Notes: The Starship and the Canoe by Kenneth Brower

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Book Notes

This next book has probably my favorite so far of my pandemic reads. Kenneth Brower’s The Starship and the Canoe. It’s a strange paired biography of physicist Freeman Dyson and his son, adventurer and historian George Dyson. The “starship” refers to the nuclear powered Orion rocket program that Dyson Sr. helped conceive and lead, while the canoe refers to the adventures of Dyson Jr. building and voyaging around the Pacific Northwest in canoes.

Freeman Dyson died on February 28, just before the pandemic, which is how I found this book, via a obitweet by Ross Andersen. Normally, it would have gone straight to my someday/maybe pile as an intriguing but not urgent book. But with the pandemic growing more ominous by the day, somehow the timing felt right for such a liminal read (this is one of the few books that actually deserves that adjective).

I read the book between March 2 and April 4, through the early prepping weeks, and the first couple of weeks of lockdown. It felt pretty poignant to meditate on horizons terrestrial and extraterrestrial while locking down my own life within tight domestic boundaries. Looking back, six months into the pandemic, it was the perfect sort of mental preparation. On to the notes.

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Wittgenstein’s Revenge

We treat facts like they’re “atoms of truth” — small, indivisible, solid — and if you add them up, you get “big truths.”

But like atoms, facts are mostly empty space, and the closer we examine them, the less solidity we find.

It may be time to graduate from the metaphor of facts completely, to a metaphor that reflects a healthier relationship between truth and people.

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Hyperreality Prevails

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Recognitions
Albrecht Dürer. The Rhinoceros. 1515. Woodcut.
23.5 cm × 29.8 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

To picture a rhinoceros in Renaissance Portugal, consider the unicorn. Whether conflated with the oryx or the narwhal at its southernmost and northernmost coordinates, the unicorn was no less of a shapeshifter than Dionysus, who came from the East―the two sharing goatlike renditions; the axis, as Pliny described it, being “sacred to Bacchus.” The unicorn began its westward march during the Bronze Age, from the Indus Valley; its virtuous, convertible version as horned horse―beguiled and betrayed by a virgin―anchored in Late Antiquity by the Physiologus. The hunt of the unicorn established itself as a Christian allegory, laced with barely suppressed panic menace, through the Middle Ages. Save for a handful of scholars who insisted on the identity of both creatures, the rhinoceros was all but lost to Western memory.

Anonymous. The Unicorn is in Captivity and No Longer Dead. 1495-1505. One of seven tapestries popularly known as the Unicorn Tapestries or the Hunt of the Unicorn. Wool, silk, silver, and gilt. The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Until 1515, there had been no rhinos in Europe since Roman times, when great exotics―animal and human―were consumed as entertainment. The Indian exemplar that arrived in Lisbon from Goa as a diplomatic gift to King Manuel I―and which drowned while being transported in the same capacity to Pope Leo X―was a time-traveller, an alien visitor, a royal hostage. It was beheld by two kings, examined by experts, dispersed by correspondents and inspired a curious woodcut as accompaniment to a self-effacing poemetto by a doctor Penni, whose claim to historical fame was to witness the beast.

Frontispiece of Giovanni Giacomo Penni’s Forma & Natura & Costumi de lo Rinocerothe stato condutto importogallo dal Capitanio de larmata del Re & altre belle cose condutte dalle insule nouamente trouate. 1515. 10 cm × 9,5 cm. Institución Colombina, Seville.

A letter describing the rhino and a[nother] sketch of it wound their way to Nuremberg, where Albrecht Dürer took what best he could from them―and Pliny―to show accuracy is accessory to success. His was not the first impression of the creature, nor―unlike Hans Burgkmair’s coeval woodcut―was his accurate, but Dürer’s rhino was too real for reality to outcompete. Despite the reintroduction of rhinoceroses to Portuguese and Spanish courts in 1577―and their sporadic appearance in art, under sometimes very illustrious names, yet earlier―Dürer’s rhino served as his species’ ambassador to Europe until the Enlightenment.

Burgkmair, Hans. The Rhinoceros. 1515. Woodcut.

The genius of Dürer’s rhino is partially encoded in its hyperreality. As it slouched westward over centuries, it became recognisable―in its resemblance to the concept of a rhino, and its deviance from it. Scholarly discussion on its skin abounds, with some opinions pointing to it not being hide, but hidden, armoured. After Pliny, King Manuel did try to make his beast combat one of his elephants, and the rhino’s portrait may include its cover as eventual automaton, test subject, neural link, cyborg. Unlike Burgkmair’s rhino, Dürer’s is also unchained, suggesting its identity as unicorn, the animal that can’t be captured lest through virgin eyes―like Dürer’s were. We may not have such eyes again.

The Stack: A Love/Hate Story

For a while now, I’ve been interested in what I think of as “stack research” — investigations into how the high-tech built environment stack works at all levels. I have a milquetoast cyberpunk story to tell you that sheds some light on the matter.

It is about how I retrieved this remote control for my Canon EOS camera after dropping it. Yes, there’s a 2200-word story to be told about dropping something and picking it up. You see, I didn’t drop it on the floor. I dropped it from my 7th floor balcony into the backyard of the neighboring building.

To understand how absurd this story is, consider how simple this could and perhaps should be: in a traditional ordinary city, in say 1980, you’d just go over next door, ring the doorbell, and ask whoever answered if you could go back there and look for it. There’s no story there.

But of course, I live in Los Angeles in 2020, not Ordinary City in 1980. So it has to get more complex.

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Notes: Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Book Notes

Back when I started my pandemic deep-dive book-reading binge in late February, the first book I started with was Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. But it’s only now, months later, that I have a clear sense of why it felt salient right now. Hence this out-of-order notes post based on my tweetstorm from February/March.

I read the book partly because I was interested in the life and career of John W. Campbell, and partly because I had this sense that the Golden Age of science fiction (loosely, 1938-1960), understood in context, had a set of important lessons to offer for us in 2020, dealing with the Great Weirding, and the aftermath of Covid. Turns out, my instincts were correct.

What follows are some prefatory remarks, followed by a slightly cleaned-up version of the live tweetstorm.

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Convergent Evolution

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Recognitions

Similarly to how social media collapsed high and low culture into a sinuous, middling unibrow; it made room for the fringe to graze the mainstream while allowing outliers and niche practitioners a foot in the door. Though institutional barriers to entry persist, a new art world has never been more possible. It would however be blinkered to consider it only in terms of finished and sanctified outputs; which often makes parameters of fault lines ripe for the pushing. Because it’s structural, the revolution won’t be televised until it’s irreversible and given us its first, fixed forms. The bet is safe, though: anticipate swerves wherever generalised crisis meets new media, patronage and deep shifts in values. The history of the avant-garde has never been more forward-facing.

My previous blogchain covered the surge in agile independent presses that support experimental writing through fictile business models; with a reach faster and more global than anything even their most explosive predecessors could have matched for ricocheting connectivity. The jury’s out as to whether these presses can or will attain real market and / or mythic penetration, though the signs are favourable (Fitzcarraldo Editions, for instance, was established in 2014 and has twice-proven Nobel olfaction.) Examples can also be found in the digital arts, where platforms like SuperRare permit the social collection of tokenised originals on the Ethereum blockchain. Initiatives like SuperRare are the undertheorised arrowheads in the emergence of complete ecosystems for art production and consumption that may soon give the gallery circuit a run for its money. The decentralised ledger may become the double-entry bookkeeping of art collection.   

Convergent evolution is behind the surge of genres that didn’t hit their unsuspected heights until quite recently; the most outstanding of which may be paleoart, a fascinating case spanning the history of human self-regard from evolution to post-humanism. Its archives are increasingly available in ways that urge the relational study of the scientific and artistic imaginations, their methodological friction and combinatory magic. Paleoart is basically an OS-cum-artform, closer in spirit and experimental nature to automata than illustration. Taschen’s 2017 Paleoart confirmed that it had finally arrived, transcending the scope of the natural history museum and the elementary school library. The synthetic shaping of prehistory through art and science over 200 years may contain important lineaments for speculative representation as we face a sixth mass extinction. The future could be fossil-fuelled.   

Clockmaking: 1

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Clockmaking

As most of you know, I’m working on (another) book about time, The Clockless Clock, which I’m serializing on the Breaking Smart email list. In the spirit of getting a hands-on understanding of the subject, a while back I decided to build an actual clock as a semi-homemade project. Maybe more than one, but let’s start with one. This one, the ROKR 3D wooden mechanical pendulum clock:

I bought the kit ($45.99 on Amazon in case any of you wants to join me in the build) several months ago, but only just started building it. The thing is almost entirely laser-cut parts on several sheets of wood, so the first order of business was over an hour of painstakingly popping out the parts. It’s like a masochistic version of popping bubble wrap.

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Amateur Vigour

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Recognitions
Peter Brown. Shot by Ned. 2015. Oil on canvas, 137 x 107 cm.

While news of the death of the novel―or of the book, for that matter―may seem no better than clickbait, the time is nigh to ask what next. In its Western variant, the novel built momentum over hundreds of years to become the dominant literary form of the twentieth century; its popularity and penetration dependent on―and responsive to―sometimes vertiginous phase shifts in media, means, markets. In this sense, its history also reads like a (living) fossil of the modern era, from mechanisation to globalisation, from the expansion of literacy to the invention of intimacy.

Given the scope, speed and scale of transformations and disruptions we are currently faced with―many of which the pandemic will consolidate or heighten―it would be remiss of us not to imagine new literary forms coagulating within our lifetimes.

And if the precondition for new forms is, indeed, platforms

Following the increased concentration of publishing and distribution; a handful of small, aggressively independent presses are now scouting for talent not in the koi-pond of MFA or residency programs but on social media, where it can be found at its most adventurous and unembellished. Business models vary but are central in the push towards autonomy these presses share. They are not manifesto factories, but agile enterprises that are [re]s[e]izing the means of production by taking everything, from their submission software to their bookmaking, into their hands; the way others microbrew beer or cure ham. Nor are these the zines of the nineties: the DIY book has at last hit its stride as a fine art, with objects as impressive as those issued by almost any major house―and better copy editing. The writers championed by these presses are, furthermore, early explorers in peerlessness, encouraged to pursue marginal practices that might be otherwise untenable by one-man editorial orchestras who aren’t tastemakers―a role best reserved for establishment reviewers―but craftsmen and colleagues themselves.

There are precedents, naturally, in presses like Adelphi, or magazines like Sur, with one significant and telling difference: the elective affinities at work here are more exclusively literary than anytime before. These are not groups of friends with similar backgrounds who meet periodically at a café or who attended the same universities. We’re not in Bloomsbury anymore. By and large, these are cadres of strangers from all walks of life―Twitter mutuals―more eclectic in their outputs than entire university departments.

Defamiliarisation is not in the product, but part of the process.  


Elderblog Sutra: 11

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series Elderblog Sutra

When I started the blogchain experiment in January 2019, I had in mind a metaphor of a new system of tunnels under an old landscape of skyscrapers, creating a feel of what I called infratextuality. The decade’s worth of archives from the Rust Age (2007-12) and Snowflake Age (2013-18) would be the skyscrapers. The blogchains would be the tunnels, weaving a subterranean connective layer through the themes. In the process, ribbonfarm would age gracefully into an elderblog.

In recent months, I’ve shifted to a new metaphor: angkorwatificaction, after Angkor Wat, with its ruined-and-somewhat-restored temple complex intertwingled with wild plant life reasserting itself.

Image credit: Velvetscape.com

Applied to a blog, angkorwatification is a sort of textual equivalent of rewilding. You have a base layer of traditional blog posts that is essentially complete in the sense of having created, over time, an idea space with a clear identity, and a more or less deliberately conceived architecture to it. And you have a secondary organic growth layer that is patiently but relentlessly rewilding the first, inorganic one. That second layer also emerges from the mind of the blogger of course, but does so via surrender to brain entropy rather than via writerly intentions disciplining the flow of words. I’ve seen some other old sites undergo angkorwatification. Some seem to happily surrender to it like I am doing, others seem to fight it, like I won’t.

A related mental model is that of marine life colonizing sunken shipwrecks, forming artificial reefs. Deliberately contrived blog posts, like ships, have a design lifespan. If you scuttle them in the right locations when they start to feel old, new life can grow on the rusting hulks. It’s kinda fun to think of my archives as the sunken shipwreck of my own dead thoughts.

Memento mori. Not entirely though. It’s not ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s life to life. Language is a living force, and writing must necessarily deaden it in the pursuit of specific intentions. To abandon specific intentions is to surrender to the living force. Perhaps an elderblog, like a talkative child, should be a somewhat embarrassing social presence. Abandon gravitas in order to be more alive, for longer.

I like this metaphor better than my original towers-and-tunnels metaphor, because the way I’m writing here now is more like tree roots weaving inexorably through fragile human architecture than any sort of planned infratextual tunnel construction. The spires of the temple complex still represent the same thing: old style blog posts. Catchy headlines, meme-worthy core ideas, viral-intent writing. The sort of thing that, for a decade, ruled the web at large, and this site specifically.

Lightning strikes of viral attention can strike the spires of Angkor Wat as surely as they can skyscrapers, but the metaphor of an encroaching forest suggests something different than a system of tunnels. Where a tunnel system respects and attempts to preserve the landscape it weaves through, an encroaching forest does not. Roots can weave through cracks in the architecture, topple spires, and crumble walls. The idea of encroaching forests also suggests an abandonment of the base layer to its fate, which I like. The encroaching forest is neither friendly, nor hostile. It just follows its own ungoverned, more alive logic, casually destroying the old structure where it resists, leaving it alone where it doesn’t.

This year, though I’ve written a few old-style posts, including a big hit (Internet of Beefs), my expectations of them have been different. I have no interest in capturing the flash floods of attention by doubling down on the themes that attract them. I am now thinking primarily in terms of elder games, late style, and César Aira’s strange idea that art — and ribbonfarm remains at heart an art project — is not something that should be done well.

Much of my polished writing energy has been diverted to Breaking Smart and Art of Gig. So ribbonfarm is being reclaimed slowly by what for me is not so much a new style, but a newly public style. I now find myself treating this blog the way I treat my private notebooks, as a sort of scrapbook space. The stuff that feels truest to this new mode is my Captain’s Log blogchain with its numbered parts, and my book review live reads, pulled in from Twitter.

In trying to situate this process within what I’ve dubbed A Text Renaissance, it strikes me that angkorwatification is the evil twin of what many are starting to call digital gardening. Instead of a mindful and effortful curation of a slightly intimate space built from scratch, angkorwatification is a sort of letting-go; a surrender to the natural entropic forces that begin to emerge in a brain that has aged enough, and accumulated enough memories, both internally, and externally in blog-like prosthetic spaces. It is of course, only an option available to elderblogs. You can’t surrender territories to rewilding processes that you never attempted to civilize to begin with.

There is something wonderfully liberating about viewing ribbonfarm in this creative-destructive way, as a space slowly going to ruin under the onslaught of an encroaching forest. The first 11 years (2007-18) saw the construction of what strikes me in retrospect as a rather high modernist, premium-mediocre textual space, hustling for its share of the viral attention economy. In 2019, I began reversing course tentatively, with blogchains. In 2020, I think I’ve embraced this trajectory completely. What will this blog look like as angkorwatification progresses? I don’t know, but I’m curious to find out.

To Attack and Dethrone Gods

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Recognitions
Still of Terence Stamp in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, 1968.

Borges was introduced to the original terrorist somewhere between Sir Thomas Browne and Marcel Schwob. He had no face and a name like a resonance chamber: Herostratus, arsonist of the second Temple of Artemis at Ephesus; punished with Oblivion, redeemed by Spectacle.

His subsistence, despite his damnatio memoriae, means Spectacle is not beholden to its Debordian trappings ―commodity fetishism, the mass media, etc― but rooted in the fundamental problem of representation, and so of art-world-historical interest. And as mundane as the Herostratian claim to infamy may seem today, it also took stock of change in the epochal temperature. To cite Debord himself: “[t]he growth of knowledge about society, which includes the understanding of history as the heart of culture, [and] derives from itself an irreversible knowledge, is expressed by the destruction of God.” Herostratus’ arson ushered in a new and outré aesthetic limit-experience, and it is interesting that legend has it Alexander was born on that very night.

The terrorist organisation as we know it ―cast as the asymmetric shadow of the modern state on a cellular level― lays no claim to the Herostratuses of the world, who are after attributions more exclusive to the State ―or, indeed, God― than the means of production. To become as the State, or like God, is to seize and control the means of destruction, no matter how fleetingly. To “attack and dethrone God” is to pay off an entire world’s accursed share.

The society of the spectacle decorates the serial killer with the benefit of Method, but it is the Herostratian terrorist who has κόσμος. He is destruction as the herald of a new world order. He may look like Descartes or like Terence Stamp in Teorema, but for his act to be effective and to ―maybe― resonate within collective, folk, historic or genetic memory, it must be unrepeatable and unforgettable. Therein his nod to Spectacle: the Herostratian knows that, more so than beauty, terror has aura.  

Two days ago, social media was ablaze with reports of “baby witches” hexing the Moon. The implications of their assault on not just Artemis, but the Thing-In-Itself, are occult and even philosophical, but they are not artistic, or historic, or spectacular. This attempted deicide was borne not from irreversible knowledge, but from a dearth of knowledge so profound as to be irreversible. As a charge on the Debordian House of Representatives, it didn’t even nick Representation.