Author Archive for Sean

21
Feb
11

GRIM, ARROGANT OBFUSCATIONS (See yourself in here?)

Inspired (and suggested) by Erinrose and this magical word-confusion machine she found floating around on the internets.


Glib, Means Jeans.

The Annoying Gnash.

Menageries or Snore.

Joint in Mask.

Safest Dollar.

I’m Brutal Bender.

Fly Jeers Flaw.

Resonant Shed.

Jet Concocts Spankers.

Deem Less Jam.

Ha Ha! New Rants.

So Jam on Hand.

Raze Fang, NT.

Sizing Rebel.

 

 

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20
Feb
11

mingling in the multiverse: science, the infinite, & the sublime.

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First of all, I’m no scientist, so all apologies if any of my scientific logic or resulting speculations are faulty.

Scientific American sent me a supplement on Parallel Universes the other day, and because of this supplement I have had an epiphany–physics and cosmology are terrifying. The article reminded me of Borges’ Library of Babel or Garden of Forking Paths (and according to Zachary Mason, author of Lost Books of the Odyssey, in an interview on BLDGBlog, Borges is a favorite of a “disproportionately many well-read scientists.”) Even accepting that science has become much more probabilistic in the 20th and 21st centuries, and that science and fiction have long had a mutually constructive relationship, it is stunning how much these descriptions of the multiverse are reminiscent of fiction and art concerned with the infinite or the sublime.

In this article I learned that we can assume space is “infinite (or at least sufficiently large) in size and almost uniformly filled with matter, as observations indicate.” According to the article, with these basic assumptions it is a small step to make the claim that “even the most unlikely events must take place somewhere,” which is to say everything that could possibly happen has happened somewhere in the infinite spread of space.

From there the article describes the various theories of the multiverse. The first has the multiple universes have been constituted and spread around by the big bang “with a degree of randomness, generating all possible arrangements with nonzero probability.” Since our universe is assumed to be typical, there is probably a high density of them in space, so they can say that your closest identical copy is about 10 to the 10 to the 28 meters away. In the space in between we could speculate that there are innumerable nearly identical copies. According to this theory we are, ourselves, a sort of book in the library of babel—an empty “box” with infinite permutations of content stretching out on every spatial axis toward infinity. I imagine a Borges story about an immortal man trying to find his exact double. Or a Nabokov story about a mortal man who tries to kill his double for the insurance money.

Another theory have each universe as a bubble floating in a nearly empty volume. Infinitely many other bubbles exist floating in this volume, in an infinite number of configurations, but have spread, “[nucleating] like raindrops in a cloud.” This volume they are floating in is expanding faster than the speed of light, so it is a cloud that is essentially infinitely large—we could travel at the speed of light forever and never reach another multiverse. We are alone in a void. Nietzsche would be thrilled.

A third is the quantum theory, in which “every conceivable way that the world could be (within the scope of quantum mechanics) corresponds to a different universe.” The die falls on all 6 sides. Another theory has even the laws of nature varying.

We can reason that these multiverses exist, but we can’t even begin to imagine them. These theories of the multiverses are, then, sublime. A sublime experience, as I read it in its most basic sense, is a reaction to the unimaginable that leads us to re-calibrate our awareness of our position in and relation to the space and time in which we are situated. Here we reason that there are multiverses, and it leads us to reconsider our position in the vastness of outer space. This reads as an intensely jacked-up version of that classic sublime experience in which a person looks up at the night sky and feels minuscule in comparison to the scope of the cosmos.

Whereas many theories of the sublime held that a thing must be aesthetic, or sensual, it’s clear to me in reading this piece that scientific thought (which few people would argue is remotely aesthetic) has tipped over another threshold into the sublime. In here there is probably an argument that could be made regarding the stubborn persistence of mind/body dualism. More fascinating to me, though, is that one might argue that science, with its habit of upsetting prevailing opinion, blind belief, and even itself, has always been an enterprise with intimate knowledge of the sublime.

30
Jan
11

Ideal vs. Material

If anyone read the review of Irving Kristol’s posthumous collection of essays The Neoconservative Persuasion, they may have also noticed the strict line that neoconservatism draws between the dynamics of the material world and the “moral” and “religious” considerations. It never occurred to me before, but it seems like a great number of the larger ideological debates of the modern era can be drawn along these lines. To quote from the review, most of Kristol’s essays

add up to an extended tirade against American liberalism, which I think should figure as still another of neoconservatism’s principles — the largest and most energetic principle of all, judging by the evidence here. The tirade rested on two main inspirations, neither of which can be dismissed out of hand. Kristol repeatedly argued that American liberalism, in its domestic programs, has relied on a parched and narrow vision of human nature, which attributes too much importance to material conditions and not enough to moral and religious considerations.

Such dogmatism and rabid anti-materialist sentiments (in both the capitalist and the philosophical senses of the word), of course, are the cornerstones of modern American religion, and the dogmatism, at least, carries over to the American right. It’s not outlandish that American religion and conservatism make for such wonderful bedfellows.

The main sticking point for me, the one thing I cannot get past, is this reactionary attempt to deny what is so obviously true about the world: things change quickly and dogmatic rules prove to be inadequate to them as soon as they’re printed or typed. What’s so bad about admitting this fact and trying to deal with it rather than taking the conservative path by closing one’s eyes, plugging one’s ears, and yelling as loudly as possible. Wanting to believe something doesn’t make it true, and attempting to strong-arm materialist (or realist) considerations in the name of morals, dogmas, and static, proscriptive ideals won’t make it go away.

That this is an accepted and acceptable route is something I just cannot fathom.

09
Nov
10

On Sadness and The Brutal Rationality of the Modern Era

Last night I had trouble sleeping. After reading a bit of The Corrections and drifting off (go figure!), something, I don’t know what, shocked me awake and after that I was fully alert, though a little delirious. Listlessly scrolling through my netflix queue, I finally decided to watchIn The Realms of the Unreal, a documentary about Henry Darger,  one of the United States’ best known “outsider artists” and the author of the longest known single piece of writing in existence, standing at 15,000 pages.

In the Realms of the Unreal

How did he manage to write 15,000 pages and a sequel of 8,000 more? Darger lived an especially sad life and these stories were probably his escape–let the body work while the mind flees. As for his story: Henry’s sister was given up for adoption after his mother died in childbirth and for some years following he lived with his father who many speculate was probably a sad-sack a-hole who could barely take care of himself, never mind his son. He was then sent from public school to a hospital for the mentally “feeble.” After escaping from a state work farm requiring hard labor for long hours, he walked a few hundred miles back to Chicago, where he settled at age 17. He worked as a menial laborer for the rest of his life, most often living alone–winding gauze, washing dishes, standing and repeating the same blunting tasks for 14 hours a day.

In short, he had a classically dour, harsh, and storybook-cruel life. What I find the most fascinating is that his story was based around Chicago, which brings it into consonance with many of the other stories I’ve been reading lately: The Devil in the White City and Jimmy Corrigan. All three of these stories, in one way or another, touch on the story of an outsider (sad-sack or serial killer) standing on the edge of the future in the midwest, watching the 20th century gather steam.

The Devil in the White City explores the stunning architectural grandeur of the Chicago World’s Fair as parallel to the birth of a new american type: the serial killer. The spatial mastery of man is forced into comparison with an increasing divide between action and empathy as exemplified in the psychopath. Jimmy Corrigan is also set against the backdrop of Chicago’s World’s Fair. Both stories feature fatherless losers, men born into a childhood they could not navigate emotionally and thus could never quite leave.

Now, in my own imaginary, Chicago and the rest of the midwest stand as a symbol of the promise of modernity’s once-future that has since become the melancholy of the now-past and forever-present. It is a place of longing and loneliness, and to risk sounding cliche, it results from something brutal and monstrous in the grandeur of modernity. The visual style of Jimmy Corrigan is very evocative of this–it features small, simply-drawn figures standing in the foreground of large, complex public architecture. In fact, these figures are not so far off from those that director Jessica Yu uses to fill in the earlier portions of Darger’s story in her documentary–blueprints of institutions and rows after rows of hospital beds. It would seem that Darger’s stories were his Wonderland crafted in response to a world designed by Jeremy Bentham.

I think these stories have such resonance with us from where we stand because they register the psychic shock delivered by modern technology in the 20th century’s start, a shock we are still feeling as we continue to find our emotional lives steamrolled in new ways by the terse, abstract rationality of modern life. It is, for many intents and purposes, the record of struggles particular to our time.

They all work so well, measure this punch so smartly and delicately because in the era they are documenting, the punch is still in its infancy. Like Tacita Dean’s photographs of the closing Kodak factory, a dominant paradigm (whether an era, a form, a medium, or an idea) would seem to be at its most profoundly insightful and expressive when it is recording its own death, its own limits in the face of the neverending onrush of novelty. Here we have sorrowful representatives old era recording its death in the face of a technical and rational revolution.

Darger’s story hits so close to home, I believe, because it is about the subjugation of modern life to the unexpected results of our own technological mastery. So is The Devil in the White City. So is Jimmy Corrigan. It’s about the then-new emotional and psychic bruises left by the rational/emotional divide of modern progress. Which are, of course, bruises that we keep giving ourselves, and with which we continue to struggle.

23
Aug
10

On a Second Pass

Unemployment brings nothing if not time. Surely by now you’ve all read the NYTimes magazine article about 20-somethings or Slate’s response. Large numbers among our generation seem to be swamped with time that the previous generation might have filled with an office job, a spouse, or children. I know I have too much time. Time can be filled with attempts at exercising off anxiety or crafting of a perfect cover letter, but even after attending to these thankless tasks the hours tend to be hard to fill in a way that feels meaningful. Some fill the time with totally arbitrary or foolish projects. For instance, I have decided to re-evaluate my cultural (and media) history by taking a second pass and revisiting those things that I used to love and those things that I have never really given myself a chance to feel anything about. I will be attempting to listen to my entire music collection alphabetically.
I will not be so spartan that I won’t allow myself to listen to specific albums when I want to, I just want to force some thoughtful engagement. Without putting too fine an economic or political point on the thing, I find that since I started reading musical criticism online, I consume far too ravenously, too readily; my love of culture has spilled over into a tendency to stockpile. I had been inspired by this site, aptly titled The Second Pass, in which writers re-view old works in the same spaces they review new works. I hope, in so revisiting what I already have (and possibly writing some small essays) to devalue empty novelty for myself–not to eliminate the blush of excitement one finds with novelty, but to curtail my tendency to value it for its own sake. I would like to re-engage with those things that I already have, to discover new wrinkles and folds. Maybe I can change a few of my listening habits in the process. Maybe I can work on my own ability to write about music, write more like Lester Bangs on Astral Weeks and less like Pitchfork on Kid A.
To paraphrase something Nabokov once said–only the second reading actually counts.
I have another project in mind, which seems to me to be just as difficult judging by my own ignorance to visual culture–I will watch through the entirety of the Criterion Collection. I will probably blog about this too, but I won’t pretend that I know enough about film to say much of interest. Maybe I will by the end of it. Hopefully I can at least watch the films at a clip that outpaces their new additions.
28
Apr
10

Terrible News for the Humanities–Philosophy closes at MDX

http://www.cinestatic.com/infinitethought/2010/04/closure-of-philosophy-at-middlesex.html

Via Nina Powers’ blog Infinite Thought:

The philosophy program at Middlesex is closing–one of the best in the world. This is indicative of the commodification of education in the UK, the rise in bureaucratic audits, and just a general lack of place for the humanities.

Sad, sad news. Nina goes more into depth and is worth reading. She should have an article on it soon.

14
Apr
10

John Cage//Nietzsche//Techniques of Listening and Life

John Cage, from Silence

But this fearlessness only follows if, at the parting of the ways, where it is realized that sounds occur whether intended or not, one turns in the direction of those he does not intend. This turning is psychological and seems at Ilrst to be a giving up of everything that belongs to humanity-for a musician, the giving up of music. This psychological turning leads to the world of nature, where, gradually or suddenly, one sees that humanity and nature, not separate, are in this world together; that nothing was lost when everything was given away. In fact, everything is gained. In musical terms, any sounds may occur in any combination and in any continuity.

Is this not a certain technique for achieving what Nietzsche intended in the figure of the overman? It seems uncannily similar, and Cage’s arguable political naivete aside, it presents at least the glimmer of a course of aesthetic action (the positive suppression of positive intention) for the goal that Nietzsche, as I read him, set out.

If nothing else, silencing yourself for a bit makes for a good exercise.




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