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We spend far too much time on content, and not enough time on form

[ 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:

Charter of Open Source Org is Classified, CIA Says

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:

Protesters calling for religious tolerance attacked with stones, threatened with death

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?

12 Responses to “We spend far too much time on content, and not enough time on form”

  1. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Charles, Your post reminded me of the passage in 1Cor 15:

    “For this corruptible must put on incorruption; and this mortal must put on immortality.
    “And when this mortal hath put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory.”

    This was the first thing I thought of when I read GEB and learned more of the concept of recursion.

    Thanks for sharing! 

  2. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    The living come with grassy tread
    To read the gravestones on the hill;
    The graveyard draws the living still,
    But never anymore the dead.
    The verses in it say and say:
    “The ones who living come today
    To read the stones and go away
    Tomorrow dead will come to stay.”
    So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
    Yet can’t help marking all the time
    How no one dead will seem to come.
    What is it men are shrinking from?
    It would be easy to be clever
    And tell the stones: Men hate to die
    And have stopped dying now forever.
    I think they would believe the lie.
    –Robert Frost, In a Disused Graveyard
    Haven’t visited the site lately, but the comment box seems a little different?  Hope those lines post as lines.
    “Content can be powerful, but form really doubles up on the power.” —or treble, quadruple, depending on your angle of view.  I have always been prone to look at poetry, when I study its effects, while considering emergence.  Sometimes the relationships are everything, the content and form merely conduits or necessary initial conditions.  Most of the best poetry synergizes all three:  There is something new emergent, it is important, but content and form work with those emergent things in what you might call recursion but which I would call successive levels of emergence extending as far up and down as any given reader is capable of experiencing it.  At this point, we begin to lose distinctions between content, form, and relationships.
    The significant, let us say the prime initial condition is the fact that our language, however prized, is grossly insufficient.  One word can have multiple different meanings or definitions, not all of which are closely related: an example of the insufficiency of language.  I’m inclined to agree w/ Nietzsche and say,
    “That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.”
    It is because of this that we depend so much on the emergence of meaning from the incidental music that is our language.  I believe that content is more fictive than form, by a smidgen.
    As for “play” and all the world being a stage:  Yes.  Performativity.  The thing most charming in Shakespeare, for me personally, is the way that he recognized the existence of performativity in everyday life and transformed his recognition into the form he used for his plays.  Why so many of Shakespeare’s characters seem more real than real life people, or jump from the page, or, as some have said, are “bigger than the plays in which they inhabit” is the fact that almost all of his characters “performs” (quite apart from the actors’ performance of those characters’ performing.)   Verse is usually a sign of conscious or semi-conscious awareness in the characters that they are performing a part; prose, a symbol of performance of which the characters themselves are typically entirely unaware—although there are a handful of characters so adept at performing, so aware of performance, that they can slip into prose in order to seem authentic.  Iago, for instance.  And, there are some who do not realize that they are merely performing in order to achieve some benefit from interaction with another:  E.g., both Romeo and Juliet even go so far as to create a sonnet together on their first meeting and otherwise use highly stylistic, lyrical verse, which is an example of young teens who have never been in love before but know from stories, fantasies, etc., how love “is” or “should be” and are subconsciously performing love.


  3. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    RE: Shakespeare’s characters.
    I should have added, the performativity within the plays is not merely related to how each character consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously performs in order to achieve an effect upon other characters.
    Also, each of the characters is an audience to the performance of the other characters.
    Thus is born manipulation, confusion, mixed signals, and so forth.  It has been said that Hamlet is the only real actor in his play or only character who has “deeds” or does deeds in the play named after him:  He is absolutely aware that those around him have been habituated to a kind of performance and are prone to interpret the performances of those around them in a habituated way (while themselves acting or performing in a habitual way.)  This is why he is so very good at manipulating them.

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    You’re saying — if I read you right — that there are more plays  within a play in Shakespeare than just the Player King’s overt “play within a play” (recursion again) in Hamlet, or the Pyramus & Thisbe play in Midsummer Night’s dream, eh, Curtis?

  5. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Hah, I had actually been thinking of those two examples, plus the even more radical Taming of a Shrew, as possible candidates for overt (and blunt) recursion.  You might even add all the many disguise scenarios as a sub-type:  Portia as a lawyer, Rosalind as Ganymede, etc.  (Sub-type because they are characters playing other characters, even if there is no overt “play.”)  Or even perhaps A Comedy of Errors, in which two sets of twins accidentally “play” each other unknowingly.
    My primary meaning however is that Shakespeare’s characters are so interesting, so lifelike, because they are shown in the process of being both actor and audience member in relation to all the other characters in the plays with whom they interact; and, because Shakespeare understood the shadings, the consequence, and so forth of this “inter-play” among them and was able to show it to us on the stage.
    Holding up a mirror to nature, as it were, or to us.

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’d added this to my previous comment, but seeing you’ve already responded to that, I’m moving it here into its own space…


    Neatest discovery while noodling around looking for “story within a story” ideas:

    In Red Orc’s Rage by Philip J. Farmer a doubly recursive method is used to interwine its fictional layers. This novel is part of a science-fiction series, the World of Tiers. Farmer collaborated in the writing of this novel with an American psychiatrist,Dr. A. James Giannini. Dr. Giannini had previously used the World of Tiers series in treating patients in group therapy. During these therapeutic sessions, the content and process of the text and novelist was discussed rather than the lives of the patients. In this way subconscious defenses could be circumvented. Farmer took the real life case-studies and melded these with adventures of his characters in the series.

    Giannini’s paper on the topic is behind a firewall.
    I’m not a great gamer — it was my utter disinterest in most games that made me come up with games of my own — but of all the video games I have played, Obsidian (with puzzles by the brilliant Scott Kim) is the one that most fascinated me — and it has at least two “games within a game” in it.

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    As to Shakespeare, Curtis, you’ve given me a lot to think about — and I probably need to go back and live in Ashland, Oregon again for a few years, and take in the Shakespeare Festival there…

  8. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Charles, that excerpt on P.J.Farmer is very interesting.  It actually caused an Ender’s Game blip in my mind, also….

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

    Say more re Ender’s Game…




    My three principal “game” books:


    Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game / Magister Ludi — the basic text of my game-thinking.

    Iain Banks, The Player of Games — brilliant, adds shadow to Hesse’s abstraction.

    Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game — game or reality? — so different, marvelous.

  10. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Ender’s Game is definitely one of the best books I’ve ever read.  Haven’t read it in a while though, which is too bad; I may have to pick it up again.
    What makes it so powerful is the use of children; but haven’t we always been told that play for children is ‘practice’ for future living?
    There is a kind of recursiveness, right there.
    “Game or reality” also gets back to Shakespeare—forgive me for being so recursive!—and his Romeo & Juliet.  I mentioned above that they are “performing love,” or, being novices, are following the forms they take to be important to expressing and sharing love, because they know no other way.  (Yet!  And, as it turns out….)  A very cool parallel in the play is the factional fighting between the two families:  We know from R&J that merely family name is not a real barrier between them; we know that the Prince, the Friar, and even to an extent the Nurse can act as go-betweens without much troubling over the family names; yet many other members of the community, most especially the young Tybalt, just can’t get over the difference.  That factional split is largely in the head, much like the love between Romeo and Juliet, and the forms Tybalt and others follow—note they are all young men—require expression, or performance in only one way:  violence.  They are performing being a Capulet or Montague.  As we see at the end of the play, in the reconciliation, that factional split was largely fictional, not a real split.  (It was a rule of the game, so to speak.)
    The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is this recognition that “a game” had been played all this time, that it was not real.  And, again, the parallel is between the factional game and the love game:  As written, Shakespeare’s Romeo dies utterly alone before Juliet wakes and dies utterly alone herself:  Their “togetherness” or love was always largely in their heads, or a game, and they ended as they had always largely been, separate.  The game/dream may have been “two become one” but they were always two, each motivated by a fantasy of love.  (This is not to say that they did not feel love; I don’t want to be a heretic!  But only that, as I see it, Shakespeare was making a critical statement about young love, or fantasy, as it sometimes takes over, and blinds those who feel love.)
    In Ender’s Game, the scenario’s handled a little differently but it’s not entirely different.  He had always been training to be a soldier.  We do find out at the end, and in subsequent books, his horror at having committed genocide—a tragedy of mistaking game & reality—but looking from the perspective of the generals, it’s possible to see something like what you described about Farmer above.  We are habituated to act, or perform, in certain ways, and those things, or that performance, can get in the way of what’s necessary.  Turning it into the game, only the essential “rules for success” might be followed (use of strategy and weaponry) without other questions of performance (“Am I a killer? If not, how should I perform, just now?”)

  11. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Come to think of it, that last could describe Wall Street.  Or is that K Street?
    Anyway, I did say it was a blip….

  12. Joseph Fouche Says:


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