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The Republic of Bloggers, SpiralChris & Pundita

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — on music, art, and the double meanings of fruit, bread, wine ]
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francisco_de_zurbaran_-_still-life_with_lemons_oranges_and_rose_-_wga26062
Still-life with Lemons, Oranges and Rose, Francisco de Zurbarán, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena

**

Chris Bateman, aka SpiralChris, responded a couple of weeks ago to my own open letter to him, beginning:

Dear Charles,

The second of my five religions, Zen Buddhism, came about entirely as a consequence of a famous tale you allude to in your wonderful letter.

After quickly rocounting the tale in question — about the Zen patriarch Hui Neng and the “finger pointing at the moon” which should not be mistaken for the moon itself, he went on:

I spent a great deal of time that night meditating upon the gloriously full moon, a little about my finger, and a great deal about the space in between. Space. The space between. The space beyond. When I could be any or all of these, I went to bed. I thought to myself: How arbitrary it is that we should see ourselves as the finger, and as not-the-moon, when we might just as well consider ourselves the spaces in between – since without that, we could never be not-anything!

This lunar encounter served me well until about five years later I hit a terrifying crisis of identity when I lost faith in any ability to use words to communicate at all. I began to fray at the edges… If everyone’s words were their own symbols, how could we ever manage to communicate? Did we? Or were we just braying at each other at random, each one watching a different play on the stage we had been thrown together upon?

**

That phrase “the spaces in between” is particularly interesting when you think of it as referencing the space between word and what it refers to, the word “moon” and the up-there orb, the moon. You might think, “there’s no such space between, they’re in different realms, is all” — but there is a between, it’s the relationship. And that’s what all my HipBone & DoubleQuote Games are about — the relationship (mapped along a linking line, aka an “edge”) between two concepts (“nodes”). Because relationship is the essence of their antecedent, Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game. And of all relationships, perhaps those between name and thing, finger and moon, map and territory, moon and enlightenment, are among the most fascinating.

Consider, though, the relationship between person (genetically understood) and person (memetically understood), as in the case of persons of genius or great charisma.

Hermann Hesse played the Glass Bead Game himself, he tells us, in his garden, while raking leaves into the fire, and it consisted of figures he admired, talking across th4 centuries — “I see wise men and poets and scholars and artists harmoniously building the hundred-gated cathedral of the mind.” In his book, the Game does not consist of these people, but of their ideas — disembodied, if you will.

The genetics / memetics difference shows up elsewhere in intriguing ways. Should Peter, the closest disciple, lead the church after Christ‘s death, or James, his blood brother? — that’s the Jerusalem vs Rome controversy that plays out in the background to the New Testament. Should his followers follow Brigham Young, his closest disciple, after Joseph Smith‘s death. or a family member? When Kabir, the poet-saint of India died, his Hindu followers wanted to cremate his remains, his Muslim followers to bury him — when they uncovered his body, they found (so the tale is told) that it had turned to roses, and were thus able to divide his remains and perform both ceremonies.

Family has a claim to the person, discipleship has a claim to the inspiration. Funny, that.

**

Chris was responding to me as part of what he happily terms The Republic of Bloggers:

During the Enlightenment at the end of the 17th century and the start of the 18th, a disparate group of intellectuals in Europe and the United States engaged in a long-distance discourse that became know as the Republic of Letters, or Respublica Literaria. It was one of the first transnational movements, and scholars have endlessly debated its relevance and influence upon the dramatically proclaimed Age of Enlightenment it heralded. Personally, I feel no need to explain this in terms of cause and effect – the Republic of Letters was simply the written discourse of a movement that was changing the way people thought about their relationship with the world.

It is a seldom noticed fact that while anyone who can read and write could write a letter, very few actually do – and fewer still in our current era, what it is tempting to call the Age of Distraction. Letters, rather than say postcards and other friendly waves expressed in writing, involve a kind of engagement that has become rather rare these days. A letter invites a response, asks us to think about something, requests insight from another perspective… Letters are conversations at a slow enough pace to allow the correspondents to think a out what they are saying. I would like to suggest that it takes a particular kind of introvert to engage in letter writing in this sense – a quiet soul not content to bury themselves in just their solitary activities, but willing and able to reach out in words to another, similar person. I love a good conversation in a pub or bar, or at a conference, or even on a long journey, but as enjoyable as these forms of discourse may be for me they cannot adequately substitute for the pleasure of the letter.

For Chris, blog posts are the current equivaoent of letters, and what he terms The Republic of Bloggers is a latter day equivalent of the Republic of Letters of yore.

It is similar in spirit to Col. Pat Lang‘s Committee of Correspondence, Sic Semper Tyrannis, except that there all the correspondents correspond on the one blog.

The Republic of Letters is a concept I very much appreciate, and I have tried to embody it both here and in my time at the Skoll Foundation’s Social Edge platform a decade ago.

**

At which point, I must introduce blog-friend Pundita, sometimes known as the Julia Childs of Foreign Policy discussion. She and I have been going back and forth on the topic of sacred music — qawwali, gospel, and so forth.

Recently, Pundita, in a post of August 31st titled O Magnum Mysterium: Why has Christianity declined so much in a land that produces the greatest Christian choirs?, responds in part to my having alerted her to Morten Lauriden‘s gloriously beautiful rendering of the Catholic chant, O Magnum Mysterium:

Look at the still-life at the top of this post. What do you see? If you tell me you see the Virgin Mary and the Mystery of her giving birth to the Christ, either you are already familiar with the painting, made famous in this era by Morton Lauridsen’s explanation of how it inspired his version of O Magnum Mysterium. Or you are steeped in the symbolism of the High Church and/or the use of Christian symbols in art.

I’m sorry but the symbolism is so abstract that those are the only ways to read Mary and the Virgin Birth into a painting of fruit, a flower, and a cup of water, although I’ll concede the symbolism could have been understood by well-educated Christians centuries ago in Europe.

Lauridsen himself did not understand the symbolism of the painting when he first saw it — a point he does not make clear to readers in his 2009 article for The Wall Street Journal about the painting It’s a Still Life That Runs Deep, and its role in inspiring his version of OMM.

That post was in response to something I’d sent her, recommending Lauridsen’s work. More “Republic of Bloggers” style communication!

**

Chance reading the other day brought me to Jacob Mikanowski‘s piece, Camera-phone Lucida, in which i found:

The first society to experience the problem of having too much money and too much stuff, the Dutch had multiple genres of food-related still lifes, each dealing in a different level of luxury. They began with the humble ontbijtjes, or breakfast paintings, to the slightly more elaborate banketjestukken or “little banquets,” and on to the kings of them all, the pronkstilleven, from the Dutch word for “ostentatious.” The “little breakfasts” were the domain of simple food: a plate of herrings, a freshly baked bun, a few olives, maybe a peeled lemon for a bit of color. The atmosphere in these canvases is orderly and Calvinist. By contrast, in the pronkstilleven, the prevailing mood is one of jubilant disorder. Lobsters perch precariously on silver trays. Tables are strewn with plates of oysters, overturned tankards, baskets spilling over with fruit, scattered nuts and decorative cups. Cavernous mincemeat pies jostle with lutes and the occasional monkey.

For a century scholars have sought a deeper meaning in these and other still lifes. A half-eaten cheese stood for the transubstantiated body of Christ; walnuts represented him on the cross — the meat of the nut was his flesh, the hard shell was the wood of the cross he died on.

And so — inside or outside th Republic of Bloggers — the conversation flows..

**

And if Morten Lauridsen can wring such beauty from a reading of symbolism in Zurbarán, let him do so!

Walter & Lady Tramaine Hawkins, Goin’ up yonder:

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Allah Hoo:

Morten Lauridsen, O Magnum Mysterium:

  • Morten Lauridsen, It’s a Still Life That Runs Deep
  • Divinely appointed killing in Gita and Summa

    Saturday, August 20th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — two focal texts for Landmines in the Garden plus the matters of just war / peace ]
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    Herewith two quotes, one (upper oanel) from the Bhagavad Gita, the other from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas — each of which expemplifies the notion that someone, in the first case Arjuna, in the second, Abraham — has divine authorization to kill:

    SPEC DQ Summa and Gita

    It is noteworthy that Arjuna does in fact kill those he has been ordered to kill, and that in contrast Abraham is reprieved from the necessity of killing his son by the same divine authority which had first demanded that extraordinary sacrifice — but God (the Father) in the Christian narrative goes on to kill his own Son in what is both the perfection and completion of sacrifice..

    And from the perspective of military chaplains blessing members of the armed forces on their way into battle in a just war, the same divine approval presumably holds.

    But are wars ever just?

    **

    Further Readings:

  • Foreign Policy, What Happens When You Replace a Just War With a Just Peace?
  • National Catholic Repoorter, Pope considering global peace as topic of next Synod of Bishops
  • Rome Conference, An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence
  • United States Institute of Peace, Abrahamic Alternatives to War
  • It is worth noting that a sometime commenter on this blog, William Benzon of New Savanna, has a new, small & handy book out:

  • Bill Benzon, We Need a Department of Peace: Everybody’s Business, Nobody’s Job
  • No Man’s Sky

    Friday, August 19th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a quick blog letter to Chris Bateman, and more broadly to the global God NoGod argument ]
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    Warning:

    This post may or many not be of interest to individual ZP readers, so here’s what’s up. The philosopher-game-designer-blogger Chris Bateman gets into blog-with-blog discussions, the rubric with his articles on his own iHobo and Only a Game blogs being “all replies at other blogs will be promoted here to keep the conversation going” – and this ZP post of mine is in response to his No Man’s Sky Roundup post today, and the pieces about the game of that name he led me to.

    It is also an attempt to put the basic insight of that branch of theology called “apophatic” (“other than speech”) theology into, well, written speech. And in a way, it is also my challenge to the entire “God vs NotGod” debate that tiresome long books are written about, since the God described by Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa strikes me as the “definition of God” that any worthy attempt to attack the “God” concept on philosophical grounds should be tackling – not such local and verbal matters as whether God prefers seven days to universe completion or a little longer, burkas or bikinis, gays married or chaste, or being embodied or otherwise, three, one or both.

    It’s also written in a language you might term poetico-philosophical or vice versa, you have been warned.

    If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, have at it!

    **

    No Man’s Sky

    Words drag their whatevers with them into some form of presence, which with “table” is not an issue, the table idea is both transparent and vague as clouds, it sits as easy in mind as I sit in a chair – wait, at my desk, a form of table, the word “table” brought table to mind, table brought chair..

    Or was it, “table” brought “chair” and “chair” brought chair, I myself embodied being also enchaired, one might think “enthroned” as I write this.

    At my desk I read these words describing the books in BorgesLibrary of Babel, “every variation of the 22 letters of the alphabet (as well as the additional three symbols of the comma, period, and space” – I read them as illuminating for me the planets, fauna, flora, perils and perceptions players find in the trans-galactic game, No Man’s Sky.

    And words drag their whatevers with them.

    It is the mystery. It is the moon at which the zen finger points, it is the, a, God, whole system, the One and All I wish to speak of – the ineffable – here.

    So it is that the words “the comma, period, and space” drag with them first a tailed dot, a tadpole, a jot, yod in the Hebrew, a tongue of flame, tongue here being fire, language and insight, that descended on certain disciples of someone, arguably, then the dot without tail, a speck, point, blackness minimal – and then, like the zoom from space station window to deep space outside, space.

    In the game, No Man’s Sky. Or at your window, seen perhaps from your desk, imagined at mine. Or dragged, somehow, for I and later, you, with or from these words.

    So: zero to galaxy via a simple “and” less than a second long, short in the life of humans, long enough, it would seem, for some previously unknown game galaxy. Or “galaxy” – game or otherwise.

    The marks, the comma and period, I am habituated to. They are articulation points among the bare bones of the letters, bodying them out into words, langue, langue, language – again, fire and insight, but also scratches, pecked out with pen, keyboard or chisel – but space.

    And I was reading about this game, No Man’s Sky, this game gaming space, deep space, as the books within Borges’ book, within Borges and now shared out among us, game all possible verbal coherences with all possible incoherences, all partials, wholes, and almost nothings, an “a” that may be word or mark, an ‘o” that may close the book, galaxy, universe, be zero, lack sound or howl fury.. and those illimitable periods, commas, spaces.

    Thus: “comma” drags its micro-tadpole with it, I squint, “period” drags it’s point – where is my jeweler’s loup? – and “space” __ I am flung far enough that I stop to take stock, look back from vague, vast imagined space at imagined period and comma, see how far how fast I have come, gasp.

    Now the great mystery, the unknowable more than human mind as human mind is more than speck, galactic cluster more than planetary spack with us specks on it, the whatever the “moon” in “finger pointing at the moon” was, is, pointing at, the stuff and substance of what the word “God” drags in, neither stuff nor substance but, per the good catholic Cardinal, Cusanus, well —

    When we attempted to see Him beyond being and not-being, we were unable to understand how He could be visible. For He is beyond everything plural, beyond every limit and all unlimitedness; He is completely everywhere and not at all anywhere; He is of every form and of no form, alike; He is completely ineffable; in all things He is all things, in nothing He is nothing, and in Him all things and nothing are Himself; He is wholly and indivisibly present in any given thing (no matter how small) and, at the same time, is present in no thing at all. –

    — That!

    The “That” in “Thou art That” with “art” the link connecting them, us, if you’ll allow me to digress into a pun, puny beside that immense No Thing at All.

    You drop the word “space” into an unremarkable remark about “the comma, period, and space” and space, the deep, the trans-galactic space is dragged into mind – mine, anyway, and perhaps now yours – and we ignore it, “space” we know here meaning what “space between letters” would drag with it – we ignore it as though shutting a window, the space station window, the window of mind.

    And God, But God.

    We foreclose the window on God with undue haste, because it is rubbish, garbage, nothing. Or because it is that someone with disciples end of conversation, agree or be damned. Because we’ve got it, we know, we affirm, “I believe”.

    But peer closer at that creed, the longer one, Athanasius’ Creed, skip a few lines and what they drag with them, you’ll find..

    Incomprehensible.

    To be specific:

    The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible .. as also there are not three .. incomprehensible, but .. one incomprehensible.

    Or in short:

    Incomprehensible, three one.

    — which drags a certain amount of sense with it, and the someone, and the entire ineffable.

    And that word, struck like repeated blows of a Thor-sized hammer of mind, “incomprehensible .. incomprehensible .. incomprehensible .. incomprehensible .. incomprehensible”.

    There is no whatever, it says, no thing or person or process our mind can think or process that this word or these words, “incomprehensible”, drag with them. Such a thing, or process, or person – “someone” included – is not subject to mind, cannot be crammed, cannot be cabined, cribbed, confined, into mind, into your, my, or some – any – high priest philosopher’s mind. Or book.

    Of whom or which or whatever it is said —

    He is not one who is ashamed to show his strength,
    and buffets proud folk about like leaves in a gale.
    He upsets those that hold themselves high and mighty
    and rescues the least one of us.

    –- of which water is exemplary, which “nourishes all things without trying to” and “is content with the low places which people disdain.”

    Humility, then. And to erect a hurdle, you might call it “epistemic humility” –

    But make no mistake:

    Humility is the game. “Humility” is the name of the game.

    Zengi can be Zangi and Zinki, among others

    Sunday, July 24th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — besides horror at the beheading, there’s an analytic note that needs to be heard ]
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    abdullah issa 600
    Abdullah Issa fighting, and wounded — soon to be savagely beheaded

    The ferocity of the beheading has been blurred out in most versions of the video, though ZeroCensorship is still showing it, and YouTube has a version that stops short of the beheading but appears to record Abdullah’s final wish — to be shot, not slaughtered.

    That devastating final wish goes way beyond Shakespeare‘s “to be or not to be, that is the question” — it may well be the most terrfying depiction of a choice made at death-point that I have ever heard.

    **

    I commented recently to a post by Ehsani2 titled The Boy Beheaded by Zinki Fighters, Abdullah Tayseer, Who Was He? on Dr. Joshus LandisSyria Comment blog, noting that the piece used the names Zanki and Zinki without commenting on the difference between them, and asking for clarification. I’d like to thank Dr Landis for a graciously email in response, and am happy to note today that my concern regarding the discrepant names used in the article is not without cause — as Kyle Orton just made clear in his own post on his Syrian Intifada blog, A Rebel Crime and Western Lessons in Syria:

    One of the first complications with al-Zengi is the sheer variety of ways to transliterate the group’s name. Nooradeen can be Nooridin, Noorideen, and Noor/Nur al-Din/Deen; Zengi can be Zangi and Zinki, among others. Harakat means “movement,” though sometimes the organization is referred to as kataib (brigade) instead. Nooradeen refers to the twelfth-century Seljuk atabeg of the Zengid dynasty, whose life’s project was the reunification of the Islamic community.

    No wonder I was confused.

    **

    My point, as so often, cuts against the grain of the conversation on Ehsani2’s post, which is largely about the horrible event itself and the group that performed it, one time support from the US included, and not the ways in which lack of languahger skills can cause confusion where clarity would be preferable — and that’s fair enough. My point, hiwever, is the linguistic one, and I think it’s important in a way that’s perhaps better suited to discussion here than on Dr Landis’ blog.

    My plea is for analysts with special knowledge of places, groups or languages to bear in mind when writing, that there will be some in their interested audiences who may not share those specialities but are still worth reaching — and in particular that non-specialists, while inherently weak in local detail, may nevertheless contribute significant insights from outside linguistic or area-specialist silos, precisely by virtue of not being in the echo-chambers that such forms of specialism themselves tend to erect.

    Zen has from the beginning of this blog stressed the mutual virtues of what he terms “horizontal” and “vertical” modes of knowledge — see his series:

  • Understanding Cognition: part I: Benefits of horizontal thinking
  • Understanding Cognition: part II: Benefits of vertical thinking to horizontal thinkers
  • Understanding Cognition: part III: Horizontal and vertical thinking and the origin of insight
  • I came to my own interest in that topic by being a primarily analogical and only secondarily linear thinker, by hearing Murray Gell-Mann at CalTech speak on the importance of generalist “bridge-makers” who perceive analogical links between otherwise unrelated disciplines, and by my twenty- to thirty-year effort to devised a playable form of the great analogical game loosely described in Hermann Hesse’s brillian (nobel-winning) novel, The Glass Bead Game.

    In prepping a proposal — as yet unfinished — for DARPA or IARPA last year, I formulate my basic message as a sort of motto, thus:

    Out of the box, out of the silo, out of the discipline, out of the agency, out of the explicit known into the “unknowing” — where the future takes shape…

    I could — and in the finished proposal will, God-willing — go far further on this topic, describing the ways in which complexity is far better modeled for us humans by analogical than by linear thinking, by cross-disciplinary than by silo’d thinking, by visual rather than verbal thinking, by human scale (7, plus or minus 2 datapoints) visualization than by big-data viz, and so forth. But let’s make it simple:

    Quirky thinking has a better chance at creative insight than routine thinking, individual contrarian passion than in-group agreement.

    Okay?

    **

    Thanks again to Dr Landis, and back to business..

    Indistinguishable from magic?

    Wednesday, July 20th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a primer on some undercurrents in mind ]
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    I’ve been thinking about Clarke’s Third Law:

    quote-clarke-s-third-law-any-sufficiently-advanced-technology-is-indistinguishable-from-magic-arthur-c-clarke-219641

    This may hold true if you mean by it that someone in possession of sufficiently advanced tech can generally persuade less “sophisticated” folk that the use of that tech amounts to “magic”, but no student or practitioner of an authentic magical tradition will easily credit such an idea — where’s the contagion? where’s the sympathy? — where’s the true name?

    **

    Concerning the nature of magic:

    Sir JG Frazer, The Golden Bough:

    Thus far we have been considering chiefly that branch of sympathetic magic which may be called homoeopathic or imitative. Its leading principle, as we have seen, is that like produces like, or, in other words, that an effect resembles its cause. The other great branch of sympathetic magic, which I have called Contagious Magic, proceeds upon the notion that things which have once been conjoined must remain ever afterwards, even when quite dissevered from each other, in such a sympathetic relation that whatever is done to the one must similarly affect the other.

    Ursula LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea:

    He saw that in this dusty and fathomless matter of learning the true name of every place, thing, and being, the power he wanted lay like a jewel at the bottom of a dry well. For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.

    and furthermore:

    Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.

    **

    A contemporary example, and an historical antecedent:

    Magic and Medicine from the Ozarks, 272: Nails:

    Nails have been used in Ozark folk healing and magic in a variety of ways. There’s a belief among Hillfolk that the object that hurt the individual was just as important to the healing process as the medicine put onto the wound. Knife blades, bullets, and nails were often treated with healing salves and plants alongside the puncture or cut itself. Rusty nails were added to tonics to prevent tetanus or to treat illnesses like tuberculosis. Water made from soaking new nails was seen as a sure treatment for anemia and iron deficiencies, and sometimes the sickness itself could be taken off the patient and nailed to a tree. Nails were driven into footprints to deal lethal blows to foes and witches alike. Coffin and gallows nails were carried by Hillfolk as an amulet to ward of certain venereal diseases.

    The Works of Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England, Vol. 2, ed. Montague:

    It is constantly Received, and Avouched, that the Anointing of the Weapon, that maketh the Wound, wil heale the Wound it selfe. In this Experiment, upon the Relation of Men of Credit, (though my selfe, as yet, am not fully inclined to beleeve it,) you shal note the Points following; First, the Ointment .. is made of Divers ingredients; whereof the Strangest and Hardest to come by, are the Mosse upon the Skull of a dead Man, Vnburied; And the Fats of a Boare, and a Beare, killed in the Act of Generation. These Two last I could easily suspect to be prescribed as a Starting Hole; That if the Experiment proved not, it mought be pretended, that the Beasts were not killed in due Time; For as for the Mosse, it is certain there is great Quantity of it in Ireland, upon Slain Bodies, laid on Heaps, Vnburied. The other Ingredients are, the Bloud-Stone in Powder, and some other Things, which seeme to have a Vertue to Stanch Bloud; As also the Mosse hath…. Secondly, the same kind of Ointment, applied to the Hurt it selfe, worketh not the Effect; but onely applied to the Weapon..

    **

    Implications for analysts:

    For anyone interested in the analogical and contagious workings of the human mind, I cannot recommend too highly the Mountain Man Traditional Healing blog, which is both fascinating and instructive. So-called (and so disparaged) “magical thinking” may not occupy much space in the thought of secular analysts, but it is central to many and varied cultural traditions, some of which have real consequences in national Security and other “realistic” realms..


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