Quote #23: James Baldwin (1976)

The question of identity is a question involving the most profound panic—a terror as primary as the nightmare of the mortal fall. This question can scarcely be said to exist among the wretched, who know, merely, that they are wretched and who bear it day by day—it is a mistake to suppose that the wretched do not know that they are wretched; nor does this question exist among the splendid, who know, merely, that they are splendid, and who flaunt it, day by day: it is a mistake to suppose that the splendid have any intention of surrendering their splendor. An identity is questioned only when it is menaced, as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the wretched begin to rise, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger: the stranger’s presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself. Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes.

Passage from The Devil Finds Work.


Quote #21: Raymond Queneau (1973)

Let us remember that topology and the theory of numbers sprang up in part from that which used to be called “mathematical entertainments,” “recreactional mathematics.” I salute in passing the memory of Bachet de Meziriac, author of Problèms plaisants et delectable qui se font par les nobres (1612—not, as Larousse says, 1613), and one of the first members of the French Academy. Let us also remember that the calculation of probabilities was at first nothing other than an anthology of “diversions,” as Bourbaki states in the “Notice Historique” of the twenty-first fascicle on Integration. And likewise game theory until von Neumann.

Lucretian Geometry (a speculation)

Is an hoop just a dot by other means?

A dot and an enclosed circle are certainly more dissimilar than a dot and a connected line in space (i.e. a hoop). A circle is an outline, a trace, history’s most pragmatic abstraction, whereas hoops, loops, Möbius strips – these more closely resemble the paradox of the dot.

If you think about it, dots are simply impossible: they’re either tiny (thick) lines or filled-in circles (i.e.:“a hair or a hairball”). Dots are uncanny.

Dots are not the same as points.

In Euclidean geometry, points are the beginning realities (so called one-dimensional space), but in fact they are complex abstractions of the imagination. If you think about how lines are defined as the shortest distance between two points, this is phenomenologically incorrect since in fact the lines include – or subsume – the points themselves. In this formulation, “point” – or dot – means “end,” an intangible concept denoting the place where a thing ceases to be a thing and instead becomes a not-thing, separated, void. Following Lucretius, who posits that the world is made up only of “bodies” and “void” (and no “third things”), an end is not an abstraction but the observation of void. Consecutively, points (vis-à-vis Euclid) are ill-defined abstractions that seek to make sense of impossible dots, and in turn, impossible realities.

In three-dimensional space, ends become edges, giving further shape to the Lucretian geometry of void and furthering the groundlessness of points.

But knives do cut, you may say.

Importantly knifes do not cut on their own, independently; they cut into other things. We say a knife cuts because we see an apple or a cheese wedge bisection at the point of contact with the knife’s edge. [Furthermore, there is no knife that is not a tool (or a consumer product), hence a further abstraction.] A cut is equal parts cutting-thing and cuttable-thing.

Though it possesses more verisimilitude, the Euclidean third-dimension is in a way the most problematic because it gives body to shapes but leaves out the energy, the vitality, the presence of thing-ness. Disappointingly, three-dimensional space is less-than inert. If you think about a stationary wheel (the one on your bike in the shed), it is not a circle in the third dimension (albeit with the accidental imperfections necessarily added to bring abstract shapes into actuality, through welded metal and molded rubber, etc.). What do wheels do but spin? Balls but roll? Blocks but impede? Pyramids but erode? Three-dimensional space is still abstracted “space” and does not represent “live” space. Motion – kinematics, not time – is the fourth dimension because movement necessarily resembles living bodies – living bodies in active relationships with other living bodies. [It is Lucretius not Augustine who first insists that time is insubstantial: “Time also exists not of itself, but from things themselves is derived the sense of what has been done in the past, then what thing is present with us, further what is to follow after. Nor may we admit that anyone has a sense of time by itself separated from the movement of things and their quiet calm” (On the Nature of Things, 1. 459-463, Rouse & Smith).] The Euclidean spectrum of x, y, z, t is both abstract (as opposed to descriptive) and ideological (as opposed to universal) as it attempts to present the sense of things as a heap of sensible things extra-dependent of nothing, where in fact objects are extra dependent of precisely nothing, of void, that allow for the presence and interactivity of other objects.

A hoop then has two conceptions, one in the third-dimension and the other in the fourth-dimension. A hoop, like a circle, has no beginning or end, except when we remember that a circle does indeed have a beginning (the abstract x center) and an end (the circumference dictated by d distance from x in all directions). Hoops in the third dimension have this same finite quality to them, only with added complexities of gauge and further demarcations shaped by their bloated edgings with void.

In the fourth dimension of kinematic geometry, however, hoops begin to assemble their symbolic association with infinity and no longer resemble the Gordian knot whose complexity is merely a complicit illusion. This is because a moving hoop, a loop looping, a shaping of objects into a material blur of non-beginning and non-ending, mirrors the velocity of experience. [A model Mobius strip then is really just a three-dimensional representation of the fourth-dimensional hoop.]

When a bus darts past your field of vision, it moves away in a linear vector defined in essence by the surface of the earth’s crust. If you are on a bus darting past Overland Avenue, the earth is transformed into blurring lines of light and matter. The bus stops and the experiential hooping of earth-things comes to an end. Just as waking and sleeping are not fixed points of experience but only definite matters in the abstract (a fact also mirrored in our entire existence of being here and then eventually not), these liminal continuums mirror the experience of being hooped.

Returning to the failures of three-dimensional geometry versus actual “live” geometries, all three-dimensional objects imply a spectral dissection dictated by their coming into contact with experience (i.e. with sense and reflection) and perhaps none so illustratively as a hoop. The are two ways a subject can be presented to a hoop: as a thing-that-hoops and as a hooping-thing. As a thing-that-hoops, it is a child’s hula-hoop or a metal bracelets – but a hooping thing can be any encapsulating space of varying thickness: a belt, a car, a department store floor, the woods, etc. Life cocoons experience, but observers – others – are finite, specifically our widths, even just the space of a brain synapse, or an atom. A loop is a tube in the moment. A moment in a tube is a container. In life, the wild is counterintuitively a confined space. Our conceptions are always-already limited, yet simultaneously more complex than their abstraction attempts to conceal.

Back to the original question: Is a hoop just a dot by other means?

If you go fast enough, all shapes turn to lines, and if you are constantly moving then what’s the difference between the continual line connected in space (a hoop) and a dot? At top speeds, dots become indistinguishable from hoops, not to mention other dots. Dots – not points – are live space when they are blots, spots, smudges, spills, drops – all synonyms of human accident. The information age devalues uncanny dots and their vicissitudes because they avert the binary codes of mobility.

Quote #20: Ted Hughes (1967)

Words that live are those which we hear, like “click” or “chuckle”, or which we see, like “freckled” or “veined”, or which we taste, like “vinegar” or “sugar”, or touch, like “prickle” or “oily”, or smell, like “tar” or “onion”. Words which belong directly to one of the five senses.


Quote #17: David Foster Wallace (2006)

We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries—we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?

Post-Word Literacy

The state of Michigan, as argued by lawyers for its Attorney General and acting on behalf of Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s office, currently supports the position that its children’s fundemental right to education does not include a fundamental right to literacy. Their motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit suing the State for unlawful failure of duty to students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District states the position bluntly: “There is no fundamental right to literacy.”

There is something in this argument that escapes the typical criticisms of legal cynicism and semantic decadence. In other words, the supposed plausibility that one’s right to education is provided in the tools to learn alone irrespective of results of having learned, or that there are meaningful distinctions to be made parsing the terms education, learning, schools, and literacy are both insulting arguments, but they both also fail to reveal the truly heartless core of the document. The State of Michigan has, to my hears, entered into Lewis Carroll territory of Catch-22 deadlocks and tyrannical fantasies. Rights themselves are based upon literacy. Our legal system is one elephantine literature. As far as the courts are concerned, citizens are already grafted into this literature of laws and rights (our names, social security numbers, passports, driver’s license number, fingerprints) than our corporeal or emotional experience bares witness. One cannot be a citizen without the literacy of citizenry. So to say that students have no fundamental right to literacy is akin to saying they have no rights to rights, or legal recourse: they are always-already unjustified.

In “A Mad Tea-Paty” (Alice in Wonderland Chapter VII), Alice is relentlessly misunderstood, misrepresented, and ignored to the tune of everyone else’s ignorance, arrogance and stupidity:

`[…] I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, `that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’

`It is the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn’t much.

Here, the arbiters of logic (Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse) refuse to acknowledge Alice’s inherent human dissonance (i.e. that even though she didn’t say exactly what she meant, she did attempt to communicate with the party with what she did say, and not purposefully confuse the proceedings) while ignoring how their own permutations of proper speech and correct civility reveal further conflict, their absolutist premise that individual particulars always refer to different ideas and never the same breaks down within a few supposedly supportive exchanges.

What makes Michigan’s legal verbiage additionally worrisome is that American society has very recently entered into something close to a post-word era where what you say, what is written, and what words mean, means terrifyingly little. For confirmation of our immediate context, here is The Atlantic‘s James Fallows from just earlier today:

A man who will literally have life and death power over much of humanity seems not to understand or care about the difference between truth and lies.

Since about the 1970s, sociologists and media theorists have speculated that we live in an aliterate society, where people can read but chose not to. And then in more recent decades, critics have discussed the “truthiness” of American public and the failure of evidence to effectively persuade or – in the case of Global Warming – progressively build consensus. Recent days have shown that perhaps these are mere symptoms to a far more oppressive paradox of living utterly outside the sphere of poetry, rhetoric, and apparently also meaning.

Victorian George MacDonald speculated on the what a post-word world might look like in his aphoristic “The Prison”:

I think I have seen from afar something of the final prison of all, the innermost cell of the debtor of the universe… It is the vast outside; the ghastly dark beyond the gates of the city of which God is the light—where the evil dogs go ranging, silent as the dark, for there is no sound any more than sight. The time of signs is over. Every sense has (had) its sign, and they were all misused: there is no sense, no sign more—nothing now by means of which to believe. The man wakes from the final struggle of death, in absolute loneliness as in the most miserable moment of deserted childhood he never knew. Not a hint, not a shadow of anything outside his consciousness reaches him… Soon misery will beget on his imagination a thousand shapes of woe, which he will not be able to rule, direct, or even distinguish from real presences.

This uncanny vision of modern subjectivity trapped in a feedback-loop of solipsistic misuse, unable to grasp the meaning of something even so basic as a sign, is a nightmare curiously attuned to our current predicament where the consensus path of least resistance is often simultaneously considered to flirt with unprecedented disaster.  The twin gods of Fate and Chaos seem to have superseded any and all principles of Modernity that help shape self-governance, conceptions of social responsibly, or mutual regard for the rights of individuals. The state of Michigan is essentially arguing to students, individuals, people, anyone, everyone—like the Hatter to Alice, like MacDonald’s cosmic prison—that they simply don’t exist. What words will convince them otherwise?

Is a Term a Word?

Terminology sometimes refers to specialized language, but it also can refer simply to language that requires more than one word as its signifier. Are terms then in this second sense not also words?

There are two ways that words can contain more that one signifier and still – incontrovertibly – be called words: the compound word (i.e. sailboat, birdbrain, loveshack) and the hyphenated word (i.e. half-baked, gold-digger, mind-boggled). These both leave unaccounted the so-called term (i.e. fish tank, human history, credit cards). Terms refer to a single idea or thing, so in this sense they are cleanly nouns, and yet they are simultaneously not words but are instead a kind of word-set, something universally compounded in usage but never formally linked whether typographically or grammatically. They are paradoxically two-word words.

While this contradiction in the definition of “word” may or may not hold, the OED points to a crack in the foundation of “term” as well:

13 a: A word or phrase used in a definite or precise sense in some particular subject, as a science or art; a technical expression

13: b. In wider application: Any word or group of words expressing a notion or conception, or denoting an object of thought; an expression (for something). Generally with qualifying adj. or phrase.

In the first definition, terms are something specified, technical, scientific and exacting; yet in the second, the thing is general, vague, whimsical, and inexact.

The word “signifier” is a linguistic term that appeals to the ambiguities and tensions of our common conceptions and definitions for the word “word.” Presumably, a signifier refers to what is being used to signal the thing subjected to discussion (signified) whether it is through a hyphenated word, compound word, utterance, term, word-set, sentence, sneeze, or hiccup.

These gaps in clarification highlight just how much grammar (which is a kind of mutant field of philology) and Linguistics (which is both a pseudo-anthropology and a pseudo-neuroscience) are distinctly separate disciplines. Besides their socio-political differences (Grammar is insular, Linguistics is cross-cultural), they have fundamentally different conceptions of what builds our symbolic networks. Each is helpfully insufficient, and both curiously incompatible. Moreover, both the slipperiness of the terms and their porously abstract conceptualizations that attempt to (with varyingly degrees and success) buttress as well as conceal the mechanistic virtues (or even sense) of either further supports the counterintuitive claim that language is far more material and physically resonant than semioticians or grammarians have historically highlighted when configuring the Whats and the Hows of language.