pseudopodium
. . . Krazy

. . .

It's got its good paragraphs, but E. E. Cummings's allegorical reading of Krazy Kat -- with Kat as democracy caught between Mouse-anarchy and Pupp-fascism -- has always rubbed me the wrong way.

For starters, Cummings refers to Krazy as "she" throughout, whereas the strip used "he" much more often. (Bowing to public pressure, Herriman experimented with unequivocal she-ness once, but decided it just didn't suit that dear kat.) Following a natural train of thought, Ignatz's rage could be better described as homophobic than as anarchistic: he hates Krazy not because Krazy is a symbol of authority, or repression, or respectability, or even stability, but because Krazy is eccentric, flamboyant, unaggressive, affectionate, and a little kwee.

For the main course, any historically-dependent reading misses Herriman's achievement: a complete universe grown from one necessarily inexplicable but endlessly fecund triangle. Jonathan Lethem came closer to the mark in his story, "Five Fucks," where the triangle is a mysteriously universal solvent; even Lethem took the easier way out, though, in making the triangle violently entropic rather than pleasurably generative.

As Herriman demonstrated in later strips ("A mouse without a brick? How futile."), Coconino's reality depends on support from each point of the triangle; as he demonstrated throughout the strip's three decades, the triangle supports an infinite unfolding of reality. Lacking that central mystery, other comics, no matter how minimalist or how beautifully drawn, seem artificial and puffy by comparison.

. . .

Free and direct discourse Krazy's diary

Was writing, considered as external memory storage, truly a revolutionary leap in cognitive evolution?

It was an advance in shopping list technology, sure. But, considered as very long-term external memory storage, writing relies on the kindness of strangers almost as much as that other external memory storage, oral culture, does. Look at how few "immortal masterworks" since the invention of writing have survived to reach us. Whether kept in the noggin or kept on parchment or kept busily transferring from one mechnically-interpreted-medium-of-the-decade to the next, words' persistence and accessibility are almost completely dependent on interested individuals. Parchment just has an edge as far as dumb luck goes.

Similarly, the contractual use of writing as external evidence of intent wasn't a revolutionary leap in social development. Forgeries can be made and denounced; libel is only slightly easier than slander; witness's depositions are just as unreliable as their oral testimony....

But writing's use as external object is another matter, and not one that gets mentioned much in the cognitive science texts.

Person-to-person, we use language to express and to manipulate. To have one's words be understood is an ambition that's hard to even describe without the assumption of distance. It's not the noisy-channel-between-transmitter-and-receiver described by information theory. It's a channel between transmitter and object, followed by a completely different group of channels between object and receivers, channels whose "success" can't be measured by eliminating the middleman and totting up the error rate because the middleman is the point. I'm not standing behind my words to guarantee them; I'm standing there because you're not supposed to see me. I'm no longer the "message source"; I've handed that status over to an inanimate object, and that object can't be queried as to the success of the transmission.

Signed Ignatz
We empty the bottle and stick a note in it. We toss the brick over the wall hoping for a kat. The most novel aspect of writing is its status as artifact, its separability from the inchoate author, our signature no more important than any other indexable aspect.

. . .

Special Anniversary Narcissism Week!

We analytic egotists have to keep an eye out for mirrored abysses, which is why I've mostly resisted the impulse to dribble endless mission statements and explanations into the Hotsy Totsy Club until the sodden floor collapsed under me. But the Hotsy Totsy Club is a year old now, and as an analytic egotist I can think of no better way to celebrate than to spend an entire week on mission statements and explanations. Hee haw!


Hoozoo, by Cholly Kokonino

Let's start down to earth (or even lower) with Paul Perry's reasonable query, "Where is the Hotsy-Totsy Club?"
I currently live in Berkeley, California. The "original" Hotsy Totsy Club is a crummy bar, not far away from me on San Pablo Ave. ("The Most Beautiful Avenue in the World!"), where grizzled old boozers start congregating around 9 am. The neon in its sign seems to be burnt out in a new combination every day.
And Paul followed up with the equally reasonable, "I wonder exactly what role Cholly Kokonino had in the Coconino county of old?"
In all the strips I've seen, Cholly Kokonino was only a name without a character, a fiction within the fiction, a gossip-columnist pseudonym occasionally appended to Herriman's gorgeously overripe narrative setups.

The simultaneously snooty and slangy name is modeled after "Cholly Knickerbocker," a society columnist (or, more precisely, a series of society columnists) in one of the New York papers.

Applicability to the Hotsy Totsy Club is left as an exercise for the reader.

. . .

And so ends the story of: HATE, ZIP-POW!, and REVENGE

The Comics Journal message board supplies a surprising addition to the short list of "Krazy Kat" / film noir crossovers (and Fritz Lang / Jonathan Lethem connections):

Fritz's parting present to me was a collection of his favourite comic strips by George Herriman.... he wrote on the flyleaf:
Dear Jan

May you acquire Krazy's philosophy which makes a brick on his - (her?) - noggin the purveyor of true love. For the Krazy's of this world there are no austerities.

Sept 29th - 47 Fritz Lang

. . .

That dear "kat"

I worship Elvis as I worship my neighbor, but I would never join the Church of Elvis because you can't have a Church of Elvis without irony, and if you have irony why bother going to church?

I would, however, join the Church of Herriman if it existed, because it documents a miracle (look at "The Dingbat Family" and tell me a miracle didn't happen) and because it has beautiful icons and a convincing bible (albeit with some slumping in the middle stretch) but mostly because Herriman is the only prophet who's explained how evil might arise from a good primum mobile:

Because good loves evil.

Others have posited that God is sociopathic, true, but that's still a fur piece from being krazy.

  It commenced so simpil - and finished so intriggit.

. . .

Notes & Queries

Tom rightly modifies our Shock-N-Awe:

Might it depend on whether one is looking at Tommy and the other actors, or at the representations of them served as our daily fare? I'm genuinely unsure of the differences - the game is delimited in order that it can be played so that it can be wagered upon. The war is a "mosaic," says Tommy.

Athleticism is a fine mode - would it include wresting, in which we take comfort in the mismatch and hiss the dastardly ones who break the "rules"?

In my posting I'd obscured an essential distinction between the covert partisanship of contemporary political coverage and the open partisanship of contemporary war coverage. In both cases, specialists often (and understandably) think in terms of "games"; news media have increasingly (and less forgivably) followed their lead by treating both as spectator sports, but with the implied viewer identification shifting from "gambler" to "fan." The partisanship is just a matter of degree, of course, since talking about the game rather than the consequences of government implicitly gives preference to those who are out for personal gain (the other side being hypocrites or fools -- whether they in fact lose or not), and talking about the game rather than the consequences of warfare implicitly gives preference to the strong aggressor (the other side being a bunch of losers -- whether they in fact lose or not).

Wrestling is an appropriate analogy for the requisite vilifying, but their video technique seems drawn more from inspirational NFL documentaries....

Another reader remains unheard and unidentified:

I am not going to say a damned thing.
Not everyone is so inarticulate, thank goodness. Juliet Clark passes along a pointer to a genuinely responsive news agency:
In a time of crisis, Zap2it.com is looking at the big picture. At the top of their listings page, they ask the question on everyone's mind right now:

How will the War in Iraq affect my TV Listings?

How, indeed?

Doug Asherman may supply an answer:
The quote that I was looking for -- a little context first. Krazy is reading the "Krazy Kat" strip in the paper, and is quite confused...

Krazy "But, if *I* are *here*, and you is here, *HOW* come I are in the paper, and you also -- ansa me that."

Ignatz: "Because, Fool, how could it be aught were it not thus -- you answer *that*".

Waggish kindly writes:
I appreciated your entry on dissertation advisors, and I'd add that since those relationships aren't based on need or symbiosis but on pure charity towards the grad student, there exists a fundamental neurosis that can only be alleviated insofar as the relationship can be recast as collegial friendship. This is what I've seen, anyway.
And some stray merchant peddles his wares:
The Poet's Poet: Louis Zukofsky Reads From His Uncompromising Works. (PHONOTAPE-CASSETTE).

. . .

The Secondary Source Review

Language and Creativity: The art of common talk
by Ronald Carter, Routledge, 2004

An affable celebration of the formal qualities of informal conversation, backed by two big assets:

The book is therefore recommended to one and all, although it suffered a persistent limp after its first misstep into "Creativity," the gopher hole.

What Carter means by creative seems something more exactly named non-semantic, and better approximated by aesthetic, prosodic, performative, hedonic, ludic, or even politic.

What a difference a bad word makes.

For starters, and harrumphing as a math major and computer programmer, it's kind of offensive to presume (as Carter's forced to) that there's no creativity in semantics. Where do new abstractions and techniques come from? Yeah, I know some people think they're just lying around in the cave waiting for us to trip over them, but some people think that about alliteration too.

Attacking on the other front, prosodic patterning relies on formula. Tags, well-worn puns and rhymes, simple repetition, are all aspects of conversation that Carter wants to bring out, but calling them "creative" stretches the flavor out of the word.

CANCODE documents the impulse to self-consciously draw attention to the material units of supposedly transparent communication: a social need to undo meaning in favor of surface. That's worth documenting, all right. But Carter's "creative" slant gives preferential treatment to idiomatic metaphors when virtually any non-core aspect of speech or gesture can be fucked with: a proper name, for example, or an instruction manual.

Here's Carter's example of language which thoroughly "lacks the property of literariness":

"Commence by replacing the hub-bearing outer race (33), Fig. 88, which is a press fit and then drop the larger bearing (32) into its outer member followed by oil seal (31), also a press fit, with lip towards bearing. Pack lightly with grease."

Only a little earlier he had transcribed a group of friends making double-entendre hash of the job of drilling a hole in a wall. Imagine what they could've done reading this aloud. Imagine it in a political poetry anthology under the title "White Man's Burden". It doesn't take much effort to re-insert "literariness" into writing.

Re-insert the literary into writing.... That has a peculiar sound, doesn't it?

Writing, in our current origin myths, was designed to carry an ideational burden, starting with ledgers, shopping lists, and rule books. If that's the case, then it would require special writerly effort to reinstate the non-semantic balance conversation achieves so effortlessly. That special effort, which we might call "literary," would then receive special notice. When the social cues that hold conversation together changed, so would "literary" style, and, for example, the current fiction-writer's hodgepodge of brand-and-band names wouldn't be a sign of fiction's decline, but of its continued adaptability. (Man, I wish I felt this as easily as I argue it.) In a focus-driven reversal of perspective, the written, having gotten such abundant credit for its efforts to mimic ordinary prosody, would eventually become the norm for prosodic effects.

And so we end up here, praising quotidian conversation for possessing the very "poetic" qualities that originated in it. Carter's use of the term "creative" (as in "Creative Writing Department") reinforces this confusion while his evidence clears it up.

Finally, the positive self-help connotations of "creativity" somewhat obscures one of the most intriguing trails through CANCODE's walled garden: the extent to which playful, euphonic, and memorable language is prompted by hostility. Or, more precisely, how the verbal dance between meaning and surface mutually instigates and supports the social dance between individual aggression and communal solidarity.

This might help explain the peculiarly bickering or bitchy tone that emerges in the extended nonsense of Lewis Carroll, Walt Kelly, Krazy Kat, and Finnegans Wake, and why many a delightful bit of fluff begins life as vicious parody. (Also for the record, I think how the fluff ends up is just as important a part of the story as how it began. May all your unintended consequences be little ones.)

Responses

Now that's nattering!
Recognizing the essential truth of adaptability doesn't mean you have to like or even think well of the Thing, Adapted. (The eohippus was sweet, after all: was it too high a price to pay for the horse? Can't we all just get along?)

Danged good point. Almost fell into prescriptive grammarian hell there.

You were a math major?

The hows and wherefores have been mentioned here before, but, to my surprise, the whys have not, although they might be guessed at easily enough by more general remarks. In brief, given an apparent choice between paying more lip-service to my pleasures and being allowed to keep them, I preferred the latter.

But where does it all come from?

I ask the same thing every time I have a sinus infection.

"Pack lightly with grease" has such a delicate feel to it . . . very nice, very literary.

The always rewarding Tom Matrullo has found a particularly challenging angle to strike his flint against. May sparks fly high and wide.

John Holbo (aided by Vladimir Nabokov) combines the topics of abstraction, art, and aggression in a lovely meditation on chess.

. . .

Because I could not stop for Brick

In an aperçu more winning than anything from Critical Inquiry's past few years, Da Hat compares Emily Dickinson to George Herriman. Twin lines of different media: iconic and organic; sketchy and exact; gracefully liberated in self-forged chains. How easy to imagine "kat" stretched, tail akimbo, laboriously scratching out a letter to Master, or Offisa Higginson covering his eyes and moaning, "That dear poet!" How reassuring the reminder that sometimes the pure products of America go krazy.

. . .

True Ott

Fantagraphics' series of Krazy Kat Sundays has entered my favorite period, Herriman's dark'n'scratchy final phase. Layouts are boldly expressive, anchored in black. The protagonists have grown thick with age, and weirdly doll-like, with mitten hands and wide glassy eyes, but somehow convey even more pathos with their expressiveness restricted to gesture. A literal layer of abstraction is added when short page-wide panels start to appear below the narrative.

But I'm a mournful guy, and my excitement over the new volumes can't erase my mourning over the abortive (two years only!) Kitchen Sink Press series. Yes, its colors were bizarre and often appeared blown out. But its pages were larger, the glossy paper clung to detail, and it was produced before that digitized sweetening which finds welcome under the name of "restoration".

Unless great care is taken, a contrast boost which adds punch and makes linework spring out will also blunt gradations of shade and width....

Feetsteps, hitzin.
December 19, 1937, Fantagraphics
Feetsteps, hitzin.
December 19, 1937, Kitchen Sink Press
* * *

That sort of thing's debatable, though; a matter of taste. Any reproduction is a compromise, and any cartoonist signs on to a compromising life.

The episode of September 12, 1937, presents a more straightforward problem.

An old favorite, and always a pleasure to see it again, but this time round the lettering and speech balloons seemed off....

Thumbnail of page

Because they aren't by George Herriman.

In pairs, the Fantagraphics versions, followed with the originals as reprinted by Kitchen Sink.

He'll not foil me - that kop.
He'll not foil me - that kop.
He'll not fool me - that mouse.
He'll not fool me - that mouse.
He'll not fail me - that dollin.
He'll not fail me - that dollin.

No notes explain the switch, but I presume one source newspaper allowed tampering on the way to press and the other source newspaper didn't. And I hope a swap-back can be arranged before the next edition.

Responses

Lost in the most recent purge of the Comics Journal Message Board was a suggestion that the paste-up was done to make Herriman's words larger and more legible. That seems reasonable, and explains why Offisa Pupp's speech balloon needed to be moved.

. . .

World Wide W. E. B.

For the Happy Tutor & Luther Blissett 7

Color & Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual
by Ross Posnock

Posnock opens by claiming that the first and paradigmatic "public intellectuals" in America were black.

Good hook, but it doesn't land square. His examples aren't like Zola and Sartre, Sontag and Mailer, high-falutin' forthright four-steely-eyed heroes swooping down from atop the editorial page to right a wrong and then move on. Instead, he tells and re-tells the story of African-American aesthetes and scholars not given a choice about going public. Maintaining any intellectual existence at all meant (was forced to mean) either taking a stand as a public intellectual or being posed that way.

This could be thought of as the high-culture special case of racism's general rule and fuel, selective attention. No matter what you do, it "reflects on the race," because race is what the polarized mirror shades let through. You take a seat, you're making a statement; you play golf, you're making a statement; you publish a book, you're making a statement.... Very tiring, very OK I get it I get it here you go then.

Or you could think of it as the American special case of a more general type of public intellectual. Not the Zola or Sontag type, though more the GarcĂ­a Lorca or Mayakovsky type. In a totalitarian state, if you take a seat, you're making a statement, and if you're unwilling to make a statement yourself, the nearest cop will volunteer one. Hell, sometimes even if you do try to make it yourself! That's what Nabokov really hated about the USSR: It wouldn't allow nuance to the poet or naturalist; you had to live with coarse distinctions like dissident or collaborationist.... And that's what he really loved about the USA: It didn't care!

About white Russians, anyway. But for a specially selected, near-exlusive clientele, the USA has always offered add-on totalitarian services.

Aside from the odd depression or civil war, the tactic's worked out pretty well. Black-and-white racism, guaranteeing a permanent yet permeable underclass, grounded our economic class system. Meanwhile, the donnybrook everlasting of more transient bigotries (occasionally freshened by immigrants) resisted high-voltage demagoguery.

With full globalization, though, there's no work for our working class, and a single coast-to-coast church professes a universal creed of selfish self-righteousness.

And so the colorfully corroded spaghetti-wired and chewing-gum-soldered circuit shorts. Smear tank by Diebold machine, gerrymander by gerrymander, state by state, the fuses pop and leave a dim red light behind. Newspaper by radio station by cable network, vouchered school by grant-grubbing school, we lose what Du Bois and Benjamin lost before us: the right to be harmless.

It was our greatest privilege.

Responses

Could you summarize what you're trying to say here? I'm having a hard time understanding.

Me too. But if you summarize your misunderstanding maybe we can get somewhere. Working this out is like rock climbing, I think.

Not that I've ever rock clumb. It's like something that can paralyze you, anyway.

That one hurt.

The Tutor will be so proud!

The Tutor hisself, and hisself again:

Yes, I am proud. You have given up your right to be harmless, what you say has and will be used against you. Fortunately you have mastered the art of writing in riddles, parables, jests, aphorism and conspicuous irrelevancies. You will go, but not in the first wave.

And the plaudits continue to spit:

a thousand mile journey begins with
This is so confusing. Its literally mind-blowing!

"Not since the Necronomicon has a piece of writing so reduced me to gibbering insanity!"

Of course, given my compositional methods, the real miracle is that any (deaf as a) post ever manages to communicate any meaning at all, intended or not. Still, when particular posts particularly irritate readers, I can't help but want to make up for it somehow. Could it be that a few sentences of rococo metaphor weren't enough to clearly convey both an unfamiliar theory of American political-economic stability and a diagnosis of destabilization? Must we drudge through something longer and more conventionally expository?

In the meanwhile, readers offer a few diagnoses of their own:

The man who fears his shadow learns to hate the light
I'm still harmless.
It did care! It did, America, then, care. It liked that, it felt validated, confirmed, its ideals upheld etc. Who cares what happens next, said America, that wall's coming down! Nabokov being "just another brick" in. Which dangles a segue into Krazy Kat, but I'm running late.

And Tutor again, showing how to compress with clarity:

We lose the right, maybe, like loitering blacks in the old South, to be treated as harmless by the authorities until proven innocent. - The Happy Tutor

In January, 2011, Josh Lukin adds:

That's odd I found it perfectly intelligible and indeed familiar: June Jordan made a similar point several times. But she knew that Du Bois usually has a space in it, like Le Guin.

. . .

Function at the Junction

There's a lot of ink spilled over 'meaning' by literary theorists (you noticed that, too?) There isn't much discussion of 'function' (in the relevant sense). But, actually, there is a pretty obvious reason why 'function' would be the preferable point of focus. It's more neutral. It is hardly obvious that every bit of a poem that does something has to mean something. Meter doesn't mean anything. (Not obviously.) But it contributes to the workings of the work. (If you are inclined to insist it 'means', probably all you really mean is that it 'does'. It is important.) "A poem should not mean but be" is somewhat overwrought, in a well-wrought urnish way; but 'a poem should not mean, but do' would be much better.

Has any literary theorist really written about 'functions', in this sense?

- John Holbo (with a follow-up on intention and Wordsworth-quoting water sprites)

Analytic philosophers often sound like a blind man describing an elephant by holding the wrong end of a stick several blocks away from the zoo. This is one of those oftens.

When talking about species-wide traits, we need to keep track of teleological scales. One can easily invent (and very rarely find evidence for) evolutionary justifications for play or sexual variability among mammals. But that's not quite the same as asking the function of this tennis ball to the dog who wants it thrown, or of this foot to the cat who's ready for a game of tag, or of this photo of Keanu Reeves to the man gazing so intently. Particulars call for another vocabulary, and art is all about the particulars.

In the broadest sense, art doesn't have a function for homo sapiens it is a function of homo sapiens. Humans perceive-and-generate patterns in biologically and socially inseparable processes which generally precede application of those patterns. That's what makes the species so adaptable and dangerous. Even in the most rational or practical occupations, we're guided to new utilitarian results by aesthetics. Software engineers, for example, are offended by bad smells and seek a solution that's "Sweet!"

Making of art in the narrower sense may be power display or sexual display, may be motivated by devotion or by boredom. Taking of art touches a wider range of motives, and covers a wider range of materials: more art is experienced than art is made. Clumped with all possible initiators or reactions, an artwork or performance doesn't have a function it is a function: a social event. Whether a formal affair or strictly clothing-optional, the take-away's largely up to the participant.

As you can probably tell by my emphasized verb switches, I disagree with John Holbo's emendation of Archibald MacLeish. Yes, Ezra Pound and the Italian Futurists thought of their poems as machines which made fascists; yes, Woodie Guthrie thought of his guitar as a machine that killed them. But I've read the ones and heard the other and I didn't explode, and so the original formula's slightly more accurate, if only because it's slightly vaguer.

Still, when you get down to cases, "to be" and "to do" are both components of philosophical propositions. Whereas, as bog scripture teaches, the songness of song springs from their oscillation.

Like function, intentionality tends to be too big a brush wielded in too slapdash a fashion. CGI Wordsworth and miraculous slubmers in the sand sound closer to "performance art" than "poetry," but obviously such aberrations can't accurately be consigned to any existing genre. Nevertheless, I honestly and in natural language predict that insofar as my reaction to them wasn't a nervous breakdown or a religious conversion, it would have to be described as aesthetic: a profound not-obviously-utilitarian awareness of pattern.

Most art is intentionally produced, and, depending on the skill and cultural distance of the artists, many of its effects may be intended. And yes, many people intentionally seek entertainment, instruction, or stimulation. But as with any human endeavor, that doesn't cover the territory. (Did Larry Craig run his fingers under the toilet stall with political intent? Did that action have political consequences?) Acknowledging a possible typo doesn't make "Brightness falls from the air" any less memorable; the Kingsmen's drunken revelation of infinite indefinite desire made a far greater "Louie Louie" than the original cleanly enunciated Chuck Berry ripoff. Happy accident is key to the persistence of art across time, space, and community, and, recontextualized, any tool can become an object of delight or horror. A brick is useful in a wall, or as a doorstop, or as a marker of hostility or affection. But when the form of brick is contemplated with pleasure and awe and nostalgia, by what name may we call it?

Ignatz Mouse looks at Monument Valley

Responses

a poet should not be

A poet should not be mean.

Jordan Davis writes:

Setting aside Holbo's unfortunate reversion to Macleish's formula, I find his distinction between function and meaning (use and mention) useful when discussing the 99 percent of poetry that does not get discussed. To play in prime time, every last function has to show up dressed as meaning.

Ben Friedlander on a tangent: 'it's the obscurity of the near-great and almost-good that gets to the heart of things. Which for me is not the bad conscience of tradition (the correction of perceived injustice, which is where tradition and avant-garde clasp hands and sing), but its good conscience, the belief that there are those who "deserve to be forgotten."'

You're right that I sound too dismissive of a valuable insight. It's that damned analytic-philosophy lack of noticing that gets me down. A poem or play does "function" when it works as a poem or play, but how and why it functions isn't shared by all poems or plays, or by all experiences of the poem or play. The Shepheardes Calender and "Biotherm" functioned differently for their contemporaries than for me; even further, the effect of the Calender likely varied between Gabriel Harvey and John Taylor, and "Biotherm" likely did different numbers on Bill Berkson and Robert Lowell. None of this is news to you, of course, but Holbo's formulation doesn't seem to allow room for it.

Jordan again:

To take your point about Holbo -- I appear to have misread him as having spoken about apparent aporias -- I thought he meant that one accustomed to kaleidoscopes might not know how to hold a bicycle.

Beautifully put. And it's just as likely that I misread him, lured into hostile waters by the chance to make that graffiti joke.

But surely 'functions' is a plural enough noun to cover a plurality of cases, no? (How not?)

Way to bum my disputatious high, dude. I've been kneejerking against the vocabulary of John's examples, but, yes, another way to read him (and it's the way Joseph Kugelmass and Bill Benzon read him) puts us more in the same camp.

. . .

Reference Work, 2

You read a story and suddenly there's a part that becomes just words because you know nobody ever did it like that, or said it that way but you have to pretend just to find out what happened. What I am describing is like that, too. Everything flattens out and isn't real.
- The Captain, Equinox
My challenge was to not point out how our friendship, or Ian's encouragement of my artistic ambitions, or, for that matter, the laughter we shared watching Godard's Alphaville at the Bleecker Street Cinema, expressed possibilities of connection that our daily orgy of nihilism denied.
- Jonathan Lethem, "The Beards"

I agree with Leonard that there's a thinness in much highly-praised contemporary fiction. But the thinning agent's not foreign blood.

In serious mainstream prose it's easier to incorporate John Wayne as a villain than to reproduce his attraction as a lead. An ambitious story or novel must make Ignatz genuinely destructive and Krazy purely female. The sensitive protagonist has no siblings; the jolly uncle is a child molester; superhuman privileges bring no joy and improve nothing.... These are generic conventions. They're integral to the story being told, but when I strike them my stride falters. I don't slip, but I slide a bit.

What disappoints Leonard are Chabon's, Franzen's, Moody's, and Lethem's references. What disappoints me is the familiarity of their disappointments. It isn't specific to these novelists, or to subjects like soul music or comic books. The same story's been told of painters and boxers, poets and actresses, gypsy fiddlers and twelve-tone composers: the transmutation of exhilarating matter into glum defeat.

Artists like Herriman, Hawks, and Gaye delight through the thrownaway (even if well rehearsed) gesture that transfixes. By nature, they're anti-plot or at least anti-character-development. When narrative attempts to depict such lyric effects, they can only be given too little or too much attention. If it's made the point of the story, the point of the story must be loss. It only takes a few minutes to hear a song by Schumann or Mimms and then where's the hero? Even as articulate an artist as Smokey Robinson can only tell us that rich guys love cocaine.

Alternatively, the writer may try to suggest some aspect of the experience in passing, using the critical equivalent of free indirect discourse, or may, like Stephen King and James Joyce, flatly cite brandnames.

In any case, narrative is saved: life is only interrupted. The choice has nothing to do with the referent itself, nothing to do with "high" or "low". Wagnerian opera was as bad for John Jones as hip-hop was for Arthur Lomb.

It may, however, say something about the referrer. Across media, a downward turn indicates depth. Chris Ware, like Lethem, started in high-art institutions, became revulsed by academic pretensions, was attracted by genre practitioners, established himself as a star in the most conceptually daring end of low-art publishing, and then (with a success that stunned his new peer group) was welcomed into the market covered by the NYRB&TBR. For both Ware and Lethem, disappointment was a vehicle.

On the other hand, prose fiction can embody its own sort of lyric effect. Lethem's "Sleepy People" is an example whose lack of critical regard shows how low beauty places in most readers' and reviewers' criteria. Although in some ways the career of Karen Joy Fowler anticipated Lethem's, her preference for comic structures puts her in constant danger of being reshelved from high-middlebrow to chick-lit or YA. And the most enthusiastically referential of storytellers Howard Waldrop, Guy Davenport unable to sacrifice the gaiety of their scholarship, remain coterie property.

... to be continued ...

. . .

James Joyce as generative procedural writer

SUPERSTITION. 1. ... religion without morality. ... 4. Over-nicety; exactness too scrupulous.
- A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson
A view held in late antiquity is that the use of the words superstitiō ‘superstition’ and superstitiōsus ‘superstitious’ with reference to religion derives from the idea that such practices were superfluous or redundant.
- Oxford English Dictionary

January 31, 1930: At last J.J. has recommenced work on Work in Progress. The de luxe edition by ? soon to come out about the old lady A.L.P. I think. Another about the city (H.C.E. building Dublin). Five volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on his sofa. He has made a list of 30 towns, New York, Vienna, Budapest, and Mrs. Fleischman has read out the articles on some of these. I ‘finish’ Vienna and read Christiania and Bucharest. Whenever I come to a name (of a street, suburb, park, etc.) I pause. Joyce thinks. If he can Anglicize the word, i.e. make a pun on it, Mrs. F. records the name or its deformation in the notebook. Thus ‘Slotspark’ (I think) at Christiana becomes Sluts’ park. He collects all queer names in this way and will soon have a notebook full of them. The system seems bad for (1) there is little hope of the reader knowing all these names most seem new even to Joyce himself, and certainly are to me. And supposing the reader, knowing the fragment dealt with towns, took the trouble to look up the Encyclopedia, would he hit on the Joyce has selected? (2) The insertion of these puns is bound to lead the reader away from the basic text, to create divagations and the work is hard enough anyhow! The good method would be to write out a page of plain English and then rejuvenate dull words by injection of new (and appropriate) meanings. What he is doing is too easy to do and too hard to understand.

April 28, 1930: His method is more mechanical than ever. For the ‘town references,’ he scoured all the capital towns in the Encyclopedia and recorded in his black notebook all the ‘punnable’ names of streets, buildings, city-founders. Copenhagen, Budapest, Oslo, Rio I read to him. Unfortunately he made the entries in his black notebook himself and when he wanted to use them, the reader found them illegible.

- Reflections on James Joyce: Stuart Gilbert’s Paris Journal,
ed. Thomas F. Staley & Randolph Lewis

Joyce lost his faith but kept his superstition. And proselytized. By constructing reality effects which transform from red herring to vital clew on research and re-reading, Joyce fed the generic allures of puzzle-mystery and conspiracy theory into formalist realism, and thereby trained a generation of Joyceans into an everything-connects superstition of their own.

But while in the midst of serializing those carefully cross-wired diagrams of sub-sub-trivia across Ulysses, he began to immerse them in pointedly redundant anti-reality effects. "Cyclops" may be scrupulous about something, but whatever it is ain't "meanness." And after his increasingly bouncing babes were carted to the printshop and carted back again, he would improvise riffs across the proofsheets, snatching any chance to strengthen the scribbly cross-hatched fabric of the book or merely to, like the god of creation, wake up bleary-eyed and say Fuck me what was I doing last night?

On reading a letter from his daughter Milly, who had just turned 15 on 15 June, Bloom says ‘Fifteen yesterday. Curious, fifteenth of the month too.’ More to the point, Joyce’s revision in proof gives the letter 15 sentences. But every editorial attempt to ‘correct’ Milly’s adolescent syntax and punctuation, by reverting to earlier versions, has of course changed the count and obscured the point. So too, the passage in which Bloom reflects on the rate at which an object falls to earth (‘thirty-two feet per second’) is heavily revised in print to make it the 32nd sentence in the paragraph, where reversion to earlier readings, as in the 1984 edition, obscures that convergence of sign and sense. On page 88, Joyce added in proof a sentence of eight words to expand a newspaper death notice. It reads: ‘Aged 88, after a long and tedious illness.’ To page 77 he added in proof the phrase ‘seventh heaven’; and on page 360, Bloom meditates on cycles.
- Bibliography & the Sociology of Texts by D. F. McKenzie

What this showed McKenzie and John Kidd was that James Joyce thought his books too brittle to survive a page break. What it shows me is an unquenchable thirst for suspicious coincidence. Such details might have struck some unknown peculiar reader of the first edition, as they happened to strike the first edition's known peculiar writer; peculiar readers of later editions will presumably be struck by plenty of details of their own. Throw enough and someone will be struck. And who knows but that many of the belated recognitions of 1950s and 1960s Joyceans were just as casually opportunistic? If Joyce considered each precious intersection vital, wouldn't he have included them in his first drafts and poured them into the ears of his authorized explicators?

The contingent and ephemeral hold all we can reach of the necessary and eternal; we mold meaning from the pleasantly stinking loam of chance such Good News can't be carried in rice-paperish porcelain; its vehicle should be built to survive chipping; should, ideally, become self-healing....

Or so I gather from the cheerfully incorporated bloopers and wide-world-of-kitchen-sinks ("Frightful stench, isn't it? Just too awful for words") method of Finnegans Wake, and from Joyce's remarks when questioned by a friendlier sort than Gilbert: his hope that a random reader in some far-off location would trip across a regional reference (my own muddy MO! my own K.C. jowls, they sure are wise!) and feel peculiarly addressed. In this work, at least, the readerly goal writerly assumed doesn't seem to have been full mastery mulching libraries and and acquaintances so rapidly, odds are slim that Joyce himself would recall much source material after a month but frequent recognition.

(Why a lad or lassie from Baton Rouge or Bucharest should bother to position themselves so as to encounter these happy accidents would be an unfriendly question to ask any author, I think, and at any rate went unanswered.)

Absolute control remaining unreachable, the artist might endeavor to maximize happy accidents. During my first reading of Finnegans Wake in 1980, I found a history of the Beatles, and, if we choose to take auctorial intention into account, this would be as the author intended. Most attempts to adapt Joyce's works to other media have been miserable things. The relative success of John Cage's slick and cheesy Roaratorio depends on chance, but isn't happenstance.

James Joyce as cartoonist

Flaubert's invention of detached formalist realism had the (possibly unanticipated) effect of rallying readerly sentiments against the all-powerful know-it-all artificer and toward his deluded, destructive protagonists. Eventually, in Trois Contes, he worked out of this particular bind by letting his protagonist retain her delusions (with Joyce following suit in "Clay"). But his less detached-realistic works avoided the question altogether. We can easily picture the endearingly idiotic tenacity of Bouvard and Pécuchet as a one-joke comic strip like "Little Sammy Sneeze" or "The Family Upstairs" or "That's My Pop!" Lines on paper don't sense pain as we know it.

Joyce found a way to join forces with himself. Even on my first, unaided reading, I felt rightness in the increasingly grotesque gigantism of Ulysses, and when I return to the book, that (possibly unanticipated) affective response is what I want to relive: an alliance with breathing ugly-as-life almost-humans repeatedly smacked down under floods of mocking inflation and bouncing up again ignorant as corks and damaged as new. Yes, the two male leads are having one of the worst days of their lives, presumably at the behest of some author. But because The Author in Our Face has directed our attention to his louder, noisier, and impotent assaults, the result is less like a vivisection than like a mixed-animation heroic epic of "Duck Amuck" starring Laurel and Hardy.

I've never managed a similarly direct response to Finnegans Wake, although I keep hoping. It looks like giants all the way down. Faced with a foundational secular religious document, I want Krazy Kat and I get Jack Kirby's New Gods.

James Joyce as boring old guy

James Joyce and Louis Zukofsky share an odd career pattern: a hermetic retreat into and outrageous expansion of the nuclear family, attempting to fit all space-time into an already crowded apartment.

The "cocooning" idiom bugged me from the start. A cocoon isn't a cozy retreat or celebration of stasis. By definition, cocooning occurs with intent to split. Maybe it's appropriate for them, though?

Responses

Previous vocational guidance: Joyce as science fiction writer; Joyce as life coach.

. . .

Kat meets Manifold, 1935-07-07

2. Picture Book

(or, Fun with Your New Manifold)

In this paper, I will picture
    I will illustrate a law.
Everybody likes to picture;
    No one wants to learn to draw.

Imagine that the graph-paper-covered room above is a warehouse (offsite storage for a museum or a library, say, or a barn) completely filled by some sort of object or another (archaeological artifacts; books; fodder), piled up and shoved back in some order that I'll leave vague for now.

And now imagine all the warehoused objects of some more specific sort (pseudo-red-figure painting; cyberpunk novels; mycotoxin-contaminated grains) hovering on or near that twisted and tugged tie-died sheet like mosquitoes attacking a net. Then (if we really wanted to) we might say to ourselves that the sheet represents the subcategory.

As to why anyone would really want to say such a thing well, I'll get to that too. First, though, I should confess that the figure I've been pointing to is randomly chosen clip-art, and the reassuringly regular digits marked off along its edges have sweet fuck-all to do with what I've been asking you to imagine. I placed the image there as an arbitrary sample of an allegorical simplification (reduction to three Euclidean dimensions from an indefinitely expanding set of "real" dimensions, some of which are discrete and finite, others continuous and infinite, others difficult to describe at all) of an inexact metaphor for some concepts of interest to myself and Dr. Grietzer.

For both of us, what's imaged is the launch of a research program rather than a graphic summary of its conclusion.

I wonder to what degree doing mathematics is constructing a mental model for a mathematical object, comparing the properties of that model to the facts associated to the object and then trying to reconcile the model with the facts?
Jon Bannon at MathOverflow


Revisiting my randomly chosen absurdly oversimplified allegorical diagram, let's say our warehouse is full of digitized photographs and we're interested in those which contain smiling faces (whether lying or not). Where might they be found?

That depends on how the warehouse contents were originally sorted, or, equivalently, what the fictional coordinates marked off on those imaginary walls might be measuring.

Say left-to-right marks the brightness of the top-leftmost pixel of a photograph, back-to-front marks the color of the bottom-rightmost pixel, and floor-to-ceiling marks the original photograph's area in millimeters. Then the photos we want would probably look as if they were shoved into the warehouse at random.

Which doesn't necessarily mean that they'd look random in our imaginary diagram of the warehouse. If the warehouse contained only 3.5" x 4.25" Polaroids, then smiling-faces would be graphed as points in one satisfyingly compact little sphere. But we wouldn't have learned much, since all the uninteresting photographs would be there too.

And so my and Grietzer's "image" contains the implicit assumption that we can collect some dimensions which are germane to the subcategory of interest: some things other than the categorization itself which could (after a brisk massage) help distinguish the interesting objects from their neighbors. That assumption might be wrong. Given a warehouse of Polaroids and nothing else, there might simply be no distinguishable-or-distinguishing pattern for the immunization records (or criminal inclinations, or IQs) of those depicted no matter how many measurable dimensions we throw at the problem.

One must anyway admit that a question need not have answers, that it is not even bound to have any, since a great part of scientific activity consists, precisely, in seeking the good questions. Thus, the correspondence between planets and regular polyhedra, of which Kepler was so proud, is not even a wrong hypothesis, it is an absurd connection, which only deserves a shrug of the shoulders, a question that did not deserve to be posed, to be compared to speculations linking the length of a ship with the age of her captain. Transparency stumbles on the questioning as to the interest of questions, next on the difficulty to find the answers to the supposedly good problems. Indeed, answers are, mostly, partial: a half-answer accompanied with a new question. The relation question/answer thus becomes an endless dialogue, an explicitation process; it is in this process, which yields no definitive and totalising key, where the afterworld of appearances, i.e., knowledge, is to be found.
- The Blind Spot: Lectures on Logic by Jean-Yves Girard


Besides the dimensions tick-marked across the warehouse edges, both Grietzer's trained-autoencoder "image" and my self-generated "image" hide another dimension in plain sight: the dimension which measures if (or how much) a particular thingmabob matches the particular category of interest:

"This is a face. And this is a face. No, that's not a face. But this here is a face."

"Is this a face?"

"Sort of, I guess; it's a dog's face."

"Are these dog's faces?"

"No. Willie and Joe are dogfaces, but what they have are real faces."

If the question is "How close is that particular thing to what we mean by this name?", then what the manifold depicts is "What we mean by the name." And unless "What we mean by the name" is well and stably agreed upon, we can't expect to derive well and stably agreed upon results.

For categories like "Smiling Faces," that caveat is easily ignorable, albeit at the risk of it publicly biting you in the ass after you've trumpeted your success. But tribal and cultural labels (ethnicity, religion, nation, discipline, art, genre) are blatantly impermanent and localized. They appear post-facto, they vary by time and place, they pass away, and their applications are disputed throughout their existence.

"Nostalgic music," for example, is an easily explained category which can't be placed by sonic properties alone. The germane dimensions are observer-dependent: age and circumstances of the first encounter; extent of later encounters.... For American sports fans, "The Star-Spangled Banner" is unlikely to be nostalgic, whereas their high-school marching band's fight song might be.

Artistic genres, on the other hand, are socially negotiated but also socially contested, and their rival imaginary-manifolds will be involuted, trimmed, and extended (science fiction incorporating alternate history; romances incorporating the undead) until the genre becomes moribund.

Here was my initial random snatch of a computer-generated image:

three-dimensional graph

And here is another piece of sample-allegorical clip art, grabbed from an introduction to autoencoding techniques in Python (and thank you, Jake VanderPlas):

A word deformed into an S shape

Considered purely as suggestive fact-free allegory, the first figure has a more or less arbitrary look, like a satellite photo of a landscape generated and weathered by unpredictable forces, or a spectacularly unmade bed, or a smushed hunk of clay. "It is what it is," but could easily be something different. Contingent, it invites further contingency.

The second figure suggests a definite thing-in-itself, with its own integrity, crystallized or grown or manufactured, hidden by noise and then unearthed.

A picture is worth a thousand words, most of which disagree. My own "image" stands in for a baggy one-size-fits-all Emperor's-New-Clothes sort of allegory, a fluffy cloud bobbing in hot air.

Whereas the extended legend attached to Grietzer's chart points toward some more, well, pointable things up here an intuited "vibe" or "feel" or "groove" shared by representatives of this set of artifacts and down there some machine learning techniques whose usefulness largely depends on the extent to which distinctive latent features can be derived from the set. (Any random selection of UTF-8 transcriptions of European texts, for example, can support some sort of autoencoding, but the "latent features" will probably approximate an equally random list of suffixes, prefixes, and roots.)



Because criticism must articulate a system of differentials
- "Shall These Bones Live?" by Jerome J. McGann

If we (virtually) reach into the previous graph, take that enticingly physical-looking ribbon, give both ends a good yank, and flatten it out, we can read a TOP SEKRIT MESAJ:

HELLO

What machine-learning usefully "learned" in this case wasn't so much an ability to spot new category matches in the original three-dimensional space, as it was something about the arrangement of matches across the derived two-dimensional manifold itself. (Our deft jerk, however, discarded the original graph's equally readable "S", and so perhaps we'd better keep the higher-dimensional affair around.)

More generally, where autoencoder compression might help human interpreters find latent features, manifold visualizations might help expose latent dimensions. VanderPlas's much-plundered page shows how arranging sample images of handwritten digits over their positions in the derived manifold calls out variations in slant, the choice of serif or sans-, and noisy bits we might want to correct somehow:

Manifold spread of sample handwritten digits
"Now, this in itself may not be useful for the task of classifying digits, but it does help us get an understanding of the data, and may give us ideas about how to move forward..."

Elsewhere on that page, a manifold arranges a rogue's gallery of faces to pivot from left-profile at the top through full-face to right-profile at the bottom.1

And elsewhere in Grietzer's verbal explorations of his "image":

[...] no less than it means a capacity to judge whether a set of objects or phenomena does or does not collectively possess a given style, to grasp a ‘style’ or ‘vibe’ should mean a capacity to judge the difference between two (style-conforming) objects in relation to its framework. Learning to sense a system, and learning to sense in relation to a system—learning to see a style, and learning to see in relation to a style—are, autoencoders or no autoencoders, more or less one and the same thing.

1  Those overlapping playbills irresistibly recall the attempt to flatten a projection of my scattered wits against dorm room walls: a full-page tabloid photo of three rednecks preening en route to crack skulls at a civil rights march; my father's "Please, Mr. President, Don't Go!" petition from the John Birch Society; Patti Smith cupping her bare breast; Samuel R. Delany's sultry Tides of Lust author photo; beatific Squeaky Fromme led to prison; Bobby London's Ramones portrait; the Eraserhead poster as memento-mori of my summer-long St. Louis nightmare; M. K. Brown's perky "Magic Orange"; the white rat's funeral from Khatru 6; naturally-wavy-haired Yeats defocusing for the camera....



The SHELLO graph's origin page describes the effort of its unearthing:

The left-hand picture was generated by one algorithm for summarizing the distance between points; the right-hand picture was generated by a different algorithm.

As I established early in my research career via a series of rigorously fucked-up connect-the-dot trials by crayon, any fixed set of points can be plotted onto an unlimited choice of surfaces. How do we choose? Why should we choose?

For typical machine learning applications, we're after a submanifold that not only connects or closely neighbors our original dots, but will also encompass or approach previously uninspected points of the "same type" or "same border between types," so that new specimens can be classified, denoised, or generated.

But what if we don't want to improve the product recommendations Amazon shows to collectors of Kathy Acker, or to generate Trump re-election ads in the style of "Eumaeus" for Facebook? (I mean, I've already read books which manually approximate what Google's DeepDream would output if it had trained on Molloy or Finnegans Wake instead of dog faces, and I'm not sure they were worth the effort.) What if we don't actually expect to glance at a machine-quilted Scholar's Counterpane of modernist texts and see one axis of parataxis-to-cohesion crossed by another axis of working-class to upper-crust? Why shouldn't we be grateful for the nice tidy plateful of points we've been dished and leave it at that? What do we think we're doing?

A possible answer is this: we are handling real things which can be studied as if they were ideas, "reproducible objects with mental properties." Each such object must be rigid enough to keep its shape in any context it might be used. At the same time, each such object must have a rich potential of making connections with other objects, and the connections between them may acquire the status of ideas as well.



"When any man pretends to mix in manifold activity or manifold enjoyment, he must also be enabled, as it were, to make his organs manifold, and independent of each other. [...] How difficult, though it seems so easy, is it to contemplate a noble disposition, a fine picture, simply in and for itself; to watch the music for the music's sake; to admire the actor in the actor; to take pleasure in a building for its own peculiar harmony and durability. Most men are wont to treat a work of art, though fixed and done, as if it were a piece of soft clay. The hard and polished marble is again to mould itself, the firm-walled edifice is to contract or to expand itself, according as their inclinations, sentiments, and whims may dictate: the picture is to be instructive, the play to make us better,— every thing is to do all. The reason is, that most men are themselves uninformed, they cannot give themselves and their being any certain shape; and thus they strive to take from other things their proper shape, that all they have to do with may be loose and wavering like themselves."

- Wilhelm Meister's apprenticeship and travels,
translated from the German of Goethe by Thomas Carlyle

Returning to Jake VanderPlas's SHELLO graphic:

A word deformed into an S shape

Rather than silently translating that crudely material vehicle into mathematical objects consisting of naught but coordinates, let's take the definitely more-than-none pixels on the screen (or more-than-none inked areas on the page) at their graphic word, and reconsider those imaginary zero-dimensional points as bounded neighborhoods (or submanifolds) of their own, multi-dimensional spaces which maintain their own integrity. (If the sample data consists of books, or movies, or paintings, or, for that matter, human beings, this will, I hope, not seem counterintuitive.)

Then the manifold vectors which previously connected-the-dots now pierce-the-objects. If the categorical manifold changes shape, its intersecting vectors shift like a flashlight playing around the object's interior.

At which the categorizing submanifold stops being a destination place and starts to become an interpretative filter. We may decide to switch goals and gears, so that our so-to-speak job is no longer to tighten and stabilize the focus of an embedding submanifold, but instead to transform an exploratory submanifold. We might do so by adding or removing or re-weighting the data's input dimensions the extent to which it justifies the divine right of kings, for example, or the correctness of its diction or we might instead radically change our training-set of sample data by adding, for example, a notoriously unsuccessful attempt at rollicking sea adventure to the canon of nineteenth-century American literature.

More particularly, I might do so. Not to establish a more solid representation of a canon, but to trace through a space, to cast a new (or at least new to me) light, to burn with, if not god no not a "diamond-like flame," possibly not even a disco-ball-like flame, at least a lava-lamp-like flame.



To stretch a point

When Bernhard Riemann introduced "manifoldness" into mathematics, he did so hoping to liberate physicists from Kantian constraints on the imaginable Real. Then, rather than presuming that the a priori notions of continuous and infinite Euclidean geometry always and necessarily described space-that-is-the-case, scientists could (and must) let their models be guided by physical observation. As one example, it might be that three-dimensional Euclidean models were only more-or-less-effective over relatively small distances, and that if scientists were able to zoom out enough, they'd find something more like the non-Euclidean surface of the Earth: curved and finite.

Turning from imaginary telescope to imaginary microscope, Riemann suggested that real-world space wasn't necessarily infinitely dividable; it might merely be parceled out in packets too small for us to notice. Which (he wrote) carries some interesting consequences:

In this respect there is a real distinction between mere extensive relations, and measure-relations; in so far as in the former, where the possible cases form a discrete manifoldness, the declarations of experience are indeed not quite certain, but still not inaccurate; while in the latter, where the possible cases form a continuous manifoldness, every determination from experience remains always inaccurate: be the probability ever so great that it is nearly exact. [...] Now it seems that the empirical notions on which the metrical determinations of space are founded, the notion of a solid body and of a ray of light, cease to be valid for the infinitely small. We are therefore quite at liberty to suppose that the metric relations of space in the infinitely small do not conform to the hypotheses of geometry; and we ought in fact to suppose it, if we can thereby obtain a simpler explanation of phenomena.

[...] in a discrete manifoldness, the ground of its metric relations is given in the notion of it, while in a continuous manifoldness, this ground must come from outside. Either therefore the reality which underlies space must form a discrete manifoldness, or we must seek the ground of its metric relations outside it, in binding forces which act upon it.

Closer to virtual-home, if for argument's sake (and certainly nothing else is at stake) we assume that all possible purely-textual works can be contained in sets of 1-to-4000 page volumes containing 32-bit Unicode characters, then the Universal Library is clearly finite. Too large to fit on my phone's SD card, maybe, but still of calculable size. And although it'll sadly lack Krazy Kat, Sherlock Jr., and Never Buy Texas from a Cowboy, there's nothing to stop our constructing a similarly finite Universal Spotify of 0-to-100-dB 1-to-64800-seconds 24-bit FLAC files, then moving on to a finite Universal Coffee-Table of art prints, and a finite Universal Movie Archive....

As Riemann wrote, and as the Universal Comedy Club independently discovered, if you want to find an element in a discrete manifold, you don't need to fuss with never-completely-accurate comparative measurements: you can just count off the elements and assign each an index number for precise future reference. But then you need some way to remember that Joke 847656 requires a Yiddish accent, and Joke 57 is not for mixed company, and Joke 766362254 might be too soon, too soon, and at some point it's easier to just try to re-tell a joke.

We assembled a loverly bunch of signifiers, and several data server farms of signified objects, but we bottlenecked on interpretants. Although our collection may be discrete and finite, since each reader will encounter different subsets of the collection in different orders at different times in the midst of different contexts, no Reading Experience will be repeated and the Conversation will remain, if not Infinite (unlikely, given the fragile set of conditions required for any Reading Experience to exist at all), then at least Interminable within reach of the Library. Of taking many books there is no end.

The Universal Library demonstrates that our sense of culture's infinite dimensionality, of an unbounded continuous manifold, must derive from something other than a (relatively) small number of artifactual points. Conversely, if we lean in more closely, those artifacts no longer look so pointy. When we actually open one of the volumes which seem so impressively solid on our shelves (organized as they are by binding size and color), we find hundreds of dark smears on yellowing paper, and then another big bunch of dark smears, and another, and another where the hell did the book go?

Just as there's eventually some audio sampling rate at which a strictly finite digitization becomes humanly indistinguishable from an analog sound even if the human is Neil Young, it's possible that the apparent continuum of space-time comes in strictly indivisible packets. Since humanity (like other animals) remains incapable of holding all of those digital samples or all those space-time packets separately in mind, human experience will remain analog and continuous and simpler: we will read one extended book and hear one extended sound and see one extended object.

Again as pointed out by Riemann, once you've committed to the quantitative simplicity of continuity (one persistent physical thing with a heft and a surface texture, instead of umptygazillions of vectors of probabilities seeping and spraying every which where and when), you've also condemned yourself to imprecision. We're never gonna get it right.

Which is good. Rightness isn't what we've been built for; we'd never have time to get anything done. Giuseppe Longo straightforwardly founds our a priori (or so) ideas of the infinitely extensible horizon and the infinitely divisible continuum on mammalian forgetfulness and boredom, and I don't see why we'd need anything more hifalutin. Our cognitive limitations are effective adaptations to Real Life.

In turn we use those cognitive limitations as cognitive tools: they make movies move, make a novel out of graphical variations, make a song out of amplitude samples, and make a geometry out of give-or-take or just-plain-wrong measurements. And we then use those imprecisely derived exactitudes to construct new and occasionally useful imprecisions: a physics,1 a faith, a revised physics, a reformed faith....

1   Clumsy conscience-haunted easily-distracted students fare poorly in labs. Listening to a podcast during one of my last commutes, I felt a keen fraternal warmth towards Carol Cleland:

I was a physics major, but I didn’t like labs. I was a klutz in the lab and my experiments never turned out right, and I was more interested in theoretical science. [...] I was always the last one; something was always wrong with my equipment. Just like when I cook. When I cook and I follow a recipe, I never come out with the same thing twice. [...] I'm not really good at following procedures.



On the considerably smaller scale of Grietzer and myself, our (apparently) graspable "image" takes the place of something which cannot be itself be fully articulated: an attractive ambient feeling which seems to be shared across a set of artworks, or a sheaf of possible connections between experiences-of-the-real and objects-in-the-world. We share an impulse to describe a neighborhood around or within each not-so-atomic atom.

Alternatively, we could steal a trick from Riemann's quanta and WAV's amplitude slices and try to make the invisible and/or imaginary manifold irresistibly apparent even without connectives. If we arrange our canonical samples closely enough and selectively enough, we don't necessary have to draw the lines or drape the sheet ourselves:

A 3-D scatter plot of dots arranged in a spiral

And this may be one spot where our preferred methodologies overlap. I'm clearly attached to collage and found-writing, both as consumer and as so-to-speak "producer". (I often feel I "produce" nothing else.)

As for Grietzer:

This relates to what I’m really excited about, which is undoing the distinction between ‘interpretation’ and ‘erotics’ (in the Sontag sense) or between ‘cognitive mapping’ and ‘listing’ (which Jameson is fixated on), or between mimesis on the one hand and curation, installation, and collage on the other. The fundamental drive is really to create a viewpoint where the ‘radically aesthetic’ — art as pure immanent form and artifice and so on — is also very, very epistemic.
- “‘Theory of Vibe’: A conversation with Peli Grietzer” by Brian Ng

Should we call such a move creation or interpretation or simple parasitism? That question is above my pay grade but I'm fairly comfortable with calling it a construction.

The question of motive remains. Even if we do manage to find some subset of the population who are able to see the ducky or horsie we've so carefully assembled, what would compel us to act out in such an eccentric manner? What's the parasite get out of it?

I'll attempt an answer in this saga's third volume, a thrilling tale of love, literacy, and mathematics. (For my neighbors' peace of mind I'll go light on love.)

But first an end-point.



In Parmenidea; or, The Compassion of the Bodhisattvas

And it is right for you to learn all things
Both the unshaken heart of well-rounded reality
And the beliefs of mortals in which there is no real trust
But nonetheless you shall learn these things too
...
For nothing else either is or will be
Beside what-is for fate shackled it
To be whole and unchanging. All things will be its name
As many as mortals laid down believing them to be real
Both coming to be and perishing, both being and non-being
And altering place and exchanging bright color
- Parmenides, as translated by Shaul Tor
in Mortal and Divine in Early Greek Epistemology
Heaven and earth are equipped with a set of kiln-bellows and air-pipes. Once the mechanism starts moving, wherever the moving air reaches all is stirred. To the ignorant this is the acme of mechanical genius, but what do the pipes and bellows do? They remain void without collapsing. That is why they can move again and continue producing. And so ten thousand things are created, the manifold forms etched and carved between the heavens and the earth. Those who see the heavens and the earth producing fail to realize that their productivity depends on their emptiness.
- Su Che, quoted in Dao de jing: the book of the way, translation by Moss Roberts
There would be nothing whatsoever that was to be done, action would be uncommenced,
and the agent would not act, should emptiness be denied.

The world would be unproduced, unceased, and unchangeable,
it would be devoid of its manifold appearances, if there were intrinsic nature.
- Nāgārjuna’s Middle way: the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā,
translation by Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura
Who seeth red
He seeth manifold,
And manifold is tolled
Within his head.

Rejoice in all that's seen,
Or said,
The gold, the green,
The purple, and the red.
- "Bidding the Moon" by James Stephens

Like Belgium, the island of Parmenidea brings two nations into uneasy proximity: Aletheia (that's pronounced "Althea") and Doxia.

Aletheia, "Land of Abstractions," promises investors immortal, unchanging, unyielding, and singular Truth, by which, so far as I've been able to ascertain, is meant perpetual warfare. This is my own, my native land. However, the fatherland didn't conveniently border a plannedparenthoodland, and I've always gotten the impression that it would sort of like to see me dead. (I'm not saying that's necessarily bad, mind you; I'm just saying.)

Doxia, "World of Meat" (or, as Aletheians prefer to call it, "World of Hurt") promises only transient Reality (or, as Alethians prefer to call it, "the conventionally real").

My fellow Aletheians are correct (correctness is their business!) in accusing Doxia of a surfeit of suffering. They less frequently mention the liberality of our own pours. Doxia may not exactly be the land of milk and honey that would be seismically unsound even by mundane standards but it is the land with some occasional milk and honey. A taste: worse or better than none at all?

Down the road a piece, the roulette wheel at Pascal's Casino offers a choice between thirty-six slots (Jansenist, Lutheran, Sunni, Shi'ite, Zoroastrian, Shaktist, and so on and on and on, but let's stop at thirty-six), each of which promises eternal joy for you and eternal agony for the rest of the table if it pays off, and a final thirty-seventh (the green zero) which pays a teaspoon of honey and lifespan-limited suffering all round. It is, obvs, a matter of taste, but I'd feel like an ingrate if I placed my wager elsewhere.

Thus am I a traitor to my country as well as my class. Unfortunately, I retain too strong an accent to ever feel fully at home in Doxia, or be welcomed as a native. And so, in my touristic wannabe way, I approximate as best I can that happy land fur, fur away (yet as near as the kiss of a brick) with the one language I've been given.

But trying to directly communicate the space of all possible communications, the indefinitely-dimensional real continuum itself, is literally pointless. Instead of inducing synesthesia, we create a tsunami of noise: the medium becomes opaque, a wall. Reading Finnegans Wake aloud clarifies it only by forcing us to select a through line ("Oh, I see, this is really 'God Save the King'"), temporarily defocusing everything else into ambient atmosphere or chicken fat. The fish can't describe water but the fish can traverse it.

Why a "manifold" rather than "scattered points in a multidimensional space whose axes are chosen to draw them closer together"? Or a "named finite set of elements"?

My goal (like most worthwhile goals, only describable once you've decided you've reached it) was to replace (as best I could) the ugly choice between anguished conflict and pratfalling certainty by that "pleasant confusion which we know exists." In a pleasingly confusing paradox, that goal is as one with what Giuseppe Longo calls "knowledge construction" (which "will obviously replace, in mathematics and in natural science, the notion of 'ontological truth'") and Fernando Zalamea calls mathematic vision:

To those ends, we will adopt certain minimal epistemological guidelines, furnished in philosophy by Peirce's pragmatism, and in mathematics, by category theory.

A vision moderately congruent with the multiformity of the world should integrate at least three orders of approximations: a diagrammatic level (schematic and reticular) where the skeletons of the many correlations between phenomena are sketched out; a modal level (gradual and mixed) where the relational skeletons acquire the various 'hues' of time, place and interpretation; and a frontier level (continuous) where webs and mixtures are progressively combined. In this 'architecture' of vision, the levels are never fixed or completely determined; various contextual saturations (in Lautman's sense) articulate themselves here (since something mixed and saturated on a given level may be seen as skeletal and in the process of saturation in another, more complex context) and a dynamic frontier of knowledge reflects the undulating frontier of the world.

[...] One obvious obstruction is the impossibility of such a system's being stable and definitive, since no given perspective can capture all the rest. For, from a logical point of view, whenever a system observes itself (a necessary operation if it seeks to capture the 'whole' that includes it), it unleashes a self-referential dynamic that ceaselessly hierarchizes the universe. As such, a pragmatic architectonic of vision can only be asymptotic, in a very specific sense interlacing evolution, approximation and convergence, but without a possibly nonexistent limit. An 'internal' accumulation of neighborhoods can indicate an orientation without having to invoke an 'external' entity that would represent a supposed 'end point' - it has the power to orient ourselves within the relative without needing to have recourse to the absolute.

- Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporary Mathematics by Fernando Zalamea

Can these words be made flesh? These wooden bones of abstraction become a Real Live Boy? No, but they more closely approach that unbroachable phase shift with gesture, the sweep of articulation through space and time, miming the thick dimensionality of organic form through transforms and translations which, if nothing else, can proudly lay claim to mortality.



 

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