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.

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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.

word #14: “feudal bourgeois” (n.)

noun (and oxymoron; overall though, really more of a term than a word).

From Franz Neumann’s Behemoth: the Structure and Practice of National Socialism 1933-1944:

[A]ll the conceit of the old feudal lord, with few of his virtues, [and] little of his regard for loyalty or culture. He represented a coalition of the army, the bureaucracy, and the owners of the large estates and factories for the joint exploitation of the state.

This portraiture by the Frankfort School-expat writing for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (what became / was subsumed by the C.I.A.) reminds me of what the Victorian fabulist George MacDonald wrote about clever people (in a passage called “An Old Garden” eerily reminiscent of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There):

[…] We do not half appreciate the benefits to the race that spring from honest dullness. The clever people are the ruin of everything.

As citizens we should want the State to be dull, but as 21st century consumers and perpetual audience members we want our State to be clever. Against this algebra however, how do we account for Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” or David Foster Wallace’s notion that corruption can hide in the great wide open under the t-shirt and shorts of dry, opaque tedium?

 

 

On Waves and Cycles

In political science – and the social sciences in general – there is a perennial debate about the character of change – whether change comes in waves or if instead it is cyclical. This is most prominent in discussions clarifying and giving shape to the nature of revolution, a focal concern in the West since first Mercantilism and then Enlightenment triggered modalities of regicide, revolt, and rebellion across formerly feudal Europe, thus paving the way for republicanism, parliamentarianism, representational democracy, and other liberal and self-governing forms of government in tandem with rational (and irrational) arguments against divinized hierarchies and monarchical power [NOTE: our newest augmentations to participatory governance were shaped to accommodate the Industrial Revolution and, even more recently, the Digital Information age; exactly what these tweaks were (beyond a widening definition of citizen) and their larger significance remain contentious and on-going]. A historical generality can be drawn: anything which hampered (or seemed to hamper) the cultural flow of the age (be it the flow of goods, ideas, capital, binary code, etc. ) was seen as a form of tyranny, a word that still today harkens back to the authoritarian rule of unchecked kings, and sentenced (sometimes swiftly, sometimes haphazardly) to be lopped-off. The debate between waves and cycles has to do with explaining the continuity of tyrannical hampering (i.e. Why does authoritarian injustice keep bubbling up after both rhetorical advancements and cultural practices – even laws! – become bedrocks of developed civilizations?) – and the always-recurrent response or corrective to privileged impingements, now ambiguously referred to simply as “change”. Is change seasonal, or is change generative?

This well-known dualism is strangely united in its use of ecologically-centered metaphors. Waves are as well known a natural phenomena as any; when one thinks of how metaphorically they apply to political analysis of revolutions, it is hard not to think of Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”. The idea is clear: the phenomenon is a one-off swelling tied to the contingency of the moment (the political philosophy of Alain Badiou and his notion of the “Event” seems closely related). On the other hand, the cyclical or seasonal metaphor is equally rooted in ecological consciousness. There is in fact no true cycle outside of the natural world, merely analogies, or else a mechanical rotation, which is a synthetic (robotic) imitation/doubling of a cyclical process. Claude Monet’s “Haystack” series is illustrative of the idea as it relates to our understanding of historical revolutions: different but not different; each historical event offering up a variant refraction of another (or all others); slight shifts sometimes apprehended imperceptibly, other times seen as unheimlich. The issue that these ecology-minded metaphors pose is that ecological change is essential to explain socio-cultural change, yet at the same time, it is ecological change which is now the tyrannical thing. This the case whether one is a tree-hugging environmentalist or a hoax-mongering conspiracy theorist: ecology – including the ecological forms of waves and cycles – hampers cultural flow. Social and political change in an ecologically terrifying world has, therefore, paradoxically lost – or is in the process of losing – its metaphors.

The problem is classic chicken-and-egg algebra, and not unlike etymological questions that surround ancient myths. Take the word odyssey as a structural example: Homers’ Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’s great odyssey. When we use the word odyssey now, are we using a word that is itself being poeticized by the Greeks, or is it only after the story of Odysseus that we then use the word that first referred to Odysseus’s-quest to now mean epic-journey? (This is an especially improbable head-scratcher when you think about how many hundreds of years the story was orally circulated before it was finally transcribed) Is The Odyssey a story of a prescribed word or a word born of a story? In political and social terms, global warming has returned us to a place of similarly uncertain origins, a “nonlocality” where historical causalities seem to have arrived in a state of suspended animation.

Seneca unwittingly points to such a suspension or gap in On the Shortness of Life:

Men are tight-fisted in keeping control of their fortunes, but when it comes to the matter of wasting-time, they are positively extravagant in the one area where there is honor in being miserly.

This quote pops with irony in our age of click-bait, fake news, and touch screens, but his simple point (Why waste your life?) is undermined by something more deeply disturbing: Is life nothing more than wasting-time? David Foster Wallace’s repetitive use of “wastoid” in The Pale King makes this point well: something at first mocking becomes descriptive and in the end a poignant rephrasing of “human”. Importantly, both Seneca and Wallace still rely on an ecological metaphor to shape their rhetorical/poetical expressions, as the abstraction of time is not mechanized without the observable change of the natural world, in this sense wasting, decomposition, decay. The day before last, Stephen Hawking said we wastoids have roughly one more millennia to whizz toward another rock because this one won’t fit the bill. It is hard to imagine a future where technical marvels advance while the foundations of our understanding of the world – the world itself – becomes violently uninhabitable.

Quote #11: Elena Ferrante (2015)

The most urgent question for a writer may seem to be, What experiences do I have as my material, what experiences do I feel able to narrate? But that’s not right. The more pressing question is, What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know? Without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing comes out alive and true. It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it. It reanimates, revives, subjects everything to its needs.”

Quote #8: Søren Kierkegaard (1843)

What is going to happen? What will the future bring? I do not know, I have no presentiment. When a spider flings itself from a fixed point down into its consequences, it continually sees before it an empty space in which it can find no foothold, however much it stretches. So it is with me; before me is continually an empty space, and I am propelled by a consequence that lies behind me. This life is turned around and dreadful, not to be endured. (Either/Or, I)

It’s important to note that Kierkegaard was writing from a fixed “stage of life” during this period, these fragments pseudonymously written by a certain “A” corresponding to the initial Aesthetic stage which always gives way to despair and dread. So while despair is a very potent emotion in life, it is never – thankfully – an absolute condition, or, at least ethically (the second stage), it shouldn’t be, and religiously (the third stage), it never could be.

Quote #7: John D’Agata/Vic Baker (2010)

Vic was in a safari hat and sandals an white athletics socks, and as we spoke in his office one late fall morning he looked over my shoulder into lamp without a shade.

“People have this really weird conception of science,” he said. “They think that it’s the one reliable source for information that we have. They think that even if their public leaders and not to be trusted, and their newspapers are inaccurate, and cultural and religious morals are treacherously shifting, that science, at the very least, will provide a stable compass. But the problem is that science can’t do that. Science is alive, it evolves. It occasionally establishes a fact, but, if given enough time, it’ll probably refute that fact. Remember when the Earth was flat? Remember when the sun and all the other planets spun around the Earth? Remember when humans became sick because the gods were angry with us? Science just uses a kind of rhetoric that sounds authoritative. Just like any other form of communication, however, science is susceptible to abuse, inaccuracy, and just bad interpretation. And that’s what’s wrong with Yucca. The public wants o have some assurance that all this waste that we’re producing is going to be safe in that mountain. So the Department of Energy creates all these computer models to try to prove that that’s the case. They measure and measure and measure and measure till they get the results that they want. And then whammy: Surprise! Their computers predict that everything will turn out fine at Yucca Mountain. Phew!”

He pulled the left sock on his left foot up.

“Well, I’m sorry,” said Vic. I’ve got news for everybody. Our descendants are going to live in a reality in the future; they’re not going to live in a computer simulation.”

And then the other sock.

“The problem with wanting unwaveringly definitive results from science is that whenever we say we have an ‘answer,’ we also tend to believe that we’ve revealed some sort of ‘truth.’ But real scientists don’t settle so firmly into answers. They always leave a little wiggle room for new evidence to change their minds. The very fact that we still even have something that’s called ‘geology’ is an indication that we admit that we don’t have all the answers. That we’re still investigating.”

From D’Agata’s About a Mountain (W.W. Norton, 110-111).