Saturday, September 18, 2004

insist on the miraculous

from Contrasting Concepts of Harmony in Architecture: The 1982 Debate Between Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman, An Early Discussion of the "New Sciences" of Organised Complexity in Architecture:
Up until about 1600, most of the world views that existed in different cultures did see man and the universe as more or less intertwined and inseparable ... either through the medium of what they called God or in some other way. But all that was understood. The particular intellectual game that led us to discover all the wonders of science forced us to abandon temporarily that idea. In other words, in order to do physics, to do biology, we were actually taught to pretend that things were like little machines because only then could you tinker with them and find out what makes them tick. That's all fine. It was a tremendous endeavor, and it paid off.

But it may have been factually wrong. That is, the constitution of the universe may be such that the human self and the substance that things made out of, the spatial matter or whatever you call it, are much more inextricably related than we realized. Now, I am not talking about some kind of aboriginal primitivism. I am saying that it may actually be a matter of fact that those things are more related than we realize.
And that we have been trained to play a trick on ourselves for the last 300 years in order to discover certain things. Now, if that's true -- there are plenty of people in the world who are beginning to say it is, by the way, certainly in physics and other related subjects -- then my own contribution to that line of thought has to do with these structures of sameness that I have been talking about.

from Is it O.K. to be a Luddite? by Thomas Pynchon:
In ways more and less literal, folks in the 18th century believed that once upon a time all kinds of things had been possible which were no longer so. Giants, dragons, spells. The laws of nature had not been so strictly formulated back then. What had once been true working magic had, by the Age of Reason, degenerated into mere machinery. Blake's dark Satanic mills represented an old magic that, like Satan, had fallen from grace. As religion was being more and more secularized into Deism and nonbelief, the abiding human hunger for evidence of God and afterlife, for salvation -- bodily resurrection, if possible -- remained. The Methodist movement and the American Great Awakening were only two sectors on a broad front of resistance to the Age of Reason, a front which included Radicalism and Freemasonry as well as Luddites and the Gothic novel. Each in its way expressed the same profound unwillingness to give up elements of faith, however "irrational," to an emerging technopolitical order that might or might not know what it was doing. "Gothic" became code for "medieval," and that has remained code for "miraculous," on through Pre-Raphaelites, turn-of-the-century tarot cards, space opera in the pulps and comics, down to Star Wars and contemporary tales of sword and sorcery.

To insist on the miraculous is to deny to the machine at least some of its claims on us, to assert the limited wish that living things, earthly and otherwise, may on occasion become Bad and Big enough to take part in transcendent doings.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

hegemony or survival?

In his introduction to Noam Chomsky's essay, "The Resort to Force" Tom Engelhardt writes:
In Hegemony or Survival, Noam Chomsky suggested that our leaders, facing the choice in the book's title, might well opt for hegemony over survival. "There is ample historical precedent," he wrote, "for the willingness of leaders to threaten or resort to violence in the face of significant risk of catastrophe. But the stakes are far higher today. The choice between hegemony and survival has rarely, if ever, been so starkly posed."

Thanks to the declassification and release (by The National Security Archive) of documents related to America's first Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), developed in 1960, we now know just how true this was over four decades ago. What we know, in fact, is that our military high command had laid out, and our top civilian leadership approved, a plan for the possible launching of a first strike meant to deliver over 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets in the then-Communist world. Had all gone well, at least 130 cities would have simply ceased to exist. Official (classified) estimates of casualties from such an attack ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured -- and some military men feared that the lethal effects of fallout on the United States itself from such an apocalyptic attack might be devastating. Given the underestimation of those fallout effects at the time, such an attack might indeed have meant, in a world of bizarre imperial conundrums, hegemony rather than survival. As it happens, we've had a SIOP ever since and still have one today. But what kind of an instrument of overkill it may be remains highly classified.

From the introduction to Slow Learner:
"Our common nightmare The Bomb is in there too. It was bad enough in '59 and is much worse now (1984), as the level of danger has continued to grow. There was never anything subliminal about it, then or now. Except for the succession of the criminally insane who have enjoyed power since 1945, including the power to do something about it, the rest of us poor sheep have always been stuck with simple, standard fear.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

nixon's shadow

A Scoundrel for All Seasons, review of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image by David Greenberg:
Even among those who view Nixon with contempt, opinion varies between those who see him as a dark conspirator and those who view him as a tragic, almost bumbling figure out of his depth on so many issues.

Gravity's Rainbow, p. 617:


Sunday, September 12, 2004

the act of naming

Carolus Linnaeus, challenged by PhyloCode

From a New Scientist article, Linnean naming system faces challengers:
A band of renegade biologists is taking on a mammoth task that threatens to upset a status quo that has been unchallenged for almost 250 years. Put simply, they want to change the way scientists name every living organism on the planet. These rebels say that our system of naming plants, animals, fungi and bacteria, famously introduced by Linnaeus in 1758, is frustrating efforts to understand the living world. ....[the existing system] discourages people from naming groups as they are discovered, and thus limits the progress we can make in our understanding of how different groups of animals or plants are related to each other.

Gravity's Rainbow, p. 322:
There may be no gods, but there is a pattern: names by themselves may have no magic, but the act of naming, the physical utterance, obeys the pattern.