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Getting deeper into Koestler

Friday, March 18th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — on creativity at the intersection of the fleeting and the eternal ]
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centaur skeleton
Centaur, displayed in the International Wildlife Museum, Tucson, AZ

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You know Lao Tzu’s “uncarved wood” (pu) — and Spencer Brown’s “Mark” or “first distinction? It is hard to speak of “the one and the many” without language itself favoring the many, the one being “one” and the many “another”. The Greek phrase “Before Abraham was, I am” attributed to Christ may be as close as we get.

The “uncarved wood” is not some definite -– named and thus defined -– “one” -– it is also “raw silk” (su), the simple -– the natural way or stream, from which things have not yet been separated out by naming.

There is delight, however, both in one becoming two and thus many, in the making of distinctions and naming of names, and no less in two (or the many) becoming one, in the resolution of paradox, the release of tension, peace after strife. In human terms, there is joy in both solo and collaborative achievement.

What better, then, than the perfect fit between disparate entities?

I have written often enough about Arthur Koestler and the place where two disparate spheres of thought link up — the centaur links horse and man in an indissoluble unity — there’s no question here of dismounting after a ride, giving the horse a rub down and some feed, then retiring to the verandah for a whiskey…

The mythological aha! we get from the centaur displayed in the museum hinges on the fit of horse and human skeletons, the perfection with which disparates are joined.

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Thus far, whenever I’ve discussed Koestler‘s notion of bisociation, I’ve focused on the sense that it liea at the heart of creativity. Koestler himself takes it deeper. Here’s Nicholas Vajifdar, in a review titled Summing Up Arthur Koestler’s Janus: A Summing Up:

Koestler .. asserts that there are two planes of existence, the trivial and the tragic. The trivial plane is the stage for paying bills, shopping, working. Most of life takes place on the trivial plane. But sometimes we’re swept up into the tragic plane, usually due to some catastrophe, and everything becomes glazed with an awful significance. From the point of view of the tragic plane, the trivial plane is empty and frivolous; from the point of view of the trivial plane, the tragic plane is embarrassing and overwrought. Once we’ve moved from one plane to the other, we forget why we could have felt the way we used to.

That’s not just any old distinction between two realms, that’s the one Koestler himself prioritizes. And following his basic principle that a creative spark is lit when two disparate “planes of ideas” intersect, we shouldn’t be too surprised to find Vajifdar continuing:

“The highest form of human creativity,” Koestler writes, “is the endeavor to bridge the gap between the two planes. Both the artist and the scientist are gifted — or cursed — with the faculty of perceiving the trivial events of everyday experience sub specie aeternitatis, in the light of eternity…”

William Blake made a similar observation in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, writing:

Eternity is in love with the productions of time.

Finally, Vajifdar tells us why he finds Koestler’s definition of art maybe the best he’s ever read:

What I value in this definition of creativity is its emphasis on the subjective being of those who experience the work of art or scientific theory, a surer gauge than cataloguing formal properties or whether it’s “interesting.” Art has always seemed like a kind of sober drunkenness, or drunken sobriety. Most people probably have wondered whether the feelings they felt while drunk were more or less real than their sober feelings. Koestlerian art joins these seemingly irreconcilable feelings together.

Let’s just go one step further. In Promise and Fulfilment – Palestine 1917-1949, Koestler specifically singles out this intersection as an aspect of the experience of warfare:

This intense and perverse peace, superimposed on scenes of flesh-tearing and eardrum-splitting violence, is an archetype of war-experience. Grass never smells sweeter than in a dug-out during a bombardment when one’s face is buried in the earth. What soldier has not seen that caterpillar crawling along a crack in the bark of the tree behind which he took cover, and pursuing its climb undisturbed by the spattering of his tommy-gun? This intersecting of the tragic and the trivial planes of existence has always obsessed me in the Spanish Civil War, during the collapse of France, in the London blitz.

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I am grateful to David Foster for his ChicagoBoyz post The Romance of Terrorism and War which triggered this exploration, and that on the glamour of war which will follow it.

From John Robb to Jean Paul Gaultier

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — via Christopher Alexander, Arthur Koestler, James Clerk Maxwell, Hermann Hesse, and Wells Cathedral ]
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My topic today is a comment that John Robb just posted on his FaceBook page. As so often, I’ll proceed by indirection. Here’s a wild DoubleQuote illustrating a blogger’s perceived similarity between the “scissors arch” at Wells Cathedral and one of the models in Jean Paul Gaultier‘s 2009 Spring collection:

Jean-Paul Gaultier 2009 wells cathedral 1

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John Robb posted:

Some philosophical thinking:

Human knowledge, at an elemental level, can be described as a “transformation” of data.
Complex ideas are built using layers of “transformations” with each layer feeding into the next (think pyramid)
We teach these transformations at home and at school to our children.
We communicate by sharing transformations.
Questions We Need to Answer in the Age of Cognitive Machines:
How many transformations would it take to model all human knowledge?
How deep (how many layers of transformation is human knowledge) is human knowledge? Both on average or at its deepest point?
How broad is human knowledge (non-dependent transformations)?
How fast is the number of transformations increasing and how fast is it propagating across the human network?

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My interest is in John’s pyramid, considered as a pyramid of arches.

My starting point (with Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game ever in background) is Arthur Koestler‘s observation in The Act of Creation that the creative spark occurs at the intersection of two planes of thought —

koestler

— or to put that another way, that the creative leap is an associative leap between two concepts, disciplines or aspects of knowledge — thus, an arch:

Maxwell

Likewise:

synthesis

— which in my own DoubleQuotes notation gives us:

Karman Gogh mini

— thus, many arches build to a pyramid:

pyramid of arches

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Of course, with arches one has to be very circumspect, buecause in rich contexts, they’re not simple creatures:

rib vaulting flying buttresses

Among the greatest such arches I know are Taniyama‘s 1955 “surmise” as Barry Mazur puts it, that “every elliptic equation is associated with a modular form” — arching way above my pay grade — an insight that was to bear rich fruit forty years later, in Andrew Wiles‘ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem; and Erwin Panofsky‘s great book similarly linking the structures of medieval cathedrals and scholastic thought:

panofsky gothic architecture scholasticism

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White we’re on the topic of gothic iconography, another form of arch we might consider is the vesica piscis:

vesica-piscis

— frequently found in medieval art and architecture:

320px-CLUNY-Coffret_Christ_1

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I’m not suggesting, John, that your inquiry and mine are identical — far from it — but that they have a sufficiently rich overlap that an appreciation of one is likely to spark insight in terms of the other.

And with Hesse’s Game, with which I recall from our earlieest conversations you are familiar..

I mentioned Hesse and Christopher Alexander in my bracketed note at the top of this post. It’s my impression that both were striving for a similar encyclopedic architecture to the pyramid John proposes. Hesse on the Glass Bead Game:

All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

And Hesse is clear that individual moves within the games take the form of parallelisms, resemblances, analogical leaps — writing, for instance:

Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game’s symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature.

Speaking of the playing of his great Game, Hesse said:

I see wise men and poets and scholars and artists harmoniously building the hundred-gated cathedral of the mind.

And Alexander? His book A Pattern Language is pretty clearly his own variant on a Glass Bead Game, following on from what he terms his Bead Game Conjecture (1968 – p. 75 at link):

That it is possible to invent a unifying concept of structure within which all the various concepts of structure now current in different fields of art and science, can be seen from a single point of view. This conjecture is not new. In one form or another people have been wondering about it, as long as they have been wondering about structure itself; but in our world, confused and fragmented by specialisation, the conjecture takes on special significance. If our grasp of the world is to remain coherent, we need a bead game; and it is therefore vital for us to ask ourselves whether or not a bead game can be invented.

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Gentle readers:

For your consideration, delight, temptation, confusion or disagreement, here are three more of Gaultier’s arches, as perceived by Kayan’s Design World:

Jean-Paul Gaultier 2009 1

Jean-Paul Gaultier 2009 7

Jean-Paul Gaultier 2009 10

The process of associative memory

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — it seems — to me at least — that associative memory is at the root of creativity, and that the process, preconscious pattern-recognition, is basically aesthetic in nature ]
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There’s the present moment — in this case, today’s tweet from the RNLI above.

And there’s the memory it elicits — in this case, Hokusai‘s Great Wave at Kanagawa, with its three little boats, tiny Mt Fuji, and towering, breaking wave, from A Series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji:

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That’s the same process, from perception to memory, that I was thinking of when I wrote DoubleQuoting the French Revolution, and quoted Robert Frost:

The artist must value himself as he snatches a thing from some previous order in time and space into a new order with not so much as a ligature clinging to it of the old place where it was organic.

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Come to which, and moving by the same process from what’s in front of me to what I remember, here’s a DQ of Hokusai (~1760-1849) — before me now as I write this — and an image deriving from the work of Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010) on fractals” — which looking at the Hokusai quickly reminds me of:

SPEC DQ Hokusai fractal

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And as I look at that DoubleQuote, here at the time of writing this post, it reminds me strongly of my earlier DoubleQuote of Van Gogh and Von Kármán:

In each of these two cases, art precedes science.

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In each case, too, the associative process is the same, with some item perceived in the present calling up a past memory that is related to it — in a manner that can generally be articulated and annotated.

Such is the mechanism of a typical “move” in a DoubleQuote or HipBone game.

Of a non-comparative use of the DoubleQuotes method

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — further thoughts on the advantages of seeing double ]
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I’ve said before that when I was at The Arlington Institute, my boss used to ask me to watch out for “early indicators”, and joked that in my book, two is the first number — I don’t see an “indicator” until I see a pattern emerging.

Putting it bluntly, one point is pointless — things could go anywhere from there. Two points suggest a line, a link, a connection — a possible, maybe even plausible, trend.

And so it is with the two photos above. Here the point is not to compare and contrast the two images of surveillance cameras wearing party hats, but to see that they represent a class — the presence of two concrete instances strongly implies the higher level abstraction: hah! they’re watching us!

It’s that sense I have of two being the beginning of thought that makes me so fond of the DoubleQuotes format — and of Arthur Koestler‘s insight, which I’m always quoting, about creation occurring at the intersection of two spheres..

koestler-model

If I’m a fundamentalist about anything, it’s the notion that it takes two to tango!

Zen in the Art of Future Warfare

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — a highly interesting discussion, discussed ]
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How to Write and Fight World War III:

This is the video of a terrific discussion of the future of warfare — peacemaking, too, if you see them as two sides of a coin — from the Art of Future Warfare project, to which I have contributed [two stories, 1, 2, a video appearance, 3, and even a DoubleQuotes reference 4]

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I want to select certain phrases from the discussion above, and comment on them.

It’s a work of fiction, not prediction.

The thing is, a work isn’t just what its creators intend it to be, it can also be whatever its readers make of it. It’s my impression that the Hebrew prophets were not predicting so much as warning — that’s a distinction Wallace Black Elk made a point of mentioning when he was waxing prophetic — but todays “prophecy teachers” all too often read prophecy as a statement of future fact rather than as a warning of a dangerous path to be avoided.

So we’re dealing with this incredibly complex world – how do we grapple with it? How do we think about these problems?

There’s a class of answers to this question, ranging from complex mathematical models, sims and games to stocks and flows diagrams to Dialogue Mapping and my own HipBone Games. Most if not all of the items in this class are graph-based (node and link) networks.

My own vector is away from high tech and “big” data, towards “rich” data and human-sized graphs — ie graphs with few enough nodes that the human mind can fairly easily envision them, and nodes and links rich enough in anecdotal, visual, statistical, aphoristic, quotatiuonal and other forms of data to elicit full-spectrum human responses, emotional, cultural, mental, heart and mind in conjunction.

we hunger for creativity and intellectual agility in our national security leaders, and our military leaders

The usual routes to leadership significantly fail to provide such agility, although occasional good apples to manage to survive among the rotten throng.. That’s why it takes so long to go from John Boyd being a voice in the wilderness to his being lauded by SecDef.

how do we actually cultivate that kind of thinking, that creative, lateral thinking?

Again, my own practice draws explicitly on Arthur Koestler‘s insight that it is at the intersection of “planes of thought” — silos, anyone? — that creative insights arise.

My games accordingly, simply and elegantly make all moves consist, at some level, of such intersections. The HipBone move is a conceptual leap, regular practice of HipBone Games is the most focused way to train the mind in creative leaping, on or off the gameboard, in play or in life.

fiction, literature and the arts are a critical and often overlooked vehicle for exactly that

I fully agree, and indeed it turns out that the style of “creative leaping” I am talking about is richly found within the complex weavings of the arts — and indeed, my games were directly inspired by a Nobel-winning novel by Hermann Hesse.

I lack the competence to build a web-playable version myself, but a museum-oriented adaptation of my game ideas by Cath Styles can be played on iPads in the Australian National Museum, and its web implementation, also focused on visual artefacts rather than concepts, can serve as a proof of concept for the wider uses I envision — intelligence analysis included.

Paul Callaghan, a writer, game developer, and university lecturer who has played Cath’s Sembl game commented:

Sembl incredibly succesfully mixes competitive and collaborative play, creativity and expression, and exploration and inspiration. It’s the sort of game you think about when you’re not playing it, and it’s the sort of game that helps you see the world in new ways.

That’s very precisely what any HipBone derived game aims to do, and if we want creative leadership, getting the HipBone Games up and running online and using them in analytic and decision-making training would be a pretty useful step to take.

it was basically this Army / Marine Corps answer to a zen koan, right

and

a theological and religious scholar

It may seem strange to find zen buddhism, theology, and religious scholarship mentioned in a discussion on the future of warfare, but they’re areas of the human conceptual spectrum with a great deal to teach us about insight. And fwiw, I read Theology at Oxford, and have recently been “sitting zen” with koans after a brief but brilliant afternoon with the zen roshi John Tarrant.

Playing a HipBone move and “solving” (resolving, dissolving?) a zen koan have a great deal in common. Haiku, likkewise.

But that’s enough for one post.

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Here are the selections I’ve been responding too, at greater length:

Peter W Singer

We have been very clear. It’s a work of fiction, not prediction. That’s the opening line of it. It is based on real world trends and technologies, but it is not a prediction – but hopefully it can be something that maybe ends up being preventative, by identifying certain issues, trends, even mistakes we are making right now, it helps us to avoid those from happening so that the scenario actually doesn’t come to pass. ..

Kathleen McInnis:

We’re grappling with an increasingly complex and interdependent world: globalization, climate change, urbanization, population migration, resource scarcity, all of these are trends that are intersecting with the re-emergence of geopolitics on the one hand, and the erosion of what we’ve known as the sovereign state on the other. So we’re dealing with this incredibly complex world – how do we grapple with it? How do we think about these problems? How do we advance US and global security in a world plagued by wicked problems and unintended consequences?

As Dan mentioned earlier, we hunger for creativity and intellectual agility in our national security leaders, and our military leaders—but how do we actually cultivate that kind of thinking, that creative, lateral thinking? And crucially, how do we communicate how we are thinking about these problems and what we think we should be doing about them – how do we communicate that to our public in a way that resonates.

And I submit to you that fiction, literature and the arts are a critical and often overlooked vehicle for exactly that, the creative contemplation of matters of statecraft and national security.

One of the interesting things about that manual [Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency] was that it actually proposed these intellectual puzzles, these constructs, like, “the more you secure your environment, the less safe you can be” – when you’re operating in a local tactical environment. Instead of having a tactical check-list of, you know, this is what we need to do in these particular operations and this is the logic flow for how you do x, y or z in these environments, it was basically this Army / Marine Corps answer to a zen koan, right – like how does this non-logical, really intuitive way to creatively grapple …

This is no accident. The point of a zen koan is to inspire a deeper, non-logical level of contemplation. But we haven’t always used koans to access that part of our psyches, and that way of thinking about things.

Karen Armstrong, who is a theological and religious scholar, who wrote a book that I just love, it’s called A Short History of Myth – she argues that ever since we were cavemen, sitting round camp fires, we have been using stories and myths as ways to communicate truths to each other, ways to communicate meaning. Myths were not an expression of religious beliefs per se, rather they were an imaginative, non-logical way to understand who we are and how we fit in the world. ..

And then you get to the ancient Greeks, who had two very different, equally important ways of looking at the world, Mythos and Logos.

WTG, Kathleen!

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Possible koans from the COIN Manual, p 1.27:

  • Sometimes, the More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You May Be
  • Sometimes, the More Force Is Used, the Less Effective It Is

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