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A counterpoint in buildings, statues, ideas

Monday, June 26th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — Dylann Roof’s trial, the New Yorker, and the scorable music of opposing voices ]
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On the way to taking us Inside the Trial of Dylann Roof, Jelani Cobb makes an observation that interests me, describing the architectural features surrounding the trial asa point-counter-point in ideas:

Mother Emanuel, as the church is known, traces its roots to 1816. It was a center of clandestine anti-slavery activity and, in 1822, when city officials discovered that congregants were planning a slave revolt, they burned the church to the ground. The current building was erected in 1891, on Calhoun Street, named for Vice-President John C. Calhoun, the intellectual progenitor of secession. The Calhoun monument, a column eighty feet high, topped by a statue of the statesman, is half a block away. The monument and the church, which came to play a central role in the Southern civil-rights movement, stand like a statement and its rebuttal.

Counterpooint — the musical technique whereby two or more melodies are juxtaposed, now clashing, now harmonizing, but with their melodic integrity uncompromised — is a technique which I believe has application beyond music, in verbal thought.

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Different voices, offering different opinions and perspectives — now clashing, now harmonizing, but with their conceptual integrity uncompromised — are precisely what we find at the heart of all debate, from town hall meetings and parliamentary procedues to maritalspats and the conversations of genius — the letters of Max Born and Albert Einstein come to mind, as does the film My Dinner with Andre.

My gambit, borrowing from the brilliant game that lies at the heart of Hermann Hesse‘s novel The Glass Bead Game, is to suggest that we take Johann Sebastian Bach‘s use of melodic counterpoint and adapt it to its conceptual equivalent — thus opening the way to (a) thinking many contrasting thoughts as a single conceptual music, and (b) developing fresh means to score such a polyphony — or multitude of voices.

Essentially, the ability to think in counterpoint is the ability to hold in mind another voice beside one’s own — the capacity, if you will, to listen as well as to think. Seen thus, it is the basic skill necessary for us to make progress away from the terrible divisiveness of our times, and into a more convivial and ecumenical future.

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I watched my son come into this world and I watched my son leave this world.

This sentence, uttered by the other of one of Roof’s victims, gains power from its closely observed parallelism between birth and death, womb and tomb.

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Forgiveness as a consequence iof counterpoint:

The Civil War began in Charleston. The Ordinance of Secession was signed in Institute Hall, on Meeting Street, in December, 1860; the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, in the harbor, a few months later. The reaction of many Charlestonians to the extraordinary moment, at a bond hearing the day after Roof’s arrest, when, one by one, family members stood and forgave him, was an outgrowth of the city’s relationship to that past. Forgiveness was not just an example of how to metabolize hatred directed at you, or just a demonstration of Christian faith, though it was both of those things. It stood for a broader redemption, an exoneration from history itself.

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A counterpoint in statuary:

Herb Frazier, a black journalist who grew up in the city and has attended Emanuel since childhood, told me that black Charlestonians have always hated the Calhoun monument. “He looks down with this scowl on his face,” he said. Then, in 1999, Charleston’s Holocaust Memorial was erected just fifty feet from the base of Calhoun’s column. That proximity suggests either a wishful denial of Calhoun’s legacy or a level of irony not typically found among municipal planners.

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A counterpoint of races and ethical stances:

Those moral calculations, as with everything else associated with the case, were refracted through the lens of race. In a statewide poll, two-thirds of African-Americans favored sentencing Roof to life in prison, while sixty-four per cent of whites believed that the death penalty was warranted. That result mirrored the general division between blacks and whites on the issue of capital punishment, which is driven, at least in part, by the fact that it has disproportionately been used against black defendants.

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A counterpoint in colors and sentences:

For David Bruck, Roof’s case represented another chance to address the unjust imposition of the death penalty. At certain moments in the trial, though, his belief that he could diminish a racist practice by saving the life of a white supremacist appeared idealistic to a fault. During his cross-examination of Joseph Hamski, the F.B.I.’s lead investigator in the case, Bruck asked, “What became of Denmark Vesey?” Vesey, a slave who had bought his freedom and become a carpenter, was the lead plotter of the 1822 revolt at the church. “He was hung,” Hamski replied. Bruck was suggesting that the death penalty is irrevocably tainted by racism, but he had seemed to equate Vesey, a man who was prepared to kill for the cause of black freedom, with Roof, a man who had killed because he thought that blacks were too free. The families murmured uneasily at the comparison.

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Black and white, crime and punishment, death penalty and life sentence, good and evil, forgiveness and justice, even Union and Confederacy — these binaries rise in counterpoint in the trial and sentencing of Dylann Roof.. offering us a mappable display of cognitions past and present, normative and extreme.

“KarlreMarks” Sharro moves on

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — from Abu A and Abu B to Steve and Donnie ]
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Karl Sharro is a Middle Eastern architect and satirist based in London, whose two modes of “simply” explaining the Middle East I presented a while back. His third view envisions ISIS as a board game, and asks Who can devise the most convoluted way to wipe out the Islamic State?

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Anyway, KarlreMarx has two jihadist ezxtremists he’s been tracking for some while — Abu A and Abu B:

Outside Sharro’s fevered imagination, ISIS does indeed have an air force — of weaponized drones.

Suicide? No, martydom — and individual ISIS members are as expendable as their goals are lofty:

Sometimes, to be honest, those goals make little sense..

— and besides, eclipses are signs of impending apocalypse..

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Time rolls on, however — and Sharro has shifted his target. As he put it in a tweet today, “I decided to retire Abu A and Abu B and replace them with another radicalised pair”:

Steve and Donnie — two’s company.

We shall see what we shall see..

Downward Spiral as a pattern in conflict — do we study it?

Friday, October 21st, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a thoroughly impertinent riff on that saying of von Moltke ]
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Hw many places could this sentence be applied to?

But the latest attacks, which appear to have been several months in the preparation, threaten to draw the entire population into a downward spiral of deadly confrontations, violent crackdowns by the security forces and toxic relations between local communities and the authorities.

It happens to come from an article about the Rohingya, Richard Horsey‘s Reality bites for Aung San Suu Kyi amid surging violence from the Nikkei Asian Review.

But how many other places might such a sentence apply to?

I ask this because we tend to focus on certain words in a sentence like this: attacks, preparation, threat, population, deadly confrontations, violent crackdowns, security forces, local communities, the authorities. Those are the forces in play, if you will. But their play follows the rules of a certain game, and that game is also named in the sentence.

Its name is downward spiral.

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vatican-spiralSpiral staircase, the Vatican, Rome

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What I want to suggests that we might learn a great deal if we shifted our attention from attacks, preparation, threat, population and the rest, and thought about spiral.

Spiral is the form that the attacks, preparation, threat, population and the rest — here and in those other places — takes, and as such it’s an archetype that underlies them, not just among the Rohingya, their Buddhist compatriots and Aung San Suu Kyi, but across the globe and through time itself.

Spiral as a pattern in conflict — do we study it?

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If, as I suppose, von Moltke can be translated as saying, “no operating concept survives contact,” it would seem we may need to conceptualize contact, ie the complexity of relations, rather than operations, which are far more focused on us — how we “will prevent conflict, shape security environments, and win wars” — than on conflict and wars, both of which are minimally two-party affairs.

And I’m not trying to say anything so terribly new here, just to give fresh phrasing to Paul Van Riper‘s comment:

What we tend to do is look toward the enemy. We’re only looking one way: from us to them. But the good commanders take two other views. They mentally move forward and look back to themselves. They look from the enemy back to the friendly, and they try to imagine how the enemy might attack them. The third is to get a bird’s-eye view, a top-down view, where you take the whole scene in. The amateur looks one way; the professional looks at least three different ways.

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sintra-castle-spiral-credit-joe-daniel-price-740x492Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal, credit Joe Daniel Price

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The sentence immediately preceding the one from the Nikkei Asia article I quoted above will hopefully illuminate hope in a pretty desperate situation:

The majority of this community and its religious leaders continue to eschew violence.

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Image sources:

  • Both spiral images from the Top 10 Spiral Architecture page
  • Japanese joinery: DoubleQuoting with wooden blocks

    Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — elegant simplicity & exquisite complexity together in a terrific niche blog I now follow ]
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    From the elegantly simple:

    to the exquisitely complex:

    Japanese joinery has dozens of ways of associating one physical object with another, as brilliantly illustrated in dozens of tweets in The Joinery’s blog:

    The complete 3D guide to joinery. The joinery design made with Fusion360.

    One of my own aims has been to generate — or begin the generation of — a similar anthology of “DoubleQuotes” illustrating the methods of associative connection available in the realms of language and the aural and visual arts.

    Three self-references already, and its only 8am

    Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — with an eye for form, paradox, self-reference ]
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    I’ve found three self-references already today, and its only 8am.

    Unless of course you count architect Matteo Pericoli‘s building design to illustrate the structure of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s mystery novel The Judge and His Hangman:

    perspective

    — in which case, I’ve found four. Pericoli comments:

    As in the novel — with its surprise ending that flips everything upside down, transforming the structure we had taken for granted into a profound moral and existential dilemma — in the building, what seemed to obscure now illuminates, what once concealed now is hidden, what seemed to give support is now nothing but a weight to bear and understand.

    Now tell me, is that self-referential and ouroboric, or merely boustrophedonic or enantiodromic?

    For Greek fun, wait till the end of this post*.

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    On firmer self-referential ground, my first self-referential account has to do with a Nobel Prize, just awarded. Gina Kolata and Seawell Chan in the New York Times explain:

    Yoshinori Ohsumi, a Japanese cell biologist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday for his discoveries on how cells recycle their content, a process known as autophagy, a Greek term for “self-eating.” It is a crucial process.

    Self-eating: even the ouroboros can’t say it plainer than that.

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    The second comes from an article on artist Jennifer Trask titled Death and Decay Lurks Within These Stunning Works of Art in the Smithsonian magazine. The description of Jennifer and her work begins:

    Those who encounter a piece by Jennifer Trask are likely first struck by its elegance: a baroque gold-coated necklace or an intricate floral broach. But a closer look reveals much more happening below the gilt surface: antlers woven into the necklace; snake vertebrae used as the “petals” of the broach’s flower, giraffe femurs…

    Death, here, as in earlier artistic tradition, is a reminder of the fickleness of life. The article gives us the self-referential paradox as it explains:

    Trask draws on the tradition of vanitas — moralistic paintings that were popular in 16th- and 17th-century Netherlands. She says her interest is now focused on the “symbolism and the ironic nature” of the paintings, and “how the vanitas itself ultimately became another of the luxurious objects they were meant to warn against.”

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    And the third might even count as two recursions — one analogous to the other.

    You may have read the New Yorker‘s profile, Sam Altman’s Manifest Destiny: Is the head of Y Combinator fixing the world, or trying to take over Silicon Valley?, and you may just be cooler than I, and either way you may already know that the Y Combinator is the startup starter-upper par excellence.

    Here’s the self-ref, from their FAQ:

    Why did you choose the name “Y Combinator?”

    The Y combinator is one of the coolest ideas in computer science. It’s also a metaphor for what we do. It’s a program that runs programs; we’re a company that helps start companies.

    A hat-tip here to Steven H. Cullinane, whose Log 24 blog today pointed me to this particular quote.

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    *It’s all Greek to me:

  • ouroboros, a snake or dragon devouring its tail, standing for infinity or wholeness
  • boustrophedon, written from right to left then left to right, as in ploughing with oxen
  • enantiodromia, tendency of things to change into their opposites, as a natural principle
  • **

    Well, it’s past 9am now, but I haven’t been scouting around for further examples since I began this post.


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