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Daniel Rourke (M, 38)
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All things would be visibly connected if one could discover at a single glance and in its totality the tracings of an Ariadne’s thread leading thought into its own labyrinth.
- Georges Bataille
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    Where forward thinking terrestrials share ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction. Introduction
    Featuring Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, based on an idea by Kees Boeke.

    This mini-paper was given at the Escapologies symposium, at Goldsmiths University, on the 5th of December and posted at my blog, machinemachine.net

    Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe centres on the shipwreck and isolation of its protagonist. The life Crusoe knew beyond this shore was fashioned by Ships sent to conquer New Worlds and political wills built on slavery and imperial demands. In writing about his experiences, Crusoe orders his journal, not by the passing of time, but by the objects produced in his labour. A microcosm of the market hierarchies his seclusion removes him from: a tame herd of goats, a musket and gunpowder, sheafs of wheat he fashions into bread, and a shelter carved from rock with all the trappings of a King’s castle. Crusoe structures the tedium of the island by gathering and designing these items that exist solely for their use-value:

    “In a Word, The Nature and Experience of Things dictated to me upon just Reflection, That all the good Things of this World, are no farther good to us, than they are for our Use...” [1]

    Although Crusoe’s Kingdom mirrors the imperial British order, its mirroring is more structural than anything else. The objects and social contrivances Crusoe creates have no outside with which to be exchanged. Without an ‘other’ to share your labour there can be no mutual assurance, no exchanges leading to financial agreements, no business partners, no friendships. But most importantly to the mirroring of any Kingdom, without an ‘other’ there can be no disagreements, no coveting of a neighbours ox, no domination, no war: in short, an Empire without an outside might be complete, total, final, but an Empire without an outside has also reached a state of complete inertia.

    Crusoe’s Empire of one subject, is what I understand as “a closed system”...

    The 2nd law of thermo dynamics maintains that without an external source of energy, all closed systems will tend towards a condition of inactivity. Eventually, the bacteria in the petri dish will multiply, eating up all the nutrients until a final state of equilibrium is reached, at which point the system will collapse in on itself: entropy cannot be avoided indefinitely. The term ‘negative entropy’ is often applied to living organisms because they seem to be able to ‘beat’ the process of entropy, but this is as much an illusion as the illusion of Crusoe’s Kingdom: negative entropy occurs at small scales, over small periods of time. Entropy is highly probable: the order of living beings is not.

    Umberto Eco:

    “Consider, for example, the chaotic effect... of a strong wind on the innumerable grains of sand that compose a beach: amid this confusion, the action of a human foot on the surface of the beach constitutes a complex interaction of events that leads to the statistically very improbable configuration of a footprint.” [2]

    The footprint in Eco’s example is a negative entropy event: the system of shifting sands is lent a temporary order by the cohesive action of the human foot. In physical terms, the footprint stands as a memory of the foot’s impression. The 2nd law of thermodynamics establishes a relationship between entropy and information: memory remains as long as its mark. Given time, the noisy wind and chaotic waves will cause even the strongest footprint to fade. A footprint is a highly improbable event.

    Before you read on, watch this scene from Luis Buñuel's Robinson Crusoe (1954)

    The footprint, when it first appears on the island, terrifies Crusoe as a mark of the outsider, but soon, realising what this outsider might mean for the totality of his Kingdom, Robinson begins the process of pulling the mark inside his conceptions:

    “Sometimes I fancied it must be the Devil; and reason joined in with me upon this supposition. For how should any other thing in human shape come into the place? Where was the vessel that brought them? What marks were there of any other footsteps? And how was it possible a man should come there?” [3]

    In the novel, it is only on the third day that Crusoe re-visits the site to compare his own foot with the print. The footprint is still there on the beach after all this time, a footprint Crusoe now admits is definitely not his own.

    This chain of events affords us several allegorical tools: firstly, that of the Devil, Crusoe believes to be the only rational explanation for the print. This land, which has been Crusoe’s own for almost 2 decades, is solid, unchanging and eternal. Nothing comes in nor goes beyond its shores, yet its abundance of riches have served Crusoe perfectly well: seemingly infinite riches for a Kingdom’s only inhabitant. Even the footprint, left for several days, remains upon Crusoe’s return. Like the novel of which it is a part, the reader of the mark may revisit the site of this unlikely incident again and again, each time drawing more meanings from its appearance. Before Crusoe entertains that the footprint might be that of “savages of the mainland” he eagerly believes it to be Satan’s, placed there deliberately to fool him. Crusoe revisits the footprint, in person and then, as it fades, in his own memory. He ‘reads’ the island, attributing meanings to marks he discovers that go far beyond what is apparent. As Susan Stewart has noted:

    “In allegory the vision of the reader is larger than the vision of the text; the reader dreams to an excess, to an overabundance.” [4]

    Simon O’Sullivan, following from Deleuze, takes this further, arguing that in his isolation, a world free from ‘others’, Crusoe has merged with, become the island. The footprint is a mark that must be recuperated if Crusoe’s identity, his “power of will”, is to be maintained. An outsider must have caused the footprint, but Crusoe is only capable of reading in the mark something about himself. The evocation of a Demon, then, is Crusoe’s way of re-totalising his Empire, of removing the ‘other’ from his self-subjective identification with the island.

    So, how does this relate to thermodynamics? To answer that I will need to tell the tale of a second Demon, more playful even than Crusoe’s.

    In his 1871 essay, Theory of Heat, James Clerk Maxwell designed a thought experiment to test the 2nd law of Thermodynamics. Maxwell imagines a microscopic being able to sort atoms bouncing around a closed system into two categories: fast and slow. If such a creature did exist, it was argued, no work would be required to decrease the entropy of a closed system. By sorting unlikely footprints from the chaotic arrangement of sand particles Maxwell’s Demon, as it would later become known, appeared to contradict the law Maxwell himself had helped to develop. One method of solving the apparent paradox was devised by Charles H. Bennet, who recognised that the Demon would have to remember where he placed the fast and slow particles. Here, once again, the balance between the order and disorder of a system comes down to the balance between memory and information. As the demon decreases the entropy of its environment, so it must increase the entropy of its memory. The information required by the Demon acts like a noise in the system. The laws of physics had stood up under scrutiny, resulting in a new branch of science we now know as ‘Information Theory’.

    Maxwell’s Demon comes from an old view of the universe, “fashioned by divine intervention, created for man and responsive to his will” [5]. Information Theory represents a threshold, a revelation that the “inhuman force of increasing entropy, [is] indifferent to man and uncontrollable by human will.” [6] Maxwell’s Demon shows that the law of entropy has only a statistical certainty, that nature orders only on small scales and, that despite any will to control, inertia will eventually be reached.

    Developed at the peak of the British Empire, thermodynamics was sometimes called “the science of imperialism”, as Katherine Hayles has noted:

    “...to thermodynamicists, entropy represented the tendency of the universe to run down, despite the best efforts of British rectitude to prevent it from doing so... The rhetoric of imperialism confronts the inevitability of failure. In this context, entropy represents an apparently inescapable limit on the human will to control.” [7]

    Like Maxwell, Crusoe posits a Demon, with faculties similar in kind to his own, to help him quash his “terror of mind”. Crusoe’s fear is not really about outsiders coming in, the terror he feels comes from the realisation that the outsiders may have been here all along, that in all the 20 years of his isolation those “savages of the mainland” may have visited his island time and again. It is not an outside ‘other’ that disturbs and reorganises Crusoe’s Kingdom. A more perverse logic is at work here, and once again Crusoe will have to restructure his imperial order from the inside out.

    Before you read on, watch this second scene from Luis Buñuel's Robinson Crusoe (1954)

    Jacques Rancière prepares for us a parable. A student who is illiterate, after living a fulfilled life without text, one day decides to teach herself to read. Luckily she knows a single poem by heart and procures a copy of that poem, presumably from a trusted source, by which to work. By comparing her memory of the poem, sign by sign, word by word, with the text of the poem she can, Rancière believes, finally piece together a foundational understanding of her written language:

    “From this ignoramus, spelling out signs, to the scientist who constructs hypotheses, the same intelligence is always at work – an intelligence that translates signs into other signs and proceeds by comparisons and illustrations in order to communicate its intellectual adventures and understand what another intelligence is endeavouring to communicate to it...

    This poetic labour of translation is at the heart of all learning.” [8]

    What interests me in Rancière’s example is not so much the act of translation as the possibility of mis-translation. Taken in light of The Ignorant Schoolmaster we can assume that Rancière is aware of the wide gap that exists between knowing something and knowing enough about something for it to be valuable. How does one calculate the value of what is a mistake? The ignoramus has an autonomy, but it is effectively blind to the quality and make-up of the information she parses. If she makes a mistake in her translation of the poem, this mistake can be one of two things: it can be a blind error, or, it can be a mutation.

    In information theory, the two ways to understand change within a closed system are understood to be the product of ‘noise’. The amount of change contributed by noise is called ‘equivocation’. If noise contributes to the reorganisation of a system in a beneficial way, for instance if a genetic mutation in an organism results in the emergence of an adaptive trait, then the equivocation is said to be ‘autonomy-producing’.

    Too much noise is equivalent to too much information, a ‘destructive’ equivocation, leading to chaos. This balance is how evolution functions. An ‘autonomy-producing’ mutation will be blindly passed on to an organism’s offspring, catalysing the self-organisation of the larger system (in this case, the species). All complex, what are called ‘autopoietic’ systems, inhabit this fine divide between noise and inertia. Given just the right balance of noise recuperated by the system, and noise filtered out by the system, a state of productive change can be maintained, and a state of inertia can be avoided, at least, for a limited time.

    According to Umberto Eco, in ‘The Open Work’:

    “To be sure, this word information in communication theory relates not so much to what you do say, as to what you could say… In the end… there is no real difference between noise and signal, except in intent.” [9]

    This rigid delineator of intent is the driving force of our contemporary, communication paradigm. Information networks underpin our economic, political and social interactions: the failure to communicate is to be avoided at all costs. All noise is therefore seen as a problem. These processes, according to W. Daniel Hillis, define, “the essence of digital technology, which restores signal to near perfection at every stage.” [10] To go back to Umberto Eco then, we appear to be living in a world of “do say” rather than “could say”.

    Maintenance of the network and the routines of error management are our primary economic and political concern: control the networks and the immaterial products will manage themselves.

    The modern network paradigm acts like a Maxwell Demon, categorising information as either pure signal or pure noise. As Mark Nunes has noted, following the work of Deleuze and Guattari:

    “This forced binary imposes a kind of violence, one that demands a rationalisation of all singularities of expressions within a totalising system... The violence of information is, then, the violence of silencing or making to speak that which cannot communicate.” [11]

    To understand the violence of this binary logic, we need go no further than Robinson Crusoe. Friday’s questions are plain spoken, but do not adhere to the do say logic of Crusoe’s conception. In the novel, Crusoe’s approach to Friday becomes increasingly one sided, until Friday utters little more than ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers, “reducing his language to a pure function of immediate context and perpetuating a much larger imperialist tradition of levelling the vox populi.”[12] Any chance in what Friday “could say” has been violently obliterated.

    The logic of Ranciere’s Ignoramous, and of Crusoe’s levelling of Friday’s speech, are logics of imperialism: reducing the possibility of noise and information to an either/or, inside/outside, relationship. Mark Nunes again:

    “This balance between total flow and total control parallels Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of a regime of signs in which anything that resists systematic incorporation is cast out as an asignifying scapegoat “condemned as that which exceeds the signifying regime’s power of deterritorialisation.” [13]

    In the system of communication these “asignifying” events are not errors, in the common sense of the word. Mutation names a randomness that redraws the territory of complex systems. The footprint is the mark that reorganised the Empire.

    In Ranciere’s parable, rather than note her intent to decode the poem, we should hail the moment when the Ignoramus fails, as her autonomous moment. In a world where actants “translate signs into other signs and proceed by comparison and illustration” [14] the figures of information and communication are made distinct not by the caprice of those who control the networks, nor the desires of those who send and receive the messages, but by mutation itself.

    Michel Foucault, remarking on the work of Georges Canguilhem, drew the conclusion that the very possibility of mutation, rather than existing in opposition to our will, was what human autonomy was predicated upon:

    “In this sense, life - and this is its radical feature - is that which is capable of error… Further, it must be questioned in regard to that singular but hereditary error which explains the fact that, with man, life has led to a living being that is never completely in the right place, that is destined to 'err' and to be 'wrong'.” [15]

    In his writings on the history of Heredity, The Logic of Life, Francois Jacob lingers on another Demon in the details, fashioned by Rene Descartes in his infamous meditation on human knowledge. François Jacob positions Descartes’ meditation in a period of explosive critical thought focussed on the very ontology of ‘nature’:

    “For with the arrival of the 17th Century, the very nature of knowledge was transformed. Until then, knowledge had been grafted on God, the soul and the cosmos... What counted [now] was not so much the code used by God for creating nature as that sought by man for understanding it.” [16]

    The infinite power of God’s will was no longer able to bend nature to any whim. If man were to decipher nature, to reveal its order, Descartes surmised, it was with the assurance that “the grid will not change in the course of the operation”[17]. For Descartes, the evil Demon, is a metaphor for deception espoused on the understanding that underlying that deception, nature had a certainty. God may well have given the world its original impetus, have designed its original make-up, but that make-up could not be changed.

    The network economy has today become the grid of operations onto which we map the world. Its binary restrictions predicate a logic of minimal error and maximum performance: a regime of control that drives our economic, political and social interdependencies. Trapped within his imperial logic, Robinson Crusoe’s levelling of inside and outside, his ruthless tidying of Friday’s noisy speech into a binary dialectic, disguises a higher order of reorganisation. As readers navigating the narrative we are keen to recognise the social changes Defoe’s novel embodies in its short-sighted central character. Perhaps, though, the most productive way to read this fiction, is to allegorise it as an outside perspective on our own time?

    Gathering together the fruits of research, I am often struck by the serendipitous quality of so many discoveries. In writing this mini-paper I have found it useful to engage with these marks, that become like demonic footprints, mutations in my thinking. Comparing each side by side, I hope to find, in the words of Michel Foucault:

    “...a way from the visible mark to that which is being said by it and which, without that mark, would lie like unspoken speech, dormant within things.” [18]

    See original post for full References & Bibliography
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    This essay was originally published on my site: MachineMachine.net

    In two short essays – written in 1933 – Walter Benjamin argues that primitive language emerged in magical correspondence with the world. The faculty we all exhibit in childhood play, to impersonate and imitate people and things loses its determining power as language gradually takes over from our “non-sensuous” connection with reality. In a break from Saussurian linguistics, Benjamin decries the loss of this “mimetic faculty”, as it becomes further replaced by the “archive of non-sensuous correspondences” we know as writing.

    To put it in simpler terms... Where once we read the world, the stars or the entrails of a sacrificed animal, now we read the signs enabled and captured by written language.

    From Benjamin’s The Doctrine of the Similar:

    “So speed, the swiftness in reading or writing which can scarcely be separated from this process, would then become... the effort or gift of letting the mind participate in that measure of time in which similarities flash up fleetingly out of the stream of things only in order to become immediately engulfed again.”

    The GIF – standing for Graphical Interchange Format – has been around since 1987. Their early popularity was based, in part, on their ability to load in time with a web-page. In the days of poor bandwidth and dial-up connections this meant that at least part of a GIF image would appear before the user’s connection broke, or – more significantly – the user could see enough of the image for it to make sense. In the mid 90s avid web hackers managed to crack the code of GIFs and use this ‘partial loading’ mechanism to encode animations within a single GIF file. Thus the era of personal web pages saturated with looping animations of spinning hamsters was born.

    Brought on – ironically – by their obsolescence the GIF has become the medium of choice for web artists, propagating their particular net-aesthetic through this free, open and kitschy medium. GIFs inhabit the space between convenience and abundance, where an apparent breakdown in communication can stimulate new modes of expressing non-sensuous similarities in the internet world.

    Sites like dump.fm, 4chan and ytmnd revel in the GIF’s ability to quickly correspond to the world. GIFs can be broken into their constituent frames, compressed and corrupted on purpose and made to act as archives for viral events travelling the web. A playground of correspondences that at first reflected language and the wider world, in time has looked increasingly inward. As language and writing find themselves pulled through and energised by the semiotic sludge of the broken, corrupted and iconic animated GIF Benjamin’s sensitivity to similitude continues to echo its magical significance.

    GIFs take a variety of forms, some of which I will try to classify here:

    GIF Type I: Classic


    Small in size and made up of few frames, this is where animated GIFs began. Corresponding to single words or concepts such as ‘smile’, ‘alien’ or ‘flying pink unicorn’.

    GIF Type II: Frame Capture




    Frame grab or video capture GIFs pay homage to well known scenes in pop culture. But as the ‘art’ of animated GIFs grew the frame capture began to stand for something isolated from context. This leap is, for me, the first point at which GIFs begin to co-ordinate their own realm of correspondence. An ocean of viral videos turned into a self-serving visual language, looping back on itself ad infinitum.

    GIF Type III: Art


    Leaking then directly into the third category, we have the Art GIF. Much larger in resolution and aware of their heritage in cinema, these GIFs are acutely refined in their choice of framing.

    GIF Type IV: Glitch


    A badly encoded or compressed GIF can result in odd, strangely beautiful phenomena, and with a little skill and coding ability these glitches can be enhanced to enormous proportions. Glitch GIFs break the boundaries of another non-sensuous realm: that of computer code. A significant magical order Benjamin was little capable of predicting.

    GIF Type V: Mash-Up


    Lastly, and perhaps most prolific, is the mash-up GIF. These GIFs are comprised of a combination of all the previous forms. The mash-up is THE most inner-looking species of GIF. It is possible to track the cultural development of some of these. Often though, the source of any original correspondence becomes completely lost in the play of images.

    other types:

    sci-tech/educational, geometric/texture, 3D renders, 8 bit inspired


    Here again, I think Benjamin’s essay can help us:

    “Language is the highest application of the mimetic faculty: a medium into which the earlier perceptive capabilities for recognising the similar had entered without residue, so that it is now language which represents the medium in which objects meet and enter into relationship with each other...”

    In other words, what these images MEAN I can’t tell you in words. But perhaps by showing you other GIFs I might go some way to helping you understand them.


     
    This paper was originally delivered at Birkbeck's, Flash Symposium, 24th May 2011
    It was also published on my website: MachineMachine.net

    GIFs sourced from...

    dump.fm: ryder, timb, ucnv / tumblr: iwdrm, maxcapacity / web: ryder ripps

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    In my last post I considered the ability of science-fiction – and the impossible objects it contains – to highlight the gap between us and ‘The Thing Itself’ (the fundamental reality underlying all phenomena). In this follow-up I ask whether the way these fictional ‘Things’ determine their continued existence – by copying, cloning or imitation – can teach us about our conception of nature.

    Seth Brundle: What's there to take? The disease has just revealed its purpose. We don't have to worry about contagion anymore... I know what the disease wants.

    Ronnie: What does the disease want?

    Seth Brundle: It wants to... turn me into something else. That's not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.

    Ronnie: Turned into what?

    Seth Brundle: Whaddaya think? A fly. Am I becoming a hundred-and-eighty-five-pound fly? No, I'm becoming something that never existed before. I'm becoming... Brundlefly. Don't you think that's worth a Nobel Prize or two?

    The Fly, 1986

    In David Cronenberg’s movie The Fly (1986) we watch through slotted fingers as the body of Seth Brundle is horrifically transformed. Piece by piece Seth becomes Brundlefly: a genetic monster, fused together in a teleportation experiment gone awry. In one tele-pod steps Seth, accompanied by an unwelcome house-fly; from the other pod emerges a single Thing born of their two genetic identities. The computer algorithm designed to deconstruct and reconstruct biology as pure matter cannot distinguish between one entity and another. The parable, as Cronenberg draws it, is simple: if all the world is code then ‘all the world’ is all there is.

    Science fiction is full of liminal beings. Creatures caught in the phase between animal and human, between alien and Earthly, between the material and the spirit. Flowing directly from the patterns of myth Brundlefly is a modern day Minotaur: a manifestation of our deep yearning to coalesce with natural forces we can’t understand. The searing passions of the bull, its towering stature, are fused in the figure of the Minotaur with those of man. The resultant creature is too fearsome for this world, too Earthly to exist in the other, and so is forced to wander through a labyrinth hovering impossibly between the two. Perhaps Brundlefly’s labyrinth is the computer algorithm winding its path through his genetic code. As a liminal being, Brundlefly is capable of understanding both worlds from a sacred position, between realities. His goal is reached, but at a cost too great for an Earthly being to understand. Seth the scientist sacrifices himself and there is no Ariadne’s thread to lead him back.

    In her book on monsters, aliens and Others Elaine L. Graham reminds us of the thresholds these ‘Things’ linger on:

    “[H]uman imagination, by giving birth to fantastic, monstrous and alien figures, has… always eschewed the fiction of fixed species. Hybrids and monsters are the vehicles through which it is possible to understand the fabricated character of all things, by virtue of the boundaries they cross and the limits they unsettle.”

    Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human

    Hybrids such as the Minotaur or Brundlefly are meeting points for disparate categories of representation. They symbolise the tragic limits of human perception. Unable to grasp the world in and of Itself (nature) we colonise it with ever more fabricated representations and imitations (culture) which only result in distancing us yet further from The Thing Itself. One such category of fabrication, a favourite in science fiction, is ‘code’. Brundlefly is a Thing caught on the threshold between, what in geek-terminology we might call, wetware and software. Cronenberg’s parable plays into the hands of every techno-fearing luddite: a monster born from our desire to reduce nature to science; to simplify lumpy, oozing, unpredictable flesh in the patterns of an efficient genetic code.

    We are all the tragic Brundefly because whilst we see beauty and endless creative potential in the natural world around us, we find it impossible to quantify those same categories in the reductive models we have devised to describe them. To describe nature, whether genetic codes unwinding or bees busying around their nest, we gasp at its “creativity”, ascribing its endless variation a human-like attention to detail. But as Richard Dawkins alludes to below, the most creative force in nature is the absolute opposite of perfection: it is in fact error. The world that science has modelled for us is a world riddled with mistakes, failures and run away coding errors. In order to ‘create’ nature must, as Alexander Pope said of the human, err:

    “Think about the two qualities that a virus, or any sort of parasitic replicator, demands of a friendly medium, the two qualities that make cellular machinery so friendly towards parasitic DNA, and that make computers so friendly towards computer viruses. These qualities are, firstly, a readiness to replicate information accurately, perhaps with some mistakes that are subsequently reproduced accurately; and, secondly, a readiness to obey instructions encoded in the information so replicated.”

    Richard Dawkins, Viruses of the Mind

    It is beneficial for life that errors exist and are propagated by biological systems. Too many copying errors and all biological processes would be cancerous, mutating towards oblivion. Too much error management (redundancy) and biological change, and thus evolution, could never occur.

    Simply put, exchange within and between natural systems has no value unless change, and thus error, is possible within the system. What science fiction allows us to do is peek into a world where nature’s love for error is switched off, or allowed to run rampant. What would be the consequence of a truly ‘perfect’ natural process, devoid of error? In John Carpenter’s The Thing we see the result of such a process: a nature perfect by our standards, but terrible in its consequences.

    Blair: You see, what we're talking about here, is an organism that imitates other life forms, and it imitates them perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs, it tried to digest them, absorb them, and in the process shape its own cells to imitate them. This, for instance...That's not dog, it's imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish.

    Norris: Finish what?

    Blair: Finish imitating these dogs.

    The Thing, 1982

    John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) is a claustrophobic sci-fi masterpiece, containing all the hallmarks of a great horror film. As in The Fly, the film depicts a sinister turn for the body, where the chaos of the replicating, cancerous cell is expanded to the human scale and beyond. In The Thing we watch as an alien force terrorises an isolated Antarctic outpost. The creature exhibits the awesome ability to imitate its host, devouring any creature (or human) it comes across before giving birth to an exact copy in a burst of blood and protoplasm. The Thing copies cell by cell and its process is so perfect - at every level of replication - that the resultant simulacrum speaks, acts and even thinks like the original. The Thing is so relentless, its copies so perfect, that the outpost's Doctor is sent mad at the implications:

    Blair: If a cell gets out it could imitate everything on the face of the earth... and it's not gonna stop!!!

    In The Thing it is we, the human race, who are trapped between realities. A twist in the truth that highlights our own liminal nature. If, as Dawkins suggests, evolution is about the imperfect copy, then, like the tragic Brundlefly, or the towering figure of the Minotaur, the characters in The Thing are torn between two equally horrifying worlds. In one, the alien Thing aims for perfection, cloning its hosts cell by cell until, like The Ship of Argo, an entirely new, but identical world remains. In the other, the beauty of nature, in all its intricacy, is the result of a billion years of ugly mutation.

    Which process is closest to the truth? Which result is more hideous? I have not the authority to say. In science fiction every improbable event is balanced by the existence of an equally improbable reality. The Thing Itself, the world beneath phenomenon, and the Things that inhabit it, have always been impossible to comprehend. Where science fiction takes us, kicking and screaming, is right back to the real world, our knuckles a little whiter from the journey.

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    This article was originally published at 3quarksdaily and io9

    Mid-way through H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine, the protagonist stumbles into a sprawling abandoned museum. Sweeping the dust off ancient relics he ponders his machine's ability to hasten their decay. It is at this point that The Time Traveller has an astounding revelation. The museum is filled with artefacts not from his past, but from his own future: The Time Traveller is surrounded by relics whose potential to speak slipped away with the civilisation that created them.

    Having bypassed the normal laws of causality The Time Traveller is doomed to inhabit strands of history plucked from time's grander web. Unable to grasp a people’s history – the conditions that determine them – one will always misunderstand them.

    Archaeology derives from the Greek word arche, which literally means the moment of arising. Aristotle foregrounded the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a Thing, which although indemonstrable and intangible in Itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of that Thing. In a sense, archaeology is as much about the present instant, as it is about the fragmentary past. We work on what remains through the artefacts that make it into our museums, our senses and even our language. But to re-energise those artefacts, to bring them back to life, the tools we have access to do much of the speaking.

    Like the unseen civilisations of H.G.Wells’ museum, these Things in Themselves lurk beyond the veil of our perceptions. It is the world in and of Itself; the Thing as it exists distinct from perceptions, from emotions, sensations, from all phenomenon, that sets the conditions of the world available to those senses. Perceiving the world, sweeping dust away from the objects around us, is a constant act of archaeology.

    Kant called this veiled reality the noumenon, a label he interchanged with The-Thing-Itself (Ding an Sich). That which truly underlies what one may only infer through the senses. For Kant, and many philosophers that followed, The Thing Itself is impossible to grasp directly. The senses we use to search the world also wrap that world in a cloudy haze of perceptions, misconceptions and untrustworthy phenomena.

    In another science fiction classic, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem considered the problem of The Thing Itself as one of communication. His Master’s Voice (HMV), written at the height of The Cold War, tells the story of a team of scientists and their attempts to decipher an ancient, alien message transmitted on the neutrino static streaming from a distant star. The protagonist of this tale, one Peter Hogarth, recounts the failed attempts at translation with a knowing, deeply considered cynicism. To Peter, and to Stanislaw Lem himself, true contact with an alien intelligence is an absolute impossibility:

    “In the course of my work... I began to suspect that the ‘letter from the stars’ was, for us who attempted to decipher it, a kind of psychological association test, a particularly complex Rorschach test. For as a subject, believing he sees in the coloured blotches angels or birds of ill omen, in reality fills in the vagueness of the thing shown with what is ‘on his mind’, so did we attempt, behind the veil of incomprehensible signs, to discern the presence of what lay, first and foremost, within ourselves.”

    Stanislaw Lem, His Master's Voice

    In HMV and Lem’s better known novel, Solaris, the conviction that an absolute true reality exists under the dust of perception leads humanity down ever more winding labyrinths of its own psyche. For Stanislaw Lem the human mind exists in a perpetual state of archaeology, turning away from Itself in search of truth, but time and again finding Itself confronted as the very Thing that underlies the reality it is trying to decipher.

    To transcend phenomena, to clear away the dust, one must, according to Kant, think. Thus his Thing Itself, derives from the Greek for 'thought-of' (nooúmenon) and further implies the concept of the mind (nous). Kant’s Thing Itself is accessed through pure thought. A clear enough mind, devoid of the bodily shackles of pain, pleasure or emotion, might see without seeing, sweeping away the perceptual cobwebs by guile alone. What Plato referred to as the only immortal part of the human soul, reason, becomes through Kant the dominant principle by which The Thing Itself may be reached.

    In the short space I have allotted myself here, I have not the time, or the guile, to fully analyse the Kantian noumenon. Needles to say, countless thinkers, from Nietzsche to Wittgenstein, Hegel to Agamben, have grappled with the suppositions and presuppositions made to cohere and then crumble by Kant’s addiction to reason. What interests me about science fiction, and most readily about the works of Wells and Lem, is the attempt made to search for 'The Thing Itself' beyond the mind; beyond the human altogether.

    Science fiction allows the creation of an imaginary set of conditions by which the human being may break their most burdonsome shackle: their own mind. Human timescales, bodies, forms of thinking and perception: each of these must be circumvented if one is ever able to grasp The Thing Itself. Kant’s principle of noumenon embodies a discourse on the limits of perception that has remained relevant to philosophy for millenia. The paradox of the archaeology – the arising – of an underlying reality is the defining principle of a thousand sci-fi tales.

    For Stanislaw Lem our limitations become obvious once we are confronted with the existence of an intelligence which is not human. Lem’s novels seek to connect us with the absolute ‘other’: that most alien of Things, ourselves. Reality, for Lem at least, is composed in an indecipherable language. Humanity lives in an eternal stasis, unable to circum-navigate the new realities it constantly 'discovers' for itself. And in the end we find ourselves limited by the brains that think us, unable to distinguish the twinkle-twinkle from the little star:

    “There exist, speaking in the most general way, two kinds of language known to us. There are ordinary languages, which man makes use of – and the languages not made by man. In such language organisms speak to organisms. I have in mind the so called genetic code. This code is not a variety of natural language, because it not only contains information about the structure of the organism, but also is able, by itself, to transform that information into the very organism. The code, then, is acultural...

    Now to go straight to the heart of the matter, we begin to suspect that an ‘acultural language’ is something more or less like Kant’s ‘Thing-in-itself’. One can fully grasp neither the code nor the thing.”

    Stanislaw Lem, His Master's Voice

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    An extract from a recent article I wrote for 3quarksdaily.com - Go here for piece in full


    A face to face encounter, devoid of the warm appeal of flesh. The eyes are glass, a cold blue crystal reflects the light in a way real eyes never would. A muzzle of hair, perhaps taken from a barbershop floor or the hind quarters of an animal. The painted scalp peeks through the sparse strands: there is nothing here one might caress with fumbling fingers, or, a millennia ago, pick between to lovingly tease out a louse or mite. The figure balances uneasily on stumps for legs. Its waxen surface bears no resemblance to skin. It is a shade saturated of living colour. In another shortened limb the figure holds a wooden spear, with a plastic point designed to take the place of the authentic stone tip. Under its beaten brow this creature forever stands. He is a spectacle, a museum attraction. He is not human, he is 'other'. He is not man, he is Neanderthal.

    Encounters like this, hashed together from memories that span my childhood and adult years, represent the closest many of us will come to meeting a Neanderthal. Encounters built upon out-dated science and the desire of museums to authenticate experiences which, in reality, are as far away from 'true' anthropology as those glass eyes are from windows on the soul. In a recent Archaeology.org article a question was put forward that made me think again about these encounters:

    Should we Clone Neanderthals? : I could not help but probe the proposition further.

    In my own lifetime our understanding of these absolute 'others' has gone through several revolutions. What once were lumbering apes, incapable of rational thought, speech or the rituals of religious reverence, have become our long lost evolutionary cousins. Research from various quarters has shown that not only were Neanderthals quite capable of vocal expression, but in all likelihood they lived a rich, symbolic life. They had bigger brains than we did, or do, and were probably burying their dead with appeal to an afterlife 50,000 years before our ancestors left Africa. They cared for their young, lived in well established social groups and apart from their prominent brow and less mobile, stocky build, resembled humans in most other aspects. More recent evidence seems to show that far from being a completely separate species, it is quite possible that ancient humans interbred with Neanderthals. This astounding revelation, if it were ever verified, would mean that many of us – if not every one of us – carry within our genetic make-up a living memory of Neanderthal heritage.

    But Neanderthals are more than scientific curiosities. They are the embodiment of the 'other', a reflective surface via which the human race may peer upon themselves. Human myth is filled with lumbering creatures, not quite human but every bit an echo of our deepest fears, our vanities, our failings, our memories prone to fade in time. With Shakespeare's Caliban, the feral beast of Prospero's burden, and William Blake's depiction of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who myth says was reduced to animal madness, being only two in a long list of sub-human characters. Along with these mythic creatures the Neanderthal has achieved the status of a linguistic archetype, carrying the weight of our inhumanity when admitting our limitations is too much to bear. For a very long time after their discovery Neanderthals were named as the very embodiment of our ineptitudes. To be violent, or brutally instinctive was to be Neanderthal Neanderthals stood as a fiendish remnant of the days before language, fire or social grace, before the borders between man and nature had been breached by the gift of free-will – a gift bequeathed to us, and not to them.

    This vague notion of a 'gift' came to me after reading the article about the possibility of cloning Neanderthals At first I read with a certain distance, the same reading I might have given to an article about cloning dodos, mammoths or dinosaurs. Soon though, it was clear that "bringing Neanderthals back from the dead" was a far more metaphysically slippy statement than similar ones about long extinct birds or mammals. [....]

    Originally posted at 3quarksdaily.com - Go here for piece in full
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    Voice: Alan Watts
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    Before the printed book there was the book as relic, the book as idol to knowledge. Those who could read dictated to the masses who could not. Books were material conduits to hidden, immaterial territories, placed out of reach of the proletariat – atop the holy pulpit or concealed within the labyrinthine catacombs of the private library – books were of the other, were unreachable.

    For a long time the book’s inaccessibility is what granted it an authority. Instances from the stream of time were made real once admitted to the pages of the book. The performed biblical enumeration was a creative act, forging the words of the Priest into a material truth which the audience could almost reach out and touch, almost but not quite. As Susan Stewart notes:

    “The book stands in tension with history, a tension reproduced in the microcosm of the book itself, where reading takes place in time across marks which have been made in space.” – On Longing, Page 22 – Duke University Press, 1993

    History was true, it had form because it was manifest in the pages of the book. This belief in the formative capacity of the book created a culture of desire. It was thus inevitable that the book, once given a symbolic new life by the ink of the printing press, would find its way into the hands of the masses.

    In time written language became the omnipresent signifier of freedom, of knowledge. The authority of the book was shifted to the word itself. If one could read, one had the authority only previously wielded by the few. Reading was a powerful gesture of self-realisation. The authority was now one’s own. This self resolving revolution came at a time of even greater existential resistance in the West. Martin Luther had placed the power of religion in the hands of the individual. Continental art was developing a fascination with the Earthly human not seen since the time of Aristotle. The book still had encoded within it the authority of the word, only now it was the individual who carried the means to crack that code. Access to the highest of truths was not a privilege, but a right. David Lodge:

    “Phenomena such as memory, the association of ideas in the mind, the causes of emotions and the individual’s sense of self, became of central importance to the speculative thinkers and writers of narrative literature alike... The silence and privacy of the reading experience afforded by books mimicked the silent privacy of individual consciousness.” – Consciousness and the Novel, Page 40 – Penguin Books, 2003

    The contents of the book became equivalent with the contents of consciousness. Words affected an inner space, twisted an internal narrative, were dictated by a clock that ticked in the mind of the reader. Books began to evolve. The novel is probably the most important of the forms which transpired. Its tendency to focus in on the mind or actions of a single individual gave readership an empathetic union with what was read. Where previously truth had been a feature of the world which stories reflected, now truth was an author’s prerogative. Stories in books were self-contained realities able to control the minds of their readers. Suddenly the authors of books were the bringers of authority, of authenticity. But not everyone agreed.

    Books were now seen as having such power over the individual that they could be banned, burned en-mass, wiped from history. All the major political, psychological and intellectual upheavals of the 20th Century came with their associated book, whether actively chosen or emerging in retrospect. And with the power of retrospect many claimed that books had foretold the World Wars, the rise (and fall) of Communism, the death of history, the death of the author - even the death of the book itself. Books from the past were re-examined via new theories, new technologies of the intellect. Marxist, Freudian, Post Modern... In a world where the individual ruled, books had become the ultimate artefacts of history. A new code emerged, one which an everyday reader would not necessarily understand. A book could not merely be read anymore, it must be examined under the most explicit of conditions in order to tease apart the infinite tangles of culture that had accumulated within it. In the latter half of the 20th Century a new view began to consume the academic establishment, that truth was a misnomer.

    Since that time many arguments have been fought over where true authenticity lies, and how to mediate the multiplicities that the book encompasses. In the past ten years or so it is the masses that have been given the privilege. The internet binds us together and explodes readership. For the first time in history the act of reading can be considered a truly communal experience. Web-entities such as Wikipedia and Blogger have allowed information and knowledge to authenticate itself. Cultural evolution can occur at the click of an 'edit' link, and if it doesn’t exist in the pages of Wikipedia, well, then it isn’t worth noting.

    But what now of the book? That tome of knowledge, of history, of somewhat questionable self-located truths? Once again the book is emerging as an idol, only this time to itself. As mass produced information slowly moves from the printed page to the computer screen, to hand-held digital-ink devices, so the value of the printed word will transmogrify. Books will re-assume an identity that revolves around their individuality rather than ours. Artists books, self-published limited prints, historically significant palimpsests – these are the books we will come to register our faith in. Books will no longer represent a simulacrum of the idea they encompass – as in the mass-produced paperback – instead they will act as archaeological signifiers to otherwise un-locatable pasts. The internet contains buried beneath its surface a copy of its previous selves. Browsing the ‘history’ section of any Wikipedia article is like projecting your perspective back a few edits. Take time to navigate through The Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine and pristine, perfect versions of internet history will find their way into the archived menus of your internet browser. The data we perceive in books is very different. Each copy of a book is different, it has a history beyond the content it attempts to justify. My copy of Gravity’s Rainbow is a microcosm of the journeys I have taken it on/it has taken me on. Particles splashed onto it from a Croatian sea shore, specks of my sandwich from Venice airport, pencil scribbles and every single word they circle in an order I defined as I sat and took in some of the words, misread others, allowed other still to fall through the sieve of my conscious mind into the unconscious well beneath.

    And books can be re-read in ways as yet inconceivable for the internet. Take The Archimedes Palimpsest for instance, a text of significance for its archaeological value as well as for the fresh insight it gives scholars into the mind and works of the ancient mathematician. Contained within its multiple, physical layers are histories that scientists have had to design new technological means to access. Shine a laser onto the calcified pages and beneath each a multi-verse of forms emerge, each layer needing to be decoded separately, each signifier spanning off into infinite possible meanings beyond. Books are crucial to our understanding of our place in time and space, because they are fundamentally composed of time and space. They carry with them the history of thought, of physical presence and of psychological evolution that created them, moved them forward and now sends them explosively back into their own pasts. To understand ourselves we need to understand our pasts, to understand our pasts we need to examine the artefacts we carry with us, which carry us forwards:

    Michael Shanks: A lot of people think that archaeology—archaeologists—discover the past. And that's only a tiny bit true. I think it's more accurate to say that they work on what remains. That may sometimes involve, absolutely, coming across stuff from the past—maybe a trilobite fossil, or a piece of Roman pottery... but the key thing about archaeology is that it works on what's left. And that makes of all of us, really, a kind of archaeologist. We're all archaeologists now, working on what's left of the past.

    ... as we explore this stuff, we figure out how to bring it forward, first into the present, through our interpretation of it...

    Lynn Hershmann Leeson: Exactly. Revitalize the past, inserting it into the present, which gives direction to its future.

    Michael Shanks: Yeah. Displacement is another key feature of this archaeological sensibility. What happens when old stuff—remains—are shirted into new associations...

    And, actually, this is what archaeological science has always offered—accounts of everyday life with which we can all identify and yet find uncanny. It may simply be a thumbprint upon an ancient pot that connects an inconsequential past moment with the present; it may be the evidence of the lives of those who built a place like Stonehenge. It is the archaeological focus on the everyday that many people find fascinating.

    Lynn Hershmann Leeson: Because these are the relics of ourselves.”

    – Archaeologist Michael Shanks in discussion with artist Lynn Hershman Leeson : Extract taken from Seed Magazine, October 2007


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    There are on earth, and always were, thirty-six righteous men whose mission is to justify the world before God. They are the Lamed Wufniks. They do not know each other and are very poor. If a man comes to the knowledge that he is a Lamed Wufnik, he immediately dies and somebody else, perhaps in another part of the world, takes his place. Lamed Wufniks are, without knowing it, the secret pillars of the universe. Were it not for them, God would annihilate the whole of mankind. Unawares, they are our saviors.

    This mystical belief of the Jews can be found in the works of Max Brod. Its remote origin may be the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, where we read this verse: "And the Lord said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes."

    The Moslems have an analogous personage in the Kutb.

    Extract taken from Jorge Luis Borges' The Book of Imaginary Beings
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    This post is an appendix to The Next Great Revolution in Reality. Also, please read the first part of this post for more thoughts on the role myth has to play on forward-looking thinkers:

    Since this post was originally written I have come to realise the true significance of the two main modes of thought expressed therein. The mythos of religious belief has, over the past few centuries, become prey to the savage logos of scientific rationalism.

    I come to the words of Karen Armstrong, in her epic, pocket-sized title 'A Short History of Myth' to elaborate this point further:

    Scientific logos and myth were becoming incompatible. Hitherto science had been conducted within a comprehensive mythology that explained its significance. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62), a deeply religious man, was filled with horror when he contemplated the 'eternal silence' of the infinite universe opened up by modern science.

    When I see the blind and wretched state of men, when I survey the whole universe in its deadness, and man left to himself with no light, as thought lost in this corner of the universe without knowing who put him there, what he has to do, now what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror, like a man transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quite lost, with no means of escape. Then I marvel that so wretched a state does no drive people to despair.

    This type of alienation has also been part of the modern experience...

    ...Mythical thinking and practice had helped people to face the prospect of extinction and nothingness, and to come through it with a degree of acceptance. Without this discipline, it has been difficult for many to avoid despair. The Twentieth Century presented us with one nihilistic icon after another, and many of the extravagant hopes of modernity and the Enlightenment were shown to be false...

    ...Logos has in many ways transformed our lives for the better, but this has not been an unmitigated triumph. Our demythologised world is very comfortable for many of us who are fortunate enough to live in first-world countries, but it is not the earthly paradise predicted by Bacon and Locke. When we contemplate the dark epiphanies of the twentieth century, we see that modern anxiety is not simply the result of self-indulgent neurosis. We are facing something unprecedented. Our societies saw death as a transition to other modes of being. They did not nurture simplistic and vulgar ideas of an afterlife, but devised rites and myths that helped people to face the unspeakable. In no other culture would anybody settle down in the middle of a rite of passage or an initiation, with the horror unresolved. But this is what we have to do in the absence of a viable mythology. There is a moving and even heroic asceticism in the current rejection of myth. But purely linear, logical and historical modes of thought have debarred many of us from therapies and devices that have enabled men and women to draw on the full resources of their humanity in order to live the unacceptable.

    We must disabuse ourselves of the nineteenth century fallacy that myth is false or that it represents an inferior mode of thought. We cannot completely recreate ourselves, cancel out the rational bias of our education, and return to pre-modern sensibility. But we can acquire a more educated attitude to mythology. We are myth-making creatures and, during the twentieth century, we saw some very destructive modern myths... We cannot counter these bad myths with reason alone, because undiluted logos cannot deal with such deep-rooted, unexercised fears, desires and neuroses. That is the role of an ethically and spiritually informed mythology.

    Uniting these two modes of thought is akin to solving the mind/body problem, combining modernism with postmodernism and making the Newtonian and Quantum universes compatiable all at once! Yet, who can deny that there is something fundamental missing from a completely rational understanding of reality?

    Of course the obvious answers that surface are usually:

    "A scientific view of the world is my spirituality."

    or

    "Buddhist meditation is compatiable with science."

    But these responses kind of miss the point. The role of myth is as a mode of thinking. Mythos and Logos represent the two ways we interact with the universe. At the moment many of us seem to be missing half the picture, and even those who do aspire to having a spiritual aspect to their thought end up viewing their 'myth' with Logos tinted spectacles. For example, being convinced that Jesus actually rose to heaven misses the mythological component of his story - again, in the words of Karen Armstrong:

    A myth was an event which in some sense had happened once, but which also happened all the time.

    Jesus as mythos is a constant affirmation of the cycles of death and rebirth which occur in each one of us every day of our lives. Surely a much more significant truth than any historically understood figure who got crucified for saying nice things about people.

    How can we reclaim our mythos?
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    This post was originally composed for my blog and published many moons ago. Since its conception my position on the three movements of thought outlined below has evolved considerably. To reflect this I have also posted an appendix here. Please do not overlook the original post for the wonderful insights of its commenters.

    I hope you enjoy this experiment in thought:

    —————————————————————-

    According to Freud there have been three great scientific revolutions that completely re-drew the boundaries which border human reality:

    • Copernican: Where our geocentric perspective of the cosmos was revolutionised by the concept of the human world, the Earth, as being one mere weave within the infinite cosmic tapestry of creation.
    • Darwinian: Where our view of man as the pinnacle of God's reality was overthrown by the idea that life evolved from nothing. The revolution in which our egocentric universe was crushed under the image of mankind as 'mere' hairless, ape descendants.
    • Freudian/Psychological: Where the self which governs all action within our minds was displaced by the notion of the unconscious. The control we perceive as consciousness is nothing but waves lapping on the shores of the innumerable archipelagos of reality the brain rules over.

    Each of these revolutions was to displace mankind as centre of our world and thus humiliate our egocentric position. Yet, parodoxical as it may seem, these scientific upheavals have increased our intimacy with reality, adding meaning to our existence without invoking religion.

    We are but one species amongst millions of mutation-governed organisms, ruled over by the nature of brains we have little understanding of and cast on our single planet afloat an infinite cosmological sea. Each shift exposing a deeper purpose, without God; each individual note when composed together dictates the flowing melody that is our existence.

    I believe it is only a matter of time before the next great revolution in science; in reality arrives on our doorsteps. A shift in perspective that attains equal scientific, social and theological significance as the ones outlined above. Once again, this revolution will alter the nature of reality, as perceived by us, at the most fundamental level. So I ask you...

    What will it be? Has it already begun? And finally, will religion still be able to find a foothold on the human psyche once it has happened?

    Let your Earth-bound, ape-evolved, unconscious imaginations go wild on this one...

    (The appendix for this post, and a question in its own right, can be viewed here...)

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