The hissing link: Art, maths and infinity

Inside every idea is the seed of its own undoing. This is obviously quite depressing but it’s also interesting – it’s where artists live. ‘What’s the painting that can’t be painted?’ they think. ‘What’s the book that can’t be written?’ Beneath this the metaphysicians take over: ‘What’s the word that can’t be said?’ And before that, long before, we might imagine a Palaeolithic figure tripping on the greenest shoot of this idea, finding himself blinking into the great conceptual abyss: ‘What’s the thought that can’t be thought?’

This is admittedly a fringe problem, unhelpful for the task of spearing mammoths or finding the freezer aisle. But it becomes much more immediate when we hit on an idea which is made entirely of it, which is by definition indefinable. Things get truly hairy when this ineffable thought is also one which everyone everywhere seems to have, as if we’ve been built to contain an unresolvable error, a kind of philosophical auto-destruct.

This is troubling, but, being a perverse sort of species, we just worship it until it seems normal. We might call our Palaeolithic man’s new idea the Beyond, but it’s better called infinity. He reached infinity merely by taking small blocks of language and shunting them around in what is essentially a procedure of logic, and it’s useful to bear this in mind when thinking of the large and magical things that here emerge. We might imagine him rephrase his thought – ‘What’s the thing which I can’t see or hear, but which is nonetheless a thing?’ – and come up with gods.

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The Universe (which others call the Library)

Erik-Desmazieres-Library-Babel

An Erik Desmazieres illustration of the Library

Out among the labyrinthine digital bookstacks of the internet, there are many pages concerning ‘The Library of Babel’. Jorge Luis Borges’s famed short story has after all ensnared plenty of imaginations in its many (many) rooms since publication in 1944. These pages may be snappy wild-eyed entries on long-discarded blogs or fuller and ponderous articles bedded in obscure online journals – there is plenty of each – but they generally revolve around a relaying of the principles of the library as set down by Borges. Scrolling through the pages gives a sense of there being something meditative in simply sitting and copying the principles out, as if those few simple lines are the formula by which the whole cosmos blooms and in repeating them one might briefly grasp it.

In this way, the writers of these pieces are the wandering librarians, chanting the majesty of this idea which has got in them like a Gregorian ear-worm. I won’t pretend that I’m any less a zealot of this order, but I will here attempt to give what they generally forgo, which is firstly a look at where the library (henceforward capitalised, as only the truly cosmic deserves) is from in terms of a history of ideas; then a description on more mathematical terms of what the Library might look like; then a probably foolhardy attempt to unravel the nature of the awe and terror we feel when imagining the Library, and which keeps us wandering back through its boundless and amazing nonsense.

But first, as is customary, a prayer.

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Architecture, determinism and feelings

In a world of political ambiguities and blurry-eyed predictions over where this or that path might take us, there is something of which we can be sure: dystopia is bad.

mega-city-one-from-dredd

Dredd, 2012

But wait, might one not hold a certain perverse admiration for the logistical trophy of a smoothly run authoritarian superstate? That despot’s nightmare won’t dream itself into being; it requires draughtsmen and model-makers, high-viz surveyors unfolding theodolites on parkland that will soon be bunker-citadel to the Ministry of Feels. Spare a thought for these servants of Oceania, of the World State, of Mega-City One, who (under immense pressure) get their heads down and get the job done. It’s a rare discipline which can maintain political neutrality while the population is forced to slavery, wired into machines, and finally reduced to a nutrient-rich paste. Continue reading

The Wasteland: A cultural stroll through Fallout

‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’

‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust,’ said TS Eliot in his murky epic ‘The Waste Land’. And up flew the howls of decades of literature students who felt this fear acutely, truly living the apocalypse of Eliot’s words – because exams were soon and they had no idea what he was on about.

One wonders if teachers wouldn’t better spend their time venturing into the wastes to scrawl phrases from the poem on the flanks of grey overpasses, on buildings with yawning empty windows, on pylons rising over dead fields. No need for students to dig among the poem’s endless obscurantist references then; they would see the lines and landscape and get it instantly – because they had always known it.

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The everythingness of lists

There are many ways to clear a kitchen of party guests, but professing a love of lists is surely one of the quickest.

This is a shame, because lists are not simply about order (I say as Party Guest #1 finishes insulting the host with fridge magnets, sidles for the door); lists, and especially fictional lists like the examples on the right, demonstrate a very particular kind of chaos.

Their practical origins can’t be denied, of course. The earliest known writing is in the form of lists: tablets of Sumerian accountancy (Party Guest #2, himself an accountant, racks up ancient symbols on a dinner plate, nods eagerly). Lists were the dawn of literacy, for the first time allowing thoughts to amass beyond any single thinker and feed into a collective intellect. Lists are the vessel of knowledge.

First, Moloch, horrid king, besmeared with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parent’ tears;
…………………………………………………………
Next Chemos, the obscene dread of Moab’s sons,
From Aroer to Nebo and the wild
Of southmost Abarim…
…………………………………………………………
With these came the, who, from the borderingflood
Of old Euphrates to the brook that parts
Egypt from Syrian ground, had the general names
Of Baalim and Ashtaroth…
…………………………………………………………
Belial came last; than whom a spirit more lewd
Fell from heaven, or more gross to love
Vice for itself…

Paradise lost
John Milton

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Lego logic: Building fantasy and sci-fi

Philosopher of science Karl Popper claimed in the 1930s that, as long as a scientific theory’s predictions of a given thing correspond to observations of the thing, then the theory can be called good – but no theory can be called absolutely true. This is because there will always remain the possibility that a future prediction may one day fail to correspond to what’s observed. And when it does, you have to modify the theory or start again.

This annoyed scientists, who in the way that one might be perturbed by a weird uncle have been known to hold a certain distrust for philosophers, their beardy forebears. But after a while this idea of Popper’s, ‘falsifiability’, became an accepted tempering of the more traditional assumptions on scientific truth. That is despite its most troubling implication that, as Stephen Hawking puts it, ‘Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it’.

And, as a physical theory can’t be anything more than a hypothesis concerning the world, it’s similarly notable that art can’t be more than a representation of the world: a theory may reflect every observation, an artwork may make you bawl like a severed water main, but neither is the thing itself. Their methods are different but there’s something shared in their inevitable failure to become their subjects, their reaching outwards while looking inwards.

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The politics of the superhero

Captain Zarathustra, who is the superhero I’ve invented for the sake of this paragraph, is a big-hearted altruist who’s not afraid to take what’s his. By day he moves invisibly among us disguised as a Persian mystic, preaching of good and evil and the cosmic balance between them; by night he preaches nothingness and the Self, gilded and rising above the slurry of humanity around. ‘You could say he’s a man of contradictions’ is the phrase I’ll use when pitching to Time Warner. Also he’s a self-made billionaire industrialist who can solve problems with economic might as well as physical – the full spectrum – though when the situation calls for it he’s not hesitant to unleash his signature move, the ‘eternal recurrence’, wherein he punches his adversary in the face lots of times. His endearing weakness is syphilis.

By Liam Brazier (similarities to Italian futurism are coincidental (probably))

Captain Zarathustra, or ‘Cap’, as he will be known, depending on the trademarks Marvel holds around Captain America, is, if I’m honest, not hugely original. He’s an individualist with limited respect for government; his superiority to you is innate; he loves personal freedom and societal justice, and is not interested in how one may at times complicate the other; to make an omelette he can and will crack a few eggs, which is to say he is very violent. He is a superhero and he is the dominant mode of our big-money big-audience cultural product of the last 15 years. We pay to see him again and again, and so he represents us.

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Patricide 7: Surrinema

The latest and sadly final issue of Patricide was released at the end of 2014. As ever it features a fantastically varied bevy of realia, from film scripts to photography to essays, this time on the theme of surrealism’s influence on cinema. Having emerged at a similar time, the two things in a way shared an adolescence and by all accounts were a right pair of reprobates.

Inside is a short story from myself about the final moments of poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who had a habit of speaking prophetically about everything he looked at, including surrealism (a term he coined) and those strange moving picture shows which were becoming so popular. There are pieces by maverick artists and thinkers in there – and it includes a free DVD video!

 

Surrinema

 

Dark Windows Press, publisher of Patricide and other great books, is unfortunately no more. But in typically enigmatic fashion it may be morphing into something else. As to what, who could say. Surrinema was recently spotted in the Tate Modern bookshop.

Who watches the Watchmen?

Fiction is a dictatorship. Don’t think it’s not. It’s watching you, even right now. Full stops check your pace as you shuffle along its lines – an en-dash prodding you along when you’re losing interest; sometimes a semi-colon, the Gestapo of punctuation, arrives to quietly order things, make detailed lists, bump off a wayward interpretation. Think that lines of text are gateways to another world? They’re work-queues, patrolled by gas-masked commas, to the mill of forced comprehension.

But we love it so it’s fine. This is the key to a successful dictatorship: it keeps us safe from our own thoughts. We’re given everything we need. We can see it all, it says, this whole little universe, so it’s hard for us to know that fiction, taking us along line by line and word by word, only permits us one path along which to look. Real life isn’t like this. We can look in all sorts of directions and perceive and miss all sorts of things. Surely fiction which is in some way able to address this formal absence in novels would be of unique value…

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A defence of Synecdoche, New York, or, Art as devouring world-monster

Synecdoche, New York was released in 2008. By all fiscal accounts it was a massive failure while critically it was as divisive as they come, summiting a good number of top-such-and-such film lists of that year yet elsewhere dubbed obscure, pretentious, and more or less just a gluey collage of impenetrable scenes featuring arbitrary words spoken by characters it’s impossible to care about.

The story, here synopsised without mercy, is that of Caden Cotard, a small-time theatre director in Schenectady, New York who is wracked by unusual ailments and an unravelling marriage, not to mention a head injury suffered through an exploding tap. His wife takes a trip with his daughter to an exhibition of her tiny paintings in Berlin and amid his confusion over her continued absence he wins the MacArthur Genius Grant, using the prize money to begin work on a larger play of his own creation. As his grip over time, memory, and bodily functions gets worse, the play grows in scale and convolution: scenes from his memory are reconstructed as sets; actors are hired to play people he knows; actors are hired to play the actors playing people he knows. It grows to a magnitude such that the lines are blurred between his life and what he’s created to represent his life.

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