is this: we may think of God as initiating the Big Bang, turning a high-entropy starting point into the lower entropic early Cosmos. But according to the Second Law, the total system (God + Big-Bang-Singularity → God + Our Cosmos) must increase in entropy. As with Maxwell's Demon, this would mean that by creating the cosmos God increased his own entropy. That the act of Creation was a kind of dimunition in the perfect harmomy and order of the divine. There's a kind of poetic rightness to this notion, I think: that making the Cosmos took something out of God, that it was not 'cost free' -- a poetic truth restated in the price paid by God as Christ in redeeming our suffering. But it is not compatible with the tradition understanding of the omnipotence of God. If this is right, then God wounded himself making us. And if he did so, he is no longer perfect, omnipotent and unscathed.
*'Several physicists have presented calculations that show that the Second Law will not actually be violated, if a more complete analysis is made of the whole system including the demon. The essence of the physical argument is to show, by calculation, that any demon must "generate" more entropy segregating the molecules than it could ever eliminate by the method described. That is, it would take more energy to gauge the speed of the molecules and allow them to selectively pass through the opening between A and B than the amount of energy saved by the difference of temperature caused by this.'

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

On Criticism

Criticism stands in relation to the body of literature as a colostomy bag does to the body of a human being.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


No outboard motor can prevail
To reach the distant bluegreen coast;
A breath from skies must swell a sail,
Or all our toil is lost.

The wind is complexly crosscutting;
Drags the sailstitch apart.
Motor spits at sea, tut-tutting,
The incompetence of our art.

Monday, 22 November 2010


Strangely wrongheaded comment by Johnson: 'Every man is rich or poor according to the proportion between his desires and his enjoyments; any enlargement of wishes is therefore equally destructive to happiness with the diminution of possession, and he that teaches another to long for what he never shall obtain is no less an enemy to his quiet than if he had robbed him of part of his patrimony.' [Rambler No. 163: 8 October 1751]

But the name for a disproportion between desires and enjoyments is not unhappiness, but ambition. We are born into this condition, and without it would lack the motivation to achieve anything at all.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Time in the Novel

Lukács thinks the novel, as the distinctive asethetic attempt to represent the life of existentially disenchanted and 'homeless' mankind, is incapable of what we might call the 'Grecian Urn' stillness of the epic: 'only the novel, the literary form of the transcendent homelessness of the idea, includes real time -- Bergson's dureé -- among its constitutive principles' [Theory of the Novel, 121]. The obvious move is to note that, written as it was during the First World War, Lukács's is one of the last great theories of narrative not to include cinema, that other great artform to include Bergson's dureé among its constitutive principles. But I'm less interested in the obvious move. I'd propose a different strategy: a naif literalism, that sees not the novel as such, but the science fiction novel, as the fullest embodiment of this notion; all those children of Wells's Time Machine.

Saturday, 20 November 2010


The blind watchmaker. The deafness of the cosmos. The dumb splendour of the world. Perhaps we should pity the material universe for its vast disabilities.

Friday, 19 November 2010


Any religion with a God or gods can be thought of as interesting concepts of divinity. Except Christianity, which alone is interested in trivinity.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Line in the Sand

Where does this phrase come from? Why, the encounter between Gaius Popillius Laenas and Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt. Livy:
"After receiving the submission of the inhabitants of Memphis and of the rest of the Egyptian people, some submitting voluntarily, others under threats, [Antiochus] marched by easy stages towards Alexandria. After crossing the river at Eleusis, about four miles from Alexandria, he was met by the Roman commissioners, to whom he gave a friendly greeting and held out his hand to Popilius. Popilius, however, placed in his hand the tablets on which was written the decree of the senate and told him first of all to read that. After reading it through he said he would call his friends into council and consider what he ought to do. Popilius, stern and imperious as ever, drew a circle round the king with the stick he was carrying and said, "Before you step out of that circle give me a reply to lay before the senate." For a few moments he hesitated, astounded at such a peremptory order, and at last replied, "I will do what the senate thinks right." Not till then did Popilius extend his hand to the king as to a friend and ally. Antiochus evacuated Egypt at the appointed date, and the commissioners exerted their authority to establish a lasting concord between the brothers, as they had as yet hardly made peace with each other." Ab Urbe Condita, xlv.12.
What interests me here is that this was a circular, surrounding line in the sand. Surely the phrase is generally taken to be a straight line, drawn to demarcate enemies, with the implication: 'step over this line, towards me, and we will fight.' But the circular line is a much more interesting thing.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

La Guerre des Robots

Plural? The robot is singular; we are the plural ones. It is bigger than any individual human, but humanity is always bigger than it.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Man of Genius

In The Man Without Qualities, Musil says: 'the man of genius is duty-bound to attack'. Dangerous, that thought: tempting to run it backwards, and confuse a general mood of hostile belligerance with 'genius'. Might we not, rather say, 'the man of genius may be duty-bound to attack; but more to the point, the man of genius knows how to resist being bound by anything, least of all duty.'

Monday, 15 November 2010

Heat and cold and light poem

Heat turns the albumen from gluey transparency
to opaque white, like a cataract in the eye’s lens.

Cold turns the breath from windy invisibility
to spectral white, like a fog at the edge of a photograph

where light has crept in the places it is not supposed to be.

Sunday, 14 November 2010


Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Returning to God after God (Columbia Univ. Press 2010) argues (I quote from Patrick Gardner's Expositions review):
Ever since Nietzsche pronounced the death of God, philosophy has been searching for a second opinion.... [some] grant that the traditional God has met his demise, but they reason that if only a few conditions are met, religion could carry on post-mortem; it could return to God after his death. Among Nietzsche’s progeny are theorists of the well-known “religious turn,” the rebellious teenagers of post-metaphysical thought. They prove resourceful in their attempts to modify theological concepts, developing new perspectives on religion capable of overcoming the life-negating parodies of ages past. But how are we to think posthumously in a culture so deprived of its taste for higher things? And more importantly, what kind of God can we expect to rise from this modern graveyard?

One answer to this question is provided by Richard Kearney in his latest work, Anatheism: Returning to God After God. Having studied with two pioneers of the “religious turn,” Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas, it is unsurprising that Kearney has risen to prominence among religious thinkers in the continental tradition. From his earliest work, Heidegger et la Question de Dieu (1981) to his more recent, The God Who May Be (2001), Kearney has been haunted by the question of God’s fate in a postmodern world.1 In Anatheism, he specifically addresses the challenge of man’s return to the sacred at the dawn of the third millennium. He offers readers a “philosophical story” (xvii), introducing 'reasonable hermeneutic considerations into the theist-atheist debate' (171). According to this story, modern disenchantment is a symptom, not of atheism, but of a pervasive and dogmatic sense of security. Kearney’s self-appointed task, then, is to unsettle believers and nonbelievers alike, to guide them into a post-theism and a post-atheism. Faith, either in God or his absence, can never be a possession or a finished product. It is rather a wager made again and again, constantly renewed to remain enduringly authentic. But to wager rightly, man must be a proficient interpreter of his own experience. Even the God-denier must accurately interpret the God he denies. Thus underlying the wager of faith should be a disposition of hospitality toward the Other who exceeds all of our self-certainties. Such a disposition fosters openness to the divine as the stranger always remaining beyond our comprehension: the third way along which a renewed quest for God can proceed. This, according to Kearney, is the path of anatheism: a “religion of agnostics,” as Wilde called it, defined and inspired by a space of “holy insecurity” (5) and radical humility.
There's something very attractive sounding about this, I'll concede; although it also seems to me to betray its bias. 'Even the God-denier must accurately interpret the God he denies' only carries the weight Kearney needs it to if the God-believer is instructed equally to interpet the absence-of-God he denies. But these two things cannot be equally balanced, partly because the world is mostly believers, and the discursive gravity-field of belief shapes so many of our assumptions; but mostly because Kearney is asking the non-believer to contemplate the possibility (which he denies) of transcendence, where the believer must be asked to contemplate the possibility of his own idiotic credulity, and these are very different things. This, indeed, in various ways undermines a project like Kearney's: it can't quite rinse off the odour of 'my heart wants to believe, my head tells me it's all nonsense, so I shall try and reconcile these two impulses in favour of the former...' It's wishful thinking in the strictest, most demanding sense of the phrase.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Torah Torah Torah

Genesis—Bereshith (בראשית)
Exodus—Shemot (שמות)
Leviticus—Vayikra (ויקרא)
Numbers—Bamidbar (במדבר)
Deuteronomy—Devarim (דברים)

The Hebrew names, there, would make good sciencefictional character monikers.

There's also a (since random, striking) sonic progression at work: 'Bereshith' leads, via the repeated 'sh' and 'e' and the expressive proximity of 'b' and 'm' to 'Shemot', and then via a 'b'/'v' equivalence (think of the modern Greek beta) and an opening of the vowel to 'Vayikra'. Retaining the opening vowel but restating the initiail 'B' the neatly explosive 'bam!' and the bumpy aftermath of 'idbar' sets up the 'd' of Devarim. And the m (Bereshith/Shemot) takes us back to the initial B again.

There's an absurdist phonic narrative buried here, too; about the woman who needs to feed her bar-room pick-up stimulants to get him to perform in the the seedy hotel room. Embarrassing; she must -- viagra (bam!) in the bar, endeavouring.

Friday, 12 November 2010


Talking, then, of the musical composition John Cage himself considers 'his most important work'. You know what this sounds like, and if you don't then be quiet for four minutes and thirty-three seconds and you'll get a sense of it. Two thoughts about the title, though.

Do we take it 'seriously'? That what is significant about '4'33"' is its implied trajectory of 'falling away'?--from 4 to 3 to 3 to (we extrapolate) 2 and 2 and 2, and four '1's, like the pillars in a temple of silence, and so towards the emptines and silence of '0'?

I prefer the second reading: the jokey one. Underpinning this piece of 'empty' music is a grosser, more material and indeed bathetic sense of 'emptiness'. From a composer called John we turn to the gospel of John, 4:33 and discover: 'Therefore said the disciples one to another, Hath any man brought him ought to eat?'

Silence is holy, and spiritual; but silence is also all the ambient rustling and coughing and grumbling of stomachs. Silence is also a trope for: 'hey, I'm peckish.'

Thursday, 11 November 2010


Alphonse-Marie-Louis de Prat de Lamartine asks, rhetorically: 'What is our life but a succession of preludes to that unknown song whose first solemn note is sounded by death?' [Méditations Poétiques, Second series, Sermon 15, 1820]. Fair enough, although it turns out the song is an infinitely extended remix of Cage's 4'33". But perhaps we shouldn't let that put us off.

'Le Prat', indeed.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


Called 'plain' because it is unaccompanied by musical instruments. But those instruments are valued most highly that approximate the human voice (the violin, the electric guitar), for generally speaking musical instruments are tonally and expressively much more limited than a good singing voice. Which is to say: it is instrumental music, without sung vocals, thet ought to be called 'plainsong': singing without instrumental accompaniment should be called 'richsong'.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Studying the past

In the Discourse on Method, René Descartes says that 'conversing with those of past centuries is the same as traveling ... But one who spends too much time traveling eventually becomes a stranger in his own country; and one who is too curious about practices of past ages usually remains quite ignorant about those of the present.' He doesn't explain why this would necessarily be a bad thing, mind you. A too great attachment to one's contemporary discourse of thought, like a too jingoistically blinkered patriotism, can be worse than drifting from place to place, surely.

Monday, 8 November 2010


The ghost is beckoning. The ghost is inviting us. It wants us to come inside. The question is not: is there a ghost in the room? The question is: is there room inside the ghost?

Of course the answer is: yes. The answer is always yes.

Sunday, 7 November 2010


The word originally meant 'house with columns': which is to say, a great house:
The term pharaoh ultimately was derived from a compound word represented as pr-`3, written with the two biliteral hieroglyphs pr "house" and `3 "column". It was used only in larger phrases such as smr pr-`3 'Courtier of the High House', with specific reference to the buildings of the court or palace itself ... From the nineteenth dynasty onward pr-`3 on its own was used as regularly as 'His Majesty'. The term therefore evolved from a word specifically referring to a building to a respectful designation for the ruler, particularly by the twenty-second dynasty and twenty-third dynasty ... By this time, the Late Egyptian word is reconstructed to have been pronounced *par-ʕoʔ whence comes Ancient Greek φαραώ pharaō and then Late Latin pharaō. From the latter, English obtained the word "Pharaoh".
But was this usage originally metonymic: for the powerful families in Egypt were the ones who lived in swanky houses with columns? Or was it metaphoric: for a mighty ruler is a house in which his people can find shelter, protection and comfort?

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Wittgenstein's Arm

Wittgenstein tried to get to the bottom of the range and nature of human agency—our willpower, our ability freely to choose and will—by asking: ‘what is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?’ Of course, this is a recedingly meta question. ‘What is left over if I subtract the thought of the fact that my arm goes up from the thought of the fact that I raise my arm?’ Or, indeed: ‘what is left over if I subtract the concept of subtraction from the thought-experiment I am conducting about balancing the fact that my arm goes up and the fact that I raise my arm?’

Friday, 5 November 2010


The grid is more than the relations between things. The grid is a thing in its own right.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Train poem

A train pulls into Clapham Junction;
the brakes sing unangelic songs.
A laminate of form and function:
the unrightability of wrongs.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Epic Novel, Novelly Epic

In his Theory of the Novel, Lukács argues that 'the novel is the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given, yet which still thinks in terms of totality.' The world of Homer, Vergil and Dante is presented as 'rounded from within', such that every element of the narrative emobodies and articulates the whole. The novel, which is to say the post-Cervantesean inheritor of epic and romance, is an exercise in 'transcendental homelessness', rendering a world in which humanity is 'unsheltered' from metaphysical roof and insulation of the divine, or a full social context.

It's a beguiling theory, even if its version of epic precious little relationship to actual epic (Lukács later distanced himself from what his later Marxism came to see as a naif 'romantic anti-capitalism' in the book). But saying so doesn't really contradict the force of Lukács' thesis: what matters is not epic as such, but the sense of epic held by the earlier novelists. We can go further and say that the existential 'homelessness' manifested by the novel as a form is precisely a sense of being expelled from the epic.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010


There's some vim in O'Rourke's zingers, but sometimes the vim is of a slapdash sort. From a recent Guardian piece (scroll down to the bottom):
Liberals have invented whole college majors – psychology, sociology, women's studies – to prove that nothing is anybody's fault. No one is fond of taking responsibility for his actions, but consider how much you'd have to hate free will to come up with a political platform that advocates killing unborn babies but not convicted murderers. A callous pragmatist might favour abortion and capital punishment. A devout Christian would sanction neither. But it takes years of therapy to arrive at the liberal view." Give War a Chance (1992)
There's a wealth of nostril-widening, lip-foam-flecking satirical fun to be had from confusing 'potential people' with 'real people', of course; but I'm not sure O'Rourke takes this as far as he could. I'd prefer something along the lines of: 'wearing a condom condemns literally millions of unborn children to a frutiless, early death. Consider how much you'd have to hate gentiles to deplore the killing of millions of Jews, whilst actively advocating the murder of millions of unborn Christian babies with every single male orgasm! A callous pragmatist might favour condoms and genocide. A devout Catholic would sanction neither. But it takes years of therapy to arrive at the liberal view.'
There is no virtue in compulsory government charity, and there is no virtue in advocating it. A politician who portrays himself as caring and sensitive because he wants to expand the government's charitable programs is merely saying that he is willing to do good with other people's money. Well, who isn't? Why I am a Conservative (1996)
It may be that the implied 'nobody' of the last question doesn't articulate a '...because it's a good idea'; but O'Rourke's satire is rather dissolved by that thought. The slippage here is moving silently from 'willing to do good with everybody's money' to 'willing to do good with other people's money'. Communal funds used for communal benefit is hardly the same as me using your credit card to buy myself a new TV.
The idea of a news broadcast once was to find someone with information and broadcast it. The idea now is to find someone with ignorance and spread it around. Peace Kills (2004)
Ah, Fox News! Yes indeed. But here I'd say O'Rourke has a problem keeping up with the reality, satire-wise.
How would Adam Smith fix a mess such as the current recessionary aftermath of a financial collapse? Sorry, but it's fixed already. The answer to a decline in the value of speculative assets is to pay less for them. Job done. Don't Vote (2010)
Financial realligment of value job done. Human misery job left undone. But what Conservative wants to worry about that? Provided, of course, that he or she is wealthy enough not to feel the misery.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Making up one's mind

Something wrong about thinking 'making up one's mind' entails taking a mind in phase state A, altering it, and arriving at phase state B. The mind itself is made-up -- the decision is reached, for instance -- via a process of continual making-up. Only by arriving at a decision can we enact the process that leads to us arriving at a decision. There's nothing prior to that telos, decision-making-wise.

A parallel case is writing: I don't decide what to write and then write it. In large part I decide what I want to want to write by writing it.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Ante hoc

Our problem is not misdiagnosing causality, but being too influenced by the inertia of prior tradition: not a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy but on the contrary, an ante hoc ergo propter hoc one.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Fold to Infinity

If Deleuze's Le pli: Leibniz et la baroque (1991) made no reference at all to fractals, I could understand it as an attempt to limit the concept of 'the fold' to a Leibnizian, Baroque context and idiom. If he referred throughout to fractals I could understand it better: because surely fractals most perfectly emobody the fold to infinity ('the Baroque trait twists and turns its folds, pushing them to infinity, fold over fold, one upon the other. The Baroque fold unfurls all the way to infinity' [3]). The puzzling thing is that Deleuze does neither: he mentions Mandlebrot once ('Mandlebrot's fractal dimension as a fractional or irrational number, a nondimension; an interdimension' 17) and not again. Which in turn makes me wonder: does the fact that this books makes me think of fractals mean that I just haven't understood this book?

Friday, 29 October 2010

On the literal interpretation of the Bible

One thing is clear: that Christians who undertake a literal interpretation of the Bible (claiming that the cosmos was made in six days, for instance; or that Joshus made the sun stand still at noon) are more than in error. They are blasphemous. I don't doubt their blasphemy is unconscious, and therefore forgiveable. But they are inconsistent to their own beliefs.

Christians must believe that God is Truth, or they could hardly call themselves Christians. Indeed, any Christian will believe that Truth is the cornerstone of their faith. To believe that there is only one mode of truth, a narrowly literalist A-maps-to-B correspondance understanding of Truth, is therefore to believe that God Himself is narrowly literalist and bound by correspondance; is to foist your own finite, limited, human understanding of 'truth' onto the God you worship. Because, of course, God's truth is much more than narrowly literalist. The Bible does not describe a pedant God. God's truth is surely much grander and wider, much more metaphorical and wide-ranging, than this. Neither Shakespeare's greatest poetry nor Beethoven's symphonies are true in the narrow pedantic literalist sense; yet they are truer in ways closer to God's truth than any timid legalistic faux-precision.

So: by insisting upon a pedantically literalist interpretation of the Bible, you are attempting to confine God upon the procrustean bed of your own mental limitations. Don't.

Thursday, 28 October 2010


There are 8760 hours in a year, which is quite a cool descending number. But wait: that's a regular 365-day year. What about the extra quarter day that adds the leap-year's 29th Feb every four years? But it's not quite a a whole quarter day. Could it be that the average length of a year in hours is 8765 hours, 43 minutes and 21 seconds?

Could it? Could it?

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Round numbers

The idiom of 'round numbers' is a strange one. In what sense is 100 (say) a nice round number ...? Surely it's characterised, rather, by an unusual flatness? The gorgeous snailshell curl of an irrational number, always progressing in an ever-tightening neverending spiral, converging on the perfect iteration, is a much better fit for the 'round number'. π, the roundest number of all!

Tuesday, 26 October 2010


A: My thought can reach the moon, though I cannot. So is my thought stronger than I.

B: You can go to places that surprise your thought; and the only moon your thought can reach is its own imaginary thought-made moon. So are you stronger than your thought.

Monday, 25 October 2010


As far as I can see, the point of kenosis is not just to empty oneself of one's will, but to do so in order to be filled with the pure inerrant will of God. Of course it's also possible to imagine a secular kenosis, where the individual will is emptied to be filled with the will of the Volk or the Leader; or even to be empty simply to empty, as a meditative exercise. But in this latter case, aren't we talking of emptying oneself as a prelude to filling oneself with oneself? Letting the mind lie fallow of itself, say. Jesus. Bollocks to that.

Sunday, 24 October 2010


Ice age? Ice youth, more like.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Admiral poem

I am Admiral of all I survey:
The handkerchief sails;
The coat-tail wakes.

The waves twang and snap, and
wind rubs their black tips white.

The guns weep cannonballs
and the smoke grows horizontally,
crunky, fractal as cauliflower.

Friday, 22 October 2010


It's not that the barbarians are at the gates -- in a symbolic sense, barbarians are our gates.

Thursday, 21 October 2010


Generated by Charles Gaggage's remarkable difference machine.

For was it not young Robbie Coltraine who said 'to bebopaloobopawapboom, or not to bebopaloobopawapboom. That is the question.'

I went into a Lidl once. Ironically it was quite big.

The Bangles' original version of their global hit 'Walk Like An Egyptian' was the less savoury 'Wank Like An Egyptian'.

People talk about 'the tyranny of the School gates.' Not much of a tyranny, though, is it: compared with, say, Caligula.

A + d + a + (n + n). That about sums me up.

Is there enough moisturiser in this pot to do the whole of my leg? How deep is the lotion? How high is the thigh?

Eating a tiny piece of fish with James Bond! Just brilliant! A quantum of Sole -- ace!

I like to transform birds into ocean-going vessels. I follow the lead of the world bestselling book, *To Keel A Mockingbird.

You have to hand it to J K Rowling: it takes guts to make your terrifying super-villain half-human, half-vole.

Shropshire! Placid, calm, pastoral ... unlike its neighbouring county, where everyone seems so angry: Stropshire.

Terror of the deep! -- Hideous Bloodsucking Marine Bivalves! -- THE CLAM-PIRE!

Did you see that skeleton at the Commonwealth Games? Man, he was performing out of his skin!

The irony was that when the tramp actually got up *onto* the trampolene, the authorities had him removed!

Ding dong dell, pussy's in the well. Who put her in? That bloody Leslie Philips -- I heard him do his catchphrase as he pushed her. The swine.

Quite like the thought of going hang-gliding. Certainly more so than Electricchair-gliding or Firingsquad-gliding.

I've been walking around with my head stuck through a full-sized harp. I heard that the girls are going crazy for a harp dressed man.

My pal, Timothy Thepresent, is simply unique. There really is no Tim like Thepresent.

I've got so many enormous sheets of peanut brittle to eat! I suppose I'd better get cracking.

21st novel of middle-class Scottish family on holiday in Swiss Alps: We Ski Galore.

Mario Vargas Llosa wins 2010 Nobel Prize in literature. He's the world's second most famous Mario, the first if you exclude video games. Has now changed his name by deed poll to Mario Vargas Wwinner.

My bike suspension may need looking at. As I cycled in this morning it was making noises like the between-scenes bass fills in Seinfeld.

Taking photographs of herring in little waistcoats and kilts is laughably easy. It's shooting fish in apparrel.

I've had my main entrance chubb lock moved right to the bottom of the door. I prefer things low key.

Call me pedantic, but I don't see how we can continue to call Sunday Sunday after the Sun has set.

I'm thinking of performing a theatrical monologue about Vegetables at next year's Edinburgh Fringe: the Veg-in-a-monologue. It should be a hit with anybody who has a vegetable. And that's most people.

What ever happened to that Pigbag Papa got? It must be quite old now.

She moves, she moves. She bangs, she bangs. She may have fireworks in her backpack, actually.

Steve 'Jane' Austen: six million dollar manners.

If we're talking about writing, it's: 'show, don't tell.' If it's the proposed Terry Venables striptease, it's: 'Tel, don't show.'

You've seen, at doctors, those wallcharts breaking down the chemical constituents of urine? That's the Peeriodic Table.

This Adie Aitchdee individual seems like bad news for kids. Somebody should lock him up or something.

Do you remember in the 1980s, when the Thin White Duke briefly fronted Bow Wow Wow and they were renamed Bowwowwowie?

Ikea sold me a wardrobe in seven dimensions. You couldn't make it up!

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Voice of the Century

This phrase was much-repeated in the obituaries of Joan Sutherland. And, undeniably, her voice was a splendid and beautiful thing -- but calling it 'the voice of the century' is exactly wrong. Hers was the voice out of the previous century -- as if, on the strength of the excellence of Landor's Latin verse we called him 'the poet of his age'. I've been idly contemplating the most plausible candidates for 'voice of the (20th) century', and I'd say I've narrowed it down to: Ella Fitzgerald; Elvis Presley; John Lydon. Not sure there are any other candidates.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010


The call came to abandon the Earth. By ones and twos, by scores and hundreds, individual and families and communities launched into space in their various civilian craft to muster in Laplace 2. The Noös armada would enter Solar Space in less than a day, and although the Fleet was preparing a last stand to defend the home planet there was no hope in any of the admirals’ hearts. ‘We must not be unrealistic,’ said Admiral Marie Laplace de Chardin. ‘Either we should muster our ships in a battle formation in Earth orbit, or else we should flee before the superior firepower of the Noös and accompany the civilian exodus.’

‘Cowardice,’ grunted Admiral Zen Sang. He was a traditionalist. He would genuinely have preferred death to dishonour.

‘I too want to fight,’ said Admiral Paterson. ‘If you could obtain for me only half a dozen of those Noö-built furnace-cannons with which to do so….’

‘Clearly they outgun us,’ agreed Admiral Laplace. ‘Clearly their craft can outmanoeuvre ours. We could not defeat them; the most we could do is inflict percentage damage upon some of their attack cruisers. But I doing so we would be annihilated.’

‘We are soldiers,’ said Admiral Zen, fiercely.

‘There is another way,’ said Admiral Laplace. ‘We could accompany the civilian exodus not as an escort, but as a spearhead. Set co-ordinates on the Impstar System with our laser-cannon primed.’

‘Impstar. Why there?’ queried Admiral Pavel.

‘To colonise it.’

‘I’m not sure of the wisdom of this,’ said Admiral Paterson, ‘The Impstarers may be primitive by our standards—but they are fierce nevertheless. Those scales of theirs can withstand more punishment than our more permeable skin. Their craft though cumbersome, and though only armed with projectile-launchers, are still not to be trifled with.’

‘We would defeat them!’ insisted Zen.

‘Of course we would,’ agreed Laplace. ‘We would suffer some casualties, but would eventually annihilate their fleet. That would leave the way open to cleanse their two habitable worlds and make way for our displaced populations.’

‘Impstar Prime,’ said Pavel, meditatively. ‘I have seen documentaries … it is not as beautiful as Earth, but it is fertile and warm.’

‘However,’ said Zen, with a certain distaste, ‘to exterminate an entire population …’

‘An alien population,’ Paterson reminded them.

The military men were silent for a little while.

‘There is another way,’ said Admiral Laplace. ‘We announce to the Impstars that we are coming. We tell them that our plans require us to destroy them utterly within three days. Not to enslave them, but to wipe them out. They will weigh the options, and leave—abandon their worlds and fly elsewhere. They will do this because the alternative is suicide.’

‘Fly elsewhere,’ mused Pavel. ‘To where, I wonder?’

‘That is not our concern,’ said Laplace. ‘There are many other systems…’

‘… all already inhabited …’ put in Paterson.

‘…yes,’ said Laplace, becoming a little angry. ‘All inhabited. But they will surely find amongst the cosmos a system at an inferior level of technical development into which they can move. Some system with only chemical rockets, perhaps; or a system as yet incapable of sustained spaceflight of any kind. That is not our concern. Our concern is our people. We must prepare for our necessary invasion. We must frame a warning message.’ She stood, and the rest of the Admirals also came to their feet.

‘A warning message,’ suggested Pavel, ‘such as the one the Noös broadcast to us two days ago?’


‘I wonder,’ Pavel mused ‘who it is that is displacing the Noös? They must be frighteningly advanced, if they can outgun so terrifying a race.’

‘We do not know for certain,’ growled Zen, ‘that the Noös are being displaced. Perhaps they are merely belligerent.’

‘Perhaps,’ conceded Pavel. ‘But I do not think so.’

They went about their business; reported to the flight decks of their various space destroyers, calculated their orbits about Earth. When I say ‘Earth’ of course I am translating their term into our tongue. Their Earth was not our planet, not yours and mine; just as they were not ‘Admirals’ and their names were not Earth names. This is the nature of translation. None of the speakers in this exchange were human beings. Humanity was not so highly placed in the cosmic technological hierarchy as were these peoples. We, alas, are somewhere lower. Indeed I find myself wondering where, exactly, are we placed in the domino-sequence of disaster, destruction and exile of which these individuals are a part. I find myself wondering where we would go, or whether we could, when the chain of cause-and-effect reaches our system.

Monday, 18 October 2010


Herder's Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit ('Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man' 1841) asserts that 'Immer verjüngt in neuen Gestalten, blüht der Genius der Humanität': The genius of humanity blooms in continually renovated Gestalt. Gestalt, the dictionary tells me, is: 'form, shape, figure, character, person, frame, build.' But of those seven items, only one ('frame') really fits Herder's apothegm; and that's not really the one he meant.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Flock in Flight Poem

The flock, in flight,
makes the air below them heavier
than the air above.

All day, all night,
Their muscles churn air airier
and thick as love.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

No, no.

Throw, thrown. Grow, grown. No, known. Which is to say: as we move from the present perspective on now to the present perspective of then, the seed of knowledge is negation.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Noah returns to Ararat

When I was last here this was the only land.
Before ocean shrank here was no valley of
any shadow of death; no valley of
any kind, no tanglement, the only love
that strictly-in-the-family-love.
And life was smaller then. And small
is easier to adore. And that is all. And—

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Cosmic Morse

Iterating itself across the galactic page: blackhole, blackhole, blackhole; comettail, comettail, comettail; blackhole, blackhole, blackhole ...

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Architectural Tsunami (Earthquake Poem)

Alarmingly the buildings rear
a stone tsunami, higher, higher:
We who walk the city ways,
know deep-down that every wave,
however long it hangs in air,
will one day come crashing hard
upon the unresisting tar.
Hurry, now, along the street!
Before the tower and pavement meet.
Move your panic stricken feet!

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Mac Flecknoe

I think people have underestimated the scatological aspect of Dryden's Mac Flecknoe; or, A satyr upon the True-Blew-Protestant Poet, T.S. (1682) and its attack upon Thomas Shadwell. In part this pivots upon very simple thing: the habit in modern editions of replacing Dryden's original 'Sh----' with Shadwell's full name. To read:
Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Strike through and make a lucid interval;
But Shadwell's genuine night admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day:
--is to read a witty jibe at the expense of a person. To read:
Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Strike through and make a lucid interval;
But Sh-----'s genuine night admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day:
--is to remind the reader that letters in a word are as often omitted for reason of propriety as anonymity. This latter, in other words, encourages us to read the poem as being about 'Shitter' (conceivably: as about 'Shatwell'; but perhaps that would be a touch too refined), or in places simply as about 'Shit'. So 'Shitter's 'rising fogs' become noisome faecal gases, whilst
Here Flecknoe, as a place to fame well known,
Ambitiously design'd his Shitter's throne.
--invokes the toilet, still called 'the throne' in some parts of England. Or:
Much Heywood, Shirley, Ogleby there lay,
But loads of Shadwell almost chok'd the way.
--which suggests publishers' remainders, as opposed to
Much Heywood, Shirley, Ogleby there lay,
But loads of Shitte almost chok'd the way.
--which makes more pertinent reference to ordure.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Sensibility and Sentimentality

The difference between Sensibility and Sentimentality is that the former grounds its affect in the empatheticmotion towards the other, where the former grounds it in a sense of self-satisfaction that the subject.s own feeking

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Atheists and Adiabolists

There are those who believe in the literal existence of both God and the Devil, of course. And of course there are atheists who are also adiabolists. There are even some who, motivated by a committment to a God of perfect Love, believe in God but not in the Devil. What I'm interested in is whether there are any people who believe in the Devil but not God? Given the enormous diversity of peoples' beliefs, I'd be surprised if there weren't; but how would such a belief-system pan out?

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Leda and Swanage

I used to think Yeats's 'Leda and the Swan' a great poem (for whatever metric of 'great' I used to think applied): beautifully written -- I still think that -- but also profound and true. Now I'm not so sure. The crux is:
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
The offhand 'shudder' for the male orgasm is (it strikes me now) rather self-regarding: a uniquely male grandiosity, 'it's only a sort of pleasurable tremble for me, but it brings DEATH and FIRE and EPIC AMAZINGNESS INTO THE WORLD!' This, it now seems to me, is a lie; not only in its quasi-adolescent masculine attempt to add meaning and grandeur to the absolutely perfectly commonplace spurting-out of sperm, but in the underlying rationale of the poem: that men make life and life makes epic tragedy. As if women have nothing to do with it! As if the comedic positivity engendered in life doesn't outweigh the destructiveness in the ratio of 9:1, by any objective assessment!

Friday, 8 October 2010

Trover and Replevin

Trover is an action at tort to recover the value of goods unlawfully taken. Replevin is the action to recover the goods themselves. The legal system running through, in proleptic form, the debates over signification and deferral of the late 20th century Theory wars ...

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park was written 1812-14. I have a hunch that the title picks up some resonance from Lord Mansfield, who had been Chief Justice 1756-88 and whose name is particularly associated with the high importance of habeus corpus as a bulwark of individual liberty. Constructing a reading of the novel from this point of view would be by way of addressing Said's famous reservations about the novel: for it was this jurist who was, practically speaking, responsible for the abolition of slavery in the British realm.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010


Why can't I buy a dictionary of dictionaries? There's surely enough of them to merit such an understaking.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010


What the eye sees and cannot stop seeing,
and what it never sees.
What the ear hears, and the tongue tastes.

The heart is shaped like a cloud at sunset
and dark, and heavy, and the rain
it puts out falls to the ground and deeper than that.

Monday, 4 October 2010


Clive Ponting's Green History notes that although hominids are four million years old or so, homo sapiens sapiens has been around for 100,000 years. His subsequent claim that 'hunter-gatherer societies have accounted for ninety-nine percent of human history' looks a little hard to parse. (Perhaps 96% lacks rhetorical bite?). But it's also making a tacit, normative claim: this is what human beings are really about, all this farming-and-living-in-cities malarkey is, in historical times, abberrative. But not so! The moral force of hunting and gathering, as a lifestyle, is the now; but the moral force of farming -- and even more, of the timetabled life of the mechanical city -- is the future; planting seeds for next season, storing food for the winter and the seeds for next year. The turn to farming carries with it its own abnegation of the nowism of hunting. It rewires humanity to look forward (farming and manufacture will have accounted for 99% of homo sapiens sapiens' existence). It is, wary though I am of overusing this rhetorical trick on this blog, science fiction ...

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Becoming again as a child

I watch this, and I think to myself: people do not talk about the negative side of becoming again as a child. 'Unless you return to the bullying in-crowd outcast logic of the school playground, you cannot see the kingdom of God ...'

Saturday, 2 October 2010


The problem with Realism is that it is almost inevitably superficial. But the problem with the metaphorical modes of fiction, Science Fiction, Fantasy, 'magic realism' and the like, is almost that they are too deep.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Free will

‘When a determinist claims that our free choice is ‘determined’, this does not mean that our free will is somehow ‘constrained’, that we are forced to act against our will—what is ‘determined’ is the very thing that we want to do ‘freely’, that is , without being thwarted by external obstacles.’ Žižek In Defence of Lost Causes [447]

OK; but this doesn't address the question of why it feels constraining. If I choose to make tea rather than coffee, and am then told that actually I had no choice, I was always going to choose to make tea, it feels weirdly (though, I suppose, notionally) violating, as if the cosmos has stuck its imaginary finger into my head and swizzled my volitional dial.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Make war against war

The concept of fighting a war against war (‘the war to end war’) has invited a good deal of ridicule from many people, because it takes the form of an evident contradiction (‘like,’ to quote the excellent David Nobbs, ‘fucking for virginity’). But this phrase describes very exactly the strategic aim of pretty much all major conflicts of the last and present century. Perhaps the key here is to see that violently opposing this concept is even more contradictory: ‘to wage war on fighting a war against war’ ...

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Passion of the Christ

The passion is God committing suicide. In a Schmittian sense, God enacts the exception that creates and defines the limit of his subject’s behaviour: namely, the interdiction on our suicide. In a sense, we are not permitted to kill ourselves precisely because God did.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010


At quite a deep level, tradition and originality are incompatible.

Monday, 27 September 2010


One of Einstein’s big ideas was that (to put it in a nutshell) we can’t ultimately tell if we are in the moving train leaving the station or in a motionless train with the station sliding past us. There are many cool elaborations of this idea (Are we moving through time one second per second, or is it that we are stationary and time is moving past us?) but it's worth recalling how counterintuitive the original version is. Because deep in our bones, so deep it's almost impossible to shake, is our belief: 'but surely ... the station is stationary! The train is en train! Look at the names!'

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Repellent Affinities

The wisdom of OK Go: 'nothing ever doesn't change, but nothing changes much.' I wonder.

'Of the Blue Colour of the Sky' is, I discover, an album that was recorded in reaction to A J Pleasonton's weird 1876 booklet, The influence of the blue ray of the sunlight and of the blue colour of the sky: in developing animal and vegetable life; in arresting disease and in restoring health in acute and chronic disorders to human and domestic animals.

It has much to say on the subject of change, including this from p.180: ‘the slightest change in the angle of incidence of the white light of the sun as it falls upon vapours, clouds, or gases will excite their repellent affinities, and resolve them into the varied and brilliant tints of primary and composite colours.’ Now, Repellent Affinities would be a great title for an album … or a novel?

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Categorical Imperative

It sometimes seems to me that Kant's Categorical Imperative is a sciencefictional conceit. From Grounding:
Kant asserted that lying, or deception of any kind, would be forbidden under any interpretation and in any circumstance. In Grounding, Kant gives the example of a person who seeks to borrow money without intending to pay it back. This is a contradiction because if it were a universal action, no person would lend money anymore as he knows that he will never be paid back. The maxim of this action, says Kant, results in a contradiction in conceivability (and thus contradicts perfect duty). With lying, it would logically contradict the reliability of language. If it is universally acceptable to lie, then no one would believe anyone and all truths would be assumed to be lies. The right to deceive could also not be claimed because it would deny the status of the person deceived as an end in himself. And the theft would be incompatible with a possible kingdom of ends. Therefore, Kant denied the right to lie or deceive for any reason, regardless of context or anticipated consequences.
It's the absolutism here that is SF, I think; the argument from Bizarro world ('argumentum ad Mundo Bizarro'?). The world is this way; imagine what it would be like if it were the exact opposite.

One problem is that this is predicated upon a sort of one-to-one mirror transformation. If everybody always told the truth, then one would always know where one stood; but if nobody ever told the truth, then one would still always know where one stood. The real ethical problem comes in a world in which some people are always truthful and some habitual liars and you can't be sure which is which, and more to the point where most people sometimes lie and sometimes tell the truth. The key here is inconsistency, precisely the thing absent both from Kant's Categorial moral alternate reality and its Mirror-Universe evil double.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Crapulous Individual

"It is always the crapulous individual that best executes the infamous deed" - de Sade (The 120 Days of Sodom, apparently), So strangely wrong that it gives pause. Hunger, not satiety, is the motor for infamy in deed.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Olympic Sports that Are Not

It surprises me that there's no Olympic medal to reward really fast winding. It could be competitive reel winding, or winding down the shutters on a shop window, or turning the handle of a mangle ... but winding is a basic human activiy, which some can do faster and more powerfully than others. The Olympics ought to acknowledge that.

There's some winding, I suppose, in some of the sailing medals. That's by no means the same thing.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Clearly Seen Ones

I wouldn't want this blog to become a mere conduit for interesting facts derived from wikipedia. But, having said that ...
The English word "dragon" derives from Greek δράκων (drákōn), "dragon, serpent of huge size, water-snake", which probably comes from the verb δρακεῖν (drakeîn) "to see clearly".
What's nice about this is the ironic etymology in naming an imaginary, and therefore (strictly) invisible, beast 'the clearly seen one.' But it's right, isn't it? Dragons are clearly seen, in cultural imaginarium at any rate.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010


When somebody dies unexpectedly, people say things like: 'but I was just talking to them, the other day!' It's this notion of death as an unplanned interruption in an ongoing conversation that is the most heartbreaking.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Gods poem

The machinic sea;
the supreme depths;
the porous sky.

Gods without moral attributes;
Beauty that has
no place for beauty.