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On the topology of dreams

Saturday, August 6th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a poem that’s far too philosophical to work as poetry, Laramée’s Apparatus, and Alyce Santoro’s philosoprops ]
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The logic of poetry is, más o menos, dream logic, and so I’ve been pondering the logic of dreams and recently wrote this not terribly poetic poem:

The egg at the conjuror’s table

There is a topology of dreams.
Out beyond Riemann and names I have yet to learn,
there are configurations of space:
past Boole, dreams have their logics.

*

Take an egg.
With a tap of the wand, crack it open,
let it fall apart so precisely
the two half-shells could again fit together,
ovoid, seamlessly,
almost an egg.
Catch white and yolk in a glass.
Toss up and catch the half shell in your left hand
holding the right steady,
bring them together, there’s a fit,
a logic to it, a topology, one
to one, across many thousands of facets
of fragile, broken shell.
Break another egg so preciely
the left half of ts shell would match exactly
the right half of the first,
bring them together,
the fit is exact by definition,
brown shell with speckled,
but there is loss of logic, the thing is surreal,
an egg not an egg at all.
Holding the half-shell in your right hand
face upwards, pour into it
yolk and white of the same egg,
the heart of the egg filling its own shell,
the fit ovoid, but better:
the original yolk united with its familiar shell.
Cover shell and all with a handkerchief,
red, green, blue,
whisk it away, and the egg vanishes —
or appears, whole.

**

There are logics, topologies,
affinities beyond the exact match
of shell and shell,
and so between times, places,
people in dreams –
the half hovel, half cathedral
with its walkways among lily ponds, the koi,
dusk in one century dawn in another,
her youth your old age your youth again, time
cracked open so precisely,
its yolk, meaning,
its moments an exact match across centuries,
its half-shell a perch for Venus,
its wholeness Fabergé,
its yolk, tempera mixed by Giotto,
meaning, tempera, Assisi,
gesso, the chalk cliffs of Dover, the sea..
There is a harmony of the whole,
of the broken unbroken,
named yet unnameable, unspeakable,
there is a logic.
there is a topology of the sundries of dreams,
a mathematics to this matching
of thou with i,
of words, asleep, awake, of dusk to dawn, with all.

Recognising that it belongs in a category she might call philosopoetry, I sent it to my friend, the artist Alyce Santoro, author of the remarkable Philosoprops: A Unified Field Guide>

**

I’m a lucky fellow.

Today, via 3 Quarks Daily, I ran across this quote from Walter Bejamin:

I had suffered very much from the din in my room. Last night the dream retained this. I found myself in front of a map and, at the same time, in the landscape which was depicted on it. The landscape was incredibly gloomy and bleak, and it wasn’t possible to say whether its desolation was merely a craggy wasteland or empty grey ground populated only by capital letters. These letters drifted curvily on their base, just as if they were following the mountain range; the words formed from these letters were more or less remote from each other. I knew, or came to know, that I was in the labyrinth of the ear canal. The map was at the same time a map of hell.

There’s something darkly Borgesian about that quote, eh? But it certainly illuminates dream topology, and even moreso, the topology of the relationship of dream to waking, itself worth comparing with the relationship of map to territory, word to referent, and indeed moon to finger with which Count Korzybski, Lao Tzu, and the Zen poets are each so notably concerned.

**

Tunneling on through, I find myself contemplating one of Alyce’s inspirations — Eve Andrée Laramée’s Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions, shown in Mass MoCA‘s 2000-2001 exhibition Unnatural Science, from 2000 – 2001:

laramee

A detail from that work illustrates the etching of certain phrases into the glass — in this case, the words polysemy and misconception:

7. Eve Andree Laramee_polysemy-misconception

The display is characterized in this piece from Art & Science Jounral:

Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions by American artist Eve Andrée Laramée consists of an array of tall metal stands, clamps, PVC tubings, glass beakers, flasks and vials. Although much of the equipment looks standard from afar, the installation is a dysfunctional and mythological sort of laboratory that highlights the inherent but often unnoticed subjectivity in scientific inquiry. [ .. ]

In this fantastical and visually dazzling Apparatus, many of the glassware are hand-blown with various cloudy or luminous turquoise solutions and copper wires attached to large exotic flowers contributing to the spectacle of a giant chemistry experiment gone amok.

Upon close inspection, a second level of complexity is revealed by the seemingly unscientific words and phrases such as “HANDFULS”, “LEAP IN THE DARK” and “UNNECESSARY EXPLANATORY PRINCIPLES” delicately etched into the glass, exposing a sense of insecurity and imprecision behind the process of science.

**

My Egg at the conjuror’s table is really more a philosoprop, to use Alyce’s coinage, than what many expect a poem to be, and likewise Laramée’s Apparatus more a philosoprop than what many expect an artwork to be.

Philosoprops:

The word philosoprop is a portmanteau of philosophy (love of wisdom) and either prop (theatrical property) or propaganda (influential communication), depending. A philosoprop is a device, implement, or illustration – crafted or discovered ready-made – that can be used for the purpose of demonstrating a concept or sparking a dialog.

Let’s talk..

The trouble with moral high ground

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — fitness landscapes and the Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond ]
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With the rise and fall of sea levels, sky levels, land emerges or submerges, mountain ranges with scattered lakes in their valleys transform into archipelagos, island clusters surge up to become continents — rise and fall, ebb and flow, wave upon wave..

I mean, really, what of the moral high ground?

**

Consider these:

Figure 13: Schematic “adaptive” or “fitness” landscape. 

Adaptive Basins and Strange Peaks

Biologists talk about adaptive landscapes. In these metaphorical places, species climb uphill towards optimal fitness. Going up is a struggle. Climbing takes energy. Optimal peaks can be hard to attain. Many species are distracted by getting stuck on sub-optimal false peaks, or waylaid by the intervening rugged landscape.

Sources:

  • ResearchGate, Schematic “adaptive” or “fitness” landscape
  • The Technium, Adaptive Basins and Strange Peaks
  • **

    Nemesis and the Prophets are agreed:

    Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low

    — or as Mary said of her son’s father:

    He 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.

    Ursula le Guin voiced Lao Tzu for us in English:

    True goodness
    is like water.
    Water’s good
    for everything.
    It doesn’t compete.

    It goes right
    to the low loathsome places,
    and so finds the way.

    Furthermore:

    What’s softest in the world
    rushes and runs
    over what’s hardest in the world.

    The immaterial
    enters
    the impenetrable.

    **

    O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road, And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye

    Getting deeper into Koestler

    Friday, March 18th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — on creativity at the intersection of the fleeting and the eternal ]
    .

    centaur skeleton
    Centaur, displayed in the International Wildlife Museum, Tucson, AZ

    **

    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.

    **

    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.

    **

    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.

    Reversals and blowbacks

    Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — cf. boustrophedon, enantiodromia, ouroboros, paradox, unintended consequences ]
    .

    I have had this graphic around for a while:

    reverse arrow

    As you can see, I originally intended it to accompany a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

    We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe.

    — but it can actually serve a more general purpose than that — the basic “opposing arrows” graphic can be used to cover all sorts of situations in which a push in one direction results in movement in another. In the OW Holmes example, the two opposed pushes occur within the same person — we are bidden to protect that which we despise.

    Here, though, is an instance in which what seems a laudable action on the part of the authorities has a counter-productive result:

    No longer a movement that concentrates its brutality on the Nigerian government, [Boko Haram] now attacks mainly civilians, using women and child suicide bombers as its primary weapons of war. The reasons why the group has changed tactics, however, and the complex motives for why women and children have become the weapons of choice, needs to move beyond the fallback narrative of victimhood if attempts to end the unthinkable are to succeed [my emphasis].

    That’s essentially the “we learn, they learn” dynamic that’s present in all insurgency-counterinsurgency situations, no? It’s the basis of escalation — it’s what Hermann Kahn‘s Ladder was all about — it’s a bidding war.

    But I want to capture it in its most basic moment, when something pulls its opposite into place. The Taoists expressed the same idea very gracefully —

    tai chi

    — but maybe that’s just a little too graceful — I’m looking for something just a bit more abrupt, with a more overt sense of tension.

    So you may be seeing more of my reverse arropw / blowback diagram:

    reverse arrow oops

    Oops!! It’s often, though by no means always, a sign of folly.

    Encryption, the mind and voice

    Monday, February 29th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — paging birds and fishes, Chuang Tzu and Wm Blake ]
    .

    Dwight Furrow, Wine Tasting and Objectivity:

    The question is whether flavors are “in the wine” or “in the mind”. On the one hand, there are objectively measurable chemical compounds in wine that reliably affect our taste and olfactory mechanisms—pyrazines cause bell pepper aromas in Cabernet Sauvignon, malic acid explains apple aromas in Chardonnay, tannins cause a puckering response, etc. But we know that human beings differ quite substantially in how they perceive wine flavors. Even trained and experienced wine critics disagree about what they are tasting and how to evaluate wine. This disagreement among experts leads many to claim that wine tasting is therefore purely subjective, just a matter of individual opinion. According to subjectivism, each person’s response is utterly unique and there is no reason to think that when I taste something, someone else ought to taste the same thing. Statements about wine flavor are statements about one’s subjective states, not about the wine. Thus, there are no standards for evaluating wine quality.

    **

    Is each mind inherently closed to every other, much as the bird’s mind is closed to ours in Blake‘s aphorism —

    How do you know but every bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?

    — albeit not always so joyful?

    In more contemporary terms — Is there encryption of the mind?

    **

    I ask this in light of the DoubleQuote I posted a few days ago comparing Hesse and Hitchcock in terms of their metaphoric uses of “organ” — in, I hasten to add, the Bach sense of the word:

    SPEC-Hesse-Hitchcock-organs sm

    Here’s what I’m thinking. Hesse’s game influences the mind, as does art, but it is non-invasive; Hitchcock applauds the potential for art to move in a more invasive direction, as if by force rather than by enticement.

    “”

    Humans — or at least the philosophers and philosopher tagalongs among them — can’t even tell if what one human sees as “red” is what another sees as “red” — let alone what a given Burgundy tastes like on another’s palate.

    If this means, more generally, that minds are effectively encrypted by virtue of their differences in wiring acquired with parentage, age and experience, then our communications media -– language, the arts, literature, number — would appear to be the available decryption keys, selectively available to the minds in question.

    **

    Chuang-Tsu has this tale to tell:

    Men claim that Mao-ch’iang and Lady Li were beautiful, but if fish saw them they would dive to the bottom of the stream, if birds saw them they would fly away, and if deer saw them they would break into a run. Of these four, which knows how to fix the standard of beauty for the world?

    And this..

    Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were strolling along the dam of the Hao River when Chuang Tzu said, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!”

    Hui Tzu said, “You’re not a fish – how do you know what fish enjoy?”

    Chuang Tzu said, “You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”

    Hui Tzu said, “I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. On the other hand, you’re certainly not a fish – so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy!”

    Chuang Tzu said, “Let’s go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy – so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao.”

    **

    Chuang Tzu said, “You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”

    Blake said, “How do you know but every bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?”


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