A simile is a kind of metaphor. Rather than saying this noun “is” that noun, we say it is “like” that noun. We insert a little distance between the two things. The bleeding glacier in Antarctica is like a wound in the ice.
Our first instinct in viewing the photograph is to ask what it “really” is. That’s not really blood, what is it? I mean scientifically.
Taylor Glacier in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valley, in 1911, is in fact the run-off from a microbe-filled lake deep beneath the surface of the glacier. The run-off seeps out through a fissure in the glacier, and it is red not because the poor microbes are bleeding, but because it comes from a very iron-rich environment.
The power of the image is defused in its scientific explanation. It’s iron-rich microbe run-off. That’s not blood. The ice isn’t wounded; it isn’t bleeding.
Blood is a bodily fluid in animals that delivers necessary substances such as nutrients and oxygen to the cells and transports metabolic waste products away from those same cells.
The image is arresting, it’s like the ice is bleeding. Even in this remote place at the bottom of the world, the earth has suffered a wound and bleeds into the ocean. What does it mean that the earth shows the signs of a stigmata? Why does the earth bleed from this glacier of ice? Does the earth grimace in pain?
How would we view this image differently if it was created by the artist Andy Goldsworthy? Is it only through the medium of an artist’s work that it can be considered and read as a work of art? Today we say that an artist is a genius. “Genius or Genii” was once what we called the attendant spirit of a place. Imagine that this mass of ice, flow of microbes and change in temperature joined forces to create a work of art — an image that is meant to resonate and find a permanent home in your mind’s eye.
Mathematical Reason, Poets and the Purloined Letter
In the end, we’d like it all to add up. The simplest way for things to add up is through counting. If we’ve got a pile of candy, or money, counting to a higher number is considered a better result. In golf, fewer strokes makes a lower score and thus determines the winner. Another way we add things up is to make a whole. Two arms, two legs, a nose, a mouth, et cetera and at some point we have a body. This kind of mathematics is the basis of the crime drama.
Sherlock Holmes adds things up to create an image of a crime and a criminal. A dog that didn’t bark, a bit of cigarette ash, a kind of writing paper and ink and a print of an uneven heel in the mud flash into a kind of picture of the prime suspect. One of the pleasures of the Holmes stories is following along a chain of deductive reasoning that only seems reasonable in hindsight. Television channels are stuffed with one-hour dramas using Conan Doyle’s template. As we read, or more likely watch, there’s the feeling of a conjuring trick— the creation something out of nothing. Even though, as Holmes likes to say: “You know my methods…” Implied is a sort of mathematical reasoning that operates like a logical sorting machine. Anyone making proper use of the machine would come to the same result, like counting apples in a basket.
The other night I was reading a story featuring a precursor to Holmes. Here the amateur detective is C. Auguste Dupin. The story, written in 1844 by Edgar Allen Poe, is called “The Purloined Letter“. The Prefect of Police has come to Dupin to discuss the case of a letter stolen by a Minister and hidden somewhere in his house.
Dupin’s exploration of the case with the story’s narrator, his version of Watson, begins with an assessment of mathematics, poets and fools:
This functionary, however, has been thoroughly mystified; and the remote source of his defeat lies in the supposition that the Minister is a fool, because he has acquired renown as a poet. All fools are poets; this the Prefect feels; and he is merely guilty of a non distributio medii in thence inferring that all poets are fools.”
“But is this really the poet?” I asked. “There are two brothers, I know; and both have attained reputation in letters. The Minister I believe has written learnedly on the Differential Calculus. He is a mathematician, and no poet.”
“You are mistaken; I know him well; he is both. As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all, and thus would have been at the mercy of the Prefect.”
“You surprise me,” I said, “by these opinions, which have been contradicted by the voice of the world. You do not mean to set at naught the well-digested idea of centuries. The mathematical reason has long been regarded as the reason par excellence.”
Then as now, the “mathematical reason” is regarded as reason par excellence. The Prefect of Police has brought in microscopes and measuring sticks to search every speck of the Minister’s house. He’s been very methodical, no stone has been left unturned. We would expect Dupin to defend mathematical reason as the ne plus ultra, the method that trumps all other methods. The mechanical method that produces a correct result regardless whether humans believe it or not. Instead he launches in to a discourse on the limits of mathematical reason:
“I dispute the availability, and thus the value, of that reason which is cultivated in any especial form other than the abstractly logical. I dispute, in particular, the reason educed by mathematical study. The mathematics are the science of form and quantity; mathematical reasoning is merely logic applied to observation upon form and quantity. The great error lies in supposing that even the truths of what is called pure algebra, are abstract or general truths. And this error is so egregious that I am confounded at the universality with which it has been received. Mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth. What is true of relation –of form and quantity –is often grossly false in regard to morals, for example. In this latter science it is very usually untrue that the aggregated parts are equal to the whole. In chemistry also the axiom falls. In the consideration of motive it falls; for two motives, each of a given value, have not, necessarily, a value when united, equal to the sum of their values apart. There are numerous other mathematical truths which are only truths within the limits of relation. But the mathematician argues, from his finite truths, through habit, as if they were of an absolutely general applicability –as the world indeed imagines them to be. Bryant, in his very learned ‘Mythology,’ mentions an analogous source of error, when he says that ‘although the Pagan fables are not believed, yet we forget ourselves continually, and make inferences from them as existing realities.’ With the algebraists, however, who are Pagans themselves, the ‘Pagan fables’ are believed, and the inferences are made, not so much through lapse of memory, as through an unaccountable addling of the brains. In short, I never yet encountered the mere mathematician who could be trusted out of equal roots, or one who did not clandestinely hold it as a point of his faith that x squared + px was absolutely and unconditionally equal to q. Say to one of these gentlemen, by way of experiment, if you please, that you believe occasions may occur where x squared + px is not altogether equal to q, and, having made him understand what you mean, get out of his reach as speedily as convenient, for, beyond doubt, he will endeavor to knock you down.”
In the era of “Big Data” the computational power at our disposal is enormous. Big Blue can play chess or the game show Jeopardy. Google Now has a pretty good chance of predicting what you’ll do next and the data set that might prove useful in doing it. Even the NSA and the CIA, continuing the efforts started with ‘Total Information Awareness’, have started collecting and saving every electronic digital trace that is collectable. “Big Data” gives us the sense that we’re seeing high resolution, at zillions of pixels per inch. We could even say that we’re seeing at a resolution that far outstrips the organic capacity of the human eye. It’s in the mind’s eye that this new kind of picture comes into focus.
Just as with the Prefect of Police, there’s an illusion of high-resolution clarity that comes with Big Data. We think we’re seeing everything there is to be seen. And further, that with sufficient amounts of data, all answers will clearly present themselves. I wonder what will happen when we have all the data there is to have and we still can’t find the purloined letter.
Computing lifts anchor and sets sail. The tide of mobility is upon us: everything is battery powered, small enough to carry in a pocket and always already jacked into the Network. When we think about mobile computing, it’s the combination of the small device and the available cloud of networked services that make the experience. The nodes looking at their displays are now out walking around in the midst of their daily life. Startled, they mutter ‘sorry’ as the bump into other nodes face down, absorbed a in small display, while their feet carry them forward.
What was a tool meant to increase productivity has become a technical interface for enjoying various forms of entertainment. If we were to do a breakdown of time spent on the different categories of computing activities, we’d find the slice of the pie chart that represents ‘working’ is shrinking, while the ‘non-working’ slice is growing in every direction. If you enjoy handicapping the fortunes of the various technology platforms, you need look no further than this ratio. In its IPO filing Facebook noted that users spend 10.5 billion minutes per day on its platform—and that doesn’t even include mobile usage.
Spending time on social networks has become a replacement for watching television. And just like television, when that much time is devoted to something, we begin to discuss addiction. To what degree do we choose to spend our time this way? Is there a point where sparking dopamine transmitters and well-worn neural pathways limit our selection set to the point where jacking into the Network seems like the only choice there is?
Once everyone is doing it, we see the early adopters begin to look uncomfortable. As Yogi Berra once said, “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” When everyone is a consumer, the only move a hipster has is to consume not consuming. A high-profile blog post on why you’re quitting Facebook usually does the trick. Abstinence, boycotting and unplugging are the moves that appear to give you the distance to glare cynically at the crowd. But there is no outside anymore. You can’t remove yourself from Google. You’ve always already been hacked. That computer virus that infected your computer has wormed its way into your DNA. As computing goes mobile, we suddenly discover we’re living inside the Network. The small device we take outside only serves to show us that there is no outside anymore.
The feeling of “mobile” has nothing to do with small computing devices and networked cloud services. It’s taking the mental state of being jacked into the Network for a walk. We can say it’s about productivity and efficiency, that somehow this combination of technologies allows us to make better choices about our time. But it’s really about the buzz. Much like a pharmaceutical, this set of technologies reliably invokes a specific mental state. And once you can produce that state at will, why would you want to chain it to a desk?
The seed of this series of thoughts occurred while listening to Tim Morton’s lecture on Thomas De Quincey, a writer during the romantic period of English literature. In particular, the phrase “portable ecstacies might be had corked up in a pint bottle” struck me as an apt description of the current state of mobile computing. For De Quincey, opium dissolved in a tincture of alcohol (laudanum) was an inexpensive formula to invoke spiritual happiness and divine enjoyment. We prefer a technical formula, a tincture of simulacra in a small networked electronic device. It’s quite interesting to note the degree to which our attitudes with regard to mobile computing begin to mirror De Quincey’s entanglement with opium.
Arrived at my lodgings, it may be supposed that I lost not a moment in taking the quantity prescribed. I was necessarily ignorant of the whole art and mystery of opium-taking, and what I took I took under every disadvantage. But I took it‚—in an hour—oh heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes: this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me‚—in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. Here was a panacea, a pharmakon for all human woes; here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstacies might be had corked up in a pint bottle, and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail-coach. But if I talk in this way the reader will think I am laughing, and I can assure him that nobody will laugh long who deals much with opium: its pleasures even are of a grave and solemn complexion, and in his happiest state the opium-eater cannot present himself in the character of L’Allegro: even then he speaks and thinks as becomes Il Penseroso. Nevertheless, I have a very reprehensible way of jesting at times in the midst of my own misery; and unless when I am checked by some more powerful feelings, I am afraid I shall be guilty of this indecent practice even in these annals of suffering or enjoyment. The reader must allow a little to my infirm nature in this respect; and with a few indulgences of that sort I shall endeavour to be as grave, if not drowsy, as fits a theme like opium, so anti-mercurial as it really is, and so drowsy as it is falsely reputed.
The headline reads: “Introducing the Knowledge Graph: things, not strings.” The implication being, “strings” are bad and limited and “things” are good and what you really wanted all along. After all people don’t want strings of arbitrary alpha-numeric characters in response to their queries, they want the things they’re looking for. And as the advertising message at the end of the introduction says, because you’re getting “things and not strings” on your search result pages, you can spend more time doing the things you love. Who wouldn’t want to do that? The end result of this technological improvement is that your life now contains “more time”— like a toothpaste tube that contains 20% more toothpaste; and that time is filled with love. One might even recast this new product as a machine for filling the world with love.
What Google seems to be introducing is a new user interface to a faceted search. Nothing more. Faceted search acknowledges that the “word” (a single string of characters) isn’t the atom of meaning. Instead it uses the “phrase” in the context of some domain of meaning—a word can be a valid token in multiple systems of meaning. These domains, or facets of meaning, are surfaced and prioritized in search results. So, in addition to Page-ranked links, we get a prioritized set of contexts in which a particular word or phrase is a valid operator. The advance is in creating an index of sub-domains of meaning through analyzing the structure of text as it’s used on the visible Network. There’s no question that faceted search is superior to classic Page-ranked search, however the language used to describe this new product innovation seems to suggest some kind of transcendent experience.
Here’s a description of the vision that drives innovation in the search product at Google:
We’ve always believed that the perfect search engine should understand exactly what you mean and give you back exactly what you want
- Amit Singhal, SVP, Engineering at Google
But when I hear this kind of talk from engineers, their words are drowned out by the characters from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass“:
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’
‘Would you tell me please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’
‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’
‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’
We can propose the idea that Google has a search engine that “understands exactly what you mean.” And by this what we mean is that your query corresponds to a sub-domain in the index of facets Google has previously collected. The “meaning” doesn’t lie in the “you” that has the query, but rather in the sets of sub-domains contained in Google’s index. When a word does a lot of work in multiple sub-domains of meaning, they pay extra in compute time.
The claim that Google makes is that they’ve gone from “strings” to “things.” But the sub-domains of meaning that Google is collecting are made up of computable sets of strings, not things. The leap that Google is actually trying to make is from “strings” to “words, phrases and contexts.” But the use of the word “thing” is very revealing. Words are not things, they are indexes. They point at things, suggest things, or function in a play of difference within a system of meaning. When we say that we’ve gone from “strings” to “things” we’re actually making a kind of miraculous claim. We’ve gone from “word” to “thing.” The most prominent example of this algorithm can be found in the King James Bible, we see it in John 1.14:
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
If we believe that Google’s knowledge graph provides “things” and not “strings,” we also believe something extraordinary about the power and capability of Google. Even if we take a step back and simply say that Google is merely indexing sub-domains—systems of meaning, we need to examine what this means. We could follow Wittgenstein and say that “meaning” can be described as a form of life. Therefore Google’s index produces a prioritized list of facets (forms of life) that connect to your form of life, given what they know about you. Popular forms of life that don’t currently connect to you serve as a method of discovery.
There are registers of meaning that Google’s approach will never capture. Their index will be filled with gaps and pools of darkness. In particular, only a very limited range of metaphor (cliches) will be caught in the net. Metaphor produces meaning through an algorithmic process (per @the_eco_thought, Tim Morton). Take a noun, take another noun from a different domain and place the word “is” between them. The coffee cup is a blue angel. The metaphor machine makes meaning. Not every metaphor is a good one, but it has some modicum of meaning and it does function as a metaphor.
Like the theoretical one hundred monkeys typing in front of a hundred typewriters for a hundred years, the metaphor machines are constantly operating and feeding the Network with new meaning. Darius Kazemi (@tinysubversions) has created a machine called “Metaphor a Minute” that does just this. You can follow it on Twitter at @metaphorminute. Of course, because of Twitter’s rate limits, there’s actually a new metaphor published every two minutes.
“Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”
After thinking through Google’s new service and the language they’ve used to describe it, we discover that they are using the word “things” metaphorically. At first, we may assume that when engineers are describing the function of their new software, they’re making literal statements about what the machine they’ve constructed is doing. Instead, they’ve taken a two nouns from different domains and inserted the word “is” between them. Ironically, their use of the word “things” is of the type that their new service could not understand it. The narrow band of search engine results that are produced by this system is also being metaphorically called “knowledge.” In order to see these new products clearly, we need to be able to differentiate the rhetoric of hyperbole from the literal functioning of the machine. It also helps to become acquainted how metaphors mean…
There’s a story that movie stars often tell about the trajectory of a popular actor’s career. It goes like this:
“Who’s Hugh O’Brian?”
“Get me Hugh O’Brian.”
“Get me a Hugh O’Brian type.”
“Get me a young Hugh O’Brian.”
“Who’s Hugh O’Brian?”
The “Mad Men” television episode was called “Lady Lazarus” after a poem by Sylvia Plath. In this episode the ongoing theme of the emergence of 60s rock and roll and its relationship with advertising is explored. In earlier episodes, the ad men had tried to sign the Rolling Stones to do music for a commercial. In this episode, a client wants the Beatles, or something that sounds like the Beatles. In the trajectory of the movie star’s career this is the “Get me a Beatles type” phase.
The client wants the Beatles-type sound for his ad because he feels that the Beatles are in touch with, and even driving, what’s going on in current culture. Those lovable mop-tops running from adoring fans in “A Hard Day’s Night” have really struck a chord. And if you can’t get the real thing, then a close copy will do. This is when the counter-culture was being sterilized and injected into the mainline culture. In the moment depicted, the two cultural streams are quite far apart. In fact that’s the conceit of the episode. The 60s, as a cultural phenomenon, is about to explode into the world of Mad Men. As viewers, we know something that Don Draper doesn’t know about what popular music will mean to this generation.
In the end, getting a Beatles-type sound turned out to be both possible and profitable. Bob Rafaelson and Bert Schneider were able to construct “The Monkees” with the help of Don Kirshner, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson. Advertising no longer needed to appropriate popular culture, it produced popular culture.
With the advent of social media, we’re in a very similar place. The means of production are in everyone’s hands—including corporations. The paper towel you use to wipe a spill on the counter now wants to be your friend. Won’t you “like” it with a public gesture so that all your other friends will know about your new relationship? One thing was “like” another thing. Now the two things swim together in the same stream.
With this story, Mad Men had painted itself into a corner. The song the ad executives come up with, the one that’s supposed to sound like the Beatles, sounds nothing like the Beatles. Now the show itself had to deliver, not for the client, but for the audience. And not something that sounded like the Beatles, or some other artist doing a Beatles song. Here we become highly attuned to the difference between the original and the copy. The series creator, and writer of this episode, Matthew Weiner, working on multiple levels of signification, does a beautiful thing . The Beatles song he delivers is “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The song plays as Don Draper sits back in a chair in his perfectly-designed Manhattan apartment.
Instead of a song that perfectly captures that moment in the culture, we hear a song that is utterly alien. No client of an ad agency would want this song playing over an image of their product. This song explores the vast internal landscape inside every person. The material world of products and social status is dissolved, but don’t be afraid the song says, “it is not dying.” Even the title of the song tells us that things are changing and the future is uncertain. The overlay of the song on the image of a sitting Don Draper doesn’t create the feeling of harmony. Instead we feel a profound dissonance. This song isn’t just out of sync with the image, it wants to blow up the whole material world and release the listener into the infinite interior in all of us. Sometimes music can be dynamite.
In the spirit of things that are like other things, here’s my favorite version of the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” in a live rendition by a band called 801.
A short piece of writing on our infinities: Gazing toward the stars, we discovered an infinite external universe. Looking inward, we recognized the capacity to hold multiple infinities in the grasp of our understanding. In our everyday life we attribute high value to things that exude a feeling of immortality. While some things we manufacture are meant to be ephemeral, in things of quality, we want something about them to last forever.
In thinking about infinities, and by this, I’m really referring to Tim Morton’s idea of very large finitudes, I was drawn in by the great plastic vortex in the Pacific ocean. This is location, created by ocean currents, where large deposits of granulated plastic swirl in an endless gyre. “Plastic” means something that can be molded, “plastic” is plastic. Not only can plastic take any shape, it can have a high level of durability while in use. The “mold-ability” of metals on the one hand and plaster on the other, find a mid-point in plastic. Plastic is a neutral material that functions like a simile. The plastic is like leather, it functions like ceramic, it gives the appearance of wood grain. Plastic never appears to us as plastic, it’s always “like” something else.
Plastic becomes itself again when it’s discarded. It’s no longer “like” anything; it “is” plastic. Different kinds of plastic have different lifespans. Some plastic, plastic bags for instance, have a lifespan of 30 to 60 years. A plastic bottle, on the other hand, has a lifespan of 300 to 500 years. The “use” of a plastic bottle may occur over 30 minutes, the time it takes to drink a soda or some filtered water. If that plastic bottle is part of the eight million tons of garbage that reaches the ocean every day, it may go on to have a long life as a piece of bottle-shaped plastic.
In the world of literature, we talk about immortal works. Art is long, but life is short. “Words” also have a plastic quality, they can be selected and sequenced in such a way to conjure up almost anything. The word “elephant” isn’t an elephant, but it can cause the reader to register neurological activity that is “like” that of seeing an actual elephant. We can even use words to describe things like an infinite series of numbers. Here we register neurological activity of something that we can’t actually see.
But much like the plastic bottle, texts have a lifespan. They aren’t immortal. On leap day of this year, philosopher Graham Harman shared some thoughts about the lifespan of books:
Books have a much, much higher childhood death rate than people. If a book makes it to age 21 and is still being discussed and still changing career paths, then it’s obviously a huge success.
I’m a great believer in classic books, but not at all a believer in “immortal” books. Plato will not be read one million years from now, though under certain scenarios he might still be read in another 2000 or 5000 years.
You can’t do “immortal” work because that’s quite impossible. The human species will probably be turning into something rather different that won’t much care about most of our supposedly immortal books and empires.
That said, there’s still a big difference between writing a book that’s readable for 3 years versus one that’s readable for 20, 50, or 500 years. That’s the scale on which very high-quality work announces itself as opposed to more transient period pieces– not the non-existent immortal scale.
In the age of the digital network, the ephemeral seems to gain a kind of immortality. Publishing written words is almost as simple as speaking. Once published to the Network, whatever it is, is there forever. And theoretically, it is findable via some method of search. In this sense, this immortal ephemera is like the plastic bottle–useful for a short amount of time, but possibly destined to a very long after life. Perhaps it is also swirling about in the gyre of some immense database. However, there’s a qualitative difference between the kind of life of a work that Graham Harman discusses and the life of a tweet saved forever in a networked database server.
When we discuss economies of abundance in the digital age, we’re assuming the low-cost production of very large finitudes. Plastic is this kind of thing, it’s the least expensive physical simile for a large range of objects. It also has the strange quality of sometimes having a lifespan that is five or six times that of an ordinary human. In this ecological age where we are newly surrounded by economies of abundance, what shall we do with our infinities? We can no longer send them away when we’ve annihilated distance through technology. The plastic as “plastic” waves to us from the gyres in the ocean. It will swirl there for our children and our children’s children. What ever shall we do with our infinities?
I’ve always thought the phrase ‘full-throated endorsement’ a bit odd. It pulls human physicality into the conversation as a kind of speaking done with the whole body. The ‘throat’ is called out, but as a metonym for the speaking body situated in a political-historical-ecological space. The speaker throws herself into the words, come what may.
The phrase also has a resonance with ‘singing in full voice.’ In rehearsal, opera singers will often sing in ‘half voice’ to spare themselves for the performance. When the curtain goes up, the singer must throw himself into the music, come what may. It’s in this sense that opera is a full-throated art form, the opera itself must also sing in full voice. It must match and fill the grand space of the opera house. As new operas are produced, they give voice to the deep currents flowing through our culture. And to make their mark, they mustn’t sing in half voice.
Mounting a production of a new opera is no small task, they are literally years in the making. Here’s San Francisco Opera’s General Director David Gockley on creating “Heart of a Soldier”:
But popular subjects and heroic characters alone do not make good operas. In the end, is the music any good in its own right? In opera, music tells the story. The text provides the skeleton, music the flesh and blood. Twenty-five years after Adams’s ‘Nixon in China’ told the ‘back story’ of the Nixon/Kissinger visit to China in 1972, the opera has legs because of the composer’s brilliant score. Will ‘Heart of a Soldier’ be this successful? Who knows. The important thing is to get these pieces launched with fanfare and good attendance, and then they are on their own! For better or worse, my career as an opera producer has been punctuated with many of these launches. My work will be judged by the quality of the pieces I have midwifed, and in most cases I will be long gone before the jury renders its verdict
Reading Gockley’s note in the ‘Heart of a Soldier’ program earlier this year brought to mind Shelley’s ‘Defense of Poetry.’ Gockley clearly has the sense that these operas he midwifes are objects situated perennially in the future. We must create operas in the here-and-now, but with their initial performance we only see the tip of the shadow cast from their location in the future. Each time an opera is performed, we open that door to the future and attempt to apprehend the broadcast of new signals as they occupy and resonate with the present moment.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the book on the temporal state of the work of art. Here’s the conclusion of his ‘Defense of Poetry”:
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not, the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.
At a recent performance of Philip Glass’s opera ‘Satyagraha’ at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, a door was opened and the music filled the opera house and then overflowed into the plaza outside of the building. There it received another performance through the full-throated chorus of the human microphone. The composer, Philip Glass, lead the chorus in the closing lines of the opera which come from the ‘Bhagavad Gita’:
“When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again.”
For the longest time, the tone of our public voice has been tinged with irony. But there seems to be a change in the weather. As Tim Morton is fond of to saying, ‘the Sincerity Fish ate the Irony Fish on the bumper sticker on the back of my car.’ Somehow the full-throated voice is more in tune with sincerity. But the reason irony came to rule the day is that there’s a real danger in sincerity. As Jean Giraudoux once said:
The secret to success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
How do we tune ourselves to listen to full-throated sincerity? Heidegger addresses the issue in his translation of the poet Holderlin’s ‘Patmos’, saying:
But where danger is, grows the saving power also.
In the new operas we have given to the future, we allow both the danger and the saving power to cast their shadows. A door opens…
We have the capacity to imagine infinity. Or at least, we think we do. One way we do this is to create an imaginary machine, a kind of software that we run in our minds. The program is designed to add one to the current count. We set our imaginary machine in motion and say, “it continues to work like this, adding one, and so on.” The machine creates an infinity. At whatever point we look in on it, it’s in the process of adding one to the set of numbers. The trick of infinity isn’t in making something that’s immeasurably large, but rather it’s in creating an algorithm that doesn’t have a defined stopping point. This process defines our idea of a certain kind of growth.
Geoffrey B. West, of the Santa Fe Institute, gave a presentation at the Long Now Foundation entitled: “Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster.” The talk is filled with lots of interesting facts about statistically common features of cities and corporations. But it was the preliminary foundation of the argument that I found most interesting–in particular, the idea of sigmoidal growth patterns. This is the idea that animals begin at their smallest viable size and quickly grow to their optimal size and then stop. Living in an age with an excess of infinities, it’s a startling fact to contemplate. Most things in the universe grow to a certain size and then stop.
Here’s Stewart Brand’s summary of West’s discussion of scale and energy use:
Working with macroecologist James Brown and others, West explored the fact that living systems such as individual organisms show a shocking consistency of scalability. (The theory they elucidated has long been known in biology as Kleiber’s Law.) Animals, for example, range in size over ten orders of magnitude from a shrew to a blue whale. If you plot their metabolic rate against their mass on a log-log graph, you get an absolutely straight line. From mouse to human to elephant, each increase in size requires a proportional increase in energy to maintain it.
But the proportion is not linear. Quadrupling in size does not require a quadrupling in energy use. Only a tripling in energy use is needed. It’s sublinear; the ratio is 3/4 instead of 4/4. Humans enjoy an economy of scale over mice, as elephants do over us.
With each increase in animal size there is a slowing of the pace of life. A shrew’s heart beats 1,000 times a minute, a human’s 70 times, and an elephant heart beats only 28 times a minute. The lifespans are proportional; shrew life is intense but brief, elephant life long and contemplative. Each animal, independent of size, gets about a billion heartbeats per life.
We like to talk about exponential growth, especially when thinking about the Network. It’s as though abstract-thought machines had manifested in a mesh of connected computers growing without limit. Exponential growth is infinite, it doesn’t have an end point. While we like to use biological metaphors when discussing the Network, we seem to ignore the growth pattern of most biology. While it’s highly likely that the growth of the Network is sigmoidal in shape, we love the slightly naughty thought that it will expand geometrically ad infinitum. What we seem to be thinking of is the possibility of ungoverned growth patterns in bacteria and viruses.
“The mathematics of uncontrolled growth are frightening. A single cell of the bacterium E. coli would, under ideal circumstances, divide every twenty minutes. That is not particularly disturbing until you think about it, but the fact is that bacteria multiply geometrically: one becomes two, two become four, four become eight, and so on. In this way it can be shown that in a single day, one cell of E. coli could produce a super-colony equal in size and weight to the entire planet Earth.”
Perhaps 2.5 billion years ago, a new group of photosynthetic bacteria evolved, the ancestors of today’s cyanobacteria. These advanced photosynthesizers split water to produce the hydrogen ions (H+) needed to build sugar molecules. A byproduct of this water-splitting reaction was oxygen gas. This was a catastrophic event in the history of life. Oxygen is such a reactive element that it easily destroys delicate biological structures. As the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere increased, most species of anaerobic bacteria were driven to extinction, victims of the earth’s first case of air pollution. Some survivors retreated to areas of brackish water or other oxygen-depleted habitats, where their anaerobic descendants still flourish today. A few prokaryotes became aerobic by evolving various mechanisms to detoxify oxygen. The most successful of these processes was respiration, which not only converted toxic oxygen back into harmless water molecules, but also generated large quantities of ATP.
According to the SET, the photosynthetic production of oxygen gas and the subsequent evolution of respiration set the stage for the evolution of all eukaryotic cells. This evolutionary process occurred in several separate symbiotic events. The first eukaryotic organelles to evolve were mitochondria–structures found in almost all eukaryotic cells. In Margulis’s theory, small respiring bacteria parasitized larger, anaerobic prokaryotes. Like some bacteria today (Bdellovibrio), these early parasites burrowed through the cell walls of their prey and invaded their cytoplasm. Either the host or the parasite was often killed in the process, but in a few cases the two cells established an uneasy coexistence. The mutual benefits to the partners are obvious. The respiring parasite, which actually required oxygen, would allow its host to survive in previously uninhabitable, oxygen-rich environments. Perhaps the parasite also shared with its host some of the ATP that it produced using oxygen. In exchange, the host provided sugar or other organic molecules to serve as fuel for aerobic respiration. Eventually, as often occurs with parasites, the protomitochondria lost many metabolic functions provided by the host cell. Similarly, as oxygen in the atmosphere continued to increase, the host became more and more dependent upon its pro-tomitochondria to detoxify the gas. What began as a case of opportunistic parasitism evolved into an obligatory partnership. The small respiratory bacteria eventually evolved into the mitochondria of eukaryotic cells.
The growth pattern from which we spend most of our time attempting to escape is the sinusoidal–the one that looks like a sine wave. We like the sine wave as it travels up, feeling as though it could go on forever. When it reaches its peak, we have a feeling of total mastery. And then suddenly, things begin to decay. We fall to earth as quickly as we ascended. The process begins again, but this time for our descendants. It’s this pattern that is expressed through evolution. Once Darwin’s thoughts had diffused through the atmosphere, we began to rebel. We woke from a long slumber to find we were inside a process of natural selection that would not bend to our will. Here we introduce the concept of “the fittest.” And through a simple slight-of-hand, we confuse ideas of physical fitness with the fact of just happening to fit with a particular state of the environment. It’s with this concept of “the fittest” that we stand on the bridge of evolution with our hands on the tiller. With our newly found powers, we design ecosystems that operate in both a perfect steady state and with unlimited growth. The downward slope of the sine wave is for other entities, not us.
Of course, there are many ways to frame the process of natural selection. I particularly like the phrasing of Richerson and Boyd in their 2005 work, “Not By Genes Alone.”
“…All animals are under stringent selection pressure to be as stupid as they can get away with.”
Their inversion of the idea of “fitness” does a nice job of puncturing our illusion of being able to move the odds to our favor. If we’ve only been allocated roughly a billion heart beats arranged in the shape of one oscillation of a sine wave, it’s a clear blow to our sense of self esteem. The infinity inside of us doesn’t seem to jibe with these finite patterns of growth. Of course, infinities are much easier to imagine standing on the shore and gazing toward the horizon. Once we’ve seen the satellite photo of the earth, we begin to understand that our finitude, while very large, still has edges. The earth grew to its optimal size, and then stopped.
Once the earth was within the surround of the satellite, Planet Polluto was in need of the attention of the ecologist…
A Permanent Sense of Asymmetry: Watching the Non-Human Enter
Sitting in the audience at the California College of Arts, listening to Tim Morton’s talk “Enter the Non-Human,” I couldn’t help but think of a comment by Brian Eno. Eno had just finished producing the Talking Heads album “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” and he noted that the new album contained “more ideas per minute” than the first record. It’s my sense that the density of ideas in Morton’s talks is increasing as he pushes towards the “final” formulation of his book on Hyperobjects. As has been noted elsewhere, the ideas were streaming off the stage, washing over the audience. I experienced them like a Proustian sentence, holding an object out for our minds and then sketching it this way, then that way, then another, through a tumbling outpour of sub-clauses.
In the age of the Network, we often want things to be instantly consumable. If I don’t get it right off the bat, my attention moves to the next thing. The real-time stream and rest of the internet is just a click away. Morton traffics in philosophy, aesthetics and ecology; conversations on these topics aren’t easily digested. We have to chew on them a while. Sometimes we need to leave them and come back. Because of their difficulty, outside of the curriculum of an academic program, they tend to have limited circulation. This kind of learning is not achieved in a single transaction. The Book of Common Prayer suggests that as one encounters scripture, one must “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.” Poetry and philosophy require a similar process. Watching Morton give this talk in person, my understanding rested on having heard recordings of other versions of the Hyperobjects talk and read his papers and books. But even with this foundation, I felt compelled to come back to the talk as a recording.
Several days later as the recording unfurled through my earbuds, I noticed some interesting differences between the microphone’s experience of the talk and my own. Morton’s voice was much more dynamic and intimate on the recording, in the room it was compelling, but much softer. Perhaps this is due to the earbuds and the recorded audio seeming to manifest inside my head, rather than coming from an outside source. The microphone, sitting in Morton’s shirt pocket, interacted with the fabric containing it while he moved about the stage. In the moment, only the microphone was aware of these subtle sounds of textiles. During the Q&A session after the talk, strange mechanical sounds emanating from the space above the auditorium intruded into the conversation space providing an appropriately non-human perspective. The microphone recorded barely a trace of these intrusions. The recording is there on my iPhone, waiting for me to give it a play and allow these thoughts a chance to sink in further.
Something about this experience feels like a new form of pedagogy. Certainly it’s spilled over the walls of the Academy and on to the the Network, but it’s form is the biggest difference. The playing field has fundamentally changed when one can to listen to multiple versions of a lecture, can loop back through the recorded lecture and focus on particular parts, and read versions of the idea as downloadable papers. Certainly nothing like that ever occurred in my years in the academy. Like a hyperobject, the lecture on hyperobjects is massively distributed in time and space.
One of the laugh lines in Morton’s talk is “anything you can do I can do meta.” The idea behind this quip is to characterize the move to “undermine,” or in Graham Harman’s phrase, to “overmine” an opponent’s position. Either some atom is the basic building block to which all things can be reduced; or some system is the foundation from which all things extend. Generally what is taught in the Academy are the particulars around these atoms and systems. In his talk, Morton reviews the historical progression of these “particulars” in an effort to get to the present ecological moment. The strange thing about Morton’s talk is that he’s not trying to lay out a new complex conceptual framework that wraps up everything that precedes it. Instead he brings up a series of examples of the rift between appearance and essence—the remainder that each of these conceptual transactions always generates as it tries to snugly fit around the contours of the real. For students trained in memorizing and recapitulating particulars, the process of discarding conceptual frameworks to see more clearly must seem counter intuitive. In a line of thought that operates in a space without a center or edges, sometimes it’s difficult to know when it’s arrived at it’s topic. And further, once there, what is the listener meant to take away? What kind of transaction is this?
From my perspective, Morton’s set of examples melded with, and transformed threads from my other reading, in particular with David Graeber’s book “Debt.” One of Graeber’s profound observations is on the origin of the exact transaction from which both parties can walk away from free and clear. While it’s the dominant model now, from a historical and anthropological point of view, the desire for “exactness” comes from events in which some harm has occurred and fair reparations must be calculated. The more normal transaction would be to always have some remainder on one side or the other, an ongoing debt–the idea is that there would always be a continuation of the relationship. The desire to walk away from a transaction free and clear with no debts on either side is born from anger.
When trying to imagine a just society, it’s hard not to evoke images of balance and symmetry, of elegant geometries where everything balances out.
As Morton points out, in the age of ecology there is no clean transaction you can walk away from. The fact that everything is connected isn’t something you can turn off when it’s inconvenient. There’s always something still owed, a remaining debt. Morton describes this as the viscous quality of the hyperobject, the more you know about it the more it sticks to you. And as Graeber shows, capital fails to capture the full extent of a transaction because it doesn’t fully represent the object. In the social context of the transaction, there’s always a remainder, the market never fully clears. At the level of capital and pricing, the numbers always add up, but the object of the transaction is broadcasting on multiple frequencies. And if you hold the concept of capital in abeyance for just a moment, you’ll find there were many more parties to the transaction than you had assumed, and if you listen closely, you can hear that the non-human has continued its relationship with you.
After the talk I was standing on a street corner in the darkness of the early evening discussing object-oriented ontology and Shelley with Morton. He said he thought the Romantic poets were very modern, that their poetry could have been written today. While I understood what he was saying on a basic level, I could see there was much more to it that was invisible to me. I had the sense of Shelley as a large tree that had grown up inside of Morton over many seasons. While no stranger to poetry, I’d only come to Shelley and his compatriots recently. Within myself, Shelley was no more than a small sapling.
The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats though unseen among us; visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
Like memory of music fled,
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.
Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
Ask why the sunlight not for ever
Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain-river,
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
Why fear and dream and death and birth
Cast on the daylight of this earth
Such gloom, why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?
No voice from some sublimer world hath ever
To sage or poet these responses given:
Therefore the names of Demon, Ghost, and Heaven,
Remain the records of their vain endeavour:
Frail spells whose utter’d charm might not avail to sever,
From all we hear and all we see,
Doubt, chance and mutability.
Thy light alone like mist o’er mountains driven,
Or music by the night-wind sent
Through strings of some still instrument,
Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.
Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart
And come, for some uncertain moments lent.
Man were immortal and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.
Thou messenger of sympathies,
That wax and wane in lovers’ eyes;
Thou, that to human thought art nourishment,
Like darkness to a dying flame!
Depart not as thy shadow came,
Depart not—lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.
While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I call’d on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
I was not heard; I saw them not;
When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
All vital things that wake to bring
News of birds and blossoming,
Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
I shriek’d, and clasp’d my hands in ecstasy!
I vow’d that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?
With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in vision’d bowers
Of studious zeal or love’s delight
Outwatch’d with me the envious night:
They know that never joy illum’d my brow
Unlink’d with hope that thou wouldst free
This world from its dark slavery,
That thou, O awful LOVELINESS,
Wouldst give whate’er these words cannot express.
The day becomes more solemn and serene
When noon is past; there is a harmony
In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
Thus let thy power, which like the truth
Of nature on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
Its calm, to one who worships thee,
And every form containing thee,
Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.
If fossil fuel infrastructure is not rapidly changed, the world will ‘lose for ever’ the chance to avoid dangerous climate change
The time frame is five years. Rapid change must occur within five years or dangerous climate change will be irreversibly with us. Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t remember seeing any emotion in the eyes of the news presenters. I’m not even sure many news programs featured the story. For most of us, the dispatch came over the internet–-and the internet rarely abandons its poker face.
Of course when I heard, I thought of the line in the song: “news guy wept and told us, earth was really dying.” For some reason, we received the news flatly. It’s an interesting moment, since we didn’t react to the news that rapid action is required; we automatically accelerated the time frame to this moment. The moment of irreversibility just happened. No tears were shed.
Five Years David Bowie
Pushing thru the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying
I heard telephones, opera house, favourite melodies
I saw boys, toys electric irons and T.V.’s
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I’d need so many people
A girl my age went off her head, hit some tiny children
If the black hadn’t a-pulled her off, I think she would have killed them
A soldier with a broken arm, fixed his stare to the wheels of a Cadillac
A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest, and a queer threw up at the sight of that
I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour, drinking milk shakes cold and long
Smiling and waving and looking so fine, don’t think
you knew you were in this song
And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor
And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there
Your face, your race, the way that you talk
I kiss you, you’re beautiful, I want you to walk
We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
Five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got
We’ve got five years, what a surprise
Five years, stuck on my eyes
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got
We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
Five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got
We’ve got five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got