Monday, October 31, 2005

Daemonic pleasure


Thursday, October 27, 2005

Looping forward

This week I have been reading the papers of Rick Grush, philosopher of mind and brain, whose theory of the emulator has had me thinking (about myself) all day. If you or your computer can't handle pdfs, you might prefer these papers, which were posted in html, though they're a bit older:
The Architecture of Representation
Perception, imagery, and the sensorimotor loop

Saturday, October 22, 2005

In the Old Dominion Fresco Barn

Hilary's fresco from this summer: the whole thing, then a detail:

Thursday, October 20, 2005

With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams

I’m getting worse at going to bed at a reasonable hour—like a child I believe I will miss something important—and my experiences of the alarm clock in the morning are becoming increasingly distorted by dreams. This morning I believed that I had found a new setting for the clock, in which the snooze alarms tell a story, a sort of mystery, in their successive installments. At the time, I believed that this feature had been designed to make waking up more appealing, though something like the opposite was probably the case. I can describe the content of the alarm-narrative only by saying that it was embodied in overlapping rectangular shapes abstracted from the backs of buildings, the rickety porches and fire-escapes of multi-story New England apartment houses, the laundry-strung loggias of Sand Hill and Munjoy Hill and Kelley Street. Recognition of my terrible confusion faded in while I was telling Hilary, who was asleep, that I had discovered an amazing new style of alarm.

A quite different power of narrative production streamed for much of the day, most likely a symptom of my body’s fight against a minor viral infection, though at the time I imagined it must have been caused by my reading about Piranesi’s etchings the night before. (De Quincey writes: “Some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr Coleridge’s account) represented vast Gothic halls: on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, &c. &c.”) At school today, between sneezing fits, I felt an inner architecture unfolding itself imagelessly in transparent ice-tracings of dungeons and labyrinths, a multi-paneled winter feeling-film that resembled the proliferating marginalia of Mad magazine in its inexhaustible knowledge of narrative code. Unlike the hypnagogic imagery that precedes sleep—that rush of nameless sensation when your last conscious thoughts are carried off into strange forms—the image-stream that attended my sickness was, I want to say, non-visual, and as abstractly related to colors and forms as words to things. It was more like an awareness of my body’s location in an articulated, crystalline space and its possibilities of movement therein. In a way, it was like the sensation of listening to music at such a low volume that you’re not so much listening as reviewing an inner, revolving catalog of musical possibility. Assuming that I’m describing a state that is repeatable and not unique to me—and very little in inner life is unique, I think—I would welcome a more accurate description of this curious form of illness.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Time in the shadow of the wing of the thing too big to see, rising

“Sometimes I wish I could properly articulate my suspicion of disinterested aestheticism,” wrote John in an e-mail to me. Wallace Stevens is probably less skeptical than John when it comes to aestheticism, but for now we’ll take his eighth way of looking at a blackbird as expressing a similar failure of articulation:
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
Stevens’ blackbirds are many things to many people. This one, for me, is a figure for the political sublime, the outer-edge, negative-space shape of the sensation-streams that sweep us, the unseen-unbelievable that frames the narratives and arguments that seduce us with plausibility, the unnatural-inhuman border of the natural and intelligible, the self-concealing mental map of the network of social and economic relations in which alone we can experience the claims of taste, which network taste tastefully excludes—all that revolutionary thought attempts to see steadily and whole.

Showing in so many ways what is involved in what we know was the aim of the weblog Alphonse van Worden; Either a Libertine Diary or Notes in Its Margin. The author of that page, who knows noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms, and that the blackbird is way involved, has retired it, to the detriment of all of us who learned from her renderings of the sublime shapes of things. Ready or not, we inherit the responsibility of thinking for ourselves. This may be a good thing. We strongly crave the forms of words of others, but political imagination cannot be passively received, conscience cannot be borrowed. Thought lives in spark and act alone; all else is ideology, repetition, doxa, darkness.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

It spiralizes in ye

Three songs from Chris Weisman's recent demo recordings, representing three different ways of being in the world:




Monday, October 10, 2005

Only connect

It is always a defeat to give someone exactly the sort of negative attention they are patently asking for, and I hadn’t wanted to write anything about Ben Marcus’s anti-Jonathan Franzen essay in the current Harper’s, even though I strongly disliked it. I read the first couple pages and skimmed the rest (eagerly searching for any reference to David Foster Wallace, whose writing defies easy classification in Franzen’s Contract v. Status scheme, which scheme, I might point out, serves a particular purpose in a single, semi-autobiographical book review, and wasn’t intended as the cornerstone of a big-time theory of the novel), and I was prepared to dismiss Marcus with an assessment like Jonathan Franzen can write sentences, but Hilary read the whole thing, and I ended up thinking about it more than I had intended. I reread the Franzen essays at issue and announced to Hilary that I had figured out what makes Franzen different and better. “He’s fun to read and makes sense?” Hilary guessed. Yes, I said, and for a quite particular reason: Franzen is a lateral thinker, while Marcus is a linear thinker. You don’t have to know or care about the predicament of the contemporary novelist to enjoy Franzen’s “Why Bother?” (the version of his so-called “Harper’s essay” published in How to Be Alone), since it makes connections to all kinds of things you might find interesting: depression, branding, cities and suburbia, empirical research into people’s reading habits, the first Gulf War, and, of course, Franzen’s life. On the other hand, good luck getting through Marcus’s essay if you aren’t already enthusiastic about the sort of debates that animate students in MFA writing programs, for Marcus endeavors to show you nothing else of the world. Worst of all, you will come away knowing nothing about what Marcus calls “experimental fiction,” the defense of which is the whole purpose of the essay, though you will have irradiated your eyes with long lists of authors Marcus likes. Bizarrely, Franzen’s essay on William Gaddis, “Mr. Difficult,” which expresses serious doubts about books that seem weird on purpose and hard on purpose, is a much better advertisement for experimental fiction. Franzen shows both what’s narratively summarizable about Gaddis and what defies normal sense-making, and the story of his own reading of The Recognitions shows how reading something difficult and long can fit meaningfully into a life. If you aren’t moved by Marcus’s insistence that some people derive a special pleasure from reading sentences that parse badly and defy narrative logic—and this insistence, in bold defiance of the show-don’t-tell rule, is pretty much the core of his argument—a description like this one out of Franzen’s essay might convince you to give Gaddis a try:
There’s something medieval Christian about “The Recognitions.” The novel is a like a huge landscape painting of New York, peopled with hundreds of doomed but energetic little figures, executed on wood panels by Brueghel or Bosch, and looking incongruously ancient beneath layers of yellowed lacquer. Even the blue skies in the book (the phrase “Another blue day” recurs as a despair-inducing leitmotiv) glow like oil-paint skies in an art museum behind whose walls, forgotten, is the age of H-bombs and Army-McCarthy hearings in which the novel was written.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

All truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought

A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein)
Kant found the “apices” of the transcendental deduction, as well as the “critique of the subject” upon which they rest, too strenuous for his conceptual powers, weakened as they were by old age. He also considered them dangerous for anyone who happens to embark upon them exclusively or even merely preferentially. Whoever does not restrain himself in view of the consequences of [such] an approach can be driven in almost any direction whatever and will quickly lose his bearings with respect to the entire complex of humanly possible knowledge. (Dieter Henrich, “Identity and Objectivity”)

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Two for Tuesday: Ryan Power

1.) I’ve spent the last hour trying to learn and understand Heat Sleep, a song by my friend Ryan Power. The melody (which I (shamefully) haven’t thought about yet, but which contains important clues for analyzing shifts in the song’s tonal center) develops over an eight-bar loop of eight chords out of whose voices one’s ear can construct perpetually ascending and perpetually descending lines. That’s what the song, as a musical event, is about: the ear’s power to assemble wholes from distributed parts, and to alter those wholes by shifting one or two elements at a time. The song is also about eighth notes. It builds to an instrumental section—and I really want you to listen long enough to get to this part—that lays shifting tracks of melody over the chords, gradually reordering and permuting the rhythm in a fashion too bright and playful to label as minimalist, but sharing that movement’s interest in combinations. One imagines reshaping a miniature castle built out of same-sized cubes, where one or two cubes may be moved one space each turn. The castle, as a real object for us, can’t be identified with any one configuration (too concrete, too static), the collection of all its actual configurations, or the form of all its possible configurations (too abstract). These all matter to our experience: the part, its place in an actual series, and the series’ place in a spectrum of possibility.

(In case anyone wants to play along at home, the chords go like this, as far as I can tell: Dmaj7, Dsus4, Bb6, Amin7, Gmaj7, Gmin7, Amin7, D.)

2.) Ponytail Fuse is another song from Ryan’s new album, Loventropy. It is way darker and sadder than “Heat Sleep.” Its harmonic interest is generated in a similar way—more or less by alternating between a major key and the parallel minor key—though the harmonic interest of later points in the song, sink-into-the-floor, turn-inside-out dopplerizing Euro-siren moments of total aural reorientation, seems beyond the reach of analysis.* The force of these moments is probably better understood by analogy to the moment when the drug definitively kicks in and you no longer have to wonder if it’s working, when the world is utterly, without question, transformed, a moment of detachment and discovery of hidden presence when your home-world becomes as unimaginable as this transformed world had been an instant before. Maybe the spiritual (& thermodynamical & psychedelical) message of Loventropy is this: you can get the world back—your regular world, your home—but there’s a little less of it each time, and it’s duller, smaller, less comforting, and more important than you remembered.

*The surprise chord that saws off the branch you’re sitting on, an F#, belongs to neither half of the song’s modal mixture and is as far away as can be from the song’s (sort of) home in C (though its relationship to Eb, the modal alternate, is the same as the relationship of Eb to C), and it is followed by a slightly-less-impossible Emaj7, but this—or whatever better analysis—does not convey the effect of the change.