Notation

Notational, No. 19

There is only ,, illusion ” in art where ignorance of the bystander confuses imagination and its works with cruder processes. Truly men feel an enlargement before great or good work, an expansion but this is not, as so many believe today a ,, lie ”, a stupefaction, a kind of mesmerism, a thing to block out “ life ”, bitter to the individual, by a “ vision of beauty ”. It is a work of the imagination. It gives the feeling of completion by revealing the oneness of experience ; it rouses rather than stupefies the intelligence by demonstrating the importance of personality, by showing the individual, depressed before it, that his life is valuable — when completed by the imagination. And then only. Such work elucidates —

♦ William Carlos Williams, Spring and All

The world can expand. Life perceives and responds. Feedback is generated within and is redirected out.

Some things we experience broaden the scope of our projections. The creative response to stimulus can fuel and connote an expansive reality. The boundaries of the self stretch outward, extend upward and rootle downward, with compulsive energy when we encounter those “visions of beauty,” those moments of synthesis, when something more than what you know you know is conveyed. Imagination, that rare and impossible thing that fills in all the gaps, invents the way out of even the meanest cage, starts and whirrs its gears impatiently when we are faced with the evidence of design. We are nothing but sophisticated pattern recognition machines. The analogous spark that yokes moment to disparate moment, class to class, phenomena to its comparable repetition, illuminates our mechanisms. We see ourselves in expression, any expression that means something to us. This can be the play of atoms moved but undirected by curiosity or drive, as much as it can be the arrested manipulation of media. Nature is not art, but art might cause the same eidetic reverie that carries the sense of self beyond the confines of the body. We are composed of a oneness with everything that has translated within us: perception to pulse, experience to energy. What, that “stupefies the intelligence,” might come out of the moments between moments, when we make out directions that lead precisely nowhere? Do we learn something?

spring-and-all

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Notational, No. 18

I really believe that brotherhood is what makes a man human. If I owe God a human life, this is where I fall down. “Man liveth not by Self alone but in his brother’s face. . . . Each shall behold the Eternal Father and love and joy abound.” When the preachers of dread tell you that others only distract you from metaphysical freedom then you must turn away from them. The real and essential question is one of our employment by other human beings and their employment by us. Without this true employment you never dread death, you cultivate it. And consciousness when it doesn’t clearly understand what to live for, what to die for, can only abuse and ridicule itself.

♦ Saul Bellow, Herzog

The body is not a solitary fact. The system of interrelated organs that pulse and prompt action, which motivates reciprocal engagement, is only distinguished through interrelation of an external order. Other bodies are necessary for our own identities to be. This reality asserts itself from any direction you might approach to validate your own facticity. We are generated out of relationships. Think of the vast heritage of meetings that have occurred to beget each individual now present on the surface of the earth. And the continuity of our somatic heritage is reproduced in the vital need for contact and communication between bodies, in order to assert the singularity of the human self. We need each other as much as we have needed our ancestors.

There is another body that needs to be considered when an individual contemplates the extensions and limits of its own awareness. It is constructed of a virtual anatomy that has come into being through the genesis, transmission, and reception of what has been assessed as culture. Multiply coded, inter-relatable, ever changing, and fiercely compelling, it has grown out of that primal activity of naming things as well as their actions. The corpus of culture inhabits the activities that have accrued (and are accruing) between us. It transcends the limits of any solitary person, any one that exists or has existed. Each mind is the product of many minds.

We may only depart for regions unknown from the shores of collective achievement. Freedom requires a community to, in fact, be a state of being. Eschew the multitude! Fly to the metaphysical hinterlands of self-discovery! Climb the mountain and dig yourself into the summit! Cultivate the transcendent spiral of a featureless infinity! It denies the work that goes into making this radical undertaking significant. We are, none of us, self-corroborating entities. Each must send messages to each if there is to be a dialogue to emulate in the mind. A body that does not articulate and contend with other bodies has nothing to articulate or contend to itself.

herzog letter

Notational, No. 17

We do not know what the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man’s imagination, and thus the dragon arises in many latitudes and ages. It is, one might say, a necessary monster, not some ephemeral and casual creature like the chimæra or the catoblepas.

♦ Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings

In conversation with a friend a few weeks ago, we began to speak of the impulse to be seduced by the suggestion of a master code lying just below the surface of all the information constantly generating, and already generated, out of the interminable human project. When you look at the sheer volume of the manifest content in existence—details recorded, interpretations disseminated, queries logged, hypotheses enumerated, conclusions inscribed—it is no wonder that our inclination is to try and mobilize everything in our field of view into a comprehensible, interrelated structure. We are particularly suited to such projects. The human mind is, above all else, a preturnaturally adept pattern recognition machine, often to the point of fault.

The Theory of Everything remains the holy grail of the physical sciences: a master rubric to unite all other suppositions within a grand paradigm, capable of drafting every natural structure legibly and in totality; and this is an accepted, if improbable (perhaps impossible), goal. This is not to say that the human sciences have not taken aim at detailing complete systems to account for the sum of experience—they most certainly have—but the results are often transparently reductive once analyzed. Every armchair philosopher can usually pinpoint the limitations of any supposedly comprehensive explanation of reality in short order. The beautiful and theoretically immeasurable variations of human expression are bounded by very real limitations, but are, in fact, effectively infinite. For example, the number of possible games of chess exceed the number of particles in the known universe. This staggering fact gives a very real sense of perspective on the potential productivity of human ingenuity.

Yet we make sense of the patterns that emerge form our activity, just as we do from the movements of the universe. Theories abound and facts continue to be detailed in our repositories of knowledge. Information exists, and if you mobilize that fact in a certain way, it is evident that everything that comprises human experience is, quite essentially, information. Contending with this actuality meaningfully is something that everyone has to do, sooner or later.

It is evident, if you take pause and survey the transmissions that connect our lives in a vast and complex web, that we are all attempting to wrestle with this dilemma. If we are not formulating then we are trying to learn strategies to deal with the cosmos of data that churns about us, carrying us along as we wonder endlessly where it is that we are going.

It takes a heroic sort of bravery to acknowledge that we are, each of us, motes in the currents of history, and that totality is, in fact, beyond the comprehension of any individual mind. As beings of recognizable finitude, contingent and impermanent, the Absolute remains unimaginable by definition; but this radical state of mortality does not console, nor does it imply any comprehensive or potent type of universal agency.

dragon

What does the dragon mean? It has appeared, seemingly independently, in multiple cultures, across multiple points of recorded time. To suppose that some master force generates this primeval icon with purpose and significance is to tap into the source of mystery. To know how and why this monster guards its horde throughout history is to decode a piece of the puzzle, to reveal part of the mechanism of an intelligent design. To suppose that there is a comprehensible secret waiting to be uncovered musters a terrible sort of hubris: one that might create the illusion of mastery over the morass of cultural manifestations, but one that constrains the possibility of perceiving the awesome beauty of a pointless synchronicity.

Looking into the treasured and constantly evolving network of human expression to be amazed and inspired is an approach diametrically opposed to the jaded adjudication of the conspiracy theorist. Teleological narratives, and neatly sewn up summations, that account for every admissible iota of detail presume a world bounded by limitations that offer no egress, and foreclose the possibly of surprise; which is the precursor of delight. Any answer that does not harbour within it the seeds of another question is a terminus. The pride that comes from reaching the end is also the surety that there is nothing left worth exploring, and that there are no longer any frontiers left to exceed.

Notational, No. 16

The elements are now reversed. It is no longer the end of time and of the world which will show retrospectively that men were mad not to have been prepared for them; it is the tide of madness, its secret invasion, that shows that the world is near its final catastrophe; it is man’s insanity that invokes and makes necessary the world’s end.

♦ Michel Foucault, Madness & Civilization

Foucault perceived this turn at the dawn of the Renaissance, at the moment of transition, coming out of the Medieval into a nascent modernity. This discerned change of perspective, that the engines of apocalypse might drive from within rather than without, is a movement toward the agency of a collective human character: we are not beset by madness, we generate it, and it is threatening to undo us. What about the passage strikes as prescient is that it was written in 1965, the dead centre of a time in the West when the politically aware began to feel the human environment bristle with the will to change in the face of institutional power, and activism became an activity that defined a generation. I wonder if there was an old Medieval attitude present but obscured by student demonstration and a collective cry of outrage—that the crush of humanity was at the mercy of an agenda and a timetable decreed from on high, and that there was nothing to do but rage and plead for a more equanimous rule. The turn that runs through the collective consciousness 50 years later feels as if it has aped the inversion of the dawn of the modern. The responsibility for the end of the known world resides in our own conscience now, solidly rests on the shoulders of each individual member of a society that may have uttered a cry of outrage at a contemporary state of affairs, but complacently—and madly; in a way utterly insane—has done nothing to meaningfully affect change either in personal or mass action. We know it is crazy to do nothing, to let the elite drive the engines of decision, to make no meaningful attempt to curb individual lifestyles to slow the disintegration of global ecosystems, to allow systems of power and privilege to disenfranchise and suppress the descendants of victims of imperial conquest; we seem to know on some level that our own madness is leading to cataclysm and an outright dissolution of the known.

Notational, No. 15

Foucault saw psychoanalysis as an essentially sinister moment in the exercise of power in Western history. While psychoanalysis can certainly be shown to have served a massive power strategy of normativizing subjectivity, its very effectiveness in that inglorious role could be said to depend on the accuracy of the psychic profile it has drawn. The language of psychoanalysis has both served and demystified strategies designed to control human subjects. Its invaluable function has been to provide what seems to me a transhistoric account, at least for Western culture, of psychic mechanisms assumed and exploited by strategies of power. Its analytic and classificatory approach to the mind lends itself to both a disciplinary and liberating intentionality. If psychoanalysis has designed a mental map that can guide projects of political mastery, that very same map gives us the terms of a reverse discourse (an aspect of power exercises that interested Foucault very much) that can be used to resist projects of subjection.

♦ Leo Bersani, “The Power of Evil and the Power of Love”

Psychoanalysis emerged from a taxonomic effort that assumed the quantifiable existence of a psychic norm that could be studied as a referential model. Freud surmised that the heterosexual male psyche was the ur-consciousness from which society and culture emerged. It was thus an effort contiguous with the medicalization of the human being, the human being of course being a white man engaged with the direction of his own corner of the universe, however big or small that was, and the process of cataloguing and symptomatizing the aberrants of that being (which included everyone else) was indeed part of a larger process that aimed, consciously or not, at bringing the mental arena into the realm of regulation, diagnosis, and control. This is what a good Foucauldian might see when looking at the formative structures of psychological “exploration.”

Yet a radical decentering also emerged. Psychoanalysis’ central model may have been myopic, but the continued reading and rereading of Freud that has gone on for over a hundred years now has produced a cornucopia of insight, much of which has continued to inform and provoke the assumptions tacitly made about the nature and operation of the human mind. Theories simplified and enshrined as little more than knee-jerk sitcom punchlines in contemporary culture, under closer scrutiny actually disclose a tenacious relevancy when a reader with a little imagination goes back and investigates what exactly was written about the way one individual can come to know another, and in turn come to know about him or herself. The paths Freud cleared were (and are) openly navigable for all manner of quests directed toward self-awareness—and most are quite heterogeneously applicable. The perception that psychoanalysis attempts to produce a master narrative for the race, one that can churn out adequate and reductive assessments of an individual’s nature, and then prescribe adjustments so that that individual might better assimilate to the conditions of the status quo, has more to do with a conflation of the goals of what is now psychiatry and what has become analysis than the content of Freudian methods and perspectives.

By all accounts (some of which are psychoanalytic) subjection emerges from multiple points of origin, but the essential unit of its process is a Self aware of its own limitations, and oftentimes confused. The products of the project of making sense of what it is that we are, how and why we struggle to make meaning in a vast and complex system of interrelations, can and have been used in the service of power. But that which enables our compliance to arbitrary norms can also help us distinguish how they are norms, plural, and that our fundamental commonalities contain within their enumeration unquantifiable opportunities for othering as well as coming to terms with the reality that we are also all individuals, constantly attempting to create our own mould, even as we are shaped by it, so that we might fit into this world.

 

Notational, No. 14

When the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a plethora of myths of origin and of signs of reality—a plethora of truth, of secondary objectivity, and authenticity. Escalation of the true, of lived experience, resurrection of the figurative where the object and substance have disappeared. Panic-stricken production of the real and of the referential, parallel to and greater than the panic of material production: this is how simulation appears in the phase that concerns us—a strategy of the real, of the neoreal and the hyperreal that everywhere is the double of a strategy of deterrence.

♦ Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra”

There is an essence of nostalgia that haunts even the most immediate experience in this vast projection, what constitutes reality. Even as it is happening, life calls out for its own recall; to the moment that we are self-consciously viewing in the moment; to the experience directly analogous to a mediated representation; and the proof is we are not satisfied. We mourn the lost event. It announces a hollow promise, and there is doubt even in the heart of it—if it has a heart—a suspicion that what we have is not true, that we are divorced from, and sold on, a facsimile.

A great panic infuses the search for authenticity that drives a modern lifestyle. We seem to know that what we are up to is superimposed onto the surface of something real, an unmediated interaction that thrums with unknown pleasures and traumas, sealed away by corporate projects of standard production, of expiation engineering, the commodification of the genteel. But Baudrillard wonders if there really is something that actually remains below the simulated. We have perhaps gone too far beyond the originary creation that spawned our faculties of projection. We long for the return of the real every time we are told that we get it, and it feels like a cheap, marketed mediation between what you identify as yourself and the overwrought narratives that bombard that identity. How is life supposed to happen in the hyperreal?

Notational, No. 13

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. . . . There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

♦ Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

I do not study biology; but I do study the modern world, and Darwin’s frequently eloquent treatise has remained, arguably, the second great punctuation mark of modernity. The first, of course, was Copernicus’ solar system; but this second blow to our anthropocentric reality came at a time when change must have felt almost inevitable. Something, or someone, had to liberate a new paradigm for the human race to inhabit. We had to be integrated with the world that we had come to feel so apart from. To be re-encircled by the forces that move and shape all life must have seemed a momentous thing. I suppose it still does.

The awe and respect that Darwin articulated so clearly in his conclusion of his most famous project did little to mitigate the wild resentment of the contemporary conservative. Still, now, contemporary conservatives manage to unselfconsciously refute an elegant system that, though refined over the past 155 years or so, still remains predominantly intact as the most plausible mechanism to account for the development of life on earth. It seems some of us are still growing into the concept.

Or flat out denying it. Such avowals of theistic reasoning are atavistic. I know that we try and play nice, show each other a good time, and do our best to avoid making anyone feel stupid or maligned, but there’s a sequence to this. Auguste Comte wrote it down: theology gives way to metaphysics, which is in turn supplanted by positivism. Not to subscribe to a specific, preordained teleology, but this is a process of enlightenment. The move to reject the positivist becomes progressively more absurd the further we get from the epiphany that it really isn’t all about us; any one of us, or even as a group; but there is all the room in the universe to make something valuable out of what it is that we’ve got.

Darwin in this age should be read like a celebration.

Notational, No. 12

If the labours of men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of science itself.

♦ William Wordsworth, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads

There must be a sense of play for poetry to work. There must be room amongst the litter of factive objects to dart; to squirm; to roll. After all, the empirical world was pulling at a similar cord to that of literary creativity in Wordsworth’s day. The science of oxygen and revolution were eerily contemporaneous: both materialized out of the same age of investigation and irrepressibility. A similar boldness as that which enabled Lavoisier to isolate molecules of air also led to the regime that would eventually sever his innovative head. The poets and the scientists were both treading uncertain ground, and asking daring questions, about what made the world the way it appeared, what moved and drove it in diurnal course. How exciting that we live now, when both still work towards that end, but we simply know more; and how disquieting to know that what we know, now, privileges us to much the same sum total of practical insight, as then.

How we imagine is the key. Poets sleep in the spaces between galaxies now; between an electron and a nucleus; climbing the ladder of DNA between proteins. The implications of vision are conjoined with physical enterprise in a way that inspires both the writer and the lab technician. There is poetry in everything, just as science can be brought to bear on every iota of phenomena. Where do we come from? This question signatures every project of inquiry. Let’s all play.

Notational, No. 11

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was.” It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

♦ Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

The ideal process of researching, and then articulating, the past continues to absorb even the most popularized mind—we do not need to look so far for proof of that—the silver screen never closes its bright window on the past; but the “danger” is all too apparent in the warped perspectives we find on offer. To say nothing of the agendas that populate “official” printed histories, or “definitive” academic accounts of an era, the slow evacuation of difficult to assimilate data from the public record, especially where infotainment is concerned—and disseminated so freely through our commercial media—this should worry us all. As the facts are slaved to current political dynamics, as painstakingly acquired historical knowledges are reduced to sound bytes easily absorbed and edited into a cumulative, teleological narrative of coherent progress, we are unwittingly abdicating rigour from our understanding of what precedes the current moment—a moment that is complex enough, troubling enough, to demand a multifaceted approach to contend with its complexities and, ideally, contribute to our search for a way forward. History should raise questions about the present, and vice versa. In reality answers are in short supply.

The sterilization of the past we are witnessing may not be conspiratorial, a program designed to stultify our potential for progress, but it is collusion of a most insidious order. The same non-localized authority that compels us to participate in structures and systems of exchange that we feel little kinship for is at work in the effacement of the past; but an eternal now where we are constantly in the process of affirming, and then acquiring, what we want is no substitution for a holistic appreciation for all the things that we know, but do not know that we know for certain.

Notational, No. 10

The dull light fell more faintly upon the page whereon another equation began to unfold itself slowly and to spread abroad its widening tail. It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the balefire of its burning stars and folding back upon itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires. They were quenched: and the cold darkness filled chaos.

♦ James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I deeply regret losing the fire of mathematics. I am not so far away from it now that the time when calculation came naturally doesn’t foreclose a clear, bright memory; the joy of accomplishing acts of pure reason did certainly burn like stars on the page, as well as in the brain. Still more I miss how it used to be possible for numbers to act as ciphers for more emotive and illusive signifiers. I used to derive equations that spoke to me of conflict, of the complex relationships between adults and children, of the yearning that emanated from the undisclosed x, the loneliness of the y; and, of course, of secret shames that harboured deep in the recesses of an analytical but also very superstitious mind.

My relationship to faith has been fairly cordial, though progressively more distant, since about the time that math and I began to part ways, but Joyce is not just capturing a guilty psyche riddled with paranoia here—there is something in this passage about the affective registers that lurk in all of human cognition. In the spaces between the most ostensibly unsentimental activity, passion exists. To be brought to interpret tenor and tone, even in the most monochromatic, matt surface of proofs, this shows something that elevates human accomplishment and has the capacity to suggest that a greater pattern governs the whole of mortal endeavour. A lesser intelligence begets the possibility of more powerful observation. Where and how is it localized? As we solve our affairs what is left in the margin? Does the remainder rest, and how is it evaluated?

The answers remain cold and disordered, alienated from heaven.