Lest January escape me, time for a salvage blog post. A lot of my writing energies have gone into texts for Convivium discussions (Solstitial Matters, Word of/for the Year, Navigating the year’s challenges, Gettin’ Above Your Raisin’, or Beyond) and of course onto the ever-growing heap of yellow pads. Various affordances await my attentions (Valoi negative scanner, CZUR book scanner, a digital microscope), each bought with specific projects in mind, and because the technologies were irresistible…), and musical plots continue to hatch, as always. I’m preparing support materials for 5 of my photographs that will be in the Maine Photographers Showcase (opening in April), and navigating the flow of new books that sloshes over the threshold. And there are always new photographic forays. So: More of Same, Piles Higher and Deeper. I intend to use the blog to track such doings more assiduously, aware that the 20th Anniversary of the blog is fast approaching.
The Fourfold Root of Stoic Virtue Steven Gambardella
(not sure what to include)
Between the Bauhaus and Bell Labs David Krakauer, Santa Fe Institute
The focus on thinking with all of one’s sense and sensibility was a dominant feature of the Bauhaus, where according to the art historian Magdalena Droste, “[t]hanks to their basic training on the hand loom, however, students were equally capable of running small, artistic crafts workshops” and “A profession was thus created within the textile industry which had rarely been found before — designer.”
Between the engineering design of Bell Labs and the artistic design
community of the Bauhaus, I like to position the Santa Fe Institute. Complex systems are that special part of the universe “designed” by natural selection and self-organizing dynamics or by human collectives: organisms, ecosystems, markets, computers, and cities. And all organizations dedicated to understanding design in this larger, distributed sense have no choice but to accommodate very different styles of thought.
…Our project is a radical one, which seeks to explore the frontiers of complex reality — the garden of machines, as it were — and emphasizes the precarious balance between individual iconoclasm, communitarian vision, and creative production.
In the Western culture, thinkers like René Descartes championed the idea that our minds, distinct from our physical brains, hold our consciousness. His proclamation, “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”), underscores that our self-awareness attests to our existence.
Following him, John Locke envisioned our minds as a tabula rasa (a blank canvas), gradually painted on by our life’s experiences. Contrastingly, David Hume saw consciousness as a mixtape of sorts, a collection of different experiences and perceptions. Immanuel Kant then threw in his two cents, suggesting our minds actively piece together our experiences into a cohesive narrative.
Fast forward a bit, and we find William James, a pioneer in psychology, proposing different “versions” of ourselves within our consciousness. And who can forget Sigmund Freud? With his iconic iceberg analogy, he illustrated our mind as largely hidden beneath the surface of our awareness.
As we mull over these Western theories, the East provides its own philosophical richness.
Ancient Indian Vedantic scriptures, such as the Upanishads, emphasize the concept of Atman or the inner self, and Brahman, the grand cosmic essence. They argue for a universal consciousness, where individual awareness is but a droplet in the vast ocean of existence.
Buddhism, with its profound insights from the Buddha, presents consciousness as ever-flowing. The doctrine of Anatta or “no-self” describes our conscious self not as a fixed entity but as an evolving stream of experiences.
Chinese philosophers weren’t far behind in their contributions.
Confucius rooted consciousness in relationships, emphasizing our interconnectedness. Then we have Daoism, with Laozi speaking of the Dao, suggesting that true consciousness aligns with the universe’s rhythm.
In juxtaposing these Western and Eastern thoughts, we discern a recurring theme: Consciousness is intricate, layered, and deeply connected to our experiences, surroundings, and perhaps even the cosmos.
(2010s)…a significant paradigm shift: the car was no longer seen as just a means of transport, but as a “computer on wheels” — a data machine equipped with lidar, radar and ultrasonic sensors. These sensors collected a wealth of data about the car’s environment. Enabled with deep learning and artificial neural networks the vehicles now made real-time decisions. Many car manufacturers also rolled out data intelligence platforms to implement next-best-action systems, that also used big data and predictive models. For example, to predict when a vehicle needs maintenance or provide recommendations for route changes based on traffic data. This capability to predict and plan actions based on data led to significant competitive advantage.
This era was also characterised by breathtaking visions where we imagined a future in which people owned electric vehicles that could drive themselves and recharge themselves. These vehicles were not only to be a means of transport, but also an integral part of our energy ecosystem. They could feed surplus energy into our homes and even offer the possibility to exchange this additionally generated energy via blockchain technologies in order to earn money with it…
…For a long time, the development of artificial intelligence was mainly seen as a sustaining and iterative innovation. But suddenly this perception has changed. Now, AI is seen as having a disruptive potential that is fundamentally changing our previous understanding of what qualifies as “work” and “creativity”. Another significant change was that during the era of the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0, discussions focused mainly on the automation of factory workplaces. Now, however, the realisation begun to mature that knowledge workers could in fact be dispensable…
…Currently, a third of the world’s web traffic comes from just three companies: Google, Facebook and Twitter. At the same time, five companies — Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Meta — represent 50% of the total market capitalisation of the Nasdaq 100, a significant increase from a decade ago when their share was only 25%.
…Amara’s Law says: “We tend to overestimate the impact of a technology in the short term and underestimate the impact in the long term.”
Ambiguity Defines the Human Experience Douglas Rushkoff (from Team Human)
…we are mistaken to emulate the certainty of our computers. They are definitive because they have to be. Their job is to resolve questions, turn inputs into outputs, choose between one or zero. Even at extraordinary resolutions, the computer must decide if a pixel is here or there, if a color is this blue or that blue, if a note is this frequency or that one. There is no in-between state. No ambiguity is permitted.
But it’s precisely this ambiguity — and the ability to embrace it — that characterizes the collectively felt human experience. Does God exist? Do we have an innate purpose? Is love real? These are not simple yes-or-no questions. They’re yes-and-no ones: Mobius strips or Zen koans that can only be engaged from multiple perspectives and sensibilities. We have two brain hemispheres, after all. It takes both to create the multidimensional conceptual picture we think of as reality.
Besides, the brain doesn’t capture and store information like a computer does. It’s not a hard drive. There’s no one-to-one correspondence between things we’ve experienced and data points in the brain. Perception is not receptive, but active. That’s why we can have experiences and memories of things that didn’t “really” happen.
Our eyes take in 2D fragments and the brain renders them as 3D images. Furthermore, we take abstract concepts and assemble them into a perceived thing or situation. We don’t see “fire truck” so much as gather related details and then manufacture a fire truck. And if we’re focusing on the fire truck, we may not even notice the gorilla driving it.
Our ability to be conscious — to have that sense of what-is-it-like-to-see-something — depends on our awareness of our participation in perception. We feel ourselves putting it all together. And it’s the open-ended aspects of our experience that keep us conscious of our participation in interpreting them. Those confusing moments provide us with opportunities to experience our complicity in reality creation.
It’s also what allows us to do all those things that computers have been unable to learn: how to contend with paradox, engage with irony, or even interpret a joke. We don’t think and communicate in whole pieces, but infer things based on context. We receive fragments of information from one another and then use what we know about the world to recreate the whole message ourselves. It’s how a joke arrives in your head: Some assembly is required. That moment of “getting it” — putting it together oneself — is the pleasure of active reception. Ha! and aha! are very close relatives.
A London Review of Books post this morning points to Michael Wood’s Quashed Quotatoes (Vol. 32 No. 24 16 December 2010) and carries me off into
…Joyce alludes to Carroll, then, but already had much of his own method. It’s worth pausing over the similarities and differences between the two writers, because we may understand the difficulty of Joyce’s work better if we do — understand it better, that is, rather than diminish it. Both Carroll and Joyce are interested in puns as forms of criticism of behaviour, even portraits of behaviour’s secret life. When we learn in Alice of a school where the pupils are taught ‘Reeling and Writhing … and then the different branches of Arithmetic — Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision, we quickly translate the terms back into their ordinary classroom relatives, and then realise we shouldn’t be translating at all: it’s in their immediate, literal forms that an education is being identified…
…Carroll has a taste for sheer absurdity, the collapse or travesty of plausible meaning, whereas Joyce, as far as I can tell, wants only to multiply meanings, and believes they will never end. We might miss a few, or a lot, and he himself might not always know what they are. But they’ll be there, and some day someone will find them…
…And when Joyce recites the names of days, they too sound like many days we’ve known: ‘moanday, tearsday, wailsday, thumpsday, frightday, shatterday’. Sunday is safe for the moment; safe because unmentioned. Sometimes the transpositions are even simpler, like ‘while the sin was shining’, ‘sneeze out a likelihood’, ‘call a spate a spate’, ‘whirled without end’, or ‘the late cemented Mr T.M. Finnegan’…
…A person who has been given bits of greenery for her birthday instead of the colourful flowers she was hoping for decides to make the best of things. She says: ‘With fronds like these, who needs anemones?’…
…John Bishop, for example, says ‘the only way not to enjoy Finnegans Wake is to expect that one has to plod through it word by word making sense of everything in linear order.’ This is a brave claim, but it is true that the book is hard not to enjoy — it’s just even harder to cope with one’s bewilderment…
…’Our task,’ Kitcher says,’‘is to find a set of readings … that produce an illuminating pattern on the kaleidoscope — where the reader sets the standard for what counts as illuminating.’ …
…semantics are where most of the wordplay is, and the syntax is what provides (the appearance of) a logical structure. Joyce hints at this situation when he writes of his ‘iridated lingo’ as ‘basically English’, suggesting it’s about as far from Basic English as it could get but still thoroughly English in its basic structure. David Greetham, citing this passage, says this is how Finnegans Wake can ‘fill the reader with ideas without making every idea distinct and separable’. I have no real sense of what it means to say, ‘It’s an allavalonche that blows nopussy food,’ but I can recognise the mockery of a proverb — no, the mockery of the tiresome use of a proverb &mdash when I hear it, and it’s the syntax that allows me to do this. Apart from that we can agree that an avalanche would be a hell of a lunch, and a suitable end to a jibberweek…
…We are not only or always laughing as we attend to Finnegans Wake, but laughter is never far away. The text indulges our taste for renegade readings as well as for literal ones, and the revolt against single sense represented by every pun. But even as we revolt, and congratulate ourselves on our acrobatic associative life, something else inside the laughter, something like laughter at laughter, suggests that we may not like disorder as much as we pretend to, and that there is usually more mess in the offing than we can quite see, especially when, as in Finnegans Wake, it’s all ‘quashed quotatoes’ and ‘messes of mottage’.
What a day. And it’s only 9 AM.
Flux Jinwoo Chong
The Echo Maker Richard Powers
Harvard Square: A Love Story Catherine J. Turco
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Erving Goffman
Annals of the Former World John McPhee
Finnegan’s Wake James Joyce
The Guest Lecture Martin Riker
The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade Herman Melville
The Lichen Museum Laurie A. Palmer
Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative Peter Brooks
Wednesday evening Convivium discussions often start hares that occupy me for hours or days. And of course each hare draws one to any number of interesting rabbit holes, and so it goes. Last night, the Question was, essentially, How’s It Going?. There was much talk of disappointments and rampant commodifications, so perhaps there’s an underlying Question: Can It Be Fixed?. The answer is (generally, and often resoundingly) No. And yet we keep wanting the answer to be Yes, <== granting us efficacy in the world, having our efforts and energies mean something, and not to have been somehow in vain… and so evoking rueful reflection on naïvetes of the past…
Or perhaps (I thought to myself) it’s a matter of thinking about which windmills we’ve chosen to tilt against. That Quixotic image keeps coming up, ever since Cervantes 1604, and wants looking into as a prevailing recurrent trope. It begins in a Tale of
…striving for visionary ideals…
It didn’t take too long (just 40 years) for the windmill-tilting trope to find its way into English as a fully-fledged metaphor. A bit of googlement discovered the first occurrence, in John Cleveland “The Character of London Diurnall” (1644), in which we find
The Quixotes of this Age fight with the Wind-mills of their owne heads; quell Monsters of their owne Creation; make Plots, and then discover them; as who fitter to unkennel the Fox, than the Tarryer, that is part of him.
The Windmills now stand for
…to waste time fighting enemies or trying to resolve issues that are imaginary, unimportant, or impossible to overcome…
…the pursuit of “an unrealistic, impractical or impossible goal”…
…an exercise in futility…
See also Lehua Parker’s take
After an intense week of thinking and reading and writing about entanglement with computers, I fell to wondering about my own history of writing about things that were on my mind, and Montaigne bubbled up: I wondered if his Essays had been written for himself [they started out that way] and if it was only later that he bethought to publish them for wider readership [yes, in 1580]… and didn’t I have a Kindle book that would remind me… and sure enough I’d bought Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer in April 2011… so, worthwhile (a) to look at again, and (b) to consider the content and directions of that 11 years. It turned out to be a very interesting, worthwhile, and encouraging two days of re-reading Bakewell’s marvelous book. The structure of the book, limned by the subtitle, has chapters thusly:
- Q. How to live? A. Don’t worry about death
- Q. How to live? A. Pay attention: Starting to write Stream of consciousness
- Q. How to live? A. Be born
- Q. How to live? A. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
- Q. How to live? A. Survive love and loss
- Q. How to live? A. Use little tricks
- Q. How to live? A. Question everything: All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure about that
- Q. How to live? A. Keep a private room behind the shop
- Q. How to live? A. Be convivial: live with others
- Q. How to live? A. Wake from the sleep of habit
- Q. How to live? A. Live temperately
- Q. How to live? A. Guard your humanity
- Q. How to live? A. Do something no one has done before
- Q. How to live? A. See the world
- Q. How to live? A. Do a good job, but not too good a job
- Q. How to live? A. Philosophize only by accident
- Q. How to live? A. Reflect on everything; regret nothing: Je ne regrette rien
- Q. How to live? A. Give up control (Daughter and disciple; The editing wars Montaigne remixed and embabooned)
- Q. How to live? A. Be ordinary and imperfect
- Q. How to live? A. Let life be its own answer
And those 20 questions are potential fodder for many Convivium Questions.
The iPad Notebook of my highlightings of passages in the Kindle version captures the excitement of this reading, though any number of other stretches of the text could have been included—it’s that provocative a text.
And yes, it feels that my own writings are of the same allusive and digressive (not to say wandering…) ilk, such that a Project of attending more closely to Montaigne seems delicious to contemplate. So I’ve queued up several resources to hear, read, and enjoy exploring:
Jane Kramer’s New Yorker profile (Sept 7, 2009 and I recall reading it at the time)
Cotton/Hazlitt 1685/1877 translation of the Essays
from the Preface:
He was, without being aware of it, the leader of a new school in letters and morals. His book was different from all others which were at that date in the world. It diverted the ancient currents of thought into new channels. It told its readers, with unexampled frankness, what its writer’s opinion was about men and things, and threw what must have been a strange kind of new light on many matters but darkly understood. Above all, the essayist uncased himself, and made his intellectual and physical organism public property. He took the world into his confidence on all subjects. His essays were a sort of literary anatomy, where we get a diagnosis of the writer’s mind, made by himself at different levels and under a large variety of operating influences.
Montaigne’s times were in some ways not so very different from our own (France riven by religious conflict and inept government; physical danger from various marauders, including epidemic disease and the unpredictable thrashings of victims of structural inequalities, and uncertainties about the future), despite the vast gulf of differences in technologies that 440 years presents. The wonder of Montaigne’s essays [and it was he who coined the term ‘essai’…] is that they speak so clearly across that gulf, and have done so pretty continuously for all that time. Cotton’s translation of 1685 is still readable, and there’s a long-running Montaigne Industry, which charts a history of extremely varied readings and fashions and emphases (all ably and amusingly tracked by Bakewell).
Has it really been a month since the last blog post? Of course lots of stuff in that time, books arriving and being wolfed down and at least partially digested, various end-of-year summings-up, and the plunge into 2022. Staying home, minimizing f2f encounters, watching It All Go Down.
Preparations for the weekly Convivium have supplanted blogging to some degree, and
tell the tale of my wandering attentions pretty well.
By way of paying attention to the world outside the many comforts of home, I’ve been following Heather Cox Richardson and Umair Haque, both sort of paywalled (or anyhow I’m not sure if hyperlinks to their posts on Substack and Medium are readily accessible), and both painting not-rosy pictures of what’s just around the corner.
Reacquaintance with Borges reminded me yet again of the charms of his Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, and The Library of Babel (see Jonathan Basile’s obsession: The Library of Babel and about The Library of Babel) … and if the Work itself is unknown to you, there’s a pdf available). Among the additional resources I’m now navigating, The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel (William Goldbloom Bloch) and The Cambridge Companion to Jorge Luis Borges (Edwin Williamson)
…and then consult The Aleph (pdf), when you’re ready for the next thing… Hell of a ride. I’ve just ordered The Total Library : Non-Fiction, 1922-1986, so The Future Is Assured for the rest of January. And of course other things will appear, seemingly out of nowhere.
I resolve to start building my very own Lifebox, inspired by Rudy Rucker’s The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, The Meaning of Life, And How to Be Happy. Well, I’ve been building it all along, but the project longs to have its own dedicated (hyper)space.
A bit more than a month since my last post here, and 2 1/2 yellow pads of notes to oneself and transcriptions of trenchant passages from the still-growing mountain of books I’ve been in and out of as I work on library re-organization and explorations of subjects I’ve defined via explorations past and present. The Auxiliary Library in the barn has been the primary locus, warmed by the sun in the mornings and equipped with reasonable music-playing apparatus (though soon to be upgraded), and the succession of interests mostly traced on those yellow pads. If I leaf through them, here’s what I find:
- Didascalicon (Convivial digression on a patron saint)
- The Biography of a Pixel (Alvy Ray Smith):
slow going, dense, essential
- Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books (Georges Perec):
a nudge to my impish side
- To Serve Them All My Days:
nostalgia, comfort reading
- Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury (Evan Osnos):
- Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest
- Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Timothy Morton):
revisited, resumed reading
- Wallerstein on the world-system The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century:
first bought in 1985; 3 succeeding volumes
- Barkskins (Annie Proulx):
started to re-read
- Red Rubber, Bleeding Trees: Violence, Slavery, and Empire in Northwest Amazonia, 1850-1933 (Michael Stanfield):
looking on the shelves for something on rubber
- Economic Annuals and Human Cultures (Oakes Ames) 1939:
the oldest on the shelves on economic botany
- Sixteenth-Century North America: The Land and the People As Seen by the Europeans (Carl Sauer)
- Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary (Stewart Brand):
in answer to the question what’s the most recent I have by Stewart Brand
- The Atmosphere as Circulatory System of the Biosphere: The Gaia Hypothesis (James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis) 1974:
united again with really portentious article and set of ideas
- The Theory of Island Biogeography (Robert H MacArthur and Edward O Wilson):
a classic pulled off the self and puzzled over, via Elizabeth Kolbert
- Diet for a Large Planet: Industrial Britain, Food Systems, and World Ecology (Chris Otter):
- Landmarks (Robert Macfarlane):
- The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination (Richard Mabey):
- Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco, and the Pursuit of Knowledge (Jeremy Narby):
via a reference in Mabey
- Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Sven Beckert):
bought in 2015, just devoured
- A World-Systems Reader (Thomas D. Hall) 2000:
wondering what’s the latest I have on world-systems
- A World in Crisis? (R Johnson, PJ Taylor) 1986:
chapters on world-system analysis
- The World-System and Africa (Immanuel Wallerstein) 2017:
Wallerstein’s last, collecting earlier papers
- The Fragmented Forest: Island Biogeography Theory and the Preservation of Biotic Diversity (Larry D. Harris) 1984:
answers the question where did Island Biogeography go?
- Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy: A Study of the Asian Opium Trade (Carl A Trocki):
This Is Your Mind on Plants (Michael Pollan):
(consulted re: opium)
- The Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World (Neal Stephenson):
NB the explanatory material accompanying each volume
The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Amitav Ghosh):
an Indian Ocean view
- The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (Amitav Ghosh):
- Orwell’s Roses (Rebecca Solnit):
I’d read anything she wrote
- World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Immanuel Wallerstein) 2004:
concise introduction to the framework and approach
- The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (David Graeber and David Wengrow):
long awaited, quite amazing
Photography: The Definitive Visual History (Tom Ang):
- 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Charles C Mann):
picked up again and starting to re-read
That’s a pretty varied ramble and doesn’t include the various miscellany I’ve tossed into Zotero, which are awaiting examination
A couple of days ago I happened upon Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books (Georges Perec). Since I’ve been working on Arranging in the Auxiliary Library in the barn for at least a month, it seemed a no-brainer to order. And today along comes email from John-the-son asking about the Nexial Institute, which several of us [consider that we] invented and elected ourselves to in about 1973. His question:
So I’ve always assumed that this idea had some particular vision or principles behind it, but I also get the impression it may have been a joke. Perhaps both.
Have you done any writing about what was or was not within this set of ideas? I figured this included several others from … grad school days? Or early Acadia?
Did you ever do anything formal with this Institute? Or particular ideas that propelled the conservations surrounding it?
I’ve got queries out to the original perpetrators (Kent, Shel, Mom) and I’ll be interested to see their takes. For me the Significance of the Nexial Institute has remained …well… Significant, and I’d even claim that everything I’ve done since 1973 is somehow rooted in the basic notions of everything connected to everything, of Systems, of the Dynamical. But I suppose it was basically a joke, or perhaps more accurately a Joke.
Kent’s response fingered the origin of ‘Nexial’ from A.E. van Vogt’s sci-fi The Voyage of the Space Beagle, which I don’t think I have ever read (and so have ordered…). Wikipedia:
The main protagonist of the novel is Dr. Elliott Grosvenor, the only Nexialist on board (a new discipline depicted as taking an actively generalist approach towards science). It is Grosvenor’s training and application of Nexialism rather than the more narrow-minded approaches of the individual scientific and military minds of his other shipmates that consistently prove more effective against the hostile encounters both from outside and within the Space Beagle.
And here’s John’s response to my response:
Got it… But did it have as a part of the germ, the inversion of all that complexity, of the observer influencing what was observed, and of the realization that follows that your every intention, conscious and otherwise, is responsible for influencing the “outside” world, just as it is imperfectly creating the illusion of that objectivity within consciousness, replete with ungraspable biases? The unknown knowns that constrain our very conception of what is possible and real? Oh, the paralysis that comes from that realization of interconnectivity, when you realize that every yarn you pull at will bring worlds crashing down and others springing into existence, barely or not even perceptible. The only ways forward I perceive from there is either to blindly follow the habituated momentum (karma) that was put into place before such a realization until the yawning chasm of awareness undilates again, OR fall into nihilism OR to consciously create an intention (art?) which requires an underlying faith that it will come about, and that circumstances will co-incide to bring it about, if the intention is aligned across consciousness, and circumstances will throw cascading obstacles if the different levels of intentions are incoherent or at cross-purposes?
um… probably, what with the amount of consciousness-expanding consumption that was going on?
So this comes from the “duh” perspective of yes, “yeah sure, dad” everything is connected “so what?”
So there’s the next Challenge, unpacking all of that. At the moment, all I have to contribute is the conviction that “a lot of my present-day library could be woven in”, and some photos of a few shelves from the barn to suggest some of what I can draw upon:
(Those categories are approximate and partial and provisional…)
It’s been a busy fortnight of explorations:
- journal excavations re: computing and various watershed events since 2013, brought up to 2020
- reading George Dyson’s Analogia: The Emergence of Technology Beyond Programmable Control (2020) and dipping into his earlier Darwin among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence (1997) and Baidarka: The Kayak (1986)
- reading Rudy Rucker’s Nested Scrolls: The Autobiography of Rudolf von Bitter Rucker, which nudged me into The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, The Meaning of Life, And How to Be Happy (which is much less whifty than the subtitle might suggest)
- following up on a mention of Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History (second edition, 2013) for last week’s Convivium Question
- watching Fantastic Fungi and vowing to revisit Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, which I inhaled as text and Audible last summer
- etc. …
And then yesterday along comes email from John the Son with this challenge:
On the subject of cats in Sarawak, have you read [Paolo Bacigalupi’s] ‘the windup girl‘ it’s very evocative and the GMO cats are everpresent. I’m very curious of your perspective on this vision of southeast Asia in the somewhat near future. And of the tensions between the Malay and Chinese immigrants that are cited as a brutal(future) history in the book.
I remember you saying that each of the four groups thought the others were disgusting for different reasons: the Muslims, the Chinese, the Malay and the westerners…
into the answer of which is packed a vast morass of entangled Information. I did read The Windup Girl when it first came out, then passed the book along to my (much-missed since 2016) friend Hutch (whose Thai connections were deep), so I snagged it via Kindle and am reading it again to see what I might have thought before and what I think now.
John’s question dropped me right into Professor mode, to wrangling what I “know” and/or what I have thought I knew over a broad canvas, thinking about what I’d have to weave into any …explication… of the dimensions of a satisfying answer to the question. That’s great sport, in which I’ve lived for a good 55+ years—and which I should have lived in those 60 years ago days of Harvard /opportunities/, but needed then to (a) invent for myself, and (b) develop the requisite background to begin to practise. And of course I’m still learning how to do those things, and how to think about them.
That’s true for all of my Entanglements with subject matter
- The Computer
- curiosity [about things not already listed…]
…and so I’ve been exploring the Southeast Asia territory of my mental and bibliographic Catalog, to figure out how to set about providing enough of the relevant background to make a sensible answer (i.e., to Inform the Others Against Their Will). There’s a sequence to the exposition, starting with physical geography, ecology, at least a millennium of human demography, and then finally history… covering the whole of what JOM Broek has summarized as
an area of transit and transition … [with a long history of] foreign intrusions … culturally a low-pressure area … recipients rather than donors of culture … ethnic and political fragmentation—a kind of Asian Balkans.
There’s plenty to quibble over in that summary, but it serves to indicate the diversity that has to be accounted for, understood, and fairly characterized.
That’s a term-long class to even contemplate. But wouldn’t it be fun to … no, it wouldn’t, or rather YES it would but only in the imagination. No names, no pack drill, no papers to write and read, no grades to turn in.
So here’s the first page I wrote:
The first thing I’d say is how arbitrary the national boundaries of Southeast Asia are [essentially colonial legacy] and how complex ethnic identities are within each of the current-day nations. Labels like ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’, ‘Thai’, ‘Burmese’, ‘Indonesian’ project an image of homogeneity within the labels that is at best false-by-oversimplification. There’s an interesting analogy to explore in the shadow theatre so widespread across Southeast Asia; another is the music of gongs, present everywhere as shimmering sound, but in both cases built on illusion: the shadows of the puppets are insubstantial, flickering, turned into narrative by the words of the puppet-master storytellers; the striking of gongs rendered musical and comprehensible as evanescent layers each of which is a pretty simple repetition of a pattern. Somewhere under those visual and aural realizations is a profound syncretism of … Hindu and Buddhist influences, Muslim notions, a Western European and Colonial imposition of “order”, bits of Chinese high and low traditions … and all of that overlaid on a persisting base of indigenous animisms—enormously complex worlds of spirits and ghosts and shamanic manipulations. Add a murky history of trade and gene flows, and natural and anthropogenic ecologies, and human entanglement with plant and animal life, and rising falling seas. And make it equatorial, and subject to annual monsoon/dry cycles…
And there you have the stage set. For next class, please read………
(at least two classes on rice… and there’s rubber… and oil palm… and and and)
and so on.