This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Thinkability

The most idiosyncratic and esoteric visualization I’ve ever made up is the Goat-Crow-Rat triangle, which I first wrote about in Thingness and Thereness (2017). I’m renaming it my Thinkability Map, and this blogchain Thinkability. It is an exploration of the map of all the thoughts I’m capable of thinking (which itself has a place on the map of course). Everything I think about seems to find a natural home on this map. And since I think about a lot of stuff, though not necessarily well, you might find it useful too. It may be clear as mud, but it covers my ground at least. It’s my Hitchhiker’s Guide, and since I’m middle-aged, it’s about half full. Optimistically, I’ve thought about half the thoughts I ever will.

I’ve also been doing some retrospective taxonomizing of my older writing, and I realized that two old posts that were both pretty popular and personal favorites, Welcome to the Future Nauseous (2012) and The Design of Escaped Realities (2014), actually constitute prequels to this whole trail of thought, so I’ve retconned them here. It is really satisfying to see an unconscious thought-trail, developing over more than a decade, finally start to cohere.

This post probably won’t make much sense to you unless you read the most recent three parts first (and optionally, the retconned prequels). After that, there’s a 50% chance it will still make no sense to you. You’ve been warned. This stuff is for ribbonfarm completists with a streak of masochism who don’t mind the sophomoric dorm-room messiness of the inside of my head.

The current state of the thinkability map takes the form of a rather elaborate maze I made with the help of mazemaker Dan Schmidt, which also serves as the cover graphic for my in-progress Clockless Clock book project, for which this map is providing significant but invisible background scaffolding. If you’re following that project, you probably won’t see this this trail of thought explicitly referenced. This is backend tooling that I don’t really know how to talk about in stuff meant for a general audience. It probably needs fictional treatment for that.

I just made a couple of very significant updates to it, to add two things that I’ve been thinking about a lot this year, and I want to talk about one of them in particular, the idea of vastness.

Here’s a sketch of the updates. These will get folded into the next polished version of the map.

One annotation is relatively easy to understand: I’ve labeled the 3 curvi-trapezoidal segments between the circle and the triangle protocol regions, because in light of all my work with protocols this year, that’s what I think they are: protocolized regimes of life, the universe, and everything. Those are also the spaces where normal experiences of time live (hence the use of this map in the background of my book). The three corner regions (corner cases, heh!), labeled goat, crow, rat, are normal sorts of archetypal liminal passages between different flavors of protocolized life experiences.

But the new annotation that excites me the most is everything outside the circle being labeled vastness. What is vastness?

It’s the region centered around the antipode of the bit at the center labeled void. I call that antipode namelessness. This thinkability map is actually a north-polar projection of a sphere, so everything beyond the circle (call it the equator) is the southern hemisphere of vastness. There’s also a wormhole of madness connecting the north to south pole, between the void and namelessness (which I will label Here be Balrogs in a future 3d version), but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The idea of vastness seems to tie together many of the things in my headspace this year, including the works of H. P Lovecraft, J. G. Ballard, and Benjamin Labatut, and many of the sprawling idea spaces I’ve been thinking about: Protocols, Oozification, which I wrote about in the newsletter, the idea that “reality has a surprising amount of detail,” LLMs (especially their step-by-step and latent space aspects), LMMs (large multi-modal models, which go beyond text to arbitrary types of data), cryptography, notions of horror/terror/uncanny (mostly via Lincoln Michel’s writing) and a great deal more. All of it seems to have an underlying theme of vastness and unnameability.

Think of a spectrum from the ineffable to the unnameable. Normally (and this is “normalcy” in the sense of the manufactured normalcy fields I defined in Welcome to the Future Nauseous), we inhabit a tiny slice of that spectrum that is both effable and nameable. Normalcy is the visible spectrum of ontology. Everything from the middle of the spectrum to the South Pole of Namelessness is the vastness: effable but increasingly unnameable. It’s like the intellectual ultraviolet. We can feel parts of it as a sort of cancerous burning (the sense of vastness turning your brain into ooze), but we cannot conceptualize it in any general way. Its most salient aspect is its unassailable, information-dense specificity. In this metaphor, the region around the void is the ontological infrared.

Unnameability is not necessarily a cosmic-horror property (though Lovecraft uses the word in horrified tones a lot). It is a mundane property of any experienceable thing that has more incompressible detail than you could possibly name, even if it were worth naming. Like, you can’t name every raindrop or grain of sand. Or every nut and bolt on the planet.

More strictly, and mathematically, nameability ends where countability ends (one of my oldest posts, from 2007, riffs on this, by way of a review of Gregory Chaitin’s book Meta-Math). If we live in a discrete, countable universe, as some digital physicists and metaphysicists seem to think, the continuum is not real and there are no truly unnameable things. But even in that case, there is an overwhelmingly vast amount of detail in the universe that is practically unnameable. That just exists as a vast ooze of untheorized detail. At best you can dismiss it as unimportant, but that doesn’t make it go away. One day, when we build planet-sized LMMs powered by a Dyson sphere around the Sun, maybe that LMM will be able to think about a detectable and measurable fraction of the vastness, registering as a pale blue dot in thought-space, but until then, the vastness of reality, converging on absolute unnameability, is basically 100% of all that is.

Vastness is a visceral, continuous sense of the universe being incomprehensibly bigger than your conceptions of it can ever be. This need not be a sense of the unknown, though much of the vastness is in fact unknown. Isolated bits of the vastness can in fact be known, named, pointed to, and even rise to familiarity. For example, we humans sent a probe out past the orbit of Pluto, and took pictures of one bit of Kuiper belt rubble (486958 Arrokoth, or 2014 MU69) and turned it into one of our cosmic pet rocks. A bit of undistinguished reality picked out from the vastness. Closer home, you probably remember your phone number, but the set of all phone numbers is part of the near-vastness (in the sense of the ontological “near ultraviolet”), just south of the equator, near the upper right of the triangle, past the region of I-it protocols.

Even a momentary experience of vastness tends to convince you, at a deep level, that your experience of reality can never be theorized and apprehended in conceptual frames in more than a pointillist way. Infinitesimal islands of theorizability surrounded by impassable oceans of oozing namelessness.

Vastness is what, in a fractal way, I think Sartre was gesturing at in his famous bit about the knot in the chestnut tree in Nausea. I don’t cash out the idea in the same way, but there are parallels between where I’m going with this and existentialism.

One of the easiest dimensions of vastness to appreciate, if you’re starting from the somewhat theorizable island of ordinary experience we call time, is deep time. For my Clockless Clock book project, I made up a somewhat idiosyncratic definition of deep time that is consistent with, but not the same as, the usual sense of the term as having something to do with vast eons of geological and cosmic time. Time that stretches from when Cthulhu was a baby spawned by the Big Bang to when the last proton decays. My two big literary lighthouses for the year, Ballard and Lovecraft, both wrote deep time speculative fiction.

Ballard’s Drowned World gets at what I mean by the experience (rather than the idea) of vastness as embodied by deep time. The premise of the novel is that due to a sudden increase in unstable solar flares, the Earth has warmed drastically. The polar ice caps have melted, drowning the world, and the remnants of humanity still clinging to normalcy have moved to the poles. The environment has come to resemble the Triassic era, and one effect on some humans, on which the plot turns, is that they gradually start having the same weird dreams of ancient swampy worlds full of dinosaurs. The science-fictional conceit of the book is that humans actually have ancient species-level somatic memories of prehistoric times buried deep in their bodies, and the reappearance of conditions resembling those times has awakened those memories. So the dreams aren’t dreams as such, but ancient memories being resurrected. The plot focuses on a handful of humans who stop clinging to normalcy, and surrender to the call of deep time, letting themselves drown in it. To the clingers-on of normalcy, they appear to be fading into derealization. But to the protagonists themselves, it is the clingers-on who start to appear increasingly insubstantial.

It’s an idea that Lovecraft explored too, in all his work, in a more crudely (but colorfully) on-the-nose way. His best known story, The Call of Cthulhu, features a worldwide minority of highly sensitive and artistic types all having the same Cthulhu-themed deep-time dreams after an earthquake (which has disturbed Cthulhu slumbering in his underwater city). A cleverer exploration is in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, whose protagonist goes through a journey similar to the characters in Drowned World. Lovecraft’s famous couplet, from the fictional Necronomicon, “that is is not dead which can eternal lie; and with strange aeons, even death may die,” gets at the experience of the vastness of deep time.

That’s vastness. What Ballard’s and Lovecraft’s characters experience in those and other stories: An unplanned sinking out of normalcy, via an unsuspected connection to the vastness of the cosmos, triggered by specific external conditions. The external element is significant. The vastness is not within you, to be discovered through behaviors like meditation; it’s out there and may come knocking on the doors of your normalcy at any time. And even where it is part of you, it is not conceptualized as such. If Cthulhu’s mind-tentacle or swampy images of the Triassic Age are living rent-free in your head (or perhaps in your genes or in whatever unholy epigenetic ooze surrounds them), and you never find out, it’s hard to say your conscious identity, designed for use within normal realities, has been constructed to include those surreal tenants.

This isn’t a popular trope in speculative fiction afaik, perhaps because it’s hard to write about if you’re not a sui generis writer like Lovecraft or Ballard, but it should be. Haunting by vastness is a very rich trope.

My notion of vastness encompasses these fictionalized notions, but also includes more mundane things like the experience of contemplating “all the barcodes and every nut and bolt in the word.” Vastness is a sense of ashes to ashes, dust to dust that you can experience while you’re still alive and kicking.

Why do I say vastness is the antipode of the void? Because the void, as typically conceptualized, is an artifact of a fundamentally narcissistic spiritual orientation. Even where there are mystical notions of dissolution of the self or being One With Everything (also known as the Zen monk’s hot dog order), the frame of reference (let alone the terms of reference) isn’t really everything. Once you achieve Oneness With Everything, unfortunately, there’s still a lot of “everything” left over. Most of it in fact. Approximately 100% of it. Those mystical notions are entertained as somewhere between poetic and philosophical conceits, and intended as figurative descriptions of fundamentally narcissistic and solipsistic visceral experiences. Those experiences do not point to vastness, or constitute a subjective experience of it.

The experience of vastness is the opposite of solipsism. Vastness, unlike the void, is literally “everything.” That encompasses a lot of stuff. An inexhaustible amount of stuff. Reality is a vast reservoir of a surprising amount of detail, so by definition you cannot experience even a detectible fraction of it. Even if you were immortal, living through all of deep time, your brain couldn’t hold all of it. Even if it were augmented by a planet-sized, Dyson-sphere-powered LMM. But you can get a taste of it. You can experience the deep sense that the universe is an extraordinarily vast place. You are capable of feeling a connection to vastness. Of feeling that you came from that ocean of meaningless but surprising detail, and will one day sink right back into it.

I think, somewhat unconsciously (which is rather appropriate), I’ve been trying to immerse myself in a continuous, living sense of vastness all year. If reality is almost entirely (rounding to 100% at a first approximation) an oozy swamp of unnameable, incompressible detail, I’ve been trying to sink into it. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank (an abstraction deprivation tank perhaps). Or to put it another way, like hanging out in the charnel ground of beautiful abstractions killed by ugly facts. Except, once you learn to drown in the vastness, you see that the facts are never actually ugly, though abstractions can sometimes appear to be.

The vastness is unnameable, untheorizable, and incompressible, but it’s not unexperienceable or even hard to find and experience. It’s all around you, in everything you normally tune out as unimportant details. You can even mark it out on a map of thinkability and think about it.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Extraordinary thought for unordinary times! More than just a labyrinth but a seemingly tangle bringing together of the cosmos and psyche. It is my intention to thoroughly read all the former parts of your Thinkability series. One has a strong feeling that when I get back to this post, I will then understand Eliot’s famous quote:

    “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring. Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.”

  2. ☺️

    Supporting your point, there are unnamable concepts even if we live in a completely descret world, because the set of things to be named is strictly larger the set of names.

  3. From the quoted John Salvatier article:

    This [that reality has a surprising amount of detail] turns out to explain why its so easy for people to end up intellectually stuck. Even when they’re literally the best in the world in their field.

    Doesn’t Salvatier articulates your deepest fear, which is far far greater than going through a phase of triassic regression and being sucked into a sprawling jungle or becoming visited irl by the creatures of your nightmares? That stupor in a special hell reserved to those who have decoded and understood the world and now suffer from never ending boredom.

    • That’s my deepest fear? 🤔

      Dunno. I’m not easily bored. I get bored of specific things sometimes but not generally. There’s always other things. I don’t think decoding and understanding the world is the end. More like an annoying prequel you have to get through in some way to even get started.

      Salvatier’s thesis definitely triggers a different sort of fear — that there’s too much detail to master to get to even basic accomplishments and therefore going deep on anything is too hard.

  4. I am in love with this post. It expresses in a very clear and exact manner a feeling I have struggled to articulate. The only thing I want to add to this is that I experience the “South Pole”, the centre of the vastness, as being a source of blinding, radiant light, as opposed to the darkness of the Void of the “North Pole”. Darkness hides the details, while light exposes them in excruciating complexity. But too much light (and the centre has way too much light) blinds, and that is why we stop distinguishing details which are too far beyond the triangle and beyond our thin layers of normalcy. I would even say, this vastness, because of its fundamentally overwhelming nature, is the one and only thing that I perceive as fundamentally sacred — and that is why I have loved this post so much.

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