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A Baghdad DoubleTake and other matters

Friday, December 31st, 2010

[ by Charles Cameron ]

Zen recently posted a video of a terrific hour-plus-long speech by Doug Hofstadter – one of the best videos I’ve ever taken the time to watch – in which Hofstadter, the guy who brought us Godel Escher Bach and much more, talked about analogy and suggested that it’s at the very core of human cognition.

I posted a poem and some comments in response — they got a bit mangled in terms of formatting, which may be fixed by the time you read this – and Zen then posed a question:

Charles – there’s a large portion of visual imagery in the passage you cite: do you think the incorporation of imagery (thus activating a powerful region of the brain) enhances or distorts the underlying conceptual connection in an analogical construction?

That’s what set me off this time…

*

I think of a poem as a braiding of three strands: a strand of sound or music, a strand of image, and a strand of meaning. For convenience, I’ll usually include a fourth – wit – but it’s actually more like a pearl that can be threaded on the strand of meaning.

From my POV, the poem is thus essentially a screenplay for the mind’s eye – and if a poem begins with strong music, at the very least I’d like it to end with strong music, if it starts with wit or wordplay, I’d like it to end with that too, and if it has imagery, I’d like the images to unspool in a way not unlike the images in a movie…

When I’m reading poems by others, and particularly if I’m teaching a poetry class, I’ll sometimes notice a sudden disjunction in one of the three strands. If it’s clearly for effect, all’s well and good – but if it’s unconscious, unintended, it will always reveal an aspect of the poem that hasn’t been worked through yet, and applying conscious attention to it will result in the emergence of new material from the unconscious store that enriches the final product. Sometimes, that kind of attention reaches something that was psychologically difficult, a disjunction in soul if you like – and the result of moving through it to the finished poem can be very much like a breakthrough insight in therapy.

But “poetry is not a hospital” – if Apollinaire didn’t say that, and I used to think he did, I shall.

*

From my POV, therefore, there are analogies of sound, analogies of meaning, and analogies of image. There’s an analogy of sound between tomb and womb – we call it rhyme. There’s certainly an analogy of meaning – whence we come at birth, whither we go at death. And if you like, there’s an analogy of image – when I think of the “twinning” of those two words, I see life itself as running across a brief stretch of grass between two caves…

When as here, the analogy runs across all three braids, you have a very powerful “conceit” or poetic device.

The graphic match, together with sonic rhyme, between the visuals of a hotel room fan and the rotors of a helicopter at the beginning of Apocalypse Now parallels the sense of explosive heat and frustrated inaction of Captain Willard trapped in Saigon with the sense of freedom and clarity he feels when sent on mission up-river – again, an analogy in three strands.

*

But analogy can also cut across the senses in a different way. Here’s Hermann Hesse‘s view of the Glass Bead Game:

Throughout its history the Game was closely allied with music, and usually proceeded according to musical or mathematical rules. One theme, two themes, or three themes were stated, elaborated, varied, and underwent a development quite similar to that of the theme in a Bach fugue or a concerto movement . A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts.

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. Experts and Masters of the Game freely wove the initial theme into unlimited combination.

That’s analogy cutting across disciplines, and across sensory modalities too.

There was a period of about a dozen years when I almost completely stopped writing poetry, and concentrated on devising a variant on Hesse’s game that would be playable on a napkin in a café – conceiving of it as an art that would combine tight form (think: sonnet, sonata) with the entire spectrum or palette of human thought, visual, verbal, numerical, aural.

Hesse again:

The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. 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 that was written before the world wide web allowed us to mingle visual, verbal, numerical and aural elements so directly in a single presentation.

You can imagine how delighted I was, therefore, to stumble upon Sven Birkerts‘ writing:

There are tremendous opportunities, and we are probably on the brink of the birth of whole new genres of art which will work through electronic systems. These genres will likely be multi-media in ways we can’t imagine. Digitalization, the idea that the same string of digits can bring image, music, or text, is a huge revolution in and of itself. When artists begin to grasp the creative possibilities of works that are neither literary, visual, or musical, but exist using all three forms in a synthetic collage fashion, an enormous artistic boom will occur.

That’s what the HipBone Games were all about…

*

That’s what I was reaching for, back in the days before I even called my games the HipBone Games — when they were still TenStones Games played on a board whose geometry I borrowed from the Sephirotic Tree – when I played TS Eliot‘s poem, The dove descending, in juxtaposition to Vaughan Williams‘ piece for violin and orchestra, The lark ascending

…matching music with poem, descent with ascent, dove with lark, and the natural world of the English countryside with the “wrought” world of Eliot’s London in the pentecostal Blitz.

I don’t think Stephen or I had web browsers at the time – we played that game using AOL’s early texting function, so the music was entirely in the mind…

And I still think of that game as one of the loveliest expressions of the “hipbone” art.

Hesse’s game really is, for me, the continuation of poetry by other means…

*

But then it turns out that analogy is an incredibly powerful aspect of human thought – and one that, IMO, we haven’t explored very deeply, perhaps precisely because it jumps silos and disciplinary boundaries, and creates fresh insight

…which is pretty much as Doug Hofstadter was suggesting in that video Zen posted.

And so this fundamentally analogical frame of mind — which I had developed in a poetic and aesthetic context and applied to the symbolism so dear to the poets, cultural anthropologists, analytical psychologists, and comparative theologians and the like — turned out to be highly applicable and seen as highly creative when applied to real world issues, when I got a job for a couple of years at a small think-tank just outside DC.

Because if linear causality is the warp of the weave of the world, acausal patterning is its woof (or weft) – and frankly, our current techno-civilization is hopelessly warped in the direction of warp, and has very little understanding of woof, of weft, of pattern — of what can only be learned from analogy.

*

Not that there doesn’t have to be enormous care taken to avoid over-reading parallels. But consider the immediacy of the impact of this DoubleQuote, which I composed in 2003:

Eh, Zen?

Santayana echoes Marx refracts Hegel:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

Seen from another angle: history has rhymes to match its reasons

Warriors of the Spirit

Friday, December 31st, 2010

[ by Charles Cameron ]

It’s a very different approach…

I’ve been preparing to write up some of the episodes that represent how warm and close relations between Muslims and Christians can at times be – the meeting of St Francis with the Sultan Malik al-Kamil, the period of considerable tolerance and artistic flourishing under Umayyad rule in Cordoba – and I have to say I’m getting very impatient to see this film:

film poster for

.
If you would like to understand why the Qur’an (5:82) says:

The nearest to the faithful are those who say “We are Christians. That is because there are priests and monks among them and because they are free of pride.”

May I recommend you either read John Kiser’s The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith. Love and Terror in Algeria — or, when it opens in your part of the world, go see Of Gods and Men. Or both.

Wishing us all peace in the new year, decade, century…

A Clausewitzian on “Cohesion”

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Long time ZP readers are probably familiar with seydlitz89, a dedicated Clausewitzian and retired former military officer who comments here occasionally and blogs at Milpub regularly. I first read seydlitz89 at Dr. Chet Richards’ late, great, DNI site and seydlitz89 went on to participate in two extensive events at Chicago Boyz, the Clausewitz Roundtable and the Xenophon Roundtable and also had some of his more extensive writings featured on Clausewitz.com.

I would like to draw attention to one of those articles and seydlitz89’s focus on Clausewtz’s concept of “cohesion” and an implicit “theory of political development”. I am going to excerpt for my own purposes, but suggest that you read seydlitz89’s argument in full:

The Clausewitzian Concept of Cohesion as a Theory of Political Development

….The concept of cohesion comes up in various forms in On War and to lesser extent in Clausewitz’s other writings.   These forms of the overall concept include:

  • Cohesion as the moral (think tribalism, nationalism) and material (think constitution, institutions, shared views of how to define “civilization”) elements that make up the communal/social organizations of political communities, as exemplified in the three ideal types discussed below. Moral cohesion can be seen as the traditional communal values of a political community, what values and motivations guide people in their actions with family, friends and neighbours, whereas material cohesion are the modern cosmopolitan values associated with society or those social actions associated with institutions of various types. The two types exist is a certain state of constant stress and tension with modern values actually being destructive to the retention of traditional values (following Weber). Cohesion here is Clausewitz’s theory of politics which also includes the abstract concept of money. (Book VIII, Chapter 3B & the essay titled “Agitation”)
  • Cohesion provides the process behind which the center of gravities of both participants in a conventional war are formed. Lack of a center of gravity would indicate the inability to win decisively, which would include the target of conventional militaries committed to unconventional/guerrilla warfare. (Book VI, Chapter 27, Book VIII, Chapter 4)
  • Cohesion is the target of strategy in that tactical success is extended by strategic pursuit in order to expand the sphere of victory and bring about the disintegration of the enemy. Cohesion links the whole sequence of decisions (contingency) that allows the political purpose to be achieved through the means of the attained military goal, that is cohesion provides the chain of decisions/outcomes that unite political purpose with strategy and strategy with tactics, or vice versa. (Books II, IV, & Book VI Chapter 8)
  • Cohesion acts within the balance of power among various states – especially in terms of interests – with an aggressor having to contend with all the other states having an interest in maintaining the status quo. This would include the tendency for Clausewitz of a potential hegemon to fail in its attempt to dominate other peer states. (Book VI Chapter 6)
  • Cohesion can also be seen has having an influence in the varying states of balance, tension and movement through which all conflicts proceed. The cohesion (moral and material forces, willingness to take risks, soundness of the military aim in connection with the political purpose, etc) of each side being relatively equal while in balance, but increasing on one side during tension until a release of the tension (attack) and decreasing again during movement until balance is once again achieved or the conflict ends. (Book III, Chapter 18)
  • At the most abstract level the concept of cohesion could be seen as providing the unifying concept which maintains the various elements (the remarkable trinity and the operating principles) of Clausewitz’s general theory as part of a whole, the fields of attraction and tension that provide the general theory with its dynamic quality. (Book I Chapter 1)

Thus cohesion can be seen as a very broad concept, but for my purpose I am using only the first point listed above. 

and later:

….The third type of theory I wish to mention is what I refer to as Clausewitz’s theory of politics, or maybe more accurately, a theory of political development, which I see as inseparable from his concept of cohesion as I described in point one above in discussing the various forms of cohesion. 

For our purposes here we are interested in Clausewitz’s concept of cohesion as it pertains to this first point, the physical and moral cohesive elements of political communities, how cohesion acts in effect as a sliding scale of ever increasing (or deceasing) concentration, integration and organization of a political community. 

This is a very useful elucidation by seydlitz89, regardless if one favors Clausewitz or Sun Tzu or is altogether indifferent to military-strategic concerns and are more interested in broad questions of political philosophy and social policy.

Furthermore, I think Clausewitz’s speculations on cohesion were, like many of his systemic perceptions in On War, remarkably farsighted and intuitively rooted in a scientific reality that was unknown and untestable in his day. The conservative and eponymous scholar, Paul Johnson noted in his book Birth of the Modern that the 1820’s represented a time of great intellectual ferment when the arts, humanities and sciences were not yet compartmentalized, professionalized and estranged from one another. To paraphrase Johnson, it was still an era when a scientist like Faraday and an artist ( probably Harriet Jane Moore) could and did have a productive conversation about the properties of light in complete seriousness. As an intellectual, Clausewitz shared that zeitgeist.

In a military frame of reference,  the concept of “cohesion” brings to mind the Greek-Macedonian Phalanx as a representative example

but the phenomena appears not merely in military tactics or in human social relations but throughout the animal kingdom. Howard Bloom, the popular science writer using a sociobiological perspective, used “Spartanism” and “Phalanx” as metaphors for documented behaviors of creatures as disparate as bacteria, baboons and hard shell Baptists. “Groups under threat, constrict” Bloom wrote in Global Brain and this characteristic of cohesion appears to apply even when the groups are not sentient. Network theorists and scientists can explain collective behavior in terms of “strong” and “weak” ties, nodes and hubs and resilience, including emergent behavior of systems are not even alive.

Cohesion is an aspect of the natural world.

A DoubleQuote for InfoCult

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

[ by Charles Cameron, cross-posted from Infocult ]

InfoCult is my friend Bryan Alexander‘s fine blog, with a house specialty of the gothic in everyday life and media.  I put this DoubleQuote together for Bryan as a sort of Addams Family greeting for Christmas:

two Christmas quotes about hell fire and vampires

Ancient Days….

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

Took the children, who had a fistful of gift cards, to Barnes & Noble’s yesterday and picked up a couple of books for myself:

   

The Spartacus War by Barry Stauss

Marcus Aurelius: A Life by Frank McLynn

The legendary slave rebellion of Spartacus has yielded a relatively thin book by Strauss but it is an opportunity for me to get a fresh interpretation of “Roman COIN” (as if Caesar were not clear enough about how Romans dealt with insurgency in his Commentaries). Marcus Aurelius too has acheived almost mythic status, the stoic philosopher-Emperor who is the gold standard to whom other rulers are compared, and frequently found wanting.

Not sure when I will get to these…into the antilibrary pile they go :)


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