Constellations

Andrew Crumey

Journal of a research project, January-December 2010

"The methodological element in philosophical projects is not simply part of their didactic mechanism. This means quite simply that they possess a certain esoteric quality which they are unable to discard, forbidden to deny, and which they vaunt at their own peril." -Walter Benjamin


Phantasmagoria; Information is the enemy of story; Back To The Future; Randy animals; Glass Architecture; Confession; Q&A; Ur-phenomenon; A good day; Language of chance; Silence as aura; The Man Who Was Thursday; 24; Blanqui; Personality test; The Celestial Plot; Many Worlds; Fictional philosophy; Walter Benjamin's character; Esoteric; Inside/outside; Solitude; General and particular; Progress; Communication; Synopsis; "Deathly Trips to Parallel Worlds Become Popular with Teenagers"; Intellectual Migration; Surface brightness; Representation; Anger or despair; Synecdoche, New York; Fragment; Inception; A Thousand Plateaus; A Commonsense Remark; Death Of The Novel; Philosophy of the Novel; Eagles and Starlings; Free Thinking; Christmas Carol; Conclusion

Phantasmagoria

Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths — ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like a home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars; the world and the self, the light and the fire, are sharply distinct, yet they never become permanent strangers to one another, for fire is the soul of all light and all fire clothes itself in light. Thus each action of the soul becomes meaningful and rounded in this duality: complete in meaning — in sense — and complete for the senses; rounded because the soul rests within itself even while it acts; rounded because its action separates itself from it and, having become itself, finds a centre of its own and draws a closed circumference round itself. ‘Philosophy is really homesickness,’ says Novalis: ‘it is the urge to be at home everywhere.’
[Lukacs, Theory of the Novel, 29]

Various are the roads of man. He who follows and compares them will see strange figures emerge, figures which seem to belong to that great cipher which we discern written everywhere, in wings, eggshells, clouds and snow, in crystals and in stone formations, on ice-covered waters, on the inside and outside of mountains, of plants, beasts and men, in the lights of heaven, on scored disks of pitch or glass or in iron filings round a magnet, and in strange conjunctures of chance.
[Novalis, The Novices of Sais, 3]

Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show.
[Benjamin, Arcades Project [N1a,8] 460]

The telescope I have used, as has been observed on a former occasion, is a Newtonian reflector of 20-feet focal length, and 18.7 inches aperture. The sweeping power has been 157, except where another is expressly mentioned. The field of view 15 minutes 14 seconds of arc. My eye-glass is mounted on that side of an octagon tube, which, in the horizontal position of the instrument, makes an angle of 45 degrees with the vertical; having found, by experience, that this position, resembling the situation of a reading desk, is preferable to the perpendicular one commonly used in the Newtonian construction.
[W. Herschel, Catalogue of One Thousand New Nebulae and Clusters of Stars, 457]

The value of fragments of thought is all the greater the less direct their relationship to the underlying idea, and the brilliance of the representation depends as much on this value as the brilliance of the mosaic does on the quality of the glass paste. The relationship between the minute precision of the work and the proportions of the sculptural or intellectual whole demonstrates that truth-content is only to be grasped through immersion in the most minute details of subject-matter.
[Benjamin, Trauerspiel, 29]

That the difference between the models of Chrysler and General Motors is fundamentally illusory is known by any child, who is fascinated by that very difference. The advantages and disadvantages debated by enthusiasts serve only to perpetuate the appearance of competition and choice. It is no different with the offerings of Warner Brothers and Metro Goldwyn Mayer. But the differences, even between the more expensive and cheaper products from the same firm, are shrinking – in cars to the different number of cylinders, engine capacity, and details of the gadgets, and in films to the different number of stars, the expense lavished on technology, labor, and costumes, or the use of the latest psychological formulae. The unified standard of value consists in the level of conspicuous production, the amount of investment put on show.
[Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 97]

Kant’s starry firmament now shines only in the dark night of pure cognition, it no longer lights any solitary wanderer’s path (for to be a man in the new world is to be solitary). And the inner light affords evidence of security, or its illusion, only to the wanderer’s next step. No light radiates any longer from within into the world of events, into its vast complexity to which the soul is a stranger. And who can tell whether the fitness of the action to the essential nature of the subject — the only guide that still remains — really touches upon the essence, when the subject his become a an object unto itself; when his innermost and most particular essential nature appears to him only as a never-ceasing demand written upon the imaginary sky of that which ‘should be'; when this innermost nature must emerge from an unfathomable chasm which lies within the subject himself, when only what comes up from the furthermost depths is his essential nature, and no one can ever sound or even glimpse the bottom of those depths? Art, the visionary reality of the world made to our measure, has thus become independent: it is no longer a copy, for all the models have gone; it is a created totality, for the natural unity of the metaphysical spheres has been destroyed forever.
[Lukacs, Theory of the Novel, 36]

By going into the light so often as was necessary to write down my observations, the eye could never return soon enough to that full dilation of the iris which is absolutely required for delicate observations… I removed [this] obstacle to seeing well, by having recourse to an assistant, whose care it was to write down, and at the same time loudly to repeat after me, every thing I required to be written down. In this manner all the descriptions of nebulae and other observations were recorded; by which I obtained the singular advantage that the descriptions were actually written and repeated to me while I had the object before my eye, and could at pleasure correct them, whenever they disagreed with the picture before me without looking from it.
[W. Herschel, Catalogue of One Thousand New Nebulae and Clusters of Stars, 459-60]

How the man of leisure looks upon the crowd is revealed in a short piece by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the last that he wrote, entitled ‘The Cousin’s Corner Window’… From this vantage point he scrutinizes the throng… His opera glasses enable him to pick out individual genre scenes. The employment of this instrument is thoroughly in keeping with the inner disposition of its user. He would like, as he admits, to initiate his visitor into the ‘principles of the art of seeing.’
[Benjamin, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, 169]

The spectacle inherits all the weaknesses of the Western philosophical project which undertook to comprehend activity in terms of the categories of seeing; furthermore, it is based on the incessant spread of the precise technical rationality which grew out of this thought. The spectacle does not realize philosophy, it philosophizes reality. The concrete life of everyone has been degraded into a speculative universe.
[Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 19]

That which determines the rhythm of production on a conveyor belt is the basis of the rhythm of repetition in the film… What the Fun Fair achieves with its Dodgem cars and other similar amusements is nothing but a taste of the drill to which the unskilled labourer is subjected in the factory.
[Benjamin, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, 171-2]

Not only do hit songs, stars, and soap operas conform to types recurring cyclically as rigid invariants, but the specific content of productions, the seemingly variable element, is itself derived from those types. The details become interchangeable.
[Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 98]

The jolt in the movement of a machine is like the so-called coup in a game of chance. The manipulation of the worker at the machine has no connection with the preceding operation for the very reason that it is its exact repetition. Since each operation at the machine is just as screened off from the preceding operation as the coup in a game of chance is from the one that preceded it, the drudgery of the labourer is, in its own way, a counterpart to the drudgery of the gambler. The work of both is equally devoid of substance.
[Benjamin, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, 173]

The entire universe is composed of stellar systems. In order to create them nature has only one hundred simple bodies at its disposal. Despite the prodigious profit it knows how to make from its resources, and the incalculable number of combinations these allow its fecundity, the result is necessarily a finite number, like that of the elements themselves. And in order to fill the entire expanse nature must infinitely repeat each of its original or generic combinations. Every star, whatever it might be, thus exists in infinite number in time and space, not only in one of its aspects, but as it is found in every second of its duration, from birth until death. All the beings spread across its surface, big or little, animate or inanimate, share in this privilege of perennity. The earth is one of these stars. Every human being is thus eternal in every second of its existence. What I write now in a cell in the fort of Taureau I wrote and will write under the same circumstances for all of eternity, on a table, with a pen, wearing clothing. And so for all. One after another all these earths are submerged in renovatory flames, to be re-born there and to fall into them again, the monotonous flowing of an hourglass that eternally turns and empties itself. It is something new that is always old; something old that is always new. Those curious about extra-terrestrial life will nevertheless smile at a mathematical conclusion that grants them not only immortality but eternity. The number of our doubles is infinite in time and space. In all conscience, we can hardly ask for more. These doubles are of flesh and blood, or in pants and coats, in crinoline and chignon. These aren’t phantoms: they are the now eternalized.
[Blanqui, Eternity Through The Stars, VIII, Marxists.org]

The celebrity, the spectacular representation of a living human being, embodies this banality by embodying the image of a possible role. Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived; the star is the object of identification with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations which are actually lived. Celebrities exist to act out various styles of living and viewing society unfettered, free to express themselves globally. They embody the inaccessible result of social labor by dramatizing its by-products magically projected above it as its goal: power and vacations, decision and consumption, which are the beginning and end of an undiscussed process. In one case state power personalizes itself as a pseudo-star; in another a star of consumption gets elected as a pseudo-power over the lived. But just as the activities of the star are not really global. they are not really varied.
[Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 60, Marxists.org]

Gambling became a stock diversion of the bourgeoisie only in the nineteenth century; in the eighteenth, only the aristocracy gambled. Games of chance were disseminated by the Napoleonic armies, and they now became part of the ‘fashionable living and the thousands of unsettled lives that are lived in the basements of a large city’, part of the spectacle in which Baudelaire claimed he saw the heroic – ‘as it is characteristic of our epoch’.
[Benjamin, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, 174]

When culture becomes nothing more than a commodity, it must also become the star commodity of the spectacular society. Clark Kerr, one of the foremost ideologues of this tendency, has calculated that the complex process of production, distribution and consumption of knowledge already gets 29% of the yearly national product in the United States; and he predicts that in the second half of this century [the twentieth] culture will be the driving force in the development of the economy, a role played by the automobile in the first half of this century, and by railroads in the second half of the previous century.
[Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 193]

It is obvious that the gambler is out to win. Yet one will not want to call his desire to win and make money a wish in the strict sense of the word. He may be inwardly motivated… A wish, however, is a kind of experience. ‘What one wishes for in one’s youth, one has in abundance in old age,’ said Goethe… Thus a wish fulfilled is the crowning of experience. In folk symbolism, distance in space can take the place of distance in time; that is why the shooting star, which plunges into the infinite distance of space, has become the symbol of a fulfilled wish. The ivory ball which rolls into the next compartment, the next card which lies on top are the very antithesis of a falling star… This starting all over again is the regulative idea of the game, as it is of work for wages.
[Benjamin, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, 174-5]

One can think of the universe as being like a giant casino, with dice being rolled or wheels being spun on every occasion. You might think that operating a casino is a very chancy business, because you risk losing money each time dice are thrown or the wheel is spun. But over a large number of bets, the gains and losses average out to a result that can be predicted, even though the result of any particular bet cannot be predicted. The casino operators make sure the odds average out in their favour. That is why casino operators are so rich. The only chance you have of winning against them is to stake all your money on a few rolls of the dice or spins of the wheel.
It is the same with the universe. When the universe is big, as it is today, there are a very large number of rolls of the dice, and the results average out to something one can predict. That is why classical laws work for large systems. But when the universe is very small, as it was near in time to the big bang, there are only a small number of rolls of the dice, and the uncertainty principle is very important. Because the universe keeps on rolling the dice to see what happens next, it doesn’t just have a single history, as one might have thought. Instead, the universe must have every possible history, each with its own probability. There must be a history of the universe in which Belize won every gold medal at the Olympic Games, though maybe the probability is low.
The idea that the universe has multiple histories may sound like science fiction, but it is now accepted as science fact. It was formulated by Richard Feynman, who was both a great physicist and quite a character.
[Hawking, the Universe In A Nutshell, 79-80]

Now I know when the final morning will be – when the light will no longer frighten away the night and love – when sleeping will be forever just one unsuspendable dream.
[Novalis, Hymns To The Night, 19]

“During the journey we came to speak of Elective Affinities. He [Goethe] emphasized how rapidly and irresistibly he had brought on the catastrophe. The stars had risen; he spoke of his relation to Ottilie, of how he had loved her and how she had made him unhappy. At the end, his speeches became almost mysteriously full of foreboding. – In between, he would recite light-hearted verse. Thus, weary, stimulated, half-full of foreboding, half-asleep, we arrived in Heidelberg in the most beautiful starlight.”
[Sulpiz Boisseree, quoted in Benjamin, Goethe’s Elective Affinities, 354]

Loneliness is the very essence of tragedy, for the soul that has attained itself through its destiny can have brothers among the stars, but never an earthly companion; yet the dramatic form of expression — the dialogue — presupposes, if it is to be many-voiced, truly dialogical, dramatic, a high degree of communion among these solitaries.
[Lukacs, Theory of the Novel, 45]

(1.1.10)


Information is the enemy of story

This is something we all encounter in the practice of writing. The most common manifestation is the urge to provide back-story, to explain. There is much in novels that we could call “information” in the sense of linguistic data, but it is not specifically informative (changing the colour of a character’s eyes does not change the character: if we are told eye-colour it is not for the purposes of passing a test). Equally though, there is “information” that the writer feels it necessary to impart – necessary rather than contingent. This is what we have to be careful about.

From Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” (published in Illuminations):

‘When someone goes on a trip, he has something to tell about,’ goes the German saying, and people imagine the storyteller as someone who has come from afar. [p84]

Villemessant, the founder of Le Figaro, characterized the nature of information in a famous formulation. ‘To my readers,’ he used to say, ‘an attic fire in the Latin Quarter is more important than a revolution in Madrid.’ [p88]

The opposition Benjamin notes is one of distance: stories possess an aura that information lacks. The only legitimation of information is verification, something that the story does not require.

Benjamin writes in the light of Lukacs, but compare what he says with Bakhtin’s theory, where it is closeness that characterises the novel as a form: the novel is the medium of the now (whereas the epic is the medium of “epic time”, which is iterative, cyclic, closed off from the now, therefore heroic).

News from afar gets made into information that is proximate and “relevant”: the reification of events as information. Spatial distance becomes replaced by distance in time: the perfect news item is the event that has not yet happened (swine flu, effects of global warming, election victory etc.). British coverage of New Year celebrations began with fireworks in New Zealand.

Benjamin takes from Lukacs the notion that the business of the novel is “the meaning of life”, where meaning and life are terms in need of discussion. Lukacs holds the novel to be the expression of our existence within capitalism: a dialectic of form-giving and mimesis. Information, in writing, is a way in which we seek to impose form, and its effect is to reduce the mimetic appearance.

Narrative information as the reification of novel writing: the turning of story-telling into novelese, the thing we do when we try to write novels the way we think they ought to be written. A student shows me a short story and I ask how it might be developed as a novel idea. They tell me that they would introduce more information, more back-story, more explanation. My feeling is that they need to do the opposite.

Benjamin’s remark on Don Quixote: it offers no wisdom. That is not what novels are about. Perhaps novels do not “offer” anything, except accidentally.

(2.1.10)


Back to the Future

Blanqui's multiverse is the eternalisation of the now: Benjamin appreciated the significance of this, calling L'Eternite par les astres "the phantasmagoria of history", and equating it with Nietzschean eternal recurrence. Yet the difference is also profound. Nietzsche's idea is ancient, Pythagorean - we could call it epic, in that it makes all of history into a form of epic time. In Blanqui, it is subjectivity that is eternalised, reified, nullified.

When Wells's time traveller arrives in an apparently idyllic far future, the first thing he says to himself is, "Communism". Significant features of the story: the resemblance of the time machine to a motor car, the idea of the future as a place to be reached, of time as something that must be eliminated in the interests of transportation. Travel to the past features in the story only because of the dull necessity of returning home. The book was written ten years before Einstein published his first relativity paper; its terminology of the fourth dimension comes from Newcomb.

The spacialisation of time becomes a stock feature of time-travel stories: the various time zones are considered to have "simultaneous" existence, like the time-zones of the globe. (Greenwich Mean Time was internationally adopted in 1884, having previously been known in Britain as "railway time"; it was redefined as Universal Time by the International Astronomical Union in 1928).

In Back To The Future, for example, there is the disappearance of Marty from photographs: an instantaneous "signal" from the other time zone. In the recent Doctor Who Christmas special, this "signal" between simultaneous "zones" took the form of a diamond. This is typical. It makes no causal sense: the sense is purely subjective. Some stories attempt a formal elaboration of what might be considered a Bergsonian view of time.

Rather we should see it as the infinite spacialisation of temporal subjectivity: The "now" of Marty McFly or the Doctor defines every time zone, they are the effective meridian of consciousness. Jamesian focalisation is taken to epic proportions.

(4.1.10)


Randy animals

A problem of historical fiction: the ease with which it can become pastiche, costume drama. Lukacs' The Historical Novel is plainly the work of an ideologue (in contrast to his earlier Theory of the Novel), but interestingly highlights Hegel's concept of "necessary anachronism". Lukacs quotes Scott on Ivanhoe: the author cannot make everyone speak the authentic language of the time, instead the work is a kind of translation. The task of the historical novelist is similar to the task of the translator.

There are some novels that are consciously written as "translations": examples are Carlyle's Sartor Resartus and my own Pfitz. The novel as translation can be a framing device (as in Don Quixote), but it can also work on the level of language: every word is imagined as having a source that is elsewhere, so that the story possesses simultaneous distance and closeness. In the case of Pfitz, I know that my interest was spurred by reading Diderot in translation, and having the dual sense of modern English alongside the 18th-century text: a kind of necessary anachronism.

The historical novel can be a translation of time in this sense: then the desired duality comes automatically, without the need for knowing anticipations of the future, or modern actions carried out in period cosume.

That historical fiction is also a recognised genre of the publishing and bookselling industry is of course merely a product of commodification. Genre in that sense is a matter of public consumption rather than artistic practice. The categories of consumption need not equal those of production. No bookshop has a section called "novels written as translations of imaginary books".

Translation is the one aspect of literary production where we routinely speak of fidelity. I recall receiving the German translation of Mr Mee: in German it is called Rousseau und die geilen Pelztierchen (Rousseau and the randy furry little animals). I always believe that if a foreign publisher buys my book then they have the right to call it anything they like: it's their language, their market, their money, and it's up to them to make their own mistakes. So I didn't mind the stupid title, or the crassly "erotic" cover (high heels, stockings etc). Opening the book at random, however, I came upon a passage in which, I recalled, Mr Mee is challenged about whether he has child pronography on his computer, and says no, only Childe Harold, downloaded from a website about famous Scottish writers. The joke is untranslateable for various reasons, so what should be done with it? The translator makes Mr Mee speak instead about Kinderszenen, if I remember rightly: a piano suite by Schumann. I have no personal feelings about this - but the text of my book had been betrayed, and if books could have feelings I suppose mine would have been very upset.

If writing is an ethical act (which in some sense I think all writers feel), then we should speak of fidelity in all writing, not only in translation. The writer has the sense of bringing something from afar, and this requires a certain conscientiousness. For the historical writer it might be in those little matters of factual detail - the kind of thing that, if we take them too seriously, become simply ornament and distraction (Hollywood knows all about this - getting every bit of a suit of armour right in a film that travesties the past it depicts). Such misplaced fidelity is what gives rise to pastiche. No, getting the little facts right means something else: this is the way the writer makes things right for himself, like stepping to one side so as not to squash a beetle.

(5.1.10)


Glass Architecture

Paul Scheerbart's novels are nearly all untranslated but have appealing subtitles: one is "a railway novel with 66 intermezzos", another is "a fantastic hippopotamus novel". He is known for Glass Architecture (1914).

92
If we must mention something detestable, this is, in my view, those street lamps which in every town look so alike that one cannot help wondering how mankind can be capable of such monotonous repetition...
93
Today people travel from nervous habit: they want to have something different, and although they know that all hotels and towns, mountain villages and health resorts have a dreadful sameness, they travel there just the same. They travel, knowing well that they will find nothing better wherever they go.
94
In the future, people will travel in order to look at new glass architecture, which will differ widely in various parts of the world... The daily press wants novelty - so it will not be unfriendly to glass.
95
It has often been said that glass is not a "precious" commodity. In contrast to this, remember Frauenhofer's lines of the glass spectrum. In addition Christian Doppler discovered that light, when it approaches or recedes, breaks up Frauenhofer's lines into infra-red and ultra-violet. By using photography it is possible to measure this, and from these measurements we know precisely whether stars of weak luminosity are approaching or receding, and at what speed. Without glass the Doppler effect would not be discernible; I should think that this speaks volumes for the importance of glass.
[Scheerbart, Glass Architecture, 68-69]

Scheerbart's futurism equates glass with light. People do not travel to look at glass architecture because it looks the same everywhere. People travel, in some cases, to escape glass and light. For many, the only chance to see the Milky Way and the light of faint stars is when on holiday, far from streetlights.

Photography gradually replaced visual astronomy from the late nineteenth century: Barnard was one of the last great visual observers. One of his areas of interest was cataloguing "dark nebulae" such as the Horsehead (Barnard 33). I have seen it through my telescope: a negative experience. I had to sketch the very faint luminosity IC434, and found when I looked at my sketch in decent light that the horsehead shape was visible as the region my pencil hadn't touched. As usual, I had driven quite a long way from home in order to have a dark enough sky. Herschel's famous remark: "seeing is an art that must be learned". We forget - because of our primal fear of it - that darkness is a precious commodity. The sublime, according to Burke, has its origin in fear. There is no evidence that brighter streetlights reduce crime - but they make people feel safer.

(6.1.10)


Confession

Your favourite virtue: Simplicity
Your favourite virtue in man: Strength
Your favourite virtue in woman: Weakness
Your chief characteristic: Singleness of purpose
Your idea of happiness: To fight
Your idea of misery: Submission
The vice you excuse most: Gullibility
The vice you detest most: Servility
Your aversion: Martin Tupper
Favourite occupation: Bookworming
Favourite poet: Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Goethe
Favourite prose-writer: Diderot
Favourite hero: Spartacus, Kepler
Favourite heroine: Gretchen
Favourite flower: Daphne
Favourite colour: Red
Favourite name: Laura, Jenny
Favourite dish: Fish
Favourite maxim: Nihil humani a me alienum puto
Favourite motto: De omnibus dubitandum

Responses by Karl Marx to a questionnaire posed by his daughter Laura.
[Fromm, Marx's Concept of Man, 198]

(9.1.10)


Q&A

In the nineteenth century the questionnaire was a child's game; nowadays it is a standard form of journalism.

The phenomena with which the sociology of the mass media must be concerned, particularly in America, cannot be separated from standardization, the transformation of artistic creations into consumer goods, and the calculated pseudo-individualization and similar manifestations of what is called Verdinglichung - "reification" - in German. It is matched by a reified, largely manipulable consciounsess scarcely capable any longer of spontaneous experience. I can most simply illustrate what I mean, without resorting to any detailed philosophical explanation, by drawing upon an actual experience. Among the frequently changing colleagues who came in contact with me in the Princeton Project was a young lady. After a few days she came to confide in me and asked in a completely charming way, "Dr. Adorno, would you mind a personal question?" I said, "It depends on the question, but just go ahead." And she continued, "Please tell me: are you an extrovert or an introvert?" It was as if she was already thinking, as a living being, according to the pattern of the so-called "cafeteria" questions on questionnaires, by which she had been conditioned. She could fit herself into such rigid and preconceived categories, as one can often observe in Germany when, for example, in marriage advertisements the partners characterize themselves by the signs of the Zodiac that they were born under: Virgo, Aries. Reified minds are in no way limited to America, but are fostered by the general tendency of society. But I first became aware of this in America. Contemporary Europe, in harmony with the economic-technological trend, is following close behind. In the meantime the complex has long since penetrated the general consciousness in America. In 1938 one met with strong resistance for daring to use even the concept of reification which has since [i.e. by 1969] been worn out by use.
[Adorno: A European Scholar in America, in The Intellectual Migration, 346-7]

Information theory (and quantum theory) can be constructed in terms of question-answer, where (importantly) the form of the answer (though not its mathematical value) is predetermined. In a different way, we could say that the philosophy of fiction has as its question, "what is a novel?", and every novel can be thought of as an answer to that question. The form is predetermined to the extent that it is socially given, but it is not historically invariant; therefore the specifics of both form and (artistic) value are part of the answer. When Marx's daughter asked him his favourite names, he gave her own given names in response: clearly a "correct" answer, which we could call generic (many parents would respond in an identical way). Generic fiction has about it a comparable air of correctness: the form of the answer is predetermined by the way in which it is posed.

Laura Marx and her partner Paul Lafargue committed suicide together in 1911 (she was 66, he was 69). His suicide note:

"Healthy in body and mind, I end my life before pitiless old age which has taken from me my pleasures and joys one after another; and which has been stripping me of my physical and mental powers, can paralyse my energy and break my will, making me a burden to myself and to others. For some years I had promised myself not to live beyond 70; and I fixed the exact year for my departure from life. I prepared the method for the execution of our resolution, it was a hypodermic of cyanide acid. I die with the supreme joy of knowing that at some future time, the cause to which I have been devoted for forty-five years will triumph. Long live Communism! Long Live the Second International!"
[Wikipedia, no citation]

To what question was this deed the answer?

(10.1.10)


Ur-phenomenon

[Goethe] can say: "The highest thing would be to grasp that everything factual is already theory. The blue of the sky reveals to us the fundamental law of chromatics. One would never search for anything behind the phenomena; they themselves are the theory."... Whereas as a rule every form of Realism proceeds from theoretical knowledge as prior and immediate, attributing to it the ability to grasp objective being, copy it, and express it faithfully, here the point of emanation is actually appropriated by the object.
[Simmel, "Goethe", quoted in Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, 72]

Something that has always troubled me about narrative theory: the assumption that story is prior to discourse. Story is the "actual" sequence of events while discourse is the particular order and form in which they are told. But this is not what I experience when I write. "Discourse" is what I actually produce; "story" is an effect, an appearance, arising from the discourse. We do not say that the Mona Lisa "actually" has legs but we see only part of her. We know that the Mona Lisa's legs are an inference, a supposition, based on a physically existing portrait. We can only speak of the Mona Lisa as a human being by extrapolating from the painting.

In studying Simmel's presentation of Goethe's concept of truth... it became very clear to me that my concept of origins in the Trauerspiel book is a strict and compelling transfer of this fundamental concept of Goethe out of the realm of nature and into that of history.
[Benjamin, quoted in Buck-Morss, 72-73]

Benjamin's theory is described as inverted Platonism, but in that case it would simply be materialism as Lukacs defines it (in History and Class Consciousness).

What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? What is a picture or a novel that is not of character? What else do we seek in it and find in it? It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way; or if it be not an incident, I think it will be hard to say what it is. At the same time it is an expression of character.
[Henry James, Art of Fiction]

(12.1.10)


A good day

Writing is a condition of desire yearning to become knowledge. Not only writing.

A certain kind of dream used to interest me a lot: ones in which I found myself reading. I asked myself, how can I read in my dream? There must be one part of my brain that makes up what's written in the book, another part that experiences reading it. How, indeed, can anything in a dream be suprising, shocking, frightening, if the whole thing is created by the person who experiences it? I was finding out for myself about the meaning of the transcendental and empirical selves.

I hoped I could observe the process more closely, but I can't control my dreams or wake myself up from them. Eventually, though, I found myself having a reading dream, and I looked closely at the text. I found that it wasn't real words or even letters, nor was it static. The page was a kind of swimming, shifting mass of symbols, cohering into something meaningful only at the point when I somehow imposed meaning on them. Perhaps my dream deceived me.

Much thinking goes on outside the head. Counting with one's figures is the classic example, enshrined in the word "digit". Much thought is therefore practice, not theory, in the hands as much as the head. In this way, the material of art surprises us as we shape it. Clay, wood, stone, sonority, words. We speak of characters "taking on a life of their own."

Today is a good day as my novel is taking a surprising turn. Two new characters have appeared; I quickly thought of a name for both of them. On closer inspection I find a subtle etymological-historical link between these names, as though it was always there, waiting to be found. Everyone who writes encounters similar experiences.

(13.1.10)


Language of chance

"Chance" comes from cadentia (Latin), "the way things fall". Dice are a prototype of chance, as is falling in love. From the fall of the voice we get cadenza and cadence; one came to suggest a musical improvisation, the other a kind of harmonically determined destiny, the correct place to fall. "Accident" is from Latin, accidens, to fall, happen.

Hazard was a dice game, of which craps is a modern, simplified version. "According to William of Tyre, the game took its name from a castle called Hasart or Asart in Palestine, during the siege of which it was invented." (OED). Jeu partie was a term given to various games (including chess), from which we get "jeopardy". From hap (Old Norse for chance) we get "happy", "mishap", "perhaps", and also "haphazard". "Luck" is from Low German luk (related to modern German gluck). "Probably it came into English as a gambling term; the LG dialects were a frequent source of such terms in 15-16 centuries" (OED). "Fluke" (a stroke of luck) is first recorded in connection with billiards (19th cent.), etymology unknown.

"Risk" dates from the 17th century, as risque, resque or risco, its origin uncertain. A dictionary of 1661 defines it as "peril, jeopardy, danger, hazard, chance"; an OED source of 1682 has, "the Risco that they run". Peril is from Middle French, ultimately from Latin periculum, danger.

"Random" is from Middle French randon, randun, rendon meaning speed, haste (12th cent.), probably related to randir to run fast, gallop. OED cites its use in the obsolete sense by Mark Twain in Connecticut Yankee: "Two knights came together with great random". In the sense "run at random" it came to mean an aimless course, losing the original implication of violence. Its modern statistical sense dates from the nineteenth century; we would now use the terms "random process" and "stochastic process" interchangeably, but "stochastic" is from Greek, "to aim at a mark, guess". A 1712 commentary on Thomas Browne has, "Tho' he were no Prophet,..yet in that Faculty which comes nearest it, he excelled, i.e. the Stochastick, wherein he was seldom mistaken, as to future Events."

"Gambler" appears in the 18th century: "gamesters, commonly call'd gamblers, players" (1747), but this need not mean playing for stakes. In 1784 Captain Cook notes, "It is very remarkable that the people of these islands are great gamblers. They have a game very much like our draughts." But in De Morgan's Essay On Probability (1838) the connection with chance is assumed: "A gambler (meaning a bold venturer, which the term commonly implies)".

"Adventure" originally meant, "That which comes to us, or happens without design; chance, hap, fortune, luck". The "novel of adventure" has long been considered inferior to the "novel of character"; perhaps an unconscious reaction to the fact that adventure, not character, is the true basis of the social and economic system out of which the novel has developed.

(14.1.10)


Silence as aura

The forecast was for a clear sky after sunset, followed eventually by freezing fog. I drove out to my site as early as I could but arrived in full darkness, the three-day-old Moon not yet set and bathed in Earth-shine, snow on the ground and the sky veiled in mist. An owl called from the trees as I considered whether to set up the 12-inch telescope. There were breaks of clear sky and I had come a long way, so I unpacked my gear and decided to search for the galaxy group Hickson 10 in Andromeda, easily found, two galaxies immediately visible (NGC529,536, the latter showing central bar and star just south of it at high power) though the other two proved very difficult in the imperfect conditions. They are 220 million light years away, a million times further than the bright naked-eye star Mirach which marked my way to them. The night sky as dialectical image; constellations as mosaic of detail.

(19.1.10)


The Man Who Was Thursday

The Society of Seasons was divided up into Weeks, Months, Seasons, and Years. Six members, with a leader called Sunday, made up a Week, or group. Four Weeks made up a Month, three Months a Season, and four Seasons a Year. There were three Years, commanded respectively by Blanqui, Barbès and Bernard. Readers may be interested to note that it was the Society of Seasons that gave G.K. Chesterton the idea for his novel The Man Who Was Thursday.
[Neil Stewart, Blanqui, London, Victor Gollancz, 1939, p51]

Chesterton's humorous novel (much admired by Borges) is about a group of anarchists who disguise themselves perfectly by posing publicly as anarchists - but all turn out to be police posing as anarchists. The implicit realisation is that the opposing forces are equivalent in every way. But Christianity is Chesterton's fixed reference frame, hence he does not take this final relativising step, which would have made the novel truly postmodern. He imposes Christian allegory as a way of resolving the plot, not realising that what he has produced is a demonstration of the modern form of allegory identified by Benjamin in the poetry of Baudelaire.

The essence of allegory, Benjamin argued in his Trauerspiel study, is interchangeability, so that anything can represent anything else (in particular, death can represent eternal life). There is thus an identity between opposites that exists allegorically, with life and death being principal axis. In capitalist culture, commodity fetishism replaces religious awareness; in Baudelaire the figure of the prostitute becomes an allegory of all wage labour. Benjamin works this out in Central Park, and The Arcades Project becomes a study of modern allegory as played out through phantasmagoria, collective dreams. Bourgeois life involves alienation not only from use-value but also exchange-value (luxury objects that can only be longed for, objects that can be afforded but are immediately out of date and worthless), and in this sense becomes subject to the principal of interchangeability. Benjamin characterises this as the condition of boredom, exemplified in Blanqui's multiverse and Nietzsche's eternal recurrence. Benjamin considers the two equivalent: a misreading that itself demonstrates allegorical interchangeability.

"Is he really an anarchist, then?" she asked.
"Only in that sense I speak of," replied Syme; "or if you prefer it, in that nonsense."
She drew her broad brows together and said abruptly—
"He wouldn't really use—bombs or that sort of thing?"
Syme broke into a great laugh, that seemed too large for his slight and somewhat dandified figure.
"Good Lord, no!" he said, "that has to be done anonymously."
[Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, 8]

The modern terrorist strives for perfect secrecy in planning but maximum publicity in the event: the principle of capitalist production.

Anna Williamson and Jamie Rickers, who front ITV1's hit show Toonattik, were filming a sketch for the programme on London's South Bank wearing combat gear and armed with children's walkie-talkies and glitter-covered hairdryers. Their fake fatigues aroused the suspicions of patrolling police, who stopped and questioned them. Williamson, 28, said: "We were filming a strand called Dork Hunters, which is to do with one of the animations we have on the show. We were out and about doing 'dork hunting' ourselves on the streets of London. Jamie and I were kitted out in fake utility belts. We've got hairdryers in our belt, a kids' walkie-talkie, hairbrushes and all that kind of stuff, and we were being followed by a camera crew and a boom mike and we get literally pulled over by four policemen and we were issued with a warning 'under the act of terrorism'."... The morning programme, which provides light-hearted links in between cartoons such as Ben 10: Alien Force and Dork Hunters From Outer Space, attracts around 616,000 viewers each weekend morning, making it the most popular terrestrial programme of its kind.
[Sky News Online 26.1.10]

"He looks poor," said Dr. Bull doubtfully.
"Quite so," said the Colonel; "that is why he is rich."
[Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, 143]

Chesterton's basic compositional principle in the novel is inversion; this is the source both of its humour and of its allegory. Syme, the hero, is drawn into the anarchist world - and elected as Thursday - thanks to the demonic Gregory

"You are a devil!" said Gregory at last.
"And you are a gentleman," said Syme with gravity.
[Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, 37]

What makes the plot possible is a code of honour: at the outset, Syme discovers Gregory's anarchism and Gregory finds out that Syme is a policeman, but each has promised not to betray the other's secret, prior to learning what the secret is. Chesterton's fixed moral reference frame is gentlemanly conduct, which is ultimately equivalent to Christian values. As long as capitalism is a gentlemanly affair, then, like gambling, it can be tolerated, even if, to the aristocratic mind-set, it has an air of disrepute. Yet in the subconscious of Chesterton's novel is the realisation that capital has replaced God, and that its worshippers are cheats.

"Mere mobs!" repeated his new friend with a snort of scorn. "So you talk about mobs and the working classes as if they were the question. You've got that eternal idiotic idea that if anarchy came it would come from the poor. Why should it? The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government. The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn't; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all. Aristocrats were always anarchists, as you can see from the barons' wars."
[Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, 141]

The free market is anarchic. Lukacs identified the "second nature" that capitalism creates, the economy that comes to be seen as a natural system with its own laws. Our view of these laws is essentially Darwinian: the law of the free market is the law of the jungle. Chesterton resists this, but his explicit imposition of Christian allegory (starting with the introduction of an old lamp inscribed with a cross) is far less convincing than the allegory he creates unwittingly: a prototype of modern conspiracy novels.

"As a lecture on English history for the little ones," said Syme, "this is all very nice; but I have not yet grasped its application."
"Its application is," said his informant, "that most of old Sunday's right-hand men are South African and American millionaires. That is why he has got hold of all the communications; and that is why the last four champions of the anti-anarchist police force are running through a wood like rabbits."
"Millionaires I can understand," said Syme thoughtfully, "they are nearly all mad. But getting hold of a few wicked old gentlemen with hobbies is one thing; getting hold of great Christian nations is another. I would bet the nose off my face (forgive the allusion) that Sunday would stand perfectly helpless before the task of converting any ordinary healthy person anywhere."
"Well," said the other, "it rather depends what sort of person you mean."
[Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, 142]

The essence of Darwinian theory is the statistics of large numbers; Benjamin appreciated the importance of the crowd in understanding Baudelairean allegory. Conspiracy theory is the idea that the crowd can be controlled by a few: this was what Blanqui was all his life committed to, and the same dream soothes arm-chair entrepreneurs or would-be celebrities. Its phantasmagoria is the super-rich international criminal of whom Sunday appears an early example.

Chesterton resists his own novel's subconscious; the effort becomes increasingly noticeable as the book progresses through its second half, and ultimately spoils it. A crucial section appears in Chapter 11, where Chesterton faces what he has created, he confronts his own fantasy in a dreamlike passage set in a forest. This is the moment when he has to decide whether the novel is to be allowed to become fully relativised, or else is to be stabilised within the fixed moral frame that his consciousness dictates.

The sun on the grass was dry and hot. So in plunging into the wood they had a cool shock of shadow, as of divers who plunge into a dim pool. The inside of the wood was full of shattered sunlight and shaken shadows. They made a sort of shuddering veil, almost recalling the dizziness of a cinematograph. Even the solid figures walking with him Syme could hardly see for the patterns of sun and shade that danced upon them. Now a man's head was lit as with a light of Rembrandt, leaving all else obliterated; now again he had strong and staring white hands with the face of a negro. The ex-Marquis had pulled the old straw hat over his eyes, and the black shade of the brim cut his face so squarely in two that it seemed to be wearing one of the black half-masks of their pursuers. The fancy tinted Syme's overwhelming sense of wonder. Was he wearing a mask? Was anyone wearing a mask? Was anyone anything? This wood of witchery, in which men's faces turned black and white by turns, in which their figures first swelled into sunlight and then faded into formless night, this mere chaos of chiaroscuro (after the clear daylight outside), seemed to Syme a perfect symbol of the world in which he had been moving for three days, this world where men took off their beards and their spectacles and their noses, and turned into other people. That tragic self-confidence which he had felt when he believed that the Marquis was a devil had strangely disappeared now that he knew that the Marquis was a friend. He felt almost inclined to ask after all these bewilderments what was a friend and what an enemy. Was there anything that was apart from what it seemed? The Marquis had taken off his nose and turned out to be a detective. Might he not just as well take off his head and turn out to be a hobgoblin? Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten. For Gabriel Syme had found in the heart of that sun-splashed wood what many modern painters had found there. He had found the thing which the modern people call Impressionism, which is another name for that final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe.
[Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, 139]

He calls it Impressionism, but we can see that more apt are other terms and analogies he uses: shock, cinema, veil. Chesterton confronts what we would call the postmodern condition: everything is interchangeable. But our own name for it may be as inappropriate as the one that Chesterton chose, as much victim to the desire for novelty that is a symptom of the condition itself.

Deconstruction is a form of postmodernism, the philosophy of which, it could be argued, refers less to a chronological period than an epistemological stance. Whereas modernism in philosophical terms is wedded to the Enlightenment dream of a substantively rational society, postmodernism takes its philosophical lead from Nietzsche, Baudelaire, and Blanqui. If the terms are defined this way, Benjamin must be counted as a modernist.
[Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, 477]

The Passagen-Werk suggests that it makes no sense to divide the era of capitalism into formalist “modernism” and historically eclectic “post-modernism”, as these tendencies have been there from the start of industrial culture. The paradoxical dynamics of novelty and repetition simply repeat themselves anew.
Modernism and postmodernism are not chronological eras, but political positions in the century-long struggle between art and technology. If modernism expresses utopian longing by anticipating the reconciliation of social function and aesthetic form, postmodernism acknowledges their non-identity and keeps fantasy alive. Each position thus represents a partial truth; each will occur “anew”, so long as the contradictions of commodity society are not overcome.
[Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, 359]

(27.1.10)


24

According to Marx, industrialised production alienates workers from what they produce: someone who wields a spanner in a factory has only a remote connection with the car that comes off the assembly line. Lukacs, and later Adorno, considered this in relation to the arts, noting how the “culture industry” has a similarly alienating effect, with film being (in the mid-twentieth century) the most industrialised form. This industrialisation gives rise to specialist experts, people with a supreme degree of skill in a restricted area, who are nevertheless remote from the totality of what they help create.

The TV series 24 is a typical example of this. It is a spectacle of a most immaculate kind; a gleaming commodity whose every detail is crafted with precision. The lighting, music, sets, camera work, special effects, performances – all are of a quality that can only be obtained at a high price, and this manifest opulence is evident during every moment of the production. Yet what all these supremely talented people have produced, and with so much investment of labour, is a monument to fascism and state terror. It is unlikely that the wardrobe manager or focus puller delights in torture, yet 24 is a justification of torture: that is its simple message, the ideology its contributors collectively produce.

As in most productions for TV and cinema, it is the story that is given least attention. The plot of a typical season of 24 can be easily summarised. We begin with some atrocity or outrage, committed by a person or persons who look recognisably evil and possibly do not even have a speaking part, their function being only to pull a trigger or press a button. This is investigated by CTU, the Counter Terrorist Unit whose operations are the central concern of the series. The initial baddies, whom we can call level zero, are in fact answerable to some higher tier, level one, who become the main antagonists once all the zeroes have been eliminated. And of course the ones take their orders from level two, and so on. It transpires that the initial atrocity is merely a smokescreen, a distraction from some higher-level operation, which in turn is a decoy calculated to draw attention from the real plot. Thus the story is marked by simultaneous ascent and stasis: an illusory hierarchy, manifested by cellphone conversations between doomed villains and their increasingly smart-looking superiors, whose surroundings mount in sophistication. From street corners we move to rented office space, a richly furnished house or plush hotel suite, then eventually to a figure who exists in an aeroplane, on a yacht, or in the entourage of the President.

The story is mythic, the preferred form in mass entertainment because of its simplicity, its reproducibility, an air of authoritativeness that is really authoritarianism masking as tradition, like Ionic columns on the façade of an early twentieth-century bank building. The expertise applied to story is an ability to reproduce forms, creating something as predictable as a pop song, where the only variable is at the least essential level: that of individual people.

The hero of 24 is CTU operative Jack Bauer. The term “operative” is particularly apt, given that everyone in the series acts according to the necessity of the system that defines them. Jack constantly rebels against the bureaucracy of CTU and the tiers of government above; his line of communication invariably comes to be with the President himself, as Jack finds himself pitted against both the terrorists and his fellow law-enforcers. The show’s crucial gimmick is that each season lasts one day, each of its 24 episodes an hour, the events supposedly unfolding in “real time”, a claim underpinned by the intermittent use of multiscreen to show simultaneous action. While a team of operatives struggle in the office environment of CTU headquarters, Jack roves the outside world in pursuit of the ultimate bad guy.

What is really represented in 24 is the world of work, and the fantasy life it produces. CTU headquarters is any office anywhere; its employees are expected to stay on shift for 24 hours if that is what it takes to get the job done. They have no life beyond work, no identity within it; the character of Chloe is striking because she is the only one who appears to have any kind of personality at all, possibly having been introduced when it was found that on the flow chart displayed on the wall of the script-writing room, there was no “trickster”.

Rather, it is the “shape shifter” who dominates. Any person can turn out to be a villain: this is the basic principle that drives the plot. In the first season, the arch culprit proves to be the woman with whom Jack was having an affair, a reversal of staggering implausibility that sets the scene for every following season. President Logan, the bumbling and inept Vice President propelled unwittingly into the top job after an unfortunate plane crash, and for a time ranking alongside Chloe as someone who actually appears to be human, undergoes the same arbitrary transformation, turning out to have been a master villain all along (something of which the actor himself, one assumes, was completely unaware, until the latest script was handed to him).

So the structure of 24, like that of a great deal of mass culture, is a rigid system whose humblest elements are completely interchangeable. It is the structure of society itself. We all like to feel we are indispensible, but someone else can always do our job equally well, if not better. Personality, individuality, are handicaps, not assets.

Other than uninteded hilarity, 24 evokes no emotions except those aroused by violence, or the threat of violence. That is enough to make it compulsive viewing for a great many people. It is like Chesterton’s vision of police versus anarchists in The Man Who Was Thursday, but without any shred of humour or scrap of irony. The level of suspense is about equal; in Chesterton we quickly get the joke and watch in amusement as fake anarchists are unmasked; in 24 we know that level 3 will be felled and the new plans of level 4 will be unveiled. And in both Chesterton and 24, the two opposing forces are entirely symmetrical; hierarchical chains of command topped by a grand-master figure. Chesterton’s Sunday is a figure of irony; what is not ironic is the underlying faith in Christian values. In 24 it is the office of President that stands for ultimate moral authority: this is the belief on which the whole thing depends. Initially the place is held by President Palmer, one of a number of fictional black Presidents who helped pave the way for the real one (the collective unconscious is prophetic to the extent that it cannot help eventually manifesting itself materially). The evil President Logan is clearly an aberration: the office itself is sacred and never questioned.

Jack exemplifies this unquestioning respect of transcendent (as opposed to earthly) authority. While routinely disobeying the orders of his superiors, he will never disobey the wishes of a just President; and whenever he acts, it is implicitly assumed that he does so under this higher authority. Thus he can do anything. On one occasion he must prove to a bunch of villains that he is one of them. A paedophile is being held in a room in CTU, and has struck a deal so that he will be released. Jack shoots him, cuts off his head, and takes it to the villains in a sack as proof of his good faith. In another season, his own superior is ordered to be sacrificed to the terrorists. Jack duly puts a bullet in the man’s neck. He is essentially Judge Dredd, but again, without the irony.

Walter Benjamin noted the interchangeable nature of allegory, and this is what we see in 24. Individuals are completely interchangeable between the camps of good and evil, while it is those suprahuman camps that are inviolate. 24 answers in the affirmative the question, whether it is justifiable to torture a known terrorist in order to save innocent lives; or equivalently, whether it is justifiable to wage war on countries known to be bad guys, in order to save good guys. The terms of the question are of course erroneous. There is never a “known” terrorist, only a suspected one. The position of perfect knowledge exists at the end of time.

It is to this transcendent point that 24 seeks to propel us. Like capitalism itself, it is dedicated to the elimination of time, or as we more commonly say, to “using” it. No second of the day is unproductive; at every instant there is someone logging onto a satellite, overcoming a firewall, commandeering a channel or tracking a transponder. It is a vision of lives made entirely technological, in which time, like humanity, is merely an inconvenience. The physicist John Archibald Wheeler, asked to define time, said that it is what stops everything from happening all at once. In 24, there is a relentless urge to make everything happen at once; it is not enough that this is “real” time, it strives for the hyper-real. That no one ever goes to the bathroom should come as no surprise (that flaw of “realist” fiction was noted long ago; Joyce happily protested against it). But if anyone is even allowed to sleep, it is only because the plot does not require their presence for an episode or two. Sex is invariably an act of treachery or a prelude to someone’s bad end; it is not prudishness that makes 24 almost entirely sex-free, but an awareness that sex constitutes a realm of human freedom and joyful time-wasting.

Benjamin’s observations on allegory were made in his study of Trauerspiel, a form of German Baroque drama typified by violence, suffering and bombastic rhetoric. 24 is a form of modern Trauerspiel. Jack Bauer is the suffering martyr, denied family or friends because of his total determination to do his duty to the President. Courtly intrigue, Benjamin noted, is a key feature of Trauerspiel, and part of its allegorical aspect: princes and courtiers are interchangeable, but not the positions they hold. In capitalist Trauerspiel, it is workers and commodities who become interchangeable.

In 24 we see this supplanting of humans by reified commodities. The show has a high level of techno-speak, often uttered by Chloe who, like most of the CTU office-workers, is essentially an IT expert, her distinction being that she’s more expert than most. You get the feeling that all those people in their open-plan workplace could equally well be running an airline or a packaging company, rather than pushing buttons that kill people; work has become the ability to understand computers and communication networks. Words like “protocol”, “schematic”, “manifest” are used a lot more than, say, “tired”. Conversations are mostly over the phone, existence is virtualised. This is the higher-level alienation of modern life: the abolition of space as well as time, either being deemed inconvenient to productivity, while at the same time being mournfully acknowledged as essential.

We need not take the series as exceptional; rather, it is typical. The ordinary modalities of life are reconceived as a violent wish-fulfilment fantasy, in which the office worker can wield a gun and disobey his superiors. The fantasy’s claims to replicate reality are its supposed authority, but the reality they replicate is not that of terrorists and law-enforcers, rather it is that of the viewers, and the world they inhabit unconsciously.

(29.1.10)


Blanqui

[While] the struggle of the different socialist leaders among themselves sets forth each of the so-called systems as a pretentious adherence to one of the transit points of the social revolution as against another - the proletariat rallies more and more round revolutionary socialism, round communism, for which the bourgeoisie has itself invented the name of Blanqui. This socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution...
[Marx, The Class Struggles in France (1850), in Selected Writings ed. David McLellan, 296]

I have no theory. I am not a professor of politics or socialism. What exists is bad. Something else must take its place.
[Blanqui interviewed by the London Times, 1879. Quoted in Spitzer, The Revolutionary Theories of Louis Auguste Blanqui, 135]

It is hardly possible to overestimate the revolutionary prestige which Blanqui possessed at that time and preserved up to his death [in 1881]. Before Lenin there was no one else with a clearer profile in the proletariat. His features were engraved in Baudelaire's mind. There is a sheet by him which bears a likeness of Blanqui's head in addition to other improvised drawings.
[Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, 16]

Lenin, of course, vigorously denied all imputations of Blanquism to Bolshevik revolutionary theory. He distinguished between the Marxist theory of the emancipation of humanity through the class struggle of the proletariat and the Blanquist faith in a conspiracy of a small minority of intellectuals, and elaborated three major differences between the Marxian and Blanquist approach to an uprising. For Marxists as opposed to Blanquists, the uprising was based on the advanced class rather than upon a conspiracy or party, it was based upon the "revolutionary upsurge of the people", and it took account of the crucial stage in the history of the maturing revolution when the action of the vanguard of the people was at its height and when the enemies of the people were weakest and most dividied.
[Spitzer, The Revolutionary Theories of Louis Auguste Blanqui, 136]

He had wan, emaciated cheeks, white lips, a sickly wicked and repulsive expression, a dirty pallor, the appearance of a moldy corpse; he wore no visible linen; an old black frock coat tightly covered his lean withered limbs; he seemed to have passed his life in a sewer and to have just left it.
[De Toqueville's description of Blanqui in 1848, quoted in Spitzer, p8]

His outward appearance was distinguished, his clothes were immaculate. He had a finely formed head, and his facial expression was calm. Only the wild flashing of his eyes sometimes portended trouble; his eyes were narrow, small and penetrating, and usually they looked kind rather than hard. His speech was measured, fatherly, and distinct - next to the oratorical style of Thiers, the least declamatory I have heard.
[Description of Blanqui by J.-J. Weiss, quoted in Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, 17]

At first sight Blanqui does not appear very attractive, but that is because suffering is not always very agreeable to watch. One is disposed to obey him, but not to love him. He does not attract, he dominates. Blanqui replaces the physical strength that he lacks with a virility of the soul, which on certain occasions is all-powerful.
[Description by Delvau, quoted in Spitzer, 9]

[Physiognomy] assured people that everyone was, unencumbered by any factual knowledge, able to make out the profession, the character, the background, and the life-style of passers-by... Delvau, Baudelaire's friend... claimed that he could divide the Parisian public according to its various strata as easily as a geologist distinguishes the layers in rocks.
[Benjamin, Baudelaire, 39]

The so-called Revolutions of 1848 were but poor incidents - small fractures and fissures in the dry crust of European society. However, they denounced the abyss. Beneath the apparently solid surface, they betrayed oceans of liquid matter, only needing expansion to rend into fragments of hard rock. Noisily and confusedly they proclaimed the emancipation of the Proletarian, i.e., the secret of the nineteenth century, and of the revolution of that century. That social revolution, it is true, was no novelty invented in 1848. Steam, electricity, and the self-acting mule were revolutionists of a rather more dangerous character than even citizens Barbes, Raspail, and Blanqui. But, although the atmosphere in which we live weighs upon everyone with a 20,000lb force, do you feel it? No more than European society before 1848 felt the revolutionary atmosphere enveloping and pressing it from all sides. There is one great fact, characteristic of this our nineteenth century, a fact which no party dares deny. On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman empire. In our days everything seems pregnant with its contrary.
[Marx, speech of 1856, in Selected Writings, 338]

Blanqui is the martyr of Trauerspiel; the emaciated hero who knows only suffering and annihilation, and whose life is one of renunciation. He is the master of disguise, the figure who evades physiognomic classification and appears differently to different people, eternally enigmatic, with no true identity of his own. He is the tavern conspirator, the Jacobin Terrorist, despised by Marx as much as De Toqueville. He is the international grand-master, the cold and ruthless figure who is the counterpart of Satan in the era of capitalism, an historical archetype already recognised in Hammer's History Of the Assassins (1819) as the Old Man Of The Mountain and his Templar counterpart. Finally, Blanqui becomes the proponent of materialist multiverse, the paths of life being simply a matter of chance: revolution and capitalism are equivalent forms of faith. The Blanquist movement foreshadows later political parties in that its followers become mostly non-active spectators, drawn on for support, but kept permanently out of the inner circle.

The development of proletarian conspiracies produced a need for a division of labour. Their members were divided into occasional conspirators... who only attended the meetings and kept themselves in readiness to appear at the assembly point upon orders from the leader, and into professional conspirators who devoted their entire activity to the conspiracy and made a living from it... Their uncertain existence, which in specific cases depended more on chance than on their activities, their irregular life whose only fixed stations were the taverns of the wine dealers... and their inevitable acquaintanceship with all sorts of dubious people place them in that sphere of life which in Paris is called la bohmeme.
[Marx and Engels (1886) quoted in Benjamin, Baudelaire, 12]

Baudelaire's Satanism must not be taken too seriously. If it has some significance, it is as the only attitude in which Baudelaire was able to sustain a non-conformist position for any length of time... From between the lines [of Les Litanies de Satan] flashes the dark head of Blanqui... This Satan, whom the chain of invocations also knows as the "father confessor... of the conspirators", is different from the infernal intriguer who is called Satan trismegistos, the demon, in the poems, and appears in the prose pieces as His Highness... Lemaitre has pointed out the dichotomy which makes of the devil "in one place the author of all evil and then again the great vanquished, the great victim".
[Benjamin, Baudelaire, 24]

One might argue that by the time of his death in 1881 almost all republicans were Blanquists, although devotion to his memory hardly involved any special sacrifice. Blanqui had become the disembodied emblem for an extremely vague conception of the revolutionary cause, and his legend had acquired connotations of sentimentality altogether foreign to the studied pessimism with which he had accepted his ordeal. It was in this nostalgic vein that Gustave Geffroy, as a preparation for writing what was to be the first full-length biography of Blanqui, visited all the prisons in which he had been incarcerated so that he could vicariously share Blanqui's suffering.
[Patrick H. Hutton, The Cult of the Revolutionary Tradition, 24]

[Baudelaire] was a passionate admirer of [the artist] Meryon. The two men had an elective affinity to each other... Both died lonely and disturbed... Both were late in achieving fame. {Footnote: In the twentieth century Meryon found a biographer in Gustave Geffroy. It is no accident that the masterpiece of this author is a biography of Blanqui.}... For in Meryon, too, there is an interpenetration of classical antiquity and modernism, and in him the form of this superimposition, the allegory, appears unmistakably.
[Benjamin, Baudelaire, 87]

The fact that the legend of Blanqui exhibited so many faces and exerted such a diverse appeal suggests why it is difficult to define the extent of the man's following. As a political movement, Blanquism was complex...Its character has perhaps best been described by Arthur Ranc, who drew a distinction between Blanquists of the first and second degree. The first group was composed of a relatively small number of conspirators - militants dedicated to the overthrow of the existing political order. The second designated a much larger group of sympathizers... [who,] while occasionally willing to be demonstrative, were reluctant to be subversive. That is why the Blanquist movement cannot be regarded as a single political party. It is better described as two networks of followers, each employing different methods, yet reinforcing one another in their common identification of the values of the revolutionary tradition with the legend of Blanqui. The distinction between these two elements of Blanquism endures throughout the thirty-year history of the movement.
[Hutton, 24]

The Blanquists continued to pay him homage on the anniversary of his death; but the police ceased to monitor these proceedings after 1885, so little was their expectation that the ceremony would inspire a mass gathering. Blanqui's life was commented upon less frequently by his followers. His legend in the 1890s became largely the property of academic literary critics, who discarded his image as a realist in favor of a lyric image, one more likely to inspire reflection than activism. The celebrated biography by Gustave Geffroy was written in this vein. Geffroy portrayed Blanqui as a Promethean figure, the eternal rebel doomed to defeat. Thus Blanqui, who for his followers had been godlike in his power, was in the end characterized by his more distant admirers as a god who died for his ineffectualness.
For Camille Mauclair, reviewing Geffroy's biography in 1897, Blanqui's asceticism was more important than his activism. Mauclair portrayed Blanqui as an essentially spiritual figure whose personal suffering epitomized the suffering of the French people through the ages. He concluded that Blanqui's life was a pilgrimage from struggle to contemplation, with L'Eternite par les astres, written during his incarceration at Taureau in 1871, his culminating meditation.
[Hutton, 161]

Within three decades they [the Social Democrats] managed virtually to erase the name of Blanqui, though it had been the rallying sound that had reverberated through the preceding century.
[Benjamin, Theses On The Philosophy Of History, in Illuminations, 251-2]

(1.2.10)


Personality test

I tried an online Myers-Briggs test and came out as INFJ. Apparently, "Writing, counseling, public service and even politics are areas where INFJs frequently find their niche." The test produces sixteen character types, four more than traditional astrology. My sign is Libra, for whom good career choices include, "writer, mediator, law reformer, politician". Also "architect, athlete, beautician, dancer, fashion designer, flower arranger..."

Both approaches work by presenting the user with a great many choices (yes-no questions or a list of attributes from which selection can be made), and are therefore tests of the respondent's self-perception.

Like Galenic temperaments or the elements of Empedocles, the personality test appeals to a combinatorial view of the universe. This is similar to the atomistic cosmology of Democritus-Leucippus or Blanqui, yet here what is being sought is a typology of spirit.

The tendency of people to include birth-sign in lonely-hearts ads was noted in the 1930s by Adorno, who saw it as a form of reification. Websites offer advice on romantic compatibility: astrology produces 144 possible relationships, Myers-Briggs has 256. A cynic might say this is more than the number of relationship-types that actually exist. A glorious feature of combinatorial typology is its creation of types unseen in nature. This was the thought that bewitched Blanqui in his cell: he demanded that the surplus possibilities be real. It is what Lovejoy called the principle of plenitude, attributing its origin to Neoplatonism. We see Walter Benjamin's error in equating Blanquist multiverse with Nietzschean eternal recurrence. The latter idea, held by the Pythagoreans, is not that every possibility must occur, only that the same things will repeat endlessly. Against ennui we must place wish-fulfillment. According to Freud, all writing, like all dreaming, is a form of wish-fulfillment.

The Myers-Briggs test originated in work by Katherine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers, based on Jung's Psychological Types, and was developed during World War II, apparently as a way of helping women find appropriate war work. Jung's scheme consisted of three binary variables, giving rise to eight possible types; Myers-Briggs added a fourth category.

Viewed combinatorially, we could say (as astrologers do) that the basic types (12 or 16 according to scheme) are only crude indicators: a full interpretation is based on a birth chart, or on the complete responses to the Myers-Briggs test. The one I did had 72 yes-no answers, giving a possible 272=1021 responses, a number far larger than the present world population (by a factor of about a hundred billion). Of course people will not necessarily give the same responses when re-tested (and apparently often end up being re-categorised). But even if everyone did the test a thousand times, you could expect to find each person's result unique to them.

Compare this with 20Q, the computerised game of twenty questions, which can be played with a machine or online. Though not infallible, its power is amazing, not only in guessing things such as "sandwich" or "tree frog", but even when challenged with "hope" or "laughter". (I just tried "reification" on the online version - it guessed "insanity", then "fear"). In twenty questions there are 220= one million (approx) solutions, which is about as many words as there are in the English language. As with Myers-Briggs, however, there is the possibility of variance in responses: two different people might not give all the same answers for "tree frog". But in 20Q the answers are not only yes-no, the online version also allows for "Unknown, Irrelevant, Sometimes, Probably, Doubtful". That multiplies the possible solutions by a factor of ten billion (since 720=1016). But the potential ability of 20Q to cover every word in any language is still dwarfed by the potential power of the Myers-Briggs test to cover every possible human.

Like horoscopes, personality tests appeal to a conflicting desire for individuality and group validation. Having newly discovered myself to be an INFJ, I find there are web forums were people of my "type" seek advice on their optimal career or marriage partner. Special pride is taken in the rarity value of types: being in a category that accounts for only a couple of percent of the total population can be seen as a mark of distinction. Should every word in the dictionary feel the same glow at finding itself alphabetically catalogued? The illusion created by test or machine is in both cases the same: seeing the machine correctly guess what was in your head is just like reading your personality-type profile and thinking, "yes, that's me!". To the machine we attribute magical knowledge, to the test a magical power of insight.

The Jung-Myers-Briggs typology of personality dates from the same era (mid-twentieth century) that saw typologies of literature: Propp's Morphology of the Folk-Tale, Joseph Campbell's "Hero With A Thousand Faces" (the former a Structuralist, the latter a Jungian approach). Jakobson and Genette are a little later but arguably similar in spirit. For the user, there is the same talismanic aura of knowledge arrived at combinatorially, knowledge that doesn't actually require any thinking.

A couple of years ago I noticed that many of my creative writing students were reading a book called the Seven Basic Plots, by Christopher Booker. It has a philosophy akin to Propp's or Campbell's; a morphological typology of narratives. All very interesting, if you want to know that Snow White is somehow really the same as War And Peace. But as a writer I'm not interested in what makes two stories the same, I want to know about the differences. I'd rather write War And Peace than Snow White. Morphology appeals to the desire for genericity. It's fine if you want to be a Hollywood script writer, where the whole point is to create a consistent and reproducible product. Not so fine if you strive for uniqueness. And what do I look for in people? A type? A recognisable commodity? Baudelaire's friend Delvau thought he could see these types on the streets of Paris, just by looking at their faces.

Writing is an unusual career to the extent that it is self-nominating. You don't apply to be a writer, you don't do a test or respond to an advertisement. You just write. Publication satisfies the need that people feel for formal validation, and so becomes equated with writing itself: you're not a "real" writer until you're a professional one. We know that Adorno would have called that evidence of reified personality.

The personality test is like an application form for membership of society. It supposedly expresses our "preferences", but those preferences are socially conditioned. The most common Myers-Briggs type found in surveys done in the U.S. is ESFJ, described as the "caregiver" or "provider", someone with "a special gift of invariably making people feel good about themselves". This is what we want of society itself, and its popular art forms: that they let us all sleep peacefully.

(2.2.10)


The Celestial Plot

The Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares was a friend and disciple of Borges. His first published story collection was La Trama Celeste (1948). The title piece ("The Celestial Plot") is about a pilot whose plane crashes, only for him to discover that he is in a parallel world where he is arrested as a spy. The story hinges on an edition of the complete works of Blanqui, paginated differently in the different worlds, but leading in either case to L'Eternite par les astres. As a classical precursor of Blanqui, the narrator cites the Democritean idea of a plurality of worlds, as discussed by Cicero (Academica 2.17, 2.40).

Capra's 1946 movie It's A Wonderful Life is based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, The Greatest Gift, self-published in 1943. At Christmas time a suicidal man wishes he had never been born, and a "little stranger" fulfils his wish, making him a brush salesman who goes home to find his wife married to a different man, etc. When the wish is undone, the man returns to his home in the real world, and finds that his wife still has the brush.

The Greatest Gift is notionally in the tradition of Dickens' A Christmas Carol: the parallel world is a vision rather than materially existing; but the final twist undermines its visionary status. The brush is what Borges, in the 1940 story "Tlon, Uqbar, Tertius Orbis", called a "hronir", a misplaced object apparently created by thought. The 1970s children's television series Mr Benn was a tale of fantasy visions evoked by costumes, always ending with the transference of such hronir back to the real world (where they could be kept as secret mementoes evidencing the reality of the experience).

In contrast to the cosy reassurance of The Greatest Gift, the Bioy Casares story is instead a nightmare; rather than celebrating the gift of life it denies its weight. The hronir is Blanqui's book, varied and multiplied as evidence of the truth of its contents.

These anxieties are present from antiquity, surface in the nineteenth century, and become part of mass consciousness during the time of fascism. Benjamin saw a link between Baudelaire's horror of mass production (the seven old men in the poem of that title, who are like a single man replicated by industrialised society), and the mass production of lives and worlds in Blanqui's cosmology. This, to Benjamin (in the 1939 expose of the Arcades Project), is modernity.

The fantasy it produces splits in two directions, wish-fulfilment and nightmare. Freud would say they are really the same thing, expressing themselves in different ways. The parallel world (and its sibling, alternative history) are a response of capitalist society to its own contradictions. If we take the view of Buck-Morss, in Dialectics of Seeing, regarding the inter-relationship of modernism and postmodernism, then we can see, in the various ways that the multiverse plays out in contemporary collective consciousness, the interplay of modernist rationalism and postmodern playfulness.

According to Michelet (quoted by Benjamin), every era dreams its successor. It is surely no accident that the first herald of the post/modern multiverse was Blanqui. He woke from the dream of industrialised society only to find himself in that of our own.

(3.2.10)


Many Worlds

Hugh Everett's relative state formulation of quantum mechanics (subsequently known as the "many worlds" intepretation) was presented in his 1957 PhD thesis. His original title was "Wave Mechanics Without Probability". Everett sought to address the "measurement problem"; the discontinuity arising from the apparent collapse of the wave function. His answer was to make the wave function always continuous by having it describe multiple universes.

Borges's famous story of multiple realities, The Garden Of Forking Paths, was published in 1941. In the book Programming The Universe, the physicist Seth Lloyd describes meeting Borges, a few years before his death in 1986, at a graduation ceremony. Lloyd explained Everett's theory to him, and Borges replied to the effect that it was encouraging to see science catching up with art.

Borges had long known of Blanqui's L'Eternite par les astres, having apparently discovered it around the same time as Walter Benjamin. Borges refers to Blanqui in the essay Circular Time, and in his 1941 essay The Creation And P.H. Gosse, making the same comparison that Benjamin made ("Oh Louis-Auguste Blanqui, oh Nietzsche, oh Pythagoras!"). But where Benjamin emphasised the similarity between Blanqui and Nietzsche (seeing both as manifestation of ennui), Borges appreciated the differences between their multiverses: in History of Eternity he favours Blanqui over Nietzsche because of the former's infinity of space as well as time, its synchronic as opposed to diachronic repetition. (Borges also cites here the Cicero quotation subsequently used by Bioy Casares in The Celestial Plot).

The speculations of Borges, Blanqui etc appear prophetic only if we take the introduction of a cultural idea into science as evidence of its absolute validity. Then we are like the person who considers himself truly ill only once his condition has been diagnosed and given a medical name.

H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, which contains an account of the "fourth dimension", was published in 1895, ten years prior to Einstein's first relativity papers, and twelve years before Minkowski formulated relativity in four-dimensional space-time. Wells drew his idea from speculations that were widespread at the time (Abbott's Flatland, 1884, is the most famous example of a popular nineteenth-century account of higher dimensionality). These extra dimensions were the original location for parallel worlds: there is a story by Mario de Sa-Carneiro (1890-1916) in which a person is killed by a car that comes flying out of such a world.

Physicists read the same stories as everyone else, and live in the same culture. The collective anxiety that manifested itself in the mid-twentieth-century as a sudden proliferation of alternative-reality stories was subsequently reflected in Everett's work, and more importantly, in the way it came to be eagerly taken up by physicsts from the 1970s onwards, to the point where nowadays it is described by some as "scientific fact".

When Einstein formulated general relativity he realised that he could add a scalar term which would ensure a static universe (as was then believed to exist). This "cosmological constant" could, however, be arbitrarily tuned; there was no a priori reason why it should take any particular numerical value, a fact that horrified Einstein (who famously called the delinquent term his "greatest blunder"). What therefore arises is the possibility of an ensemble of universes, in each of which the cosmological constant takes a different value. Speculations about such ensemble universes were widespread among physicists in the early part of the twentieth century (Sommerfeld and Schrodinger entertained such statistical notions regarding the fundamental constants).

Somewhat like the dialectic of modernism and postmodernism, there is a conflict between the rationalist desire for a unified theory in which every fundamental constant is uniquely fixed a priori, and an ensemble vision in which there is a multiverse of every possibility, the selection of any particular universe (e.g. our own) being effectively arbitrary. In the 1980s it looked as if superstrings might be a theory of the unique type (the possibilities at one point seemed narrowed down to just two, both with an appealing property of "self duality"). Later work showed that the range of possible theories (determined by the manifolds of compactified dimensions) is so large as to be effectively infinite. We could say that physics is presently dominated by a "postmodernist" rather than "modernist" attitude; but this would not be meaningful in a historicist sense. The see-saw has a tendency to dip on one side or the other, but both sides are always present. From Plato's Timaeus it could be deduced that there are many worlds; Aristotle's On The Heavens says unambiguously that there must be only one.

(5.2.10)


Fictional philosophy

I do not want to suggest that Block de Behar is a Heideggerian, or that she applies the thoughts of Heidegger to the works of Borges, in the now classic and utterly bankrupt application-paradigm of literary studies, in which the would-be critic sprinkles a dry literary text with a healthy dash of some spicy theory in order to serve it up fresh, and with newfound panache.
[William Egginton, introduction to Lisa Block de Behar, Borges: The Passion Of An Endless Quotation (SUNY Press 2003)]

Proust said that every novelist tends to be interpreted according to the philosophy of the day (he was thinking of the reception of the Recherche in the light of relativity: formerly he had portrayed the novel as an illustration of Bergson). Voltaire's Candide, subtitled Optimism, is taken as an attack on Leibniz's Theodicy (with Pangloss seen as a portrait of Leibniz himself, though this is clearly an error: Leibniz was celibate, Pangloss is a libertine, and the portrait is surely of Maupertuis, Voltaire's rivals for the affections of Mme du Chatelet, also parodied in Micromegas for his polar expedition in which he acquired two girls from Lapland). Pope's Essay on Man was similarly taken to be a (positive) account of Leibniz's Theodicy, and Pope was questioned about this - he said he had never read Leibniz's book, though clearly he had been influenced by the philosophy of Optimism that had passed into public consciousness. This is the phenomenon Proust commented on, and it can happen to anyone. When I first started publishing novels I was immediately labelled a postmodernist, and people asked me about philosphers I had never read. In all things, influence is mostly unconscious and second-hand. Anxiety of influence is a modern phenomenon: it never afflicted Pope.

What of the "bankrupt application-paradigm"? Egginton's statement makes an assumption of historical progress within literary criticism: paradigms become redundant as better ones come along, as in science. I reject this assumption. In art there is no scientific progress, there is only historical change. I think it was perhaps in my first novel that I imagined the following thought-experiment: take a random sample of paintings from several historical periods, show them to a Martian, and ask it to put them in chronological order. What is there to say that a Picasso comes after Raphael? Is Raphael "bankrupt"? Only in the sense that the value of investments can rise and fall, and the investment we all make in art is one of faith, where faith is socially conditioned. The first task of the artist is to become a kind of agnostic with respect to this conditioning. Egginton wants to claim a sort of critical agnosticism for Block de Behar, but the claim is unconvincing. To proclaim oneself free of ideology is only to say that one accepts the prevailing ideology.

Block de Behar's book is interesting in that she emphasises the particular importance of Blanqui's L'Eternite par les astres for Borges, as well as Benjamin. She therefore isolates the common point that allows us to see Borges as Benjaminian, or Benjamin as Borgesian. However, she fails to emphasise what is equally important: the difference. Benjamin is a materialist and The Arcades Project is a search for historical truth. Borges, even in his essays, is a writer of fiction. Block de Behar is a Borgesian but not a Benjaminian: in her (post-structuralist) terms, to say that The Arcades Project is "meant" to be non-fiction is presumably meaningless, because it can be anything we want it to be. Block de Behar's book is an application of ideology portraying itself as a relativising of ideology. Benjamin said we should never trust what authors say about their own books, and this is wise. Nor, of course, should we trust what critics say, much as we may value their scholarship and enjoy their (mis)readings.

Despite extensive and thoughtful reference to Blanqui, Block de Behar gives far less attention to Leibniz, who is also (as she acknowledges) a significant point of intersection between Borges and Benjamin. The latter appropriated the term "monad", giving it a meaning that overlaps but does not coincide with Leibniz, while Borges's indebtedness to Leibniz's Theodicy and Monadology is at least as great as his debt to Blanqui.

Bertrand Russell described the Monadology as a "fairy-tale", meaning that it combined a sense of consistency, wholeness and perfection alongside a complete detachment from reality. In other words we can read it as a kind of fiction, though Leibniz evidently did not intend this, and it would of course be a very different kind of fiction from The Arcades Project. It is fictional in the sense of Plato (though not novelistic in the way that Bakhtin found Plato novelistic), which is to say hypothetical. The Monadology is a representation of pure idea, and the pure idea is that there exist atoms of pure idea. The Theodicy concludes with an explicitly fictional narrative in which a man is shown a great pyramid, each of whose rooms is a world depicting a possible life. At the top of the pyramid is the room whose world is real. We immediately recognise this as a "Borgesian" conceit; it takes slightly more effort to see it as what it is: a Baroque allegory.

And, moreover, if we consider carefully the interconnectedness of things, we can say that in the soul of Alexander there are for all time remnants of everything that has happened to him, and marks of everything that will happen to him - and even traces of everything that happens in the universe, although it is only God who can recognize them all.
[Leibniz, Discourse On Metaphysics (1686), in Philosophical Texts (Oxford 1998), 60]

Unlike Blanqui, Leibniz rejects the material atoms of Democritus, Epicurus, Gassendi; he is led instead to consider atoms of idea, analogous to mathematical points. Yet like Blanqui he is drawn by the conception of nature as "full" (what Lovejoy termed the principle of plenitude), though in the Neoplatonist sense of ideal, rather than the Democritean combinatorics of Blanqui. For Leibniz, the "simple" substances must be "lives, souls, minds".

A substance is a being which is capable of action. It is either simple or composite... A composite substance is a collection of simple substances, or monads...[which], because they have no parts, could never be either made or unmade. They cannot naturally either begin or end, and therefore they last as long as the universe, which will change, but will never be destroyed. They cannot have shapes, because then they would have parts... [but] the simplicity of a substance does not in any way rule out a multiplicity in the modifications which must exist together in one simple substance; and those must consist in the variety of its relationships to things outside it - like the way in which in a centre, or a point, although it is completely simple, there are an infinity of angles formed by the lines which meet in it... In nature everything is full... Because of the plenitude of the world everything is linked, and every body acts to a greater or lesser extent on every other body in proportion to distance, and is affected by it in return. It therefore follows that every monad is a living mirror, or a mirror endowed with internal activity, representing the universe in accord with its own point of view, and as orderly as the universe itself.
[Leibniz, Principles Of Nature And Grace Based On Reason (1714), in Philosophical Texts (Oxford 1998), 259]

Monadology is a network that does not exist in space and time but rather creates space and time; there is "distance" between monads, but it is not the physical distance we observe between objects. The world we see is effectively a projection imposed by God on the monads, each of which is somewhat like the pixel of a screen (though with a soul, and an ability to see the picture). The consistency of points of view is ensured by a "principle of harmony", and the reality of the vision is ensured by God's grace. It could be compared with the spin-networks of present-day physics, and with the "holographic principle". The universe, in Leibniz's view, is a kind of virtual reality Matrix, except that we know it is real because God is good and would never play a nasty trick on us. It is not a perfect world (bad things happen), but it is the best that God could possibly make it, in other words optimal, hence the philosophy of Optimism. Just take away God and you're left with "postmodernism". Pessimism was coined in the nineteenth century as a conscious negation of Optimism, and in some quarters became equated with anarchism: Chesterton at one point refers to the anarchists in The Man Who Was Thursday as "oriental pessimists", distinguishing them from "German philosophers".

Leibniz considers the question why God ever bothered to make the universe and concludes that God must have decided that an imperfect world was better than none at all. The notion that the actual is always more perfect than the possible was the basis of the Scholastic ontological proof of God. In Leibniz, everything hinges on this distinction between possible and actual. In Blanqui, everything is actual because everything is material and unbounded. In postmodernism, everything is actual because there is no longer a distinction drawn between possible and actual: it is an idealist philosophy. Earlier idealist philosophies had to deal with the question how it is, for example, that the world could have existed before there were any people to see it. Berkeley, Leibniz, Schelling etc all explain this using the mind of God. In postmodernism it is no longer considered worthy of argument, because the second nature of capitalism is the only nature that need be discussed. Postmodernism is thus the capitulation that Benjamin saw in Blanqui: a phantasmagoria, a disengagement.

Much of Borges can be found in Kafka's story The Great Wall Of China; but in Kafka, unlike Borges, there is an urgency of engagement, just as there is in Benjamin who (like Borges) admired Kafka so greatly. Benjamin's "monads", like those of Leibniz, are an attempt to account for the historical fact of the universe, though Benjamin wants to see it in matter, in the rags and refuse, in everything that becomes forgotten. Borges's stance is what Lukacs called Romantic disillusionment. Kafka and Benjamin both want to go beyond that: they indicate future terms in a series that Lukacs envisaged but could not calculate.

Calvino, in Six Memos For The Next Millennium, highlighted the "encyclopaedic" in modern fiction, with Bouvard and Pecuchet as prototypes, and Perec as a recent manifestation. This, again, is Leibnizian, which is to say baroque. For much of his life, Leibniz devoted himself to a project to devise a combinatorial language of atomic ideas (characteristica universalis), by means of which to create a "secret encyclopaedia" of all possible knowledge. The similarity to Borges's Babel, Tlon etc is evident, but for Leibniz this was a living project. Godel apparently believed that Leibniz succeeded, or nearly so, though his papers were suppressed. The projects of Frege, Russell, Godel etc must be seen in this Leibnizian light. The music of Bach is the most familiar manifestation of Baroque encyclopaedism, and Benjamin's Arcades Project is a modernist encyclopaedia, just as Flaubert's novel is.

Romantic disillusion is entangled with the ideology by which novels tend most commonly to be interpreted: this is the paradigm, bankrupt or otherwise, whose descriptive historicism - the observed advent of "psychology", "realism", "lyricism" in works appearing after the decline of the epic - slips effortlessly into a normative definition of what a novel "ought" to be. Our desire for "sympathetic characters", "believable action" etc. is socially conditioned. Flaubert was alert to this: see his definition of "well written" in the Dictionary Of Received Ideas. We perceive something as "realistic" if it confirms the ideology of the real that we bring to it.

Leibniz's ideology is expressed in terms of physics and Christianity. In Fermat's Principle (light takes the shortest path in time, even when reflected, refracted etc) Leibniz detected an apparent act of choice: nature is optimal. Maupertuis formulated this in mechanics as the action principle, which remains the basis of modern-day quantum field theory, string theory etc; and like Leibniz, Maupertuis believed he had therefore mathematically proved the existence of God. Like the roundedness of bubbles (nature's choice of maximal volume within minimal surface area) God was a "scientific fact" for Leibniz and Maupertuis, just as multiple universes are a "fact" for many notable physicists (such as Hawking) today.

Yet somehow, as in the reflections of Block de Behar, what has been lost is that crucial issue of the actual versus the possible, material versus ideal. Physics itself doesn't know if it's materialist or idealist: Einstein was a materialist, and his argument against Bohr was of the kind used against Berkeley, asking whether the Moon was still there when we don't look at it. The reason why bulk matter doesn't appear to behave quantum mechanically remains a problem (addressed by "decoherence" etc, but not solved). As a quantum cosmologist, Hawking believes in the "wave function of the universe". Blanqui's worlds where Napoleon won Waterloo could be reached in a spaceship; the rooms of Leibniz's pyramid could not, though the allegorical pyramid exists as a thought in God's mind, worlds he could have made but didn't.

The only philosophy I learned at school was in physics lessons, where we were taught about Machian "positivism". Physics was therefore the only school subject in which the ideology was explicitly stated. Years later I read Lenin's Materialism and Empiriocriticism, which argues (somewhat repetitively, but with a simple, brutal force equal to Luther's diatribe against free will) that Machian positivism is really idealism in disguise. Hawking has often stated that he is a positivist, and many other physicists would say the same thing. Everything in nature is in effect a "black box", we can do experiments, make predictions, and they're right or wrong. Ultimate meaning is not something we can access. If we accept Lenin's reasoning, much of present-day speculative physics is really idealism without God, which is to say postmodernism. When physicists describe the universe as a casino, life as the throw of a dice in the multiverse, we sense what Benjamin already saw in Blanqui. The same capitulation infects those readers who draw from Borges or similar writers the conclusion that there is no reality, or there is any reality we choose. The illusion of choice is the master-stroke of capitalist production, as of Soviet state-capitalism. You can pick anything you like because all the options are really the same thing.

Don Quixote enters a printing shop in Barcelona and reads what is coming off the press: the adventures of Don Quixote. He declares them false. Do we conclude that the universe is a hall of mirrors, or that Cervantes was having a joke about a pirate edition by another author? Pierre Menard attempts to write Don Quixote: do we conclude that the Gulf War never happened?

It is not strange that the author [Borges] of a character-author [Menard] who is the author-reader of a character-reader should be the great author of this age, author of the author of a Don Quijote identical to that of Cervantes, although superior. It is strange, on the other hand, that Pierre Menard, one of the authors most analyzed in recent times, is no more than a fictional character...
[Lisa Block de Behar, Borges: The Passion Of An Endless Quotation (SUNY Press 2003), 111]

Why is one strange and not the other?

It is as well to take note, before going further, of a big difference between matter and soul. Matter is an incomplete being; it lacks the source of action. And when some impression is produced in it, it registers precisely only that, and what is in that moment. This is why matter is not even capable of keeping itself in circular motion, for this movement is not simple enough for it to remember, so to speak. Matter remembers only what happened in the previous moment... It remembers, that is to say, the direction of the tangent, but has no ability to remember the rule it would need to be given for diverging from that tangent and staying on the circumference... That is why an atom can only learn to go in a simple straight line: it is so stupid and imperfect. It is completely different with a soul or mind. Because this is a true substance, or a complete being, and the source of its own actions, it, so to speak, remembers (confusedly, of course) all its preceding states, and is affected by them. It retains not only its direction, as does the atom, but also the law of changes of direction, or the law of curvature, which the atom cannot do. And whereas in the atom there is only one change, there is an infinity of changes in the modifications of a soul, each of which has its law; for the Epicurean atom, although it has parts, has a uniform interior, whereas the soul, even though it has no parts, has within it, because of the multitude of representations of external things, or rather because of the representation of the universe lodged within it by the Creator, a great number, or rather an infinite number, of variations.
[Leibniz, Comments on Bayle's Note L (1705?), in Philosophical Texts (Oxford 1998), 235]

In classical physics, matter contains the whole of its history to the extent that its motion is specified by forces and boundary conditions (Laplace's observation on perfect predictability applies equally if the arrow of time is reversed). Leibniz considers something else; a substance that carries everything within itself; yet seen as a terminal point in an infinite network, we might say that it is really the network that carries the information. It has been noted that the only machine capable of making the calculation envisaged by Laplace (the complete specification of the universe's past and future states) is the universe itself.

For Leibniz, the characteristic feature of soul or mind is memory, not of a single order that must be followed (the conatus of Spinoza, or Newton's First Law), but of the rules that govern possibilities of choice and freedom. Borges's Funes has perfect memory yet is a tragic figure: the perfect recollection of a full day takes another full day. Only if Funes could be the whole universe would he be anything other than tragic - then he would be God. Romantic disilliusion is the experience of the gap between subjectivity and objectivity, a disappointment at the inadequacy of bourgeois existence leading to a retreat to the world of inner fantasy. Funes's "gift" (more than his physical injury) renders him passive, in a state of futile contemplation, a storage unit for information that cannot give rise to action.

Benjamin's concept of memory is completely different. His baroque-modernist encyclopaedia (The Arcades Project) is to be a tool of collective memory, and the tool's purpose is to produce action. Every object, every quotation, is a node in a network of historical relationships. The pattern of these lines is a dialectical image, a revelation of objective truth. Benjamin believed that truth would emerge spontaneously, naturally, from the items he assembled; Adorno knew otherwise, because in the real world of human frailty, every reading is a misreading. It is worth comparing some relative interests: Borges, like Poe and Valery, was highly attuned to mathematics; Benjamin (we are told by Scholem, and in any case can guess), was not well grounded in mathematics. Adorno was a musician; Benjamin seems to have had little aptitude or taste for music (he rarely mentions it). That the Monadology or Goldberg Variations are fundamentally similar to the aspiration of the Arcades Project is not something that Benjamin could have directly appreciated: the influence (as happens in most cases) is n-th hand. Yet all are encyclopaedic, combinatorial embodiments of knowledge. Bach ends with a quodlibet based on the "rags and trash" of folk melody, melodies always and already hidden inside the theme, like the whole of Alexander's life within a second of his existence.

A nice observation made by Penrose: we imagine ourself to be in a spaceship surrounded by stars. We set the craft in rapid motion with respect to these fixed stars and find their position subject to relativistic aberration. The mathematical map that transforms the stars from their former to latter positions is a Mobius transformation; the stars can be considered as points on a Riemann sphere (i.e. the complex plane plus point at infinity). When we look at stars we are at the node of a network of lines many light years in length. We see numerous moments of history at a single point defined by our own perspective. The sky is a dialectical image, and the dialectical image is, in a sense, a hologram. E.M. Forster described this in a more mundane way when he spoke of a round room. Our experience of history is not historicist: everything is jumbled in the now, and our every movement in the now creates a differing perspective. Leibniz's metaphor was of a city viewed form many places by its inhabitants: everyone sees a different city, yet the same.

Funes is denied any such experience; everything is too clear to him, he is like a library, not a reader. Excess subjectivity has led to its own negation. Borges senses this plight as his own. Benjamin fights consciously against it. Romantic disillusion is a condition of reified consciousness, individuals reduced to atoms of contemplation in a society of spectacle. The only available path is a straight line. Marxist materialism imagines the existence of a subject, the proletariat, whose acquisition of consciousness inevitably transforms itself into action. Scholem thought Benjamin's sympathy with the proletariat to be phoney, his Marxism mere opportunism (Adorno and Horkeheimer were the only people offering to pay for the Arcades Project). Let us leave aside the question of proletarian consciousness and ask what a theory would be like in which substance attains historical consciousness leading to practical action. If God is included then it would be like Leibniz's monadology; if only theology, then it would be more like Benjamin's Arcades.

(7.2.10)


Walter Benjamin's character

Associating with Benjamin was fraught with considerable difficulties, though on the surface these seemed insignificant in view of his consummate courtesy and willingness to listen. He was always surrounded by a wall of reserve, which could be recognized intuitively and was evident to another person even without Benjamin's not infrequent efforts to make that area noticeable. These efforts consisted above all in a secretiveness bordering on eccentricity, a mystery-mongering that generally prevailed in everything relating to him personally, though it sometimes was breached unexpectedly by personal and confidential revelations. There were primarily three requirements. The first was respect for his solitude... [second,] his utter aversion to discussing the political events of the day... The third requirement, that of overlooking his secretiveness, often demanded a real effort, because there was something surprising, even ludicrous, about such secretiveness in someone as sober, as melancholy as Benjamin. He did not like to give the names of friends and acquaintances if he could avoid it... It was in keeping with this aversion that he tried to keep his acquaintances separate... Added to this was the immediate impression of genius: the lucidity that often emerged from his obscure thinking... He was nevertheless a very good listener, though he himself liked to talk often and at length. He assumed that the person he was conversing with had a much higher level of education than was actually the case... Another thing that was striking about him was his extraordinary sensitivity to noise, which he often referred to as his "noise psychosis".
[Scholem, Story Of A Friendship, 30-32]

(12.2.10)


Esoteric

The methodological element in philosophical projects is not simply part of their didactic mechanism. This means quite simply that they possess a certain esoteric quality which they are unable to discard, forbidden to deny, and which they vaunt at their own peril.
[Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 27]

In April 1921 the disintegration of Walter's and Dora's marriage became evident... Dora fell madly in love [with Ernst Schoen]... She discussed this openly with Walter... He developed a passionate attachment [to Jula Cohn] and probably plunged her into confusion for some time before she realized that she could not commit herself to him. There developed a situation which, to the extent that I was able to understand it, corresponded to the one in Goethe's novel Elective Affinities.
[Scholem, Walter Benjamin, 115]

To wish to gain an understanding of Elective Affinities from the author's own words on the subject is wasted effort. For it is precisely their aim to forbid access to critique... The domain of poetic technique forms the boundary between an exposed upper layer and a deeper, hidden layer of the work... [For] the author the representation of the material contents is the enigma whose solution is to be sought in the technique.
[Benjamin, Goethe's Elective Affinities, 313]

Benjamin came to Munich on his way to visit Dora... On that occasion he bought Klee's watercolour Angelus Novus for 1,000 marks (14 dollars!)... At the end of June [1921] he returned to Munich and stayed with us in the apartment which I shared with my wife-to-be... where the Klee picture hung for the time being... That was when I first told Benjamin about Der Stern der Erlosung [The star of redemption, by Franz Rosenzweig]. After about a week he went to Heidelberg to see Jula Cohn... Benjamin stayed in Heidelberg until the middle of August and while there started preliminary work on his great essay on Goethe's novel Elective Affinities.
[Scholem, Walter Benjamin, 123-5]

"I hope that you shall find it in my old manner. I have put many things in it, and hidden much in it. May this open secret give pleasure to you, too." Thus writes Goethe to Zelter. In the same sense, he insists on the thesis that there was more in the work "than anyone would be capable of assimilating at a single reading." The destruction of the drafts, however, speaks more clearly than anything else. For it can hardly be a coincidence that not even a fragment of these was preserved. Rather, the author had evidently quite deliberately destroyed everything that would have revealed the purely constructive technique of the work.-If the existence of the material contents is in this way concealed, then the essence of those contents conceals itself. All mythic meaning strives for secrecy.
[Benjamin, Goethe's Elective Affinities, 313-4]

(3.3.10)


Inside/outside

Every art work has an inside and an outside. The artist sees the inside - though only part of it. The division is analogous to, though not identical with, the concepts of consciousness/subsconscious, public/private, objective/subjective.

Everyone who starts out in writing thinks about publication, reception, recognition. There is a desire for something internal to be acknowledged and validated externally. But what we discover in the writing process is the access it gives us to internal states not previously acknowledged by ourselves: we may speak of this in terms of discovering hidden talent, expressing emotions, exploring issues, etc.

Thus we can speak of discovery in relation to artistic production. The art work is something that the artist discovers, as well as invents. This combination of discovery and invention is reflected in an awareness of the difference between the creative and the reflective or analytic processes.

The same combination of discovery and invention can be experienced in relation to purely analytic research methods (such as mathematics). But can we speak of a private, subjective component, in addition to a subconscious one?

Yesterday a friend posed a mathematical puzzle: it took a little while for me to see how to obtain a solution. This was a guessing game in which he possessed knowledge I had to create for myself. Knowledge is private in this context, to the extent that it becomes a tool of social interaction, through the inequality of its distribution. A novel proceeds, in part, through the manipulation of knowledge distribution (between author, characters, reader). This, though, is at the exterior level of the novel.

Goethe destroyed all the drafts of Elective Affinities. Even if a novel is to be considered as philosophical research project, it must acknowledge the esoteric element that is fundamental to all such undertakings, viewed as methodological approach to the problem of representation.

The present research project will have as its main output a novel. But in writing, methodology and output are inextricably bound. You don't start with a question, find an answer, then write up the results. The novel creates the question, creates the method, creates the output, in no particular sequence.

An artist has got in touch with me, suggesting that I record the sound of my working room while I write. I consider this in terms of inside/outside and find it a perfectly harmless suggestion that could be fun to try. But if I were to record here the present state of what I'm writing, where I am, what I've done and am thinking of doing with the works in progress - no, I wouldn't do that. I don't discuss my creative projects until they're finished and no longer creative, and instead have become part of the objective world and are no longer connected to me.

Our society, in which knowledge is forever subject to pressures that would turn it into information with measurable exchange-value, makes of the private sphere a saleable commodity. We are taught to "market" ourselves. It is not to God or mankind that we have a duty, but to the economy, and to the principle of self-interest that is supposed to make the economy work. The disruption to previously held notions of privacy created by the Internet is well known to everybody who has ever gone online. The effect of this disruption is a reinforcement of the commodification of the self. Most people who start a blog soon give up, realising that no one else wants to read it. "Blogosphere" is a word coined in imitation of "biosphere" (itself an imitation of "atmosphere"), but like "phantasmagoria", it unconsciously evokes a hidden meaning; for while the nineteenth-century phantasmagoria was a ghostly meeting place, the blogosphere is a sphere whose circumference is everywhere and whose centre is nowhere: it is pure surface, on which every person is made to feel like a point, equivalent and without dimension.

Often, what sustains me in writing is not the the thought of being read, but a sense of being unread. It is the pleasure one might have in going to a place seen by no one else. Nothing pleases more, in novel writing, than being in the middle, when I know what's going on, the satisfaction outweighs the frustration, yet everything is invisible, except to me. As a child, one of my pastimes was to make ships or spacecraft out of cardboard, paper, toy soldiers - and the best part was the interior, the control panels that would be sealed from view, except that I'd know they were there.

Goethe writes about exactly this urge in Elective Affinities, when the foundation stone is laid for a new building that has been constructed. It will be buried and seen by no one: it has instead what Novalis in a different context called the immanent necessity to exist. There is a world beyond anything that can be rationalised or measured. These buried stones are a symbol of that. They also represent in material form the fact of our own existence, which is that every moment is constantly becoming buried in time, unable to be touched again. It is commonplace to observe that art is a gesture made against the certainty of oblivion. How often, though, we resist by imitating exactly what we oppose. I used to take my toy boats, float them on the canal, and throw stones at them until they sank. Their purpose was sacrifical, as target practice.

(17.3.10)


Solitude

The association between solitude and savagery is what Rousseau celebrated, considering savagery noble, and solitude the natural human state. Solitude and society are defined in opposition to one another, as are nature and the "man-made" world. In theocratic society, solitude was a condition of renunciation in order to serve God, a form of saintliness. In modern society, solitude is viewed with suspicion: the loner as potential criminal, sad loser.

The novel is an art form based equally on the modality of time, and on the condition of solitude. We are told that reading used always to be done aloud; did the first fictions perhaps appear when reading became silent and private? The epic was a medium meant to be socially shared, but the innovation always remarked upon as crucial in the development of the novel is subjectivity, the awareness of inner experience, of privacy.

Both the reading and writing of fiction are activities that naturally tend to enforce solitude, or at least the exclusion of distraction. Nowadays the mobile phone serves the same function: where people on trains used to read, now, very often, they play with their phones. The novel's duality operates both in that we read something we simultaneously know to be false yet treat as though true, and in that we feel ourselves to be present in two places at once. It's hard to find a similarly magical irony in a phone, which instead conditions us to accept prevailing social truths.

For the novelist, the novel sits between the private world of creative activity, and the public world in which it is sold and read. Those worlds exist in opposition, as Proust observed. The culture of festivals, readings, media coverage etc, is a means by which the novel becomes public, socialised, absorbed by collective ideology. The task of the novelist is to maintain the separation of the private creative world (the "real" world of the novel), and the public world in which it is consumed - and this is not easy. Even when I first started out, attending a writing group where we read work to each other, I quickly became aware of the sort of writing that would please the group, and another sort that might be better read silently and individually. For a work to achieve social success it must concede something to social ideology. Thus we see the innate conservatism of public taste, and the works produced in order to please it. Artists have been aware of this for a very long time. Yet equally, for the reader, there is a choice that can be made.

In a world where everything becomes absorbed by the principles of marketing, the avant-garde loses its meaning. Benjamin's techniques of shock and montage are those of any episode of 24. What still has meaning is dissonance, or we might say dissidence. Last night, a conversation with some writers: one grew up in apartheid South Africa, another in the Soviet Union. An Englishman commented that in our own society we have nothing to resist, life has been too easy, we haven't suffered enough to be able to have much worth writing about; novelists resort to inventive language in order to hide a fundamental lack of content. He then said how hard it is for young people today: in the sixties students dropped out, now it isn't an option for them. Why not?

(19.3.10)


General and particular

Science can be considered to deal with the general. A rock is considered embodiment of categories such as granite, mass, age. Adorno notes (in Negative Dialectics) the traditional attitude to philosophy as being a form of science. But can philosophy deal with the particular, the specific, the unique and non-general? Can it do so conceptually? Adorno remarks on Benjamin's attempts. Benjamin's "inverse Platonism" is an effort to see the unique as starting-point for the general, rather than the other way round; and to do so in a way that is not simply naive materialism, but retains something of the transcendent that we associate with idealism.

Fiction is a mode of thought that is predicated on the particular. "There exists a light, inextensible thread" is a statement of physics; "There exists a light, inextensible thread in this room" is a statement of fiction. In fiction the urge is always towards the particular, while the general or conceptual is in the background. Benjamin did not explicitly state a philosophy of fiction, but we could see his inverse Platonism as being one implicitly. He is advocating a fictionalised mode of cognition rather than a scientific one.

The relationship between the particular and the conceptual is dramatised, among other ways, in the contrast between iterative and singulative (in Genette's sense). Proust's achievement, as Genette realised, was to particularise iteration; to make the conceptual "many times" a singularity. We see it in the first line of the Recherche. Benjamin's admiration of Proust is well known: he translated part of the Recherche into German. In the Moscow Diary we find Benjamin reading Proust while waiting to see Asja. The "novel of ideas", in its mature form, is one able to particularise concepts beyond those we are accustomed to finding in fiction, and which we therefore still call "ideas". What matters, though, is not so much the ideas, as the way they are particularised. This is one of the ways in which novel writing is an act of embodiment.

(30.3.10)


Progress

During the last six weeks I did substantial work on the novel that will be the main output of the present research project. I now have a final chapter to write, then I shall have a full-length draft (a stage I refer to as the zero-th draft). It is the point when I can see the shape of the whole, so I can then go back and create the first draft.

Benjamin wrote in One-Way Street that you should not try to finish a book in your usual writing place since you will lack the necessary courage. But I never know when a book is finished. When I send the final proofs back to the publisher, then it's finished in the sense of having become unalterable, but that is a very anti-climactic moment. When I reach the last sentence of a draft, I know I'm not at the end, because there will be another draft, and it's hard to know in advance which draft is "final". Sometimes the revisions are small, sometimes very major.

When Beethoven corrected the proofs of the Hammerklavier Sonata he added the rising octaves that begin the third movement. This is therefore the "end" of the work.

I've been reading Tim Beasley-Murray's book Mikhail Bakhtin and Walter Benjamin: Experience and Form. My deep interest in Bakhtin pre-dates my Benjamin project, and while I teach my students about Bakhtin's theory of the novel, I'd been wondering how I could teach Benjamin's, given that I can't identify any single "theory" as such. Beasley-Murray's book doesn't offer this (or attempt to offer it), but makes a powerful case for identifying Bakhtin's dialogism with Benjamin's montage. Certainly I've had an intuitive sense of this while writing my most recent novels: juxtaposition was recognised by Bakhtin as a prototype of dialogism (in the Dostoevsky book he specifically refers to newspapers and their simultaneous stories). Beasley-Murray further emphasises the moral and political force of this, especially with reference to an early Bakhtin essay, Towards A Philosophy of The Act.

More generally, I begin to see that the representation theory of the novel should better be thought in terms of a kind of two-way process that could be called dialectic were it finalisable (which it isn't), or dialogic, were this not potentially confusing. Mathematically, any mapping is a set of ordered pairs. This pairing can be considered arbitrary, a montage, which is the Benjaminian concept of allegory. Anything is relatable to anything else. The specific pairings, once chosen, create a particular image.

I've been watching the final series of Lost. Allegory takes two forms here: one is the leaden portrayal of good and evil, black and white, in the figures of Jacob and smoke-monster Locke. More interesting is a form of allegory, which is to say arbitrary association, visible from the first series. The comparison of the plot with Lord Of The Flies was obvious from the outset (plane crash, monster etc.), and became a point of knowing reference. In the book, the boys hunt pigs, and the Lost characters do the same. There is an overweight character (Piggy) who wants to go around with the leaders and is instead assigned to make an inventory of passengers - just like Hurley in Lost. From this association, we anticipate that Hurley will fall off a cliff. In one episode he nearly does (asserting that everything is a dream and he won't really die). Lord Of The Flies is itself subjected to "allegorical" interpretation, but the essence of Benjaminian allegory is its arbitrariness, and that is what is relevant to the pairing of Lost with the novel. It is something that has no need to be there; a juxtaposition that gives rise to expectations that may or may not be fulfilled. The black and white aspect in Lost is, in Benjamin's terms, not allegorical, but rather symbolic. The weariness that Goethe felt for allegory was a dislike for the fixed associations of symbolism.

I've just begun reading Lowith's book on Nietzsche's Philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence. This is obviously significant for the Benjamin-Blanqui study because of the way in which Benjamin identified Blanqui's multiverse with Nietzsche's cosmology. A driving force for this project, from the outset, was my sense that Benjamin was wrong in making this identification, though wrong for interesting reasons which make him ultimately right. In pre-Socratic philosophy there are two multiverses, the cyclic (Pythagoraean) and ergodic (Democritean). Borges was aware of this distinction and favoured the Democritean, which is Blanqui's version. Benjamin identified the force of paganism in all this, though was not in a position to notice the striking way in which multiverse and parallel world stories first enter mass consciousness in connection with specifically Christian themes (Theodicy, Christmas Carol, The Greatest Gift, Wonderful Life). I'm preparing a paper for a maths-literature conference next month and will say something about this.

I was at a conference in Oxford a few weeks ago, on a panel discussing university creative writing. I decided to say something about my experiences in making pottery; how the theoretical interest of a consumer can be transformed into the richer experience of making. This is the difference between reading and writing, and between studying literature through reading it, or through reading and writing. A line of thought running through Marx, Weber, Lukacs etc., sees the process of abstraction and alienation connected with technological progress and specialisation. We are removed more and more from touch, from direct contact, and instead become button pushers, spectators. My father's childhood hobby was Meccano: he made working clocks and machines. He kept his set for years and eventually gave it to me when I was a young boy. And I'm sorry to say I neglected it, wasted it. He would have been better keeping it all in a box untouched forever. My own favourite game was building things with Lego or cardboard, or role-playing games. I was at a lower technological level, mine was a sort of pre-industrialised play, and while my father is gifted in every kind of mechanical skill, I'm hopeless. My own children never played with Lego; the sophistication of their computer games creates a further regression of play. I anticipate that their children will never even bother to draw with pens and paper. Play has become work. Every office looks the same: it contains lots of people looking at computer screens. A system-freeze leaves the whole business helpless.

Blanqui said that progress is an illusion, because there are planets where every possibility takes place, has already taken place, will do so again and again. A lion pawing the ground. I understand that Lowith's Nietzsche study is concerned with the way in which human will allegedly raises us above this cosmological necessity.

It is now the middle of May, and the nights are so short at my latitude that the Sun does not even get far enough beneath the horizon for full darkness to occur. The season of astronomy is over for me until the autumn, and my journeys into the Northumbrian countryside are now made in daytime instead of darkness, in order to go trout fishing. Yesterday I was just about to bring a rainbow to the net when it gave a flick, threw the hook, and swam away, so I would have no fresh fish for dinner, only supermarket chicken instead. Taking a break to eat a sandwich on the bank, a bright shape suddenly appeared right in front of my face, startling me. It was a chaffinch that had flown from the branches above and expected a piece of bread - I've never seen one quite as bold as that. I gave him a good feed.

Looking over my astronomical observing notes from the season, I feel satisfaction at the headway I've made on various projects: I'm working through Hickson galaxy groups, the Shapley-Ames Catalogue, and Herschel's great list of discoveries. I've refined my note-taking methods, and plan to do this further, by creating a personal classification scheme for the galaxies I observe. That will be a task for autumn. The sense of time passing irrevocably against the cyclic turning of the seasons is what the ancients felt. I wonder, if the technologically-induced infantilisation of culture continues, will we all return to ancient modes of thought? Perhaps we see this already in the prevalence of superstition, pseudo-science, etc. The attraction of "ancient wisdom" may arise from more than nostalgia and the conscious rejection of technology. It could in fact be an effect of technology.

I regularly visit astronomy forums, and am always perplexed by the way in which, for many amateur astronomers, the whole thing seems to be about the equipment, rather than what you do with it. There are people who spend thousands of pounds on telescopes, CCD cameras and computers, so they can look at everything on a computer screen, just like the professionals do, and need hardly even step outside into the night air. One forum poster had taken a picture of a galaxy cluster (Abell 1656) but had no idea what it was: he had simply propelled his automated scope towards what looked like an interesting part of his on-screen map. I looked at that cluster through my telescope last year and identified more than 25 galaxies in it, mostly ones that Herschel had seen, ones whose redshift Zwicky measured. Without in any way criticising what the photographer did, which obviously gave him pleasure, I nevertheless have to express puzzlement at what appears to me a wholly pointless exercise. If I want to see a photograph of Abell 1656, devoid of any historical, scientific or natural context, I only need to go on the internet or look in a book. It strikes me as much the same impulse found in people who go to famous landmarks and look at them only on the screen of the camera they snap them with, in order to prove that they've been there. The experience comes to them pre-packaged, requiring only financial outlay, attendance and passive contemplation.

I.A. Richards commented on a not wholly unrelated phenomenon in Practical Criticism: the work of literature that delivers a ready-made attitude, opinion, emotion. The book about war that horrifies and moves us - because war is horrifying and moving. And so on. As Richards says, the button is pushed, the work is done. All of which must surely make the imaginative writer want to find new buttons instead of pushing the pre-existing ones. This was Benjamin's aim with montage: the desire to shock.

A small example of this is the blog form. There are various pre-existing packages that can be used in order to create a blog; one need only supply words and pictures, and the program does the rest. This makes every blog look the same. Already there is a sense of what a blog is "meant" to look like, it is a recognisable genre with visual and functional rules. In creating the present journal, I made a deliberate choice to avoid such ready-made solutions, since by subscribing to them, I suspected that I would be inclined to sacrifice content as much as form.

Herschel said that seeing is an art that must be learned. This is why I do visual astronomy - because I want to learn to see. And also I want to be alone in the countryside at night, hearing the sounds of the wild, feeling contact both with nature and with history, two concepts we take too much for granted, sentimentalising both of them.

In the novel I have been writing, I have been aware of a problem of historical writing (since it is set historically, at least in part). It is a problem I have always been aware of as a writer: the danger of costume drama, the pre-packaged image of "the past" that one need only replicate. Watch a Hollywood film about Henry The Eighth and you see 1950s Hollywood people, thinking and acting according to their own time. There is no engagement with the past except one of appropriation. The issue is, how one can have a dialogue with the past; more generally, what is the subject-object relation between the writer and the material, between the material and the reader? What is the dialogue that is being produced by this interaction? Whatever it gives rise to, this process, if it is imaginative and innovative, is almost bound to create something strange and unfamiliar, something that cannot completely be encompassed within pre-existing categories. It surely has to demand a response other than that of the person who points a camera, presses a button, and is satisfied that the greater button of collective social validation has been satisfactorily pressed. This is why, for anyone who seeks artistic progress, the sense that arises must always be a feeling of failure and hopelessness at what seems an impossible task. It must always be too difficult, and what is produced must always be unafraid to proclaim its necessary inadequacy. That is a basic problem of artistic rhetoric: the confidence of art balanced by a kind of awkwardness. The Hammerklavier Sonata is a supreme example.

(15.5.10)


Communication

Fiction is the representation of a communicative act. Both the addresser and addressee are represented in it, more or less overtly. The simplest form of representation is that of time, which gives rise to the distinction of fabula/sujet, histoire/discours, story/plot etc. I always get the terms mixed up and prefer to think first about story time and reader time, then we can think of Genette's summary, pause, etc., as maps from "story world" to "reader world". But for the reader, the "story world" has no existence, except as an image created by certain objective linguistic data (the text). Similarly, for the writer, the "reader world" is artifical and inferred. When I write a novel I have to imagine the mentality of someone to whom all of this is new and unfolding in time, even though I might have gone over it all twenty times. As I teach writing, I find more and more that what I am trying to teach is this business of thinking about the reader. Not readership, audience or, market, but a hypothetical mental state that is being created by the text, just as much as the story of the characters is created by the text. For the reader, the author is an extra character. For the author, it is the reader who is the extra character. Both sides are experiencing a kind of illusion.

I don't often go to book readings or events, I don't really see the point of them, other than marketing, PR, entertainment. I don't find myself asking beforehand, "I wonder what will happen?", because the same thing always happens. An author talks a bit, reads a bit, answers a few questions, sells a few books, and everyone goes home happy. Recently, however, I attended an event that restored my faith in the process.

There were two authors, F and B, both very distinguished, to the extent that both have had their careers scrutinised by the shadowy functionaries of the Nobel Prize committee. Both come from the same country, live not far from each other in the same city, but apparently had never done an event together. At the beginning of the event they were to be seen at opposite ends of the room, not communicating at all. So far, so interesting.

B was the headline act; F was interlocutor, which is to say, second on the bill. The simple psychological dynamics of such a situation appear not to have occurred to the organisers. If I were to invite the chief executives of two leading double-glazing companies to give a joint presentation, and were to ask one to introduce the other and ask him interesting questions, I would expect to leave one person very pleased and the other offended.

F's first question to B was (I paraphrase): "In the city where we both live, you often pass people you know without acknowledging them. Is this because you are short sighted, or do you just not want to talk to them?" This set the scene for what followed. F challenged B on his books, his national identity, even his choice of holiday destination. It was all very uncomfortable, though B took it graciously. Other writers in his position might have walked off the stage in a huff. I thought it the most riveting reading I'd ever been too. Here at last was genuine debate, conflict, disagreement. Instead of a quasi-religious celebration it was more like a political interview. I wouldn't have wanted to be in either man's shoes but it was great fun to watch.

Among all the thinly veiled attacks (even quotes from iffy reviews) were some superb questions. My favourite: "What is your relationship to your books?" It takes a writer to think of a question like that. The relationship to the book, the position one takes with respect to it, is absolutely crucial to the whole business. Of course it takes different forms: there are practical aspects to it that are not particularly interesting, given that they could apply to any project. When people speak of books being like or unlike children/spouses/pets/hobbies/jobs, they are expressing this general feeling we all get in relation to our activities. But the relationship to the book qua book, to the text qua text, that is something very interesting. It's something I always ask my students about: how do you see this piece you're writing? Is it on a screen in front of you, are you a player in it, is it coming to you in some other way, through some other sense? Are you feeling yourself already at the end of it, before the beginning, in the middle - what? Do you like the people in it? Do you care about them? Does it matter? Most of all, what is it about this piece of work that makes it in any way special - apart from the fact that it's by you? In all of this there has to be a position between indulgent celebration and nit-picking criticism: a common ground.

What is my position with respect to this journal? Not that of novelist, nor that of blogger. I allow myself a degree of esoterism that as a novelist I can't. I'm talking to myself, since that can be a useful form of thinking. But I'm talking aloud, and I know that I might be overheard, if anyone should happen to read this. I am wary of both the pseudo-diary and pseudo-marketing forms of many blogs. I am not trying to confess or sell anything. If the available forms are to be used, it must be ironically, in other words as representation.

A film-maker asked me to record the sound while I write. I sent her a video tape, made with the camera shutter closed, but now she wants to try including vision, so has asked me to leave the shutter open, and point the camera at some patch of wall or other feature. I shall do this today, Monday morning, while trying to write the final chapter of my zero-th draft (I anticipate that it will feature Adorno, I don't quite know what will happen, but already I'm thinking of what will need doing in the next draft). This journal entry is a bit of delaying activity as I prepare to do that. I'd better get on with it. But first a cup of tea.

(16.5.10)


Synopsis

I finished the draft two days ago; yesterday I was at work in the university. A discussion about the novel-writing course, and whether I should teach synopsis-writing. Since I don't work from synopses when writing my own novels, I don't know how I'd teach it in any meaningful way. It works for many novelists, and they would be in a position to talk about how it works, but not me. Certainly there can be a framework, a mental outline, the picture of a shape; but they only appear in the course of writing, and change constantly.

A few years ago I did a session in a school with a group of 8-year-olds. I read them the start of a story I'd written for the occasion, then asked them to finish it. Naturally I left things at an appropriate cliff-hanger. But as soon as I stopped reading and the kids were sent to their tables, the teacher told them to start planning. They had to make lists, mind-maps, whatever. Only then, after this bureaucratic stage, could the activity begin - by which time their creative energy had been sapped.

Planning makes sense if you're designing a bridge or opening a new supermarket. It suits any task requiring technocratic management and division of labour. Planning is attractive because it is a representation of work that has the appearance of work; the mimesis is taken so much for granted, that the teaching of writing can become the teaching of planning for writing. My daughter just did her SATs; the composition teaching they received consisted of being drilled in the use of openers, connectives, etc., that would give them the highest grade. Everything seems calculated to produce the most repeatable, the most lifeless output imaginable, sufficiently different to attract approval, but otherwise uniform. It is the mentality of the entertainment industry. My task, as both writer and teacher, is not to perpetuate such nonsense, but to consider it for what it is. This is a sense in which critical theory can become critical practice.

It occurs to me that my zero-th draft serves the function of synopsis. It is the "plan" I shall now use in re-drafting the novel: and the re-drafting will consist of changing it. The idea that one can have an idea, write a synopsis, then turn it into a novel, is the idea that the synopsis is a representation of the idea, the novel is a representation of the synopsis, and the manifestation of this representational process is entirely unmediated. Think of painting colours on a projector slide, shining a light through it, and seeing the pattern it makes on the wall. The difference between idea/plan/synopsis and actual novel is not like the difference between the slide and its image. All the work consists in the projection, not in what appears to be projected. I would say that I start with the picture on the wall, consider what might have made it, and alter it accordingly. In other words one has to deal with a totality. The difficulty is in making this a finite process, in deciding what are the limitations, what is the degree of ignorance and uncertainty that is necessary for the picture to be found.

I start with many pictures, small fragments, and by reverse-projecting them I consider the single source, the single light, whose refraction produces these separate pieces. In this way they become connected through a common centre.

That isn't something that can be taught. For me, a novel starts with a sentence, a paragraph, maybe a chapter. And another sentence, paragraph, chapter that at first seems wholly unrelated. So my teaching has to begin with the sentence and paragraph. In the synoptic approach, one begins with an imaginary whole that is unsupported. The idea may sound good - but is it an idea you can write? You might as well draw a picture of a bridge. How are you going to build it? Planning becomes necessary for the bridge, only once the basic problem has been mastered, of making pieces fit together without falling over.

(21.5.10)


"Deathly Trips to Parallel Worlds Become Popular with Teenagers"

Several teenage deaths caused by asphyxia have been registered in Moscow in the past few months. The police are convinced that children fell victims of new “games” aimed at experiencing euphoria. The Investigative Committee of Moscow region encountered the first tragedy in November of 2009. A regional department of the Main Internal Affairs Directorate received information about a body of a seventh-grader found in an apartment. The teenager’s older brother and his parents could not get into their apartment because the door was locked from inside, but no one answered the phone. The parents thought their son fell asleep listening to music in his headphones and decided to break the lock. When they opened the door, the teenager has been already dead. The death was caused by asphyxia. He hung himself on a belt attached to athletic rings. There was an overturned chair next to him. Later, the investigation revealed it was not a suicide. The relatives remembered that a few days before the tragedy the boy told them that he tried holding his breath for a few seconds and liked the unusual feeling. Medics confirm that when you rob your brain of oxygen, you experience a high similar to euphoria. Most likely, the teenager tried to experience it through the dangerous experiment, but lost control and could not stay on the chair. Yulia Zhukova, a representative of the Investigative Committee of Moscow region, told Pravda.ru that no criminal case was initiated because the child died due to his own negligence. He got an idea of the dangerous game from his peers. Lately it has been considered “cool” among school kids to play games they call “A Space Cowboy,” “In 7th Heaven,” “Dog’s High,” etc. The names are difference, but the essence is the same – an attempt to “travel to parallel worlds.” All you need to do it is “just” tighten a rope on your neck and then loosen it up. The police believe that they need parents’ assistance to get control of the situation. Marina Lazareva, a representative of the Main Internal Affairs Directorate in Moscow region, told Pravda.ru that the November tragedy was, unfortunately, not the last one. Another two cases were registered in the same district, with the last one dated January 30th of this year. The police began preventive activities. As a result, very alarming facts were revealed. It turned out that teenagers age 12 to 15 regularly visit websites promoting these dangerous games. In Moscow region alone over a thousand minors are members of related groups. They actively discuss getting high in couples, alone, or in a group, and share their sensations on internet forums. Often people have a wrong perception of teenagers participating in these dangerous games, some think they have mental issues. Yet, specialists state that these teenagers are not “difficult” ones, they are often good students and athletes.
[Pravda.ru 12.4.10]

[Franz] Kotzwara [1730-93] was a virtuoso double-bass player working at the King's Theatre in London in the period before his death via autoerotic asphyxiation (the first such death on record)... His only extant work is "The Battle of Prague", which commemorates the Prussian victory in 1757 over the Austrians at Prague.
[www.nndb.com]

(24.5.10)


Intellectual Migration

Obviously it is very difficult in America, outside the special sphere of the liberal arts, to comprehend the notion of the objectivity of anything intellectual. The intellect is unconditionally equated with the subject who bears it, without any recognition of its independence and autonomy. Above all, organized scholarship scarcely realizes to how small a degree works of art can be understood in terms of the mentality of those who produce them. I once observed this carried to a grotesque extreme. For a group of radio-listeners, I was once assigned the task, I forget why, of giving a musical analysis in the sense of the structural elements to be heard. To begin with something familiar and corresponding to the popular taste, I chose the famous melody that forms the second main theme of the first movement of Schubert’s B-Minor Symphony, and demonstrated the chain-like, interwoven nature of the theme which accounts for its particular impressiveness. One of the participants in the meeting, a very young man whom I had noticed because of his extravagantly colorful dress, raised his hand and said roughly the following: what I had said was all very well and convincing. But it would have been more effective if I had put on a mask and costume of Schubert’s, as if the composer himself was giving information about his intentions and developing these thoughts. Something emerged in experiences of this sort that Max Weber had diagnosed almost fifty years ago in the prolegomena to his theory of bureaucracy, and which had already fully developed in America of the 1930’s - the opposition between the expert technician and the European “intellectual”, the “gebildete Mensch.” Whether and to what extent the division between intellectual and expert still exists and whether the latter has in the meantime become more open to self-reflection would be worthy of sociological analysis in itself.
[Theodor Adorno, “A European Scholar in America”, in The Intellectual Migration, edited by D. Fleming and B. Bailyn, Harvard University Press, 1969; pp349-50]

Soon after the Princeton [radio] project began [in 1937], I arranged a dinner meeting with several psychoanalysyts to obtain from them ideas on what we should pay attention to in our program... Among these were the following: can Freudian theory elucidate the entertainment value of radio and account for some especially successful programs? Can the method of free association be used in our study of radio listening? In developing types of radio listeners, will we have to go back to early childhood experiences? Would a psychoanalytic developmental theory clarify the role of radio at different ages?
[Paul F. Lazarsfeld, “An Episode in the History of Social Research: A Memoir” in The Intellectual Migration, p319]

When I moved from London to New York in February 1938, I worked half-time for the Institute fur Sozialforschung, and the other half for the Princeton Radio Research Project... [which] had its headquarters at that time neither in Princeton nor in New York, but in Newark, New Jersey, and indeed, in a somewhat pioneering spirit, in an unoccupied brewery... At Lazarsfeld’s suggestion, I went from room to room and spoke with colleagues, heard words like “Likes and Dislikes Study”, “success or failure of a program”, of which at first I could make very little. But this much I did understand: that it was concerned with the collection of data, which were supposed to benefit the planning departments in the field of the mass media, whether in industry itself or in cultural advisory boards and similar bodies... Its charter, which came from the Rockefeller Foundation, expressly stipulated that the investigations must be performed within the limits of the commercial radio system prevailing in the United States. It was thereby implied that the system itself, its cultural and sociological consequences and its social and economic presuppositions were not to be analyzed. I cannot say that I strictly obeyed the charter.
[Theodor Adorno, ibid, pp341-3]

In 1932 while I was still in Berlin, I read a book by H.G. Wells. It was called The World Set Free. This book was written in 1913, one year before the World War, and in it H.G. Wells describes the discovery of artificial radioactivity and puts it in the year of 1933, the year in which it actually occurred. He then proceeds to describe the liberation of atomic energy on a large scale for industrial purposes, the development of atomic bombs, and a world war which was apparently fought by allies of England, France, and perhaps including America, against Germany and Austria, the powers located in the central part of Europe. He places this war in the year 1956, and in this war the major cities of the world are all destroyed by atomic bombs. Up to this point the book is exceedingly vivid and realistic. From then on the book gets to be a little, shall I say, utopian. With the world in shambles, a conference is called in Brissago in Italy, in which a world government is set up.
This book made a very great impression on me, but I didn’t regard it as anything but fiction. It didn’t start me thinking whether or not such things could in fact happen. I had not been working in nuclear physics up to that time.
Now, this really doesn’t belong here, but I will nevertheless tell you of a curious conversation which I had, also in 1932, in Berlin. The conversation was with a very interestring man named Otto Mandl, who was an Austrian, and who became a wealthy timber merchant in England, and whose main claim to fame was that he had discovered H.G. Wells at a time when none of his works had been translated into German. He went to H.G. Wells and acquired the exclusive rights to publish his works in German, and this is how H.G. Wells became known on the Continent. In 1932 something went wrong with his timber business in London, and he found himself again in Berlin. I had met him previously in London and I met him again in Berlin and there ensued a memorable conversation. Otto Mandl said that he not only thought, he knew what it would take to save mankind from a series of ever-recurring wars that could destroy it. He said that man has a heroic streak in himself. Man is not satisfied with a happy idyllic life. He has a need to fight and to encounter danger. And he concluded that what mankind must do to save itself is to launch an enterprise aimed at leaving the earth. On this start he thought the energies of mankind could be concentrated and the need for heroism could be satisfied. I remember my own reaction very well. I told him that this was something new to me, and that I really didn’t know whether I would agree with him. The only thing I could say was this: that if I came to the conclusion that this was what mankind needed, and if I wanted to contribute something to save mankind, then I would probably go into nuclear physics, because only through the liberation of atomic energy could we obtain the means which would enable man not only to leave the earth but to leave the solar system.
I was not thinking any more about this conversation or about H.G. Wells’s book either, until I found myself in London about the time of the British Association meeting in September 1933. I read in the newspapers a speech by Lord Rutherford, who was quoted as saying that he who talks about the liberation of atomic energy on an industrial scale is talking moonshine. This set me pondering as I was walking the streets of London, and I remember that I stopped for a red light at the intersection of Southampton Row. As the light changed to green and I crossed the street, it suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons and which would emit two neutrons when it absorbed one neutron, such an element, if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction.
[Leo Szilard, “Reminiscences”, in The Intellectual Migration, pp99-100]

In the fall of 1939, the Office of Radio Research was turned over to Columbia University, and at the same time I was appointed lecturer there. The Foundation gave us a temporary grant to prepare a proposal for a three-year continuation to begin March 1940.
The crucial part of the proposal we then wrote - from the point of view of further developments - was the following passage:
It is proposed, by utilizing the panel technique developed in the first two years of the project, to locate those individuals who do change their habits in response to a continuous sequence of broadcasts; and then to study in detail the circumstances surrounding the listening and subsequent changes in these individuals.
[Lazarsfeld, ibid, pp329-30]

In the theoretical texts that I then wrote for the Institut, I formulated the points of view and experiences which I then wanted to employ in the Radio Project. In the first instance, this applies to the essay, “Uber den Fetischcharakter in der Musik und die Regression des Horens” ... [which] represented a sort of critical reply to an article of my friend Walter Benjamin, published in our periodical, on the work of art in the age of technical reproducibility. The problems of production in the culture-industry and the related behavioural patterns were critically underscored, whereas Benjamin seemed to me to take an all too positive attitude toward the cultural industry, due to its technological potentialities.
[Adorno, ibid, pp341-2]

If uranium, in the process of fission, which can be caused by slow neutrons, emits fast neutrons, these fast neutrons can be distinguished from the neutrons of the source by virtue of their higher energy. There was at Columbia University some equipment which was very suitable for these experiments. This equipment was built by Dr. Walter Zinn who was doing experiments with it. And all we needed to do was to get a gram of radium, a block of beryllium, expose a piece of uranium to the neutrons which come from the beryllium, and then see by means of the ionization chamber which Zinn had built whether fast neutrons are emitted in the process. Such an experiment need not take more than an hour or two to perform, once the equipment has been built and if you have the neutron source. But of course we had no radium.
So I first tried to talk to some of my wealthy friends; but they wanted to know just how sure I was that this would work, so finally I talked to one of my not-so-wealthy friends. He was an inventor and he had some income from royalties. I told him what this was all about, and he said, “How much money do you need?” and I said, “Well, I’d like to borrow $2,000.” He took out his checkbook, he wrote out a check, I cashed the check, I rented the gram of radium, and in the meantime the beryllium block arrived from England. And with this radium and beryllium I turned up at Columbia and, having talked previously to Zinn, said to the head of the department, “I would like to have permission to do some experiments.” I was given permission to do experiments for three months. I don’t know what caused this caution, because they knew me quite well; but perhaps the idea was a little too fantastic to be entirely respectable. And once we had the radium and the beryllium it took us just one afternoon to see those neutrons. Mr. Zinn and I performed this experiment [on March 3, 1939].
[Leo Szilard, ibid, pp108-9]

It is hardly an accident that the representatives of a rigorous empiricism impose such restrictions upon the construction of theory that the reconstitution of the entire society and its laws of action is impeded. Above all, however, the choice of the frames of reference, the categories and techniques employed by a science, is not as neutral and immaterial with respect to the content of the object to be studied, as a philosophy might suppose whose essential ingredients include a sharp distinction between method and object...
I can most simply illustrate what I mean, without resorting to any detailed philosophical explanation, by drawing upon an actual experience. Among the frequently changing colleagues who came in contact with me in the Princeton Project was a young lady. After a few days she came to confide in me and asked in a completely charming way, “Dr. Adorno, would you mind a personal question?” I said, “It depends on the question, but just go ahead.” And she continued, “Please tell me: are you an extrovert or an introvert?” It was as if she was already thinking, as a living being, according to the pattern of the so-called “cafeteria” questions on questionnaires, by which she had been conditioned.
[Adorno, ibid, pp346-7]

I still had no position at Columbia; my three months [March 1- June 1, 1939] as a guest were up, but there were no experiments going on anyway and all I had to do was think. Some very simple calculations which I made early in July showed that the graphite uranium system was indeed very proimising, and when Wigner came to New York, I showed him what I had done. At this point, both Wigner and I began to worry about what would happen if the Germans got hold of some of the vast quantities of the uranium which the Belgians had in the Congo. So we began to think, through what channels we could approach the Belgian government and warn them against selling any uranium to Germany.
It occurred to me that Einstein knew the Queen of the Belgians, and I suggested to Wigner that we visit Einstein, tell him about the situation, and ask him whether he might not write to the Queen. We knew that Einstein was somewhere on Long Island but we didn’t know precisely where, so I phoned his Princeton office and I was told he was staying at Dr. Moore’s cabin at Peconic, Long Island. Wigner had a car and we drove out to Peconic and tried to find Dr. Moore’s cabin. We drove around for about half an hour. We asked a number of people, but no one knew where Dr. Moore’s cabin was. We were on the point of giving up and about to return to New York when I saw a boy of about seven or eight years of age standing at the curb. I leaned out of the window and I asked, “Say, do you by any chance know where Professor Einstein lives?” The boy knew and he offered to take us there, though he had never heard of Dr. Moore’s cabin.
This was the first Einstein heard about the possibility of a chain reaction.
[Leo Szilard, ibid, pp111-2]

I consider myself European through and through, considered myself as such from the first to the last day abroad, and never denied it. Not only was it natural for me to preserve the intellectual continuity of my personal life, but I quickly became fully aware of it in America. I still remember the shock that a housemaid, an emigrant like ourselves, gave me during our first days in New York when she, the daughter of a so-called good home, explained: “People in my town used to go to the symphony, now they go to Radio City.” In no way did I want to be like her. Even if I had wanted to, I wouldn’t have been capable of it. By nature and personal history, I was unsuited for “adjustment” in intellectual matters. Fully as I recognize that intellectual individuality can only develop through processes of adjustment and socialization, I still consider it the obligation and at the same time the proof of mature individuality to transcend mere adjustment. Through the mechanism of identification with images of authority, one must emancipate one’s self from this very identification.
[Adorno, ibid, pp338-9]

There were five people sitting around the table, and I told them that the possibility of a chain reaction between uranium and graphite must be taken seriously; that at this point we could not say very much about this possibility; and that we could talk about it with much greater assurance if we first measured the absorption of neutrons in graphite. It was for this purpose that we would need about two thousand dollars’ worth of graphite, and I wondered whether they might give us this amount of graphite on loan; the experiment would not damage the graphite and we could return it to them.
W.F. Barrett [director of research of the Union Carbon and Carbide Company] said, “You know, I’m a gambling man myself, but you are now asking me to gamble with the stockholders’ money, and I’m not sure that I can do that. What would be the practical applications of such chain reaction?” And I said that I really could not say what the practical applications would be at this point...
[Leo Szilard, ibid, pp116-7]

(14.6.10)


Surface brightness

If we could fly close to the Andromeda Galaxy it would not look the way it appears in photographs. Instead it would be no brighter than our own Milky Way; easily swamped by streetlights. If you half the distance to an extended object then the total light being received from it is multiplied by four, but so is its apparent area, hence its surface brightness remains constant.

Detailed work on the visibility of faint objects was done by Blackwell during World War Two. The study consisted of projecting spots of light onto a wall in a specially constructed dark room, and having these observed by teams of women employed both as test subjects and statistical analysers (an American art institute was entirely given over to this work, in order to find data relevant to night combat). More recently the results were used by Roger Clark in his book Visual Astronomy Of The Deep Sky.

Herschel introduced the term "light grasp", appreciating that larger aperture meant he could see fainter galaxies. For a telescope of aperture A, and eye-pupil diameter p, the light grasp G is defined as (A/d)2. When a galaxy is magnified in a telescope by a factor m, the total brightness of its image is multiplied by G, while its area is multiplied by m2. Hence its surface brightness is multiplied by G/m2. But the lowest useable magnification is (A/d), hence the surface brightness is multiplied by a number less than or equal to one. A telescope makes extended objects larger but no brighter; the advantage of aperture is that it minimises the amount of dimming.

Nevertheless, people believe that by buying a sufficiently large telescope, they ought to be able to get views from their back garden comparable to what they have seen in photographs. This is a reified view in more ways than one. The problem is seen as one to be solved economically, when really what is needed is not expensive equipment (a technological solution), but a dark sky (a social solution).

The night sky is a reflecting veil through which distant galaxies are seen. On the assumption that contrast can be detected at very low light levels down to about 8% for objects around half a degree in diameter, I estimate that galaxies should be visible if their intrinsic surface brightness is no more than about two magnitudes fainter than the intervening sky. I have a sky quality meter with which I can do some tests on this once the nights are darker.

(28.6.10)


Representation

Writing is the representation of a communicative act. Novels are representations of second or higher order. Readers may imagine a hypothetical writer who speaks to them; writers may imagine a hypothetical reader to whom they speak.

How could movements of deterritorialization and processes of reterritorialization not be relative, always connected, caught up in one another? The orchid deterritorializes by forming an image, a tracing of the wasp; but the wasp reterritorializes on that image. The wasp is nevertheless deterritorialized, becoming a piece in the orchid's reproductive apparatus. But it reterritorializes the orchid by transporting its pollen. Wasp and orchid, as heterogeneous elements, form a rhizome. It could be said that the orchid imitates the wasp, reproducing its image in a signifying fashion (mimesis, mimicry, lure, etc.). But this is true only on the level of the strata - a parallelism between two strata such that a plant organization on one imitates an animal organization on the other. At the same time, something else entirely is going on: not imitation at all but a capture of code, an increase in valence, a veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp.
[Deleuze-Guattari, A Thousan Plateaus, 11]

Bear in mind that commentary on a reality (for it is a question here of commentary, of intepretation in detail) calls for a method completely different from that required by commentary on a text. In the one case, the scientific mainstay is theology; in the other case, philology.
[Benjamin, Arcades Project [N2,1], 460]

Spinoza is acutely aware that presented multiples, which he calls "singular things" (res singulares), are generally multiples of multiples... The absoluteness of the supreme count, of the divine state, entails that everything presented is represented and reciprocally, because presentation and representation are the same thing. Since "to belong to God" and "to exist" are synonymous, the count of parts is secured by the very movement which secures the count of terms, and which is the inexhaustible immanent productivity of substance.
[Badiou, Being And Event, 112, 114]

Challenger quoted a sentence he said he came across in a geology textbook. He said we needed to learn it by heart because we would only be in a position to understand it later on: "A surface of stratification is a more compact plane of consistency lying between two layers."
[Deleuze-Guattari, 45]

A central problem of historical materialism that ought to be seen in the end: Must the Marxist understanding of history necessarily be acquired at the expense of the perceptibility of history? Or: in what way is it possible to conjoin a heightened graphicness (Anschaulichkeit) to the realization of the Marxist method? The first stage in this undertaking will be to carry over the principle of montage into history. That is, to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components. Indeed, to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event. And, therefore, to break with vulgar historical naturalism. To grasp the construction of history as such. In the structure of commentary.
[Benjamin, [N2,6], 461]

Language cannot induce existence, solely a split within existence.
[Badiou, 47]

For Blanqui, history is the straw with which infinite time is stuffed.
[Benjamin, [J79a,3], 368]

The historian ends up including in the event "the French Revolution" everything delivered by the epoch as traces and facts... The halting point for this dissemination is the mode in which the Revolution is a central term of the Revolution itself... Of the French Revolution as event it must be said that it both presents the infinite multiple of the sequence of facts situated between 1789 and 1794, and, moreover, that it presents itself as an immanent résumé and one-mark of its own multiple... The event is thus clearly the multiple which both presents its entire site, and, by means of the pure signifier of itself immanent to its own multiple, manages to present the presentation itself, that is, the one of the infinite multiple that it is... I touch here upon the bedrock of my entire edifice... If there exists an event, its belonging to the situation of its site is undecidable from the standpoint of the situation itself.
[Badiou, 180-1]

Allegory recognizes many enigmas, but it knows no mystery. An enigma is a fragment that, together with another, matching fragment, makes up a whole. Mystery, on the other hand, was invoked from time immemorial in the image of the veil, which is an old accomplice of distance. Distance appears veiled. Now, the painting of the baroque - unlike that of the Renaissance, for example - has nothing at all to do with this veil. Indeed, it ostentatiously rends the veil and, as its ceiling frescoes in particular demonstrate, brings even the distance of the skies into a nearness, one that seeks to startle and confound. This suggests that the degree of auratic saturation of human perception has fluctuated widely in the course of history. (In the Baroque, one might say, the conflict between cult value and exhibition value was variously played out within the confines of sacred art itself). While these fluctuations await further clarification, the supposition arises that epochs which tend toward allegorical expression will have experienced a crisis of the aura.
[Benjamin, [J77a,8], 365]

Since every articulation is double, there is not an articulation of content and an articulation of expression - the articulation of content is double in its own right and constitutes a relative expression within content; the articulation of expression is also double and constitutes a relative content within expression. For this reason there exist intermediate states between content and expression, expression and content: the levels, equilibriums, and exchanges through which a stratified system passes.
[Deleuze-Guattari, 50]

It's not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent. - Only dialectical images are genuine images (that is, not archaic); and the place where one encounters them is language.
[Benjamin, [N2a,3], 462]

Sets which belong to themselves were baptized extraordinary sets by the logician Mirimanoff. We could thus say the following: an event is ontologically formalized by an extraordinary set... The axiom of foundation de-limits being by the prohibition of the event.
[Badiou, 190]

(8.7.10)


Anger or despair

Baudelaire is quite as isolated in the literary world of his day as Blanqui is in the world of conspiracies.
[Benjamin, Arcades Project, [J79a,3], 368]

A very close friend told me he had been reading this journal. I was very suprised to learn that anybody had been reading it. He told me he found a note of anger in it that he hadn't detected in my novels. I said it was not anger but despair.

(18.7.10)


Synecdoche, New York

What Benjamin said of Kafka with such unique aptness applies to himself as well: “The circumstances of this failure are multifarious. One is tempted to say: once he was certain of eventual failure, everything worked out for him en route as in a dream”.
[Hannah Arendt, introduction to Illuminations, 22]

Kafka is mentioned early in Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 film, Synecdoche, New York. Theatre director Caden Cotard is in conversation with Hazel, the box-office girl who is in love with him, and her reading of The Trial forms part of their flirtation. It would be tempting to call the film Kafkaesque (or postmodern), given the way it moves from naturalism through fantasy to paranoid self-reflexivity. What is singularly impressive about the film, though, is the way it embraces and transcends both modernist alienation and postmodern playfulness, establishing instead what one might call trans-modernism, a condition that is inherently self-contradictory: logical irrationality, failure as success.

A half-built house can easily look like a half-demolished one; “work in progress” is always close to “work in ruins”. Cotard is directing a production of Death Of A Salesman, a story of failure that is considered a classic. The first night is a triumph: Cotard stays up all night with his leading actress (also in love with him) until they can read the reviews, then goes home to his increasingly distant artist wife Adele. The path of extra-marital affair and marital break-up is clearly marked, but so is the sense that sexual conquest is a form of defeat. Everything implies its own negation.

The film begins by suggesting the traditional organising principles of plot and subjectivity: Cotard has an accident at home that leaves him with a bump on the head necessitating trips to various specialists. Cotard is recognisably the film’s protagonist, his mental state is its centre. Mundane domesticity is the initial emphasis, such as his daughter’s visits to the bathroom. References to death and illness present a recognisable theme of mid-life crisis; a television cartoon bizarrely depicting a virus anticipates the stylistic movement that is to come.

The medical people have a pleasing air of caricature; their dry responses subvert naturalism only to the extent familiar from many movies inflected with postmodern irony. More telling is the increasing dilapidation of the hospital and other places Cotard goes to. At first this seems “Kafkaesque”; eventually it can be seen as part of the greater organising principle, which is time itself, meaning decay.

Adele takes their daughter to an exhibition in Germany; Cotard now has the opportunity to pursue his affair with Hazel. The film’s turning point, though, is when we see Hazel go to buy a house, striking first of all because of its departure from Cotard’s viewpoint, but also more drastically because the house turns out to be in flames. We can interpret it as a dream sequence, but if we do then the rest of the film is a dream (in whose head?), since the burning house becomes a recurring feature and, as such, an element of the film’s reality. Rather, the house articulates a formal organisation that increasingly discards naturalism. The permanently collapsing building could be seen as symbolic, but symbolism assumes a fixed connection between sign and signifier; and while character names in Synechdoche, New York have at times a symbolic air (the earnest therapist Madeleine Gravis, or Cotard himself, whose name is that of a syndrome where sufferers believe themselves dead), this in itself seems a dispensible reference to Miller’s Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman. Symbolism’s leaden air of authority is mocked in the figure of Gravis; the film as a whole is not symbolic but marked instead by an arbitrariness that is allegorical.

It is Gravis who provides the finest comedy, some of it therapist-baiting of a sort you could find in Woody Allen. The most hilarious is her appearance as Cotard’s unexpected fellow passenger on an aeroplane while he reads her best-selling book, a scene straight out of Bunuel.

Again, though, the movement of the film is towards a point beyond such familiar surreality or playfulness. Time organises yet is distorted: Adele’s absence rapidly turns into years. The question whether it is all inside Cotard’s head or outside soon feels irrelevant: his reading of his daughter’s left-behind diary, extending right through her life, is typical of the film’s internal logic, which rigorously defies any consistent mapping onto recognisable reality.

Cotard’s project becomes the staging of his own life; an appropriately vast and dilapidated hangar is the setting where doubles are cast for the people in his story, and eventually doubles of doubles. The trope is familiar; what is novel about the treatment (taking us beyond modernism or postmodernism – or almost beyond) is that Cotard is not tragic, comic or tragi-comic; he is arbitrary and knows only annihilation. Subjectivity is preserved until the end as dominant organising principle (the film therefore concluding in the only way it can), and this, one could say, is one of the more traditional and backward-looking aspects, a concession to audience expectation. The film, though, clearly wants to escape and transcend subjectivity: we get this in the first appearance of the burning house, and also in a speech by a priest (or actor playing a priest) quoting Cotard’s own thoughts about everyone being lead player of their own drama. The priest’s comments are banal: we’ve only got one life, we’ve got to make the best of it, we choose our own fate. What Cotard wants is to be able to play the lead role in his own drama as if it were his real life (he advises one of his actors to do something like this, to “walk like himself”). He knows however that there is no real life, as long as one assumes oneself to be the lead. We are all minor characters in nobody’s drama; a graphic on someone else’s website. To grasp this is to embrace life’s inevitable failure.

Perhaps the greatest testimony to this film, which deserves to be called a masterpiece, is that it has annoyed so many people.

(20.7.10)


Fragment

Whenever Benjamin uses a trope which seems to convey a picture of total meaning, of complete adequacy between figure and meaning, a figure of perfect synecdoche in which the partial trope expresses the totality of a meaning, he manipulates the allusive context within his work in such a way that the traditional symbol is displaced in a manner that acts out the discrepancy between symbol and meaning, rather than the acquiescence between both. One striking example of that is the image of the amphora:

Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way, a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original's mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel. For this very reason translation must in large measure refrain from wanting to communicate. [The Task of the Translator, 79]

[Paul de Man, Yale French Studies, No. 69, The Lesson of Paul de Man (1985), p42]

(21.7.10)


Inception

The popularity of this movie is such that I only got in to see it on the second attempt, having booked tickets beforehand. Its conceit is that there exist experts who can infiltrate people's dreams in order to steal their secrets. In other respects it is a conventional action thriller, and on that level it works well enough. What marks it out as conventional, apart from the violence, is the near total absence of psychological motivation, irony and women.

The experts create the dreams of their subjects, therefore the film closely resembles The Matrix in its positing of virtual reality, though Inception lacks the intellectual pretensions of that other film, to its advantage. At one point the expert, Cobb, (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) does a sketch for the benefit of the young dream-architect, Ariadne, he has hired, consisting of two curved arrows forming a circle: the subject-object relation. This is about as technical as it gets.

Instead the film accepts the term "subconscious" as a statement of objective fact, and regards dream-world as territory to be occupied just as waking-world is. Dreams are labyrinths, but their architecture is fixed. The film's implied ontology is rigidly symbolical: the overtly suggestive names of Cobb and Ariadne reflect this. If a sleeper gets water on their face, they dream of water. If they tumble in a speeding vehicle, they dream of weightlessness. The dream, in other words, is not a dream, but a representation, in which the elapsing of apparent time can be rigidly calculated, so many minutes of sleep equalling so many hours of perceived dream. There are levels of dreaming (dreams within dreams) and the same multiplicative factors apply, in a way that proves important in the denouement.

This, then, is the true extent to which it is a conventional action thriller: its essentially machine-like view of life. Its lack of irony goes beyond an absence of playfulness (almost the only joke: an expert who dares to dream a bigger gun) to present a world governed by total, predictable causality. Lukacs discerned the "second nature" of market economies; Inception deploys third, fourth and fifth natures in the realm of dream. Even in pharmacologically-induced sleep, the experts cannot escape their economic imperative, they can never forget that the whole thing is a heist conceived in order to make one billionaire get the better of another, for which they will all get paid at the end. The people firing guns are projections and illusions, but not the promised cash, this being the only stable reality.

The film's emotional dimension is the story of Cobb's lost wife, fallen victim to the idea that reality itself is a dream from which death is the only possible awakening. The irony, lost on the film, is that this is almost exactly what Walter Benjamin was saying in The Arcades Project; though awakening, for him, meant revolutionary consciousness.

A characteristic of the film is its arbitrary rule-building, mirroring the dream-building of the protagonists. Going two levels down in an artifical shared dream is apparently easy; three is a challenge. This arbitrariness is the closest the film comes to allegory as opposed to symbolism; the closest it comes to the possibility of irony. Strangest of all is the very first rule we are introduced to, which is that while the experts can readily steal the secrets of their dreaming victims, what is apparently very difficult, almost impossible, is to implant an idea in their mind. This is crucial to the entire film, yet is also startlingly wrong. Reading other people's minds is hard, putting ideas in their heads is the easiest thing in the world; the business of advertising agencies, governments, propagandists, religious leaders and ideologues since ancient times. The film asserts a fundamental belief in individual freedom while simultaneously and implicitly denying it.

As well as The Matrix, comparison can be made with Solaris. That film (in its original version) ends unforgettably with a vision of the protagonist apparently returning home, whereas he is in fact on the dream-planet, having chosen dream over reality. Inception, from the very beginning, sets up the anticipation of a similar twist. But Solaris was a work made within Soviet totalitarianism, and against it. Inception is made within democratic capitalism, and endorses it. The end therefore cannot satisfy: simultaneously ambiguous and inevitable. What none of these characters can ever wake up to is the possibility that their own subjectivity might not be the law of the universe they think they have created.

(29.7.10)


A Thousand Plateaus

Flying back from my holiday in Greece I was reading A Thousand Plateaus. The young man beside me noticed the cover (which shows a tank) and asked if it was a war book. He turned out to be a soldier who had served in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. He looked not much older than my son. He was fearful of flying, and asked to swap seats with me so that he would be further from the window.

Concepts I shall particularly retain from Deleuze and Guattari's book: the rhizomatic versus the arborescent, knowledge as following rather than theorematic, the distinction between state (including royal science) and nomadism (including minor science). And most particularly, I think, the chapter on linguistics that effectively extends Bakhtinian dialogism to a far wider range of application, seeing free indirect discourse as generic. I suppose this is what has provided the theoretical basis for much of the work that has been done on applying Bakhtin far beyond the domain of the novel. From my point of view, the interest is in thinking how "free indirect" can be thought of as going beyond the local linguistic level to be seen as a structural feature of the novel as a whole (relating this to Benjamin's montage). The question "who speaks?" becomes undecidable at a global level. "All writing is translation."

During the flight the young man suddenly turned to me and said, "I've just remembered what happened last night." At the resort where he was staying he went to see a hypnotist's performance and found himself on stage. He was told that whenever he heard the song "Who Let The Dogs Out?" he would go and copulate with a toy dog. This he did. He was then told that the person seated before him was a beautiful woman, and he should make love to her. While simulating oral sex with the person he was woken to discover it to be a non-hypnotised man. The young soldier told me all of this with great earnestness, insisting that the hypnotic state was completely genuine. He was instructed that after leaving the theatre he would go to the toilet and see a terrifying gorilla: this happened. He was also told that he would forget everything until he was on the flight home, at which point it would all come back to him and he would feel compelled to tell his story to everyone on the aeroplane. I said he needn't do this; he was free of the hypnotist's power and could do whatever he wanted. I could see his desire to believe this. But he got up from his seat and went to another part of the plane, presumably to tell his story again.

Freud tried to approach crowd phenomena from the point of view of the unconscious, but he did not see clearly, he did not see that the unconscious itself was fundamentally a crowd.
[A Thousand Plateaus, p33]

(25.8.10)


A Commonsense Remark

Allow me a commonsense remark. If, like Berg, you subtly negotiate with the theatricality (or lyricism) inherited from the post-Wagnerian facet of the old world, the construction of the sequential subject 'music wrested from tonality' is easier, the public less restive and consensus more rapidly obtained. Berg's operas are today repertory classics. That the subject which is thereby deployed in the openings of the old world remains fragile can be seen from the fact that Berg gradually multiplied his concessions (the purely tonal resolutions in Lulu and the violin concerto) and, above all, from the fact that he did not open the way to the resolute continuation of this subject, to the unpredicatable multiplication of the effects of the musical body newly installed in the world. Berg is a towering musician, but he is almost always referred to in order to justify reactive movements internal to the sequence. If, on the contrary, like Webern, you work on points, and therefore on the discontinuous peaks of the becoming-subject, you are faced with considerable difficulties. For a long time, you're deemd to be an esoteric or abstract musician, but it is you who opens up the future, you in the name of whom the constructive dimension of the new sonic world will be generalized and consolidated... Only the delicate crossing, through non-negotiable decisions, of some strategic points testifies to novelty. It does so by breaking apart what academicization misrepresented as an established result.
[Badiou, Logics of Worlds, 84]

(15.9.10)


Death Of The Novel

These novelists [Kafka et al] discover "what only the novel can discover": they demonstrate how, under the conditions of the "terminal paradoxes", all existential categories suddenly change their meaning: What is adventure if a K.'s freedom of action is completely illusory?...Where is the difference between public and private if K., even in bed with a woman, is never without the two emissaries of the Castle? And in that case, what is solitude? A burden, a misery, a curse, as some would have us believe, or on the contrary, a supremely precious value in the process of being crushed by the ubiquitous collectivity?...
As a model of this Western world, grounded in the relativity and ambiguity of things human, the novel is incompatible with the totalitarian universe. This incompatibility is deeper than the one that separates a dissident from an apparatchik, or a human-rights campaigner from a torturer, because it is not only political or moral but ontological. By which I mean: The world of one single Truth and the relative, ambiguous world of the novel are molded of entirely different substances. Totalitarian Truth excludes relativity, doubt, questioning; it can never accommodate what I would call the spirit of the novel.
But aren't there hundreds and thousands of novels published in huge editions and widely read in Communist Russia? Certainly; but these novels add nothing to the conquest of being. They discover no new segment of existence; they only confirm what has already been said; furthermore: in confirming what everyone says (what everyone must say), they fulfill their purpose, their glory, their usefulness to that society. By discovering nothing, they fail to participate in the sequence of discoveries that for me constitutes the history of the novel; they place themselves outside that history, or, if you like: they are novels that come after the history of the novel.
About half a century ago the history of the novel came to a halt in the empire of Russian Communism. That is an event of huge importance, given the greatness of the Russian novel from Gogol to Bely. Thus the death of the novel is not just a fanciful idea. It has already happened. And we now know how the novel dies: it's not that it disappears; its history stops: after that comes nothing but a period of repetition in which the novel keeps duplicating its form, emptied of its spirit. Its death occurs quietly, unnoticed, and no one is outraged...
You have only to glance at the American or European political weeklies, of the left or the right: they all have the same view of life, reflected in the same ordering of the table of contents, under the same headings, in the same journalistic phrasing, the same vocabulary, and the same style, in the same artistic tastes, and in the same ranking of things they deem important or insignificant. This common spirit of the mass media, camouflaged by political diversity, is the spirit of our time. And this spirit seems to me contrary to the spirit of the novel.
The novel's spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: "Things are not as simple as you think."
[Kundera, Art Of The Novel, 12-18]

(17.9.10)


Philosophy Of The Novel

There is a fundamental difference between the ways philosophers and novelists think. People talk about Chekhov's philosophy, or Kafka's or Musil's, and so on. But just try to draw a coherent philosophy out of their writings! Even when they express their ideas directly, in their notebooks, the ideas are intellectual exercises, paradox games, improvisations, rather than statements of thought...
[Dostoevsky] is a great thinker only as a novelist. Which is to say that in his characters he is able to create intellectual universes that are extraordinarily rich and original. People tend to find in his characters a projection of his ideas - Shatov, for instance [in The Possessed]. But Dostoevsky did his best to guard against that... Thus, even if Dostoevsky did give Shatov his own ideas, they immediately become relative. The rule holds for Dostoevsky too: Once it is part of a novel, reflection changes its essence: a dogmatic thought turns hypothetical. This is something philosophers miss when they try to write novels. With one exception - Diderot. His wonderful Jacques le Fataliste!
[Kundera, Art of the Novel, 78-79]

(18.9.10)


Eagles and Starlings

Perhaps Sarsi believes that all the host of good philosophers may be enclosed within four walls. I believe that they fly, and that they fly alone, like eagles, and not in flocks like starlings. It is true that because eagles are rare birds they are little seen and less heard, while birds that fly like starlings fill the sky with shrieks and cries, and wherever they settle befoul the earth beneath them. Yet if true philosophers are like eagles they are not [unique] like the phoenix. The crowd of fools who know nothing, Sarsi, is infinite. Those who know very little of philosophy are numerous. Few indeed are they who really know some part of it, and only One knows all.
[Galileo, trans. Drake, The Assayer, in Discoveries and Opinions, 239]

(7.10.10)


Free Thinking

It is said, that the sun, moon, and stars were made after the earth on the fourth day. Modern astronomy tells a different tale. The heavens are full of cloud-like bodies called nebulae - some thin and transparent, others more opaque, and some appear like stars, being only slightly surrounded with nebulous matter. These bodies present every variety of appearance, from that which is called star dust, to condensed bodies almost resembling stars. The theory which La Place started, and since adopted by Herschel, Arago, and other eminent astronomers of the present day, is, that there are bodies of nebulae in the progress of condensation, which in the process of time, become stars, and from which suns and systems are formed; and also, that while new systems are forming, others are decaying. All the physical laws of our solar system are in harmony with this hypothesis. It is the only one that can explain the origin of the rotatory motion of the sun, and the rest of the planetary system... The planets, it is supposed, were thrown out, at different times, from the substance of the sun, beginning with Uranus, and ending with Mercury. This order of formation is justified by the present appearances which the planets present when observed by the telescope. This hypothesis, so consistent with all astronomical data, is fatal to the notion that the sun and stars were created after the earth... Independent, therefore, of the inherent discrepancies which we pointed out in the mode of telling the Bible story, we have met it with scientific arguments of such a nature as to render the retention of the literal meaning impossible, and must, at least, reduce the whole affair to an allegory, which may have no more to do with the creation and the fall of man than the adventures of Robinson Crusoe or Baron Munchausen.
["Free-Thinkers' Information For The People", Issue 1 (Cowen Tracts), 1800]

(21.11.10)


Christmas Carol

Increasingly noticeable around Christmas is the ever-growing number of productions and parodies of A Christmas Carol. It is almost becoming the definitive Christmas story in preference to the Nativity. Perhaps future primary school children will invariably find themselves cast as Scrooge and Cratchit in preference to Joseph or Mary. Asked to explain the meaning of Christmas, they will say there was once a mean man who learned to be good.

Apart from the charm (and prior familiarity) of the story itself, its increasing entrechment could be ascribed to its ready availability for parody, and hence multiple repackaging. A parodic Nativity (e.g. Life Of Brian) is inherently subversive; a parodic Christmas Carol can readily be seen as a way of making the story “relevant”; i.e. upholding accepted values.

It is a secular story: this is its greatest power. Like It’s A Wonderful Life (itself a sort of Christmas Carol), it relies on the social force of Christianity rather than its theology. The story is about socialisation rather than religious conversion. A person who is alienated from the values of the collective becomes emotionally integrated. There is an understanding that “goodness” is about being perceived by others to be good; it has nothing to do with the older notion of renunciation before God.

It is a story of multiple realities: Scrooge is shown his real and possible lives in a series of visions, and is given the power of choice. Leibniz’s legend of the pyramid of fates is inverted: no longer do we see life as it is and must be, the inescapable destiny of an individual born to be good or evil because God knows best. Now we are able to see our own palace of fates and make the choice: a far more comforting myth.

Benjamin regarded Blanqui’s multiverse as the phantasmagoria of history; an image of the cosmos understood as an image of society itself. It is a cosmology of wish-fulfilment, with the bad after-taste of realising that to have everything fulfilled is finally to have nothing.

Christmas, for non-Christians, is a perpetually renewed attempt to have the party without the hangover: a self-induced infantilisation. Nostalgia is the mythologising of an experienced past refigured as one we feel we ought to have experienced. The stress of Christmas is the requirement of perfection, which is the stress of life in general. The visual counterpart to this false image of perfection is pure white snow. We have been experiencing it this year, and the dream has become the subject of moans and complaints. As someone who doesn’t need to commute (or even go out of the door, much of the time) I have been enjoying the sugar-like purity of the unmelted snow: more of it, and more beautiful, than I can ever remember seeing in Britain.

(20.12.10)


Conclusion

The diminishing rate of entries in this journal over the course of a year has mirrored an increasing rate in my own writing. I have just finished a second draft of my novel Quantum Suicide. I will now be returning to another project begun previously, which will occupy me during the first months of 2011.

I see the process of novel writing – once the thing has actually got going - as a movement outwards. To begin with you’re inside it all, inside a complicated machine or forest, where small local details can take on enormous significance. Gradually you move towards the edge of this complexity, you see a boundary, a surface; the internal gears are no longer a concern, once you’re satisfied that they mesh and turn. And eventually you feel yourself move away from the surface, so that you can see the whole thing – though never as a complete stranger would. Eventually you forget whatever it was that you planted inside; you can look at the exterior surface almost as if it has nothing to do with you.

The time when you’re inside the machine is very exciting but also very burdensome, with much time spent on small things, parts that get modified, replaced, discarded, brough back again. Asked to try and explain what you’re doing, you could only give some very incoherent account of the tiny local problem that preoccupies you. Later, once you’re far outside, you might sum it all up too simply – it no longer even matters. But the time when you’re right there on the surface of it; this – I have found – is the time I enjoy most, the time that I treasure. This is when you feel proud of what you’ve done but not in love with it. Everything is still subject to change, but those changes are superficial, they concern changes to the surface appearance, the things that readers are most likely to notice first, like a pattern of wallpaper or the furniture of a room. My second draft has involved re-ordering chapters and creating a continuous surface-story that unifies them: the work of a couple of weeks. From my point of view it is essentially the same novel but from a reader’s point of view it is a completely different experience.

I think I’ve done good work. I also feel that it’s doomed to failure, and was so from the beginning – that everything non-trivial is doomed to failure. According to Kundera, every novel says to its reader: things are not as simple as you think. And this is completely counter to our collective cultural values, the requirement that everything should be made simple. The novel says to us: if you think this is simple then you haven’t looked hard enough, you haven’t looked beneath the surface. And if you look hard enough you will always find contradictions, problems, failures. Only by facing and accepting the impossibility of the undertaking can we begin to be worthy of it.

The novel, as art form, is characterised by its urge forever to expand beyond whatever limits may be set down for it. This is the universality that Bakhtin commented on: not the pseudo-universality of a greeting card (saying anything we want, to anyone we want, because it is merely platitude), but the omnivorous universality of language itself, its urge to speak of all things. Something in the novel resists the surface-seeking urge of the author: it wants you to keep lifting things higher. But there has to be a moment when you leave the surface, when you feel proud of what you’ve done, but know that you’ve failed.

Benjamin said of Kafka that once he was certain of failure then everything worked for him like a dream. Hannah Arendt said the same of Benjamin. Success is finite and bounded but failure is unlimited, there is no end to failure. Beethoven said that art is a distant star we can never reach. The condition that manifests itself in his late music is the certainty of failure. Leaving the premiere of the Ninth Symphony, he told Czerny he thought the choral finale was a mistake, he should have stuck to a purely instrumental one.

(30.12.10)


Andrew Crumey is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council