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On Magic: Jane’s and the Jesuits

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a brief note on my own bi-focal vision, with appreciation to Marina Warner ]


I was just reading Marina Warner‘s recent essay On Magic — and protective magic in particular — and was struck by the phrase:

Calligraphic blazons act as icons, gems are incised with prayers to release their talismanic powers, phylacteries hold tightly wound documents written all over with blessings and invocations…

Calligraphic blazons?

My oh my! Only a click away, IHS, the “global information company” that brings us IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review, was tweeting me something or other and naturally, their avatar showed up (above, upper panel) on my screen, then in my eyes (etc), and finally (after a couple milliseconds?) in what Coleridge called the “hooks and eyes” of memory… where they hooked up very nicely indeed with the logo of the Society of Jesus (above, lower panel).

Jane’s and the Jesuits. I mean, they’re both in the security business, right? The Jesuits want to protect us from sin, heresy, and other matters which will make life hot for us in the next world, while Jane’s wants to protect us from VBIEDs, CBRN weapons and other such things — widely considered more pressing — which might make life hot for us in this one.


Let’s skip the Jesuits and the seculars for a moment, and turn to Judaism and Islam. Marina writes:

Kabbalistic beliefs share common ground in this love of letters as potent, active powers in themselves: “Every word an angel, every letter an angel, and the spaces between them” was a tenet of the mystical Isaac Luria in Prague. According to analogous Muslim practices involving inscription, the right words work even when they’re hidden, indecipherable, or have disappeared altogether: they need only to have made contact, for their presence lingers in the substances where they were once inscribed, transferred by means of the magic operation of writing.

That last is, as cultural anthropologists know, a homeopathic concept — compare this, from the US (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine backgrounder:

The alternative medical system of homeopathy was developed in Germany at the end of the 18th century. Supporters of homeopathy point to two unconventional theories: “like cures like”—the notion that a disease can be cured by a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people; and “law of minimum dose”—the notion that the lower the dose of the medication, the greater its effectiveness. Many homeopathic remedies are so diluted that no molecules of the original substance remain.

The thing is, there are two worldviews at work here, and Marina very nicely finesses the pair of them when, discussing the “talismanically protective clothes” in a Paris exhibit of “Ottoman princes’ wardrobes from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries”, she says:

Looked at from one angle, the Turkish practice was rankly superstitious, a fabulous, extreme, and crazy example of human fantasy in the doomed quest for mastery of natural forces. But looked at from another angle, the attempt to activate blessing and security through acts of writing rather than simple speech acts, and then by wearing the texts on one’s body, shows us a new dimension of word power and communicates an extraordinary degree of trust in the active literate imagination.

Superstitious, fabulous and crazy in enlightened scientific terms, yes — and yet seen from another angle, an extraordinary degree of trust in the active literate imagination…

John Donne opts for both, compressing two worlds into a mere four words:

At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells…


Okay and Amen.

I’d now like to broaden the subject from word to world, and to deepen it from magic to sacrament.

In my next, I’ll draw on Tara Isabella Burton‘s suggestion: Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God — and Dana Gioia‘s piece, The Catholic Writer Today. Onwards.


On Time and timeframes

Monday, July 1st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- 48 hours, Egyptian time, can mean many things, also DoD foresight, next 48 hrs ]

We seem to have at least four “times” here, ranking from 12 to 72 hours — or zero to 72 if you take the Army’s announcement itself as a sort of starting pistol — and they’re operating, obviously enough, under different frames. The army likes nicely rounded numbers like “48 hrs”, PERT chart thinking gives you the least time available in which to take the first step towards a desired aim, here “12 hours” — and “24 hours” is the latest target time for serious, visible progress to avert “worst case” response preparations. Or something along those lines.

And “72 hours”? That may be Egyptian elastic time, and thus roughly comparable to Lakota time

The Lakota view of time was simple. “Time was never a specific minute, but rather spaces of time,like early morning, just afternoon or just before midnight. The real meaning of time could be summed up by the phrase “nake nula waunyelo” loosely translated it means:

“I am ready for whatever, any place, any time, always prepared”.

When work needed to be done, people were prepared to work late inthe fields or stay up until 3 am to finish goods to be sold at market.When no work needed to be done, they didn’t work.

The irony is in the next comment:

Policy makers saw an opportunity to improve things by installing awestern time ethic and a respect for the clock.

I don’t know Egypt — but I have spent time “on Lakota time” and don’t wear a watch or carry a phone these days… The piece I drew those quotes from, Lessons from the Lakota: Time lessons for today’s managers, may or may not be useful advice for managers, but its overview-with-graphic of different time systems is worth a quick look. Anthropologists would be able to tell you more about individual cultures, but my point is that differing timeframes are among the major features of different worldviews, and we need to have a decent sense of them when we interface with them.

So “72 hours” may be an instance of relaxed but purposive time, okay? Which wouldn’t necessarily fit well with starched and pressed military time.


And here’s the blockbuster:

According to the Congressional Budget Office’s Analysis of DoD’s Future Years Defense Program from 2013, military foresight time runs five years ahead, while USG foresight time runs to 2030 at least:

In most years, the Department of Defense (DoD) provides a five-year plan, called the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), associated with the budget that it submits to the Congress. Because decisions made in the near term can have consequences for the defense budget well beyond that period, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) regularly examines DoD’s FYDP and projects its budgetary impact over several decades. For this analysis, CBO used the FYDP provided to the Congress in March 2012, which covers fiscal years 2013 to 2017; CBO’s projections span the years 2013 to 2030.

That’s confidence of a kind… but consider this:

I know, I know — whatever happens in Egypt “momentarily” may turn out to be no more than an eddy briefly interrupting a larger time-flow in the “mid-term” — a phenomenon I’d like to map nicely with some river graphics one of these days.


But time? What was it St Augustine said of it?

What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know.


Steven Pinker on Analogy

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- importance of analogy as an under-developed cognitive skill ]

There was a interview with five prominent “science writers” in the Guardian a few days back, titled Science writing: how do you make complex issues accessible and readable? and one of the writers, Steven Pinker, makes two highly interesting observations:


There are a couple of things going on here that I’d like to note. One is that without intending to do so specifically, he is in essence formulating a view about a possible, central difference between scientific and religious thinking, since what he says about the humanities in general applies with great specificity to religion and the arts: in both religion and art, the expansive nature of “symbolism” is a key to the experience.

And that in turn prompts me to suggest that perhaps both the arts and religion are geared towards provoking, evoking or invoking an experience — whereas the sciences are geared towards obtaining an understanding.

I’ll have to think about that, and come to some sort of understanding of my own — perhaps expressed via symbolic means.


My second point of interest is that there’s an analogy to be made between Pinker’s two remarks: each of them has a form I could portray thus in terms of cause :: effect

science : humanities :: simplicity : complexity

Nobody present — the interviewer, Pinker himself, and four other very bright science writers — picked up on the close correspondence between those two statements at the time. And I find that very interesting.

I find it very interesting because the six of them were more interested in seeing what they could say (of what they already thought) than in saying what they could see (in light of the ongoing, immediate conversation).

I think we all tend to do that — which is why David Bohm‘s approach to dialogue is so important: if brings us to speak more into the moment as it surrounds us, not quite so much from the past as it has informed us.


Then there’s the interesting fact that Pinker’s sense of the difference between modes of thought in the humanities and the sciences as expressed in the top quote translates so directly to the difference between uses of analogy in the second — and his fairly emphatic statement:

one could argue that we understand everything except for the physical world of falling objects by analogy.

Analogy is the central device in our mental toolkit, and yet we know far more about trains of logic than we do about analogical leaps. We know so little, in fact, that distinguishing between “literary metaphor” and “scientific analogy” (both of which are based in the recognition of resemblance) on the basis of one looking for multiple, rich connectivity and the other for a single tight connection is something noteworthy enough for Pinker to bother to point it out. It is indeed a provocative and perhaps essential insight. But it is also pretty basic — dividing a field up into significant chunks, the way anthropology got divided into “cultural”, “archaeological”, “linguistic” and “physical anthropology”…

It’s time we learned to understand and use analogic with the same rigor we’ve applied to learning and using logic — and Sembl is just the tool for this.


Experience wants to be rich: factual understanding wants to be clear.


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