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.

Notational, No. 9

[A] book about the attrition of a fantasy, a collectively invested form of life, the good life. As that fantasy has become more fantastic, with less and less relation to how people can live—its attrition manifests itself in an emerging set of aesthetic conventions that make a claim to affective realism derived from embodied, affective rhythms of survival.

♦ Laren Berlant, Cruel Optimism

There is reason to take issue with the historical present. That we have gradually, inexorably, been becoming detached from the genuine prospect of realistic achievement of a collectively entertained (and entertaining) fantasy life seems almost cruel in itself to acknowledge. The negative injunction—”don’t look!”—could rightly and more reliably be expected to emanate from an internal source rather than an external one. We do not desire to examine the very tenuous foundations on which we are so hastily and compellingly erected from. The project of living today in the Western world almost requires a blindness complicit with the unachievable nature of our ambitions; ambitions which are manufactured against the impetus of an ostensibly easily accessed sense of reason, along with features of social and political realities that we willfully attenuate to the point of polite dinner conversation. Actual, meaningful, cognitive assessment of the terms, conditions, cost, reliability, and plausibility of the models we project outward and upward from ourselves, on which we base life changing decisions and evaluate one another in society, can feasibly be apprehended to be inherently repulsive. Too much of our sense of coherence and intelligibility relies upon a hope that may in fact be toxic to any real form of stability. The point that Berlant hammers so deftly is one of precarity: as supporting and driving institutions continue to shrink from the business of real service to a larger community, and instead mobilize people as statistics which serve the bottom line of not even the 1% but rather composite, covetous corporate and national entities, the prospect of success becomes hazardous. It may never arrive. It likely won’t, not recognizably. The “good life” is so utterly contingent in a world with so few genuine supports that its mirage may be better understood as a form of abuse; but where does it emanate from? The sources at this point are inscribed on inner spaces as deeply as on outer. The “situation tragedy” which Berlant invokes lurks at the periphery of most modern lives, as a pessimism that acts almost as a force unconsciously moves in to inhabit the regions of projected futurity, spaces that were once mediated by a sustained and nourishing sense of hope. Perhaps we should ignore the injunction despite the allure of ignorance, and look to reevaluate our dreams.

Notational, No. 8

“Meanwhile, I follow my principles of education and give of my best in my prime. The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in a pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I can education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem truro, I thrust.”

♦ Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

This is a pretty aphorism that Miss Brodie pronounces to her coterie of impressionable, and somewhat dazzled, young girls. The irony, of course, is that she is setting out to have them “for life,” that she strictly and narrowly inculcates with her doctrine of opening out, of liberating—and this prompts a frisson of realization: there is a paradox lurking in the prospect of teaching someone how to be free. “Leading out” of the boundaries of oneself can be a strict, methodical undertaking. Circumscriptions accrete around the soul from the very moment of birth, we emerge into them, and part of the process of maturity is the determining of where and how one might breach the superstructures of law and the word. What must go in for there to be a breaking out? And how might one lead with assurance, without inscribing fresh proscriptions onto formative psyches that are responding to promises of licence and self-fulfillment?

Yet who does not want to be led towards a more expansive expression of one’s own self? If only we might simply open doors from the exterior and allow the interior to flourish into the open air. It would be a grand practice of proud pedagogy, even if it is a process fraught with narcissism.

Notational, No. 7

But you know how shameless I am in the presence of anything that calls itself an idea. The idea is time. Living in the future. Look at those numbers running. Money makes time. It used to be the other way around. Clock time accelerated the rise of capitalism. People stopped thinking about eternity. They began to concentrate on hours, measurable hours, man hours, using labour more efficiently.

♦ Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis

“Shameless” is a good call. I think many of us lose our sense of propriety when it comes jumping at the chance to inhabit tomorrow; to exploit the concept; to make the best of the continuum purportedly so soon available to us. It is the fact of life that coaxes us forward. The merciless exigencies of capital force a certain speed: the spectre of falling behind is always haunting us, the fear of missing the boat. Harvesting every screed of the moment, spending it “efficiently,” becomes our conscience, a relentless task-master seeking to circumscribe our actions even as it drives us to comply. To make the best of our present, it sometimes feels like we must accept the judgement of an unremitting and disembodied third-person, one constituted by an inanimate mechanism that we use to interface with the shape of our lives. Unabashedly we focus on a prize that can never, definitively, materialize. We can only remain current by projecting into the future.

Notational, No. 6

But self or person is not any one impression, but that to which our several impressions and ideas are supposed to have a reference. If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same, through the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time. It cannot therefore be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that the idea of self is derived; and consequently there is no such idea.

♦ David Hume, “Section VI: Of Personal Identity,” A Treatise of Human Nature (1739)

It is quite alarming, setting oneself to task, and then delving within—intent on discovering the boundaries of the self; but there is no discernable source, no border between what is and what is not that which perceives. What there is to discover are the echoes of impressions, insistent but also imperfectly rendered, clustered nebulously about the now, as you cast the net of consciousness blindly out into a murky sea. What you retrieve is not verifiable by some organizing standard, some principle of meta-consciousness; what pieces you have are rather the constituents of what itself becomes aware. Is there a voice that travels between points of reference, generated independently of the lingering instances of a heterogeneous sensorium that organize to produce something called personal history? As far as I can tell, my boundary is the space where my thoughts turn back to reinscribe themselves over their own premise. Perhaps I am a spontaneous generation, a misinterpretation of available phenomena. Perhaps it is all simulation.

Notational, No. 5

And remembering is not a replay of a string of  moments, but an enlivening and reconfiguring of past and future that is larger than any individual. Remembering and re-cognizing do not take care of, or satisfy, or in any other way reduce one’s responsibilities; rather, like all intra-actions, they extend the entanglements and responsibilities of which one is a part. The past is never finished. It cannot be wrapped up like a package, or a scrapbook, or an acknowledgment; we never leave it and it never leaves us behind.

♦ Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway

Quite the affirmation of the constant proliferation of connection, the inextricable mutuality that accrues around every action of a living being, as we continue to perceive, record, and relive our places in reality. Perpetually subject to the folding and superimposing of perspective, of ideological filters and schema, we might as well embrace it thankfully—as an inspiring mystery rather than an overwhelming insight of practical infinity; we are always in it; there is always another connection to explore.

Notational, No. 4

Axiom 1: People are different from each other.

It is astonishing how few respectable conceptual tools we have for dealing with this self-evident fact. A tiny number of inconceivably coarse axes of categorization have been painstakingly inscribed in current critical and political thought: gender, race, class, nationality, sexual orientation are pretty much the available distinctions. They, with the associated demonstrations of the mechanisms by which they are constructed and reproduced, are indispensible, and they may indeed override all or some other forms of difference and similarity. But the sister or brother, the best friend, the classmate, the parent, the child, the lover, the ex-: our families, loves, and enmities alike, not to mention the strange relations of our work, play, and activism, prove that even people who share all or most of our own positionings along these crude axes may still be different enough from us, and from each other, to seem like all but different species.

♦ Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet

To surmise this passage differently: we are all strange. This strangeness substantiates the membranes that surround us and characterize us, our permeable boundaries, as we integrate with one another in the diurnal churn. It is an almost flippant categorization at this point, levelled and attached to nearly everyone and anyone, in an almost universally co-operative but fervently individualistic environment of aggregated bodies. It is tossed out as itself or as a synonym: “You’re strange;” “he’s weird;” “my family’s dysfunctional;” “those people are odd;” “I don’t get her.” We exist in an ocean of surplus and disparity, and despite the stable, recognizable elements of code we all carry around within ourselves, that marks us as walking equivalents—and despite our ability to integrate, albeit in exploitative, unequal, discriminatory, and hierarchical networks and patterned distributions—we remain alien to one another. The “coarse axes” available do not describe categorizations of truly meaningful detail. They are approximations dishearteningly broad. “Do not reduce me to an archaic signifier!” is the war cry in an age where personal identities are being continually mined and panned for any gleam of coherence; where forging demographic badges to pin to a virtual avatar is a full time occupation. We resist this infringement on the finer classifications we chose and nurture for ourselves. We lose sleep over being digitized and rendered as a mark in a column that ignores all the tables of data that reflect our choices, our biases, our investments, and our characters. Doesn’t it take work to learn those things about another human being? Don’t we have to search and strive for the common ground that we might share with the others we find ourselves enmeshed with? Is genuine translation not the hardest part of any interaction for us all?