[ by Charles Cameron — recursion as form — this one’s for analysts: poets should know it already ]
We spend far too much time on content, and not enough time on form.
We spend far too much time on the data, and not enough time on relationships. It is pattern that connects the dots with accuracy, not more dots – quality of insight, not quantity of information.
And pattern is underlying form.
Haiku is a form. The sonnet is a form, the sonata is a form. And just to juxtapose sonnet and sonata is to recognize the formal relationship between them.
Recursion is the form that Doug Hofstadter explores in his book, Godel Escher Bach, and you’ll find it every time one mirror reflects another mirror (what color does a chameleon turn when placed on a mirror?), every time there’s a doll inside a doll inside a Matrioshka doll, often in the form of a paradox (“this sentence is meaningless”) – and when people take photos of themselves holding photos of themselves…
as in the pic of Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle and (in case your politics doesn’t agree so much with Chomsky) the one below them of Jacob Appelbaum and Donald Knuth in my “specs” image at the top of this post.
Content can be powerful, but form really doubles up on the power. Here’s one way of thinking about it: form is what tightens information into meaning.
A couple of news reports in the last couple of days have caught my attention because of their form:
Open Source Works, which is the CIA’s in-house open source analysis component, is devoted to intelligence analysis of unclassified, open source information. Oddly, however, the directive that established Open Source Works is classified, as is the charter of the organization. In fact, CIA says the very existence of any such records is a classified fact.
“The CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request,” wrote Susan Viscuso, CIA Information and Privacy Coordinator, in a November 29 response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Jeffrey Richelson of the National Security Archive for the Open Source Works directive and charter.
“The fact of the existence or nonexistence of requested records is currently and properly classified and is intelligence sources and methods information that is protected from disclosure,” Dr. Viscuso wrote.
This is a surprising development since Open Source Works — by definition — does not engage in clandestine collection of intelligence. Rather, it performs analysis based on unclassified, open source materials.
That’s hilarious, it’s so misguided: I don’t know whether to laugh or barf (not a word I ever expected to use in my writings, but there you go).
That’s sad, this one’s just plain tragic:
Police are investigating a violent attack on a ‘silent protest’ calling for religious tolerance, held at the Artificial Beach to mark Human Rights Day.
Witnesses said a group of men threw rocks at the 15-30 demonstrators, calling out threats and vowing to kill them.
One witness who took photos of the attacked said he was “threatened with death if these pictures were leaked. He said we should never been seen in the streets or we will be sorry.”
Killing your enemies for reasons of religion is one thing: killing those who work for peace between you and your religious enemies is no worse of the face of it – it’s religious killing, no more and no less, in both cases — but it drives the point home with considerable, poignant force.
Keep your eye out for recursion, it’s an interesting business. And respect form – it empowers content.
You’ll find recursion right at the heart of Shakespeare: his plays were performed in a round theater (the “wooden O” of Henry V) called the Globe, whose motto was “totus mundus agit histrionem” – roughly, “the whole world enacts a play” – a notion which Shakespeare put into the mouth of the melancholy Jaques in As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…
A martial version of this idea, indeed, can be found in the philosopher Plotinus, who wrote in his Enneads (3.ii.15):
Men directing their weapons against each other — under doom of death yet neatly lined up to fight as in the pyrrhic sword-dances of their sport — this is enough to tell us that all human intentions are but play, that death is nothing terrible, that to die in a war or in a fight is but to taste a little beforehand what old age has in store, to go away earlier and come back the sooner. So for misfortunes that may accompany life, the loss of property, for instance; the loser will see that there was a time when it was not his, that its possession is but a mock boon to the robbers, who will in their turn lose it to others, and even that to retain property is a greater loss than to forfeit it.
Murders, death in all its guises, the reduction and sacking of cities, all must be to us just such a spectacle as the changing scenes of a play; all is but the varied incident of a plot, costume on and off, acted grief and lament. For on earth, in all the succession of life, it is not the Soul within but the Shadow outside of the authentic man, that grieves and complains and acts out the plot on this world stage which men have dotted with stages of their own constructing.
I thought it would be interesting to see if recursion had power, too, in the field of religion, and this passage from Ephesians (4.8) sprang to mind…
When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men…
That’s a lovely recursion, “leading captivity captive”. But I think we can go deeper. John Donne‘s sonnet Death be not proud reaches to the very heart of the Christian message, it seems to me –it parallels the passage from Ephesians closely, while focusing in on the hope of resurrection with its stunning conclusion:
Death, thou shalt die.
Here’s the whole thing: profound content in impeccable form:
Death be not proud
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
What do you think?