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Mattis and Kim: mirrors have consequences

Friday, April 21st, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — the current nuclear standoff, with a coda on silver beech and copper birch ]
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I spend a fair amount of time suggesting that formal characteristics found in events are frequently worth special note, and mirroring is a good example. Here, in Why Mattis versus Kim Jong-Un Will End Badly for Us All, War on tnhe Rocks indicates the potential (and potent) peril of mirroring in the context of our latest Korean adventure:

Inadvertent war in Korea is more likely now than at any point in recent history. Whereas a second Korean war has always been possible, clashing U.S. and North Korean “theories of victory” — beliefs about what it takes to successfully coerce and control escalation — now make it plausible, even probable.

Patterns of bluster and brinkmanship have of course long characterized affairs on the Korean Peninsula. For “Korea watchers,” there’s a perverse comfort in the predictability of a situation that, to the uninitiated, sometimes looks anything but stable.

So on some level, the rhythm of recent saber-rattling between the Trump administration and North Korea recalls the perverse comfort of typical Korea policy. On a recent visit to South Korea, Vice President Mike Pence cited U.S. attacks in Syria and Afghanistan as indications of U.S. resolve against North Korea. This statement followed numerous officials confirming that the administration is contemplating preventive strikes against the North, and a recent policy review on North Korea yielding one overarching imperative: “maximum pressure.” North Korea’s rhetoric and posturing has been no less confrontational and no less familiar. As Pence departed Alaska for South Korea, North Korea attempted a submarine-launched ballistic missile test that failed. Upon news that a U.S. carrier group was headed to its neighborhood, North Korea responded that “a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment” and that it’s “ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S.”

These words and deeds themselves are more heated than usual, but unremarkable in the context of all that’s come before. North Korea routinely threatens war, often summoning images of a future mushroom cloud. The United States routinely dispatches aircraft carriers, bombers, and other strategic military assets in hopes of signaling resolve while actually registering little more than displeasure with North Korean behavior. The notion of “maximum pressure,” moreover, only differs from the approach of past U.S. presidents in the ambiguous adjective “maximum.” Pressure is the historical mean of U.S. policy toward North Korea. My concern is not with these observable dynamics to date, but rather with what lies beneath them, and what may be coming soon as a consequence.

It’s getting harder to ignore that the Pentagon, under Secretary Jim Mattis, may have a coercive theory of victory that largely mirrors that of North Korea under Kim Jong-Un. The danger is in the fundamental incompatibility of these disturbingly similar sets of strategic beliefs.

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Smoke and the hall of mirrors, a digression:

An excellent place for final confrontations with heroes, the Hall Of Mirrors wins high marks for ease of use. All you have to do is lure your victim inside by dashing in yourself, and then cackle with glee as they find you reflected back not once but a thousand times… When you have had your fun, seal the exits and fill the cramped space with some kind of liquid. Plain water works as well as anything, but why not add food dye for color. Or, for a touch of whimsy, use a sickeningly sweet fruit punch.

Neil Zawacki, How to Be a Villain, in TV Tropes: Hall of Mirrors

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Mirroring sets up an echo chamber — consider the myth of Narcissus** — which is also a sort of ping-pong game and a feedback machine —

and hence a magnifier or an accelerator. It can allm too easily howl out of control, with — in this case — nuclear consequences.

** Narcissus sees his reflection, Echo echos his voice back to him, thus the myth encompasses a parallelism between visual and aural self-perceptions in a wonderful act of inter-media symmetry.

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Form is the decorative act of the creative mind, adding to meaning by the use of devices of art in the way the materials of the art are deployed — as when the poet notes (specifically) beech and birch trees in a wood, delighted by the verbal felicity between the two words, or Coppola matches helicopter rotors against the blades of a hotel room fan in the beginning of Apocalypse Now.

And then the delight triples with the addition of a metallic match:

But again, I digress..

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Dank ponds and high places in the garden of forking paths

Sunday, April 16th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — Borges’ finest fiction, read with an eye to serpents within serpents ]
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The pre-conscious mind, it seems to me, runs innumerable options before providing a single, first conscious selection, an initial thought, which we can then ourselves choose or dismiss, swaying away from whatever tendency we might dislike in that first choice, with alternatives then provided until we settle on a thought we can live with — whether because it suits our lust, our liking, our laughter, our love, or — simplest — love itself. The whole enterprise resembles, literarily speaking, Jorge Luis BorgesGarden of Forking Paths [link is to a deliciously annotated version, see more below].

But here’s the thing: my mind, at least, offers me quite a mixed bag of lascivious, laughing, light-hearted and level-headed options, all unbidden, and while the courteous Chinese gentleman in Borges’ fine short story would surely only have a selection of insights suitable for the Yellow Empereor among the branchings of his garden’s paths, and his maze of thoughts itself sums up to a transcendant mind, on the wider, non-literary world stage and usual human level there are some pretty dank pools of stagnant ideation to be found, and some skulls among the living that choose to harbor and indeed nourish those pools, hoping their poisonous atmosphere may prove contagious.

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I am driven to these thoughts by a report from yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, Revealing the secrets of one of Australia’s worst online trolls.

Ordinarily I might have scanned this account of an online neo-Nazi and moved on, but it contains a built-in ourboros or snake biting its own tail, when the former pulp magazine editor who lost his job after being persecuted for his affinity with Nazi dolls, and who lived alone in a rooming house, self-published a novel featuring, and I quote, “a former pulp magazine editor who lost his job after being persecuted for his affinity with Nazi dolls, and who lived alone in a rooming house..”

Self-publishing is arguably a mildly neurotic ouroboric loop, but William Blake looped it, as did Martin Luther, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, and Edward Tufte, to name a few..

Self-publishing an autobiographical fiction, however, is more deeply loopy — for the ugly details, see the SMH piece.

Gloriously, Borges reaches as high as the neo-Nazi stoops low: some hope remains for humanity.

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Annotation “o” in the annotated version of The Garden of Forking Paths mentioned above offers us a further — and specifically rhetorical — form of ouroboros to contemplate:

Linguists might classify the phrase “labyrinth of labyrinths” as an example of the genitive of gradation, as in the biblical “King of Kings,” from Daniel 2:37 (originally in Hebrew, “Melech ha-M’lachim”), I Timothy 4:14, and Revelations 17:14 and 19:16 (Curme, [6, p. 88]). Here the repetition of words conveys a sense of preeminence or superiority. A similar rhetorical device occurs earlier in line 30. But “centuries of centuries” might be more readily interpreted as a time span of hundreds of hundreds of years, constituting what is known as the partitive genitive, as in the “land of milk and honey.” Both usages are marvelously recursive, like “wheels within wheels,” and like the Thousand of One Nights, alluded to on line 230, which is a tale of a tale of a tale..

Wheels within wheels — indeed, tiny wheels in a footnote to a larger one — at which point we are back at Ezekiel and his vision of the dry bones, from which I derive my own username, hipbone.

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Fscinatingly, certain equivalent pieces on opposing sides of xiangqi, the Chinese chess game of the sort Borges’ Ts’ui Pên would have played, have different names, though “pieces on the same row in the table below share the same move and ability”:

Their order of battle at the commencement of the game are as follows:

I’m grateful to Robert R. Snapp, Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Vermont, for his outstanding contribution to this (mostly) delightful romp through the forking gardens of ideas..


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