Whistler’s Giantess

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Recognitions
James Abbot MacNeill Whistler. Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother. Oil on canvas. 144.3 cm x 162.4 cm. 1871. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

In Mr. Turner (2014), Mike Leigh’s lambent portrait of the artist as an old man, the protagonist sits for a daguerreotype. Behind the camera is an American prosopon, whose primordial photographs are advertised to “stand the test of time and climate.” Intentionally or otherwise, the scene establishes a passing of the torch between light-wranglers. It also anticipates the appearance of Turner’s unnatural successor, the American James Abbott MacNeill Whistler, whose technique a sitter once described as developing “a negative under the action of […] chemicals.”

Whistler would not set foot in London until 1859, eight years after Turner’s death but, when he did, the groundwork would be more or less prepared for a career agonist. A cosmopolitan whose scope extended from the US to Russia through Chile, Whistler would systematically be [at] the centre of the world, at a time when European art was barely postindustrial. Wagner may have held court at Bayreuth, but Whistler forged, and bridged, the early modern transatlantic artworld.    

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Leaking into the Future

Liminality is hard to navigate, and one can be forgiven for flailing gracelessly when attempting to do so. What makes me impatient though, is people not even recognizing liminality when it is all around them. People continuing to march into non-existent futures, like non-playable characters (NPCs) in video games making walking motions with noses pressed up against impenetrable walls. When there’s masses of such people all around, the liminal turns into the surreal. I made up a visualization to try and get at this sense of surreal mass obliviousness to liminality.

It’s not complete, and you could argue with the particular patterns of forks and merges I have illustrated, but the important thing is the topological structure, and the cowpath-like tracks leaking away from the entire paved system, in a fundamentally new direction. History hasn’t just been knocked off course; our normal processes for constructing history have been knocked out. What I called the Plot Economy in my March 9 post (has it already been 2 months? Wow!) has shut down. Collectively losing the plot means our ability to keep a constructed sense of historical time going has shut down.

Instead of “progressing” or “declining” into a future mapped out over decades, from within the safety of grand narratives shared with millions, we are leaking into the future, one day at a time, sans narrative support.

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Alamut, Bosch, Gaddis: Introduction to Epochal Art

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Recognitions

I

On the noon of the seventeenth day of Ramadan, 1164, Hassan II, the hereditary Imam of the Alamut State founded by the Order of Assassins under Hassan-i-Sabbah, immanentised the Eschaton. 

In a bravura display of apophatism, he declared quiyāma ―the Islamic Resurrection― with the abrogation of Sharia law; inviting the Nezāri potentates to gather ―with their backs to Mecca― and partake with him in a feast of pork and wine. In normal circumstances, this would have been haram, but Paradise is outside time and so without sin or law. In the state in which nothing is true and everything is permitted, Apocalypse Now coincides with Paradise Regained. The Imam’s worldbreaking banquet prefigures other tropes we may be more familiar with: Blake’s fearful symmetries, Nietzsche’s balls-to-the-wall transvaluation, Burroughs’ “disruption of reality” as “literal realization of art.” 

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Quarantine Art

I tweeted a sketch of the view from my balcony, from an abandoned project to make a proper art piece, and slashdottir made this rather snazzy quick study out of it. Sometimes twitter is very liminal. Also check out people’s interesting art projects.

Predictable Identities 27: Craving and the Pill

This entry is part 27 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

Kaj Sotala suggests a predictive processing-informed model of suffering in which a mind is stuck oscillating between two unpleasant interpretations of the world, each one disconfirming the other’s prediction in a painful way. 

Normally, a brain confronted with two contradicting views will pick the one matching incoming evidence and discard the other. But the brain also generates cravings, and they can break this resolution process.

Desires are manifested in your brain as a prediction. When you want pizza you predict the sensation of pizza in your mouth. If there’s no pizza currently in your mouth you can resolve the discrepance in two ways. Though your action, by grabbing a slice, or by updating and giving up on the pizza prediction. A craving is a desire that you can’t give up on, one that comes from a place too deep to overwrite with disconfirming evidence.

When you’re craving [money/sex/power] you predict strongly that you have them, to the point of almost hallucinating the orgy on your private jet. The lack of a jet or a confident plan to acquire one disconfirms the prediction. But then the craving rises again and overwrites the realization that your goal is unattainable, each prediction and disconfirmation creating mental suffering in an ongoing cycle.

There are two ways to break the loop of craving and suffering. One is to fulfill the desire, which works great (until another craving arises). But there’s another way: if you can convince yourself utterly that what you’re craving is unattainable, then your brain will suppress the loop at the stage of predicting the craved outcome. You will never get what you wanted, but the suffering will ease.

The internet has a term for it: blackpilled. The black pill must be completely impenetrable to work. If your brain can imagine even for a second that your craving is satisfied the cycle of suffering will continue. 

It is almost impossible for people to cleanse their soul of hope entirely unless in the grips of severe depression. Direct evidence of the world is too noisy to conclude anything with such certainty. The black pill requires a community and an identity reinforcing it, to convince one fully of their hopelessness.

Liminality?…Well, there’s a free sample!

One of my favorite jokes in Herge’s Tintin comics is a bit in Prisoners of the Sun (1949), where the Thompson twins ask Captain Haddock what’s in a pile of sacks on the dock labeled “guano.” The captain umms and ahhs a bit, but then a seagull poops on one of the Thompson twins’ hats, and the Captain brightens up, having been handed the perfect short answer: “Guano?… Well, here’s a free sample!”

For those wondering why sacks of bird droppings would be on a dock, guano was once a major industrial commodity, an input for nitrogen fertilizers and explosives. The rise of Chile saltpeter as an alternative, and the adoption of the Haber-Bosch process after World War 1, slowly made it obsolete.

A few years ago, I was challenged by a Twitter friend to explain liminality, and I came up with a thread in response that I think is still roughly right. But if I were asked today, I would gesture vaguely at the world around and say, “Liminality?… Well, there’s a free sample!”

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Now Reading: Pandemic Edition

Just updated my Now Reading page. I have suspended my regular reading queue for the most part (except for continuing to work through Terry Pratchett) and made a special section for Pandemic reading. Here’s a quick rundown on what I’ve been reading/plan to read, and why.

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Pandemic Dashboard: 3

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series State of the Pandemic

Unanticipated Consequences

Accidents down, so insurance companies refunding some premiums. Billboard advertising down because nobody out to look at them. Crime down.

Beyond Fat and Lean

Food getting tossed at farms while people face shortages. Toilet paper panic is partly legit because office/commercial toilet paper supply chain is different.

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Pandemic Dashboard: 2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series State of the Pandemic

Flattening the Curve

We’ve moved on from the innumeracy edition to the “spot the inflection” phase as bureaucrats everywhere try to solve for the flattening and claim success.

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Scorpio Season: A New Talk Show

My friend Lisa (@niftynei) and I decided to start a talk show. It’s called Scorpio Season, since we’re both scorpios. You can subscribe to it as a podcast, or watch/listen it on YouTube. At the moment the video version is just the two of us as talking heads, but we might throw in some graphics in future episodes.

Scorpio Season is a show about everything… in alphabetical order. Since we both have a lot of random little interests that are all over the place, we figured it would be a good, discordian disorganization scheme for our improv ramblings.

The first three episodes, A-C are up.

The first two episodes featured A for Astrology and Aesthetics, and B for beefs, bitcoin, and Biden/Bernie. If we get to 26 episodes, we’ll cycle back to A. As you might guess, in the most recent one, there’s a lot of C for Coronovirus here, but also C for Cartoons.

The next episode is D: for David Deutsch, Doja Cat, and Dark Age. That will be up soon.