Earnest and Bogus have been away on a Guitar Heroes and Other Musical Influences field trip, an effort to summarize my own musical history, which remains a subproject “Under Construction” in perpetuity, but has for the moment stabilized enough to feel distributable. I’m plunging back into the larger project of corralling Nacirema musics, but also being diverted into exploration of thousands of downloaded video clips.
I awoke thinking about Material and Immaterial Touchstones, and about Touchstones as property, as fungible, as shareable.
Becoming slightly more lucid, after first sips of coffee, I wondered why would it occur to my semi-waking mind to even consider Touchstones as legal entities, as assignable property? Aren’t they imagine-ary? Creations/creatures of the mind?
And by then fully awake, I realized that Touchstones are ways that the mind notes and labels Significance, such that one can make a mental map of things that matter, tantamount to personal wampeters
Reminder from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963):
a wampeter is the pivot of a karass,
“a central element around which a karass
is formed, which can be practically anything:
a tree, a rock, an animal, an idea,
a book, a melody, the Holy Grail”
And just to remind anyone not with the Program already,
a karass is “a network or group of people
linked in a cosmically significant manner,
even when superficial linkages are
A quick Google search for ‘karass’ gets 225,000 results, of which the third is my own 2004 explication, which is a subpart of something I wrote 16 years ago to the bloody DAY, and still find a clear and relevant summary, despite a few rotten hyperlinks! YCMTSU, folks.
I’m finding Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures to be another of those mind-bending immersive reads, right up there with Powers’ Overstory and Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind and Popova’s Figuring and Macfarlane’s Underland in sheer power as a mind expander. I’m reading and listening both (Kindle and Audacity), and finding the two modes of access to the text to be synergistic. Yesterday I read the chapter about lichens, and wrote down some thoughts not-irrelevant to the Question of Questions that Puzzle and Inspire:
We habitually take some things to be stable, to be established fact: the Big Dipper is a Structure in the Firmament, a north-pointing icon for humanity throughout the northern hemisphere … and likewise we have the conviction (from high school biology) that a lichen is “a fungus and an alga” in simple symbiosis. These are both ‘true’ and ‘untrue’ when examined/questioned beyond the simple versions.
The Big Dipper is only a “structure” in our collective Mind’s Eye, as viewed from our terrestrial perspective. The component Stars (Alioth, Dubhe, Merak, Alkaid, Phecda, Megrez, and Mizar) are vast 3-D and 4-D distances apart, and are, as we experience their placement, only temporarily conjoined as a part of the “constellation” we name as Ursa Major (in a few million years they will seem to drift off in different directions).
And research in the last 5 years or so has established that lichens are far more complex than that cartoon of a ‘simple’ fungus/alga symbiosis, and involve co-symbiont bacteria and viruses as essential components. “We have yet to find any lichen that matches the traditional definition of one fungus and one alga” is how one lichenologist summarizes the current thinking.
This shouldn’t be a surprise, given the common knowledge that our own bodies contain symbiont bacteria (and viruses, come to that), and the insight usually ascribed to Lynn Margulis [who was married to Carl Sagan, once upon a time (1957-1964)] that eukaryotic cells are the evolutionary product of symbiotic mergers of bacteria (“…the theory that cell organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts were once independent bacteria…”). Once a Heresy (“Your research is crap, do not bother to apply again”), this idea is now regarded as Fundamental, having been conclusively demonstrated in the early 1980s via DNA evidence.
Some highlighted passages from Sheldrake:
LICHENS ARE PLACES where an organism unravels into an ecosystem and where an ecosystem congeals into an organism. They flicker between “wholes” and “collections of parts.” …
Lichens are a product less of their parts than of the exchanges between those parts. Lichens are stabilized networks of relationships; they never stop lichenizing; they are verbs as well as nouns …
lichens don’t contain microbiomes. They are microbiomes, packed with fungi and bacteria besides the two established players.
“The human binary view has made it difficult to ask questions that aren’t binary,” he explained. “Our strictures about sexuality make it difficult to ask questions about sexuality , and so on. We ask questions from the perspective of our cultural context. And this makes it extremely difficult to ask questions about complex symbioses like lichens because we think of ourselves as autonomous individuals and so find it hard to relate .”
…it is no longer possible to conceive of any organism—humans included—as distinct from the microbial communities they share a body with. The biological identity of most organisms can’t be pried apart from the life of their microbial symbionts.
the study of symbiosis reveals that life is full of hybrid life-forms, such as lichens, which are composed of several different organisms Indeed, all plants, fungi, and animals, including ourselves, are composite beings to some extent : Eukaryotic cells are hybrids, and we all inhabit bodies that we share with a multitude of microbes without which we could not grow, behave, and reproduce as we do.
Continuing some of those thoughts, and encountering others:
The world with which we are entangled is not and has never been STABLE, nor has it been on some Whiggish trajectory toward improvement, let alone progressing toward any goal that we can conceive. And we are not the “Crown of Creation” except in our own Narcissistic reflected vision. So how shall we come to see ourselves as part of, as actors within, the vast terrestrial webs of Life? Our prime relationship to that complexity seems to be HUBRIS, acting on the basis of a tacit conviction that we are the Crown of Creation, and that the rest of Life is somehow our servant, subject to our command.
Via science, we’ve sought to unravel the complexities, to learn how Life works. And the further into the mysteries we proceed, the greater are the complexities we encounter. And the greater are the consequences of our hubris.
Sometimes Life deals out corrective lessons, and COVID-19 is a current example, the personal and societal and global consequences of which are only beginning to unfold—and it’s just a dress rehersal for The Big One, which will surely arrive but in what guise we can only guess.
So a perennial question for me concerns Entanglement, its complexities, dimensions, opportunities: how to map, engage with, appreciate, enjoy, traverse…
With respect to activities of the moment, but metaphorically extendable: we put seeds into the ground and await germination, but really it’s much more than that. The plant has to develop relationships with mycorrhizal fungi IN the soil in order to thrive. Mutualisms emerge which we neither see nor control.
This doesn’t need an answer so much as it focuses one’s attention on what the Mind is doing, is working upon in the background of consciousness. Thus, it makes a good Question for each of us to consider and perhaps respond to in the familiar idiosyncratic and free-associative fashion. Consciousness is always busy processing sensory input, appreciating the seen and heard and felt and tasted. But what’s going on beneath? Are the three wonderments described below the SAME in some sense? Are they all entangled in the perennial Question of how complexity and dynamical systems work, perhaps? We are clearly off the fairway, into the weeds, the rough, the unknown. Where I love to be wandering, if the truth be told.
So here’s a sketch of my own current state, made up of Questions emerging from the stimuli that have drifted across the bow in the last few days. We can begin with the observation of many many thousands of tiny orange ants in the soil I’ve been sifting from the sod that was stripped from the garden space. What, we wonder, are they doing? Where do they fit in? Is there some mutualism with the co-occurring worms, and/or with unseen other somethings? How could we learn more? [partial answer: a soon-to-arrive Field Guide to the Ants of New England].
A second element is this video of “7 levels of jazz harmony”:
And a third element in temporal conjunction with the two above is the just-published and just-arrived (via Kindle and Audible) Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake [who is, remarkably and synchronistically enough, the son of Rupert Sheldrake, of Morphic Resonance fame], which I started to read this morning.
Here are the passages I highlighted as I read the Introduction, to illustrate my habitual process of collecting bits of aide mémoire, breadcrumbs along the pathway:
Introduction: What Is It Like to Be a Fungus?
…[mycelia] weave themselves through the gaps between plant cells in an intimate brocade and help to defend plants against disease .
Mushrooms are a fungus’s way to entreat the more-than-fungal world, from wind to squirrel, to assist with the dispersal of spores, or to prevent it from interfering with this process.
Mycelium describes the most common of fungal habits, better thought of not as a thing but as a process: an exploratory, irregular tendency.
Unsustainable agricultural practices reduce the ability of plants to form relationships with the beneficial fungi on which they depend. The widespread use of antifungal chemicals has led to an unprecedented rise in new fungal superbugs that threaten both human and plant health. As humans disperse disease-causing fungi , we create new opportunities for their evolution.
…many fungi can live within the roots of a single plant, and many plants can connect with a single fungal network. In this way a variety of substances , from nutrients to signaling compounds, can pass between plants via fungal connections.
Tricked out of our expectations, we fall back on our senses. What’s astonishing is the gulf between what we expect to find and what we find when we actually look.
Many scientific concepts—from time to chemical bonds to genes to species—lack stable definitions but remain helpful categories to think with.
There was something embarrassing about admitting that the tangle of our unfounded conjectures, fantasies, and metaphors might have helped shape our research. Regardless, imagination forms part of the everyday business of inquiring.
…wondered what it was like to be a fungus. I found myself underground, surrounded by growing tips surging across one another. Schools of globular animals grazing—plant roots and their hustle—the Wild West of the soil—all those bandits, brigands, loners, crapshooters. The soil was a horizonless external gut—digestion and salvage everywhere—flocks of bacteria surfing on waves of electrical charge—chemical weather systems—subterranean highways—slimy infective embrace—seething intimate contact on all sides.
I’ll also point to an article in this week’s New Yorker, The Secret Lives of Fungi by Hua Hsu, which references Sheldrake and also Anna Haupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, which I read with great pleasure last summer.
Today is Kate’s 50th birthday!
(see a Flickr album)
My life seems to be a long series of fascinations, sometimes discrete and self-contained, but often braided and intertwingled with one another. They seem to come out of Nowhere, but of course there’s always some grit-in-oyster provocation, which I can only occasionally reconstruct once the pearl has begun to take shape as a new fascination. The last few months have seen a joyous succession, beginning with explorations of pareidolia in November 2019 [though off and on for at least the last 5 years], which led to discovery of Roger Caillois, and thence [not quite sure how] to an immersion in Walter Benjamin in December 2019, and to Maria Popova’s Figuring in January 2020, and to explorations of my library of word books in February and March, which may or may not have sparked a diversion to Georges Perec, which then seems to have led to what has become a continuing bout with Oulipo (and OuXPo extensions), especially via Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, which provoked a reading of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler… and so it goes.
It’s worth wandering into the lexicographical weeds to record the history of the Ouvroir [which I gloss as ‘Workshop’] in Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, as summarized in the [just-arrived] OULIPO: A Primer of Potential Literature, Warren Motte’s anthology of translations of oulipist texts:
…an ouvroir—a word that has fallen into disuse—once denoted a shop and, as late as the 18th century, a light and mobile shop made of wood, in which the master cobblers of Paris displayed their wares and pursued their trade. The word could also denote that part of a textile factory where the looms are placed; or, in an arsenal, the place where a team of workers performs a given task; or a long room where the young women in a community work on projects appropriate to their sex; or a charitable institution for impoverished women and girls who found therein shelter, heat, light, and thankless, ill-paid work, the result of which these institutions sold at a discount, not without having skimmed off a tidy profit, thus depriving the isolated workers of their livelihood and leading them (as it was charged) into vice. Later, and for a short time only, ouvroir denoted a group of well-to-do women seeking to assuage their consciences in needlework for the poor and in the confection of sumptuous ecclesiastical garments. Curiously enough, it was this last notion, the “sewing circle,” that prevailed in the minds of the Oulipians: just like those diligent ladies, Oulipians embroidered with golden thread… (Noël Arnaud’s Foreword to Motte, pg xii)
The lexical playfulness of Oulipo is what attracts me most (despite the lamentable impenetrability to me of the French texts), and what connects me to offshoots (or Potential offshoots) like OuPhoPo (Photography) and OuMuPo (Music). As Raymond Queneau put it,
The word ‘potential’ concerns the very nature of literature, that is, fundamentally, it’s less a question of literature strictly speaking than of supplying forms for the good use one can make of literature. We call potential literature the search for new forms and structures which may be used by writers in any way they see fit. (Arnaud again, pg xiii)
This exemplifies the OuMuPo connection:
Probably one of the craziest improvisation that we ever recorded. It was the last track we played during a week long session. We threw all the rules into the wood stove and blew out the windows. Robert Kehler came up with the title. But in fact, we do believe that children SHOULD be exposed to this sort of music, and especially the ones that are studying in conservatories…
Elsewhere I’ve noted my personal entanglement with OuPhoPo, to which constructions like this advance my claim:
A hiatus from word book blogging, brought on by garden construction labors and the arrival of the 55th Class Report (Harvard Class of 1965). The latter has provoked quite a lot of thought about How Things Are Changing, abetted by various RSS feed incomings, the April 13th issue of the New Yorker, and assorted free-association mindstorms. The Leitmotif seems to be
(the text for which is here)
In this week’s New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl’s Mortality and the Old Masters, a reflection mostly upon his recent re-encounter with Velásquez’s “Las Meninas”, is particularly trenchant and apposite to questions of ?what’s next? and how shall we think about (and think about thinking about) that.
(and see the Wikipedia article)
This sort of reëvaluation can happen when events disrupt your life’s habitual ways and means. You may be taken not only out of yourself—the boon of successful work in every art form, when you’re in the mood for it—but out of your time, relocated to a particular past that seems to dispel, in a flash of undeniable reality, everything that you thought you knew. It’s not like going back to anything. It’s like finding yourself anticipated as an incidental upshot of fully realized, unchanging truths. The impression passes quickly, but it leaves a mark that’s indistinguishable from a wound. Here’s a prediction of our experience when we are again free to wander museums: Everything in them will be other than what we remember. The objects won’t have altered, but we will have, in some ratio of good and ill. The casualties of the coronavirus will accompany us spectrally. Until, inevitably, we begin to forget, for a while we will have been reminded of our oneness throughout the world and across time with all the living and the dead. The works await us as expressions of individuals and of entire cultures that have been—and vividly remain—light-years ahead of what passes for our understanding. Things that are better than other things, they may even induce us to consider, however briefly, becoming a bit better, too.
The 55th Class Report entries were composed in Fall 2019, and disclose a panoply of personal tragedies, observations on the Present as it seemed to be in late 2019, hopes and plans for the coming years, and reflections on the Harvard experience we shared all those years ago. My own augmentation of the printed submission updates to the present.
Whatever else happens, all sorts of the taken-for-granted will be no more. Hand-shaking, for instance. The Curtsy may return, granting unexpected salience to this bit of the Downton Abbey Movie:
Stuff keeps washing up along my personal tidelines, some of it simple flotsam or jetsam, some of it elements in evolving sculpture and macramé, some of it of indeterminate utility. It All Counts, as my mentor Allen Smith said of the work of the Reference Librarian.
Two cases in point, the first an enduring puzzlement reeled in and partly digested a few months ago, the second a new discovery this morning, via a posting to The WELL’s State of the World (Paulina Borsook) which seems to make sense of the first:
- Timothy Morton’s
Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World
“…Global warming is perhaps the most dramatic example of what Timothy Morton calls ‘hyperobjects’—entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place… concepts such as world, nature, and even environment are no longer a meaningful horizon against which human events take place. Instead of inhabiting a world, we find ourselves inside a number of hyperobjects, such as climate, nuclear weapons, evolution, or relativity. Such objects put unbearable strains on our normal ways of reasoning.Insisting that we have to reinvent how we think to even begin to comprehend the world we now live in, Hyperobjects takes the first steps, outlining a genuinely postmodern ecological approach to thought and action…”
- Force Majeure at UC Santa Cruz
Nature’s economic system stores the energy that it does not immediately need
mostly in carbon formations
Nature does not charge a profit as do culture’s economic systems
All natural systems are dissipative structures with individuals that form them living,
reproducing then dying with indeterminacy as a norm
All natural systems have learned to nest within each other, and, within a context of
symbiosis contribute to collective systems survival, sometimes with abundance
Human constructed artifacts particularly legal, political, economic as well as
production and consumption systems seek constancy but are often in violation of the
laws of conservation of energy pointing toward systems entropy
Working out the implications, awaiting the next tide…
I seem to be running into more and more instances of eloquent now-just-hold-on criticism of technological triumphalism, indeed seeing them wherever I turn: the finishing a few days ago of Adam Greenfield’s Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life [really cheap ($2.51) as a Kindle ebook…], an article in The Guardian recently on the decline of retail jobs (End of the checkout line: the looming crisis for American cashiers), and then via my RSS feed from O’Reilly, Fredrik deBoer’s post Study of the Week: Of Course Virtual K-12 Schools Don’t Work. All of these have the same basic caveats about the smoke and mirrors of the digital world, and similar warnings about trafficking with the ogres who lurk behind the curtain.
Another instance, via long-form journalism in the [unfortunately paywalled] London Review of Books 17 August issue, is John Lanchester’s You Are The Product, which reviews three books (Wu’s The Attention Merchants, Garcia Martinez’ Chaos Monkeys, and Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things), and is mostly concerned with the evolution of Facebook. An especially trenchant bit:
…even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens… its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality.
My years as a librarian and early adopter of emergent technologies more or less ended when I retired in 2005, and I’ve been pretty choosy about entanglement with the subsequent social media silos—no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. Flickr yes, because it offered an easy means to store and distribute photographic images (but one dreads what Verizon might do with the product). And I’ve been blogging since before instantiation of the term ‘blog’ (I called them ‘logfiles’ and used them to keep track of and distribute my various projects). I like to control and manage my own digital real estate, and pretty much everything I’ve done in the last 20+ years is tucked away somewhere at http://oook.info/, including the self-hosted WordPress blog in which I’ve been tracking my doings [somewhat fitfully] for 13+ years.
For me, the epiphanic enabling technology was hypertext, and I’m still back somewhere in the 90s in terms of my sophistication with html. Basic html has served me well as a means to construct and distribute documents, to who-knows-what audiences. And, fact is, I don’t really care much about the scale and scope of Audience; the stuff is out there to be discovered via Google and Internet Archive, and linkable by me whenever I want to pass something along to one of those like-minded others. I’m content to be little-known.
Which is a long way of saying that I want nothing to do with thefacebook, with its fatuous likes and insidious back-end data mining. I won’t claim consistency in re: the latter, since I’m happy for Amazon to send me stuff I want via Prime, and to bewilder Google with off-the-wall searches that they can’t possibly monetize. But for Facebook, it’s the Nancy Reagan option: Just Say No.
I really admire Andy Ilachinski’s photography, and often enjoy the enlightenments of quotations he pairs with images in his Tao of Digital Photography blog. This morning’s Schopenhauer passage projected me into a 3-way conjunction with a deceased wombat and a decaying stump:
…All the events in a man’s life accordingly stand in two fundamentally different kinds of connection: firstly, in the objective, causal connection of the natural process; secondly, in a subjective connection which exists only in relation to the individual who experiences it, and which is thus as subjective as his own dreams, whose unfolding content is necessarily determined, but in the manner in which the scenes in a play are determined by the poet’s plot….
This morning I happened to learn that Patrick the Wombat had expired in Ballarat, probably around the time I discovered Patrick’s visage at the dead center of a tessellation of an elm stump at Horton Landing, Nova Scotia:
(zoom in to inspect the visage more closely here)
For the last few days I’ve been transfixed by a skein of mysteries connected to a grave site in Père Lachaise:
The questions at issue have changed as I’ve excavated bits of fact and built new conjectures from successive discoveries, and I need to go beyond the summary I’ve been writing for the currently-under-development v2.0 of Remembered: a graveyard book v1.0. The actors in this particular drama are:
- Clara Elizabeth Peabody Bancroft (1826-1882), the lady of the statue
- Edward Payson Bancroft (1823-1865), her husband
- Elizabeth Bancroft Tyszkiewicz (1857-1883), their daughter (also known as Klara Elżbieta Tyszkiewicz – Łohojska)
- Count Benoit [Benedyk Henryk] Tyszkiewicz (1852-1935), husband of Elizabeth Bancroft Tyszkiewicz
- their children Benedykt Jan Tyszkiewicz (1875-1948), Edward Tyszkiewicz (1880-1951), and Elizabeth Marie Tyszkiewicz Plater-Zybeck (1882-1969)
- …and several other relatives of the above
The dates of death of the first three are the armature of the unfolding saga: it seems that Edward and Clara Bancroft were touring Europe in 1865, when Edward died in Naples (of what we don’t know, but he was subsequently interred in Mount Auburn cemetery). Clara herself was a wealthy widow when she died in Paris in 1882, and her daughter Elizabeth inherited a bundle but died in Switzerland in 1883, but (according to the plaque on Clara’s monument) her last wishes were that her mother’s tomb include a statue depicting her strewing roses:
Son gendre et ses petits enfants pour accomplir les dernières volontés de sa fille la comtesse Tyszkiewicz ont élevé ce monument témoignage d’un vieux souvenir
Her son-in-law and grandchildren, to fulfill the last wishes of her daughter the countess Tyszkiewicz, have raised this monument in witness of an old memory
The very opulence of the statue is reason enough to inquire further, but it’s as difficult to know where to start as when to stop the inquiry. Among the questions that arise (and that Google isn’t quite helpful enough with): how did Clara Peabody (a daughter of a mildly distinguished New Hampshire family) and Edward Bancroft (a very young Boston “broker”, possibly of stocks but maybe of Civil War-era cotton) meet and come to marry? What made the considerable fortune that Clara Bancroft inherited on her husband’s death? How did their daughter come to meet and subsequently marry a very young Polish count? Of what did the Countess Tyszkiewicz die (possibly TB? or some after-effects of the birth of her daughter?) and where is she buried? What happened afterwards in the lives of the Count and his children? How did the Count’s estates fare in the catastrophes of 20th century Poland?
As I’ve said in Remembered, this is all the stuff of a story that might be written by Somerset Maugham or Saki, and just the sort of digression that I’m susceptible to. Along the way I’ve been enticed into exploring the worlds of 19th century Polish nobility, Civil War banking in Boston, naval architecture (the Count commissioned the construction of a moderately famous yacht), sugar beets (the Count was evidently deeply involved in their cultivation on his estates in the 1890s), lawsuits (the three Tyszkiewicz children attempting unsuccessfully to get at the principal of their grandmother’s trust fund, of which they were the beneficiaries), and the online versions of the Almanach de Gotha. Each of those raises more questions than it answers, and a passage I read just this morning seems especially trenchant:
Archeology is always an encounter between a fixed past and a shifting present; we bring to it our fantasies, prejudices, and predilections—this year different from last year, next year different again. (Charlotte Higgins, New Yorker blog, 3 June 2016)
The trouble, or perhaps it’s the wonder, or the joy, is that pretty much each photograph in Remembered inspires or demands similar searchings and findings. That being the case, the revision of Remembered is proceeding more slowly than I’d wish.