I have been reading, Q2 2013

New Zealandish propaganda about New Zealandish propaganda (1917)

"Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling - for as soon as the mind responds, connects with the thing, the feeling shows in the words; this is how poetry enters deeply into us. If the poet presents directly feelings which overwhelm ... they cannot strengthen morality and refine culture, set heaven and earth in motion and call up the spirits!"

– Wei Tai (C11th)

Was in a sciencey mood. (This makes my ravishing encounter with Rorty - the greatest of the irrealist literary crusaders - more notable still.) Science is most easily taken in via sweet funny geeks - so I returned to scifi for the first time in years. Poetry overtook me mid-May. Been active, but the increase in reading is really just redistribution, taken from my crash news diet and cutting down on my beloved web aggregators (3QuarksDaily, Wood S Lot, and Arts & Letters Daily). Some long gushes here; forgive.

1/5: No.
2/5: For enthusiasts, I guess.
3/5: Skim it.
4/5: Read it receptively.
4*/5: Amazing, but probably only the first time through.
5/5: Read it now, slowly, and probably repeatedly.
TBC/5: I don't have the evaluative tools for this (yet?).

  • Read aloud: Trial of the Clone (2012) by Zach Weinersmith. Super-fun choose-your-own-adventure book. It's a satire of Star Wars and classic scifi, your character's greed and passive aggression matched only by his/her incompetence. Bellylaughed a lot, which is unusual for me. Sometimes the gags fall back on scat when it gets tired of mocking religion, but I mean that in the best possible way.
    4/5. [Read twice, one and a half hours each]

  • Mogworld (2010) by Ben "Yahtzee" Crowshaw. Similar to Trial, this is a pop-postmodern treatment of its genre's conventions, for fantasy: it's self-aware videogame NPCs living and suffering in an uninspired swords-n-sorcery MMO. The parts where the characters begin to realise that the gods are incompetent nerds are my favourite. It doesn't have the vitriol of his famed game reviews, but the ending is suitably brutal, and there is a sad tension throughout (the protagonist repeatedly and sincerely asks to be killed) which elevates things a bit.
    3/5. [4 hours, lightly]

  • Thinking About Texts (2001) by Richard Hopkins. Just an A-level English textbook, with good, long extracts and scrupulous presentation of alt perspectives. English students at my university were taught very little Theory indeed - and while this made discussions much less pompous, they were also kinda toothless. Without theory, the subject "English" has little to distinguish it, being as it is just an odd dilution of philosophy tied to narrow history of ideas with sprinklings of sexy concepts from newer humanities (e.g. Media studies, Race studies, Queer theory, Area studies). Anyway: tutorials would have been less unbearable if this book had been ubiquitous.
    3/5 (4/5 for culture people.) [6 hours]

  • Venus in Exile: the Rejection of Beauty in C20th Art (2002) by Wendy Steiner. Warm, masterful. Main thesis is that beauty and women were so intertwined a hundred years ago that Modernism was essentially misogynistic - in form, as well as just in its practitioners. Furthermore, that this misogyny, as part of a wider smashing of old things, was key to feminism finally breaking out and establishing new options for women. Convincing.
    4/5. [5 hours]

  • Key Concepts: Gender (2006) by Tina Chanter. Annoying: conventionally unconventional, dogmatically anti-dogmatic. I've been looking for a good introduction to give to Questioning friends. This is not that. (Is it a coincidence that the best popularisers - Paglia, Greer, Moran - are all highly problematic feminists?) It manages to make the most exciting parts of current feminism - standpoint theory, Calhoun's post-deconstruction ideas - sound dull, dense and theoretically empty, as if it were the same kind of navel-gazing theorism as the hyperinflated Althusserian-Foucauldian stuff. (To be fair, any overview has to cover French theory, because that's what our counter-gender people have actually been up to for decades. But not necessarily with this much blind acceptance.) You get the impression that the only progress in feminist thought is in calling your predecessors timid or bigoted - JS Mill calls out the Victorians, Okin calls out JS Mill, Butler calls out Okin, Wittig calls out Butler, and then Calhoun calls Wittig heteronormative(!). The book does give a breakdown of French feminism in slightly less abstruse language, and goes through all the Waves, including the intentionally confused interference-wave that is pomo-poco gender studies. And it's brief.
    2/5. [3 hours]

  • Turn Off Your Mind (2003) by Gary Lachmann. I'm a sucker for this book's thesis: that Charles Manson, Scientology, and Altamont were not horrible subversions of the 60s' ideology - but its logical conclusion. The book's a series of pop history lessons, and is in fact a bit too full of sections like: "...and then Ram Dass went to India and met Guru McFamous who also knew Bastard McProfound who was notorious for writing a best-selling book of consciousness revolution and being racist for kicks". A fairly clear-eyed account of a bunch of fucking creeps who still have cultural capital.
    3/5. [3 hours, very lightly]

  • Audiobook: The History of Philosophy without Any Gaps (2011-3) by Peter Adamson. Ongoing series of free podcasts. It's mostly introductory, the standard readings plus the odd surprising debunking (e.g. "Heraclitus is not a philosopher of chaos"). Not a massive amount of women here, even given that he's going through the Medievals and Islamic Golden Age atm. (Hypatia? Arete? Heloise? Hildegard of Bingen?)
    3/5. [30 hours with my ears]

  • Conundrum (1974) by Jan Morris. "I was three or perhaps four years old when I realised I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. It is my earliest memory." Memoir by our first trans national treasure. (Even the Daily Mail said:
    A compelling and moving read, a world away from the tabloid titillation that normally surrounds the subject.
    !!) Her:
    I see now that, like the silent prisoners I was really deprived of an identity... I realize that the chief cause of my disquiet was the fact that I had none. I was not to others what I was to myself. I did not conform to the dictionary's definition - 'itself, and not something else'.
    While it's technically detailed - dealing with the nittygritty of eight years of medical tourism, voice training, colleague adjustment, and a compulsory divorce from her wife - it leaves lots about the subjective experience of crossing unanalysed. Which is both fine and disappointing.
    4/5. [3 hours]

  • Map and Territory (2010) by Eliezer Yudkowsky. Manifesto for LessWrong's radical empiricism, and a genuinely good intro to epistemology (and formal epistemology) to boot. Being a tricksy wishywashy philosophy student, I unfortunately can't follow them in stamping Bayesian-Quinean realism as The straightforward answer to everything (as he says, "the simple truth"), but I admire Yudkowsky's hard-headedness, technical creativity, and style a whole lot.
    4*/5. (LessWrong is reliably between 3*/5 and 5/5.) [2 hours.]

  • Capitalist Realism (2012) by Mark Fisher. Short book by one of Britain's premier net intellectuals, trying to demystify the Hegel/Baudrillard approach to society, existence, and pop culture. He is humane, focussing on why we might think we need these Theorists, and he does well to handle critical theory without the field's usual airless, salacious presumptiveness. But it's still logic chopping without the logic. YMMV.
    3/5. [3 hours. (Short; not simple)]

  • The "Transcendental Analytic" (1787) by Immanuel Kant. Difficult, flashy apodixis. His arguments are gappy; prose awful; goals anyway radically different from mine (he wanted certainty, exhaustiveness, the establishment of free will at any metaphysical cost: a.k.a. submission). NB: The Analytic is only about 1/8th of his Critique of Pure Reason. I don't doubt that there's enough subtlety and complexity to spend a career reading him. I just doubt there's world enough and time for me to return for the rest.
    2/5. [14 hours, including modern help.]

  • Anglo-English Attitudes (2013) by Geoff Dyer. Stunning bunch of 3- or 4-page essays. Often on French or Italian figures or places (Althusser, Cartier-Bresson) or unusual objects of aesthetics (Action Man). What we call "research" is just incidental to Dyer - glittering coincidences and correlations fall into his lap as he sets about reading, apparently, everything. 
    4/5. [2 hours, skipping some of the French ones]

  • Read aloud: Until Before After (2011) by Ciaran Carson. Solemnly blatant. Plainly good. 157 unpunctuated sentence-poems, each poem holding maybe three jarring, run-on thoughts. It's melancholy, about loss, time and rhythm, but present itself as neither pitiful nor gnostic. It's really difficult to parse, but you don't resent that. There's a shout-out to China Miéville in the back, which is mad! because these poems are stylistically nothing like Miéville's clotted, neologistic prose. There are maybe 2 words less than a hundred years old in the whole book ("credit card"). Closer inspection. 
    4/5. [Twice = 2 hours]

  • Hijack Reality: Deptford X (2008) by Bob and Roberta Smith. Aggrandised history of a cute London art festival he helped found. I'm not much into zany free play atm. Art, as an institution, seems much more hollow and ritualistic than it recently did. Which leads me to wonder: am I on the CP-Snow-seesaw? Does my current enthusiasm for science mean I must gain some contempt for arts? (Art might be the proper home of structuralist waffle - being, as it sometimes is, a floating system of signs with no correspondence or weight.) Anyway, this gets an extra point for being starry-eyed and democratic - too rare in art.
    3/5. [< hour.]

  • Read aloud: Aphorisms (1838) by Napoleon Bonaparte, compiled by Honore de Balzac. Not very good, mostly. He's obviously truly independent - e.g. there's lots of praise for Muhammad here, lots of fearless anticlerical scepticism, lots of examination of despots. He's not coherent at all - he's both an anti-intellectual "man of action" and a shiny-eyed Enlightenment rationalist; Machiavellian bastard and Aristotelian virtue-seeker; imperial elitist and populist revolutionary. Consider: Napoleon caused the deaths of between 3 and 7 million people (i.e. 0.5% of every person alive at the time), imposing significant effects on almost the entire world - and he's a very average writer. Read him next to Nietzsche, who plausibly never harmed anyone in his entire life, but whose writing stills scorches and stuns us. (This gets better when we remember that Nietzsche considered Napoleon one of a handful of people who have been truly 'great'.) Charitable reading: We happen to have caught up with Napoleon's thoughts, but not with Nietzsche's.
    2/5. [1 hour] Some good lines that don't depend on their speaker being extraordinary for impact:
You never climb that high unless you do not know where you are going.

Politics - which cannot be moral - is that which must make morality triumph.

Superstition is the legacy left by one century's clever people to the fools of the next...


  • The whole of the Open University course MST209. I am a really bad student. I am just promising enough, just engaged enough for my laziness and bluffing to be actively shameful rather than a mere sad fact. (I expect glory regardless.) This course is obviously as abstract as can be, but the occasional human fact still breaks in - e.g. when the anonymous author(s) complain about the chilling effect Christianity had on the development of probabilistic reasoning. This is funny. I excuse my own lack of drive here.
    2/5. [60 hours, including ratiocination.]

  • Read aloud(!): Perdido Street Station (2000) by China Miéville. Enormous steampunk social commentary dressed in gorgeous nasty prose (think Nabokov on America). This is ethical science fiction. His dank, evil city, 'New Crobuzon', is a dark mirror of Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork (itself a funhouse mirror of Elizabethan London) without its animating sense of fun and justice. Instead, it has fearsome class consciousness; satires on academic, tabloid and political speech, misogyny, and the deeply tainted political economy of science/capital/government.
    Its substance was known to me. The crawling infinity of colours, the chaos of textures…each one resonated under the step of the dancing mad god, vibrating and sending little echoes of bravery, or hunger, or architecture, or argument, or cabbage or murder or concrete across the aether. The weft of starlings’ motivations connected to the thick, sticky strand of a young thief’s laugh. The fibres stretched taut and glued themselves solidly to a third line, its silk made from the angles of seven flying buttresses to a cathedral roof.
    What I take to be the central metaphor: one of the oppressed races are found to have a native power - the 'potential energy of crisis' - which, with a scientific harness, could revolutionise the world: i.e. Classical Marxism. Our heroes are not especially heroic. In the face of The City, no one has all that much power.
    4*/5. [22 hours, because spoken]

  • The Marxists (1962) by C Wright Mills. I take this to be a fair appraisal of the development of the great opposer. Book is mainly extracts from brilliant, now-obscure theorists and commentators (e.g. Kardelj, Luxembourg, GDH Cole). Mills is anti-Stalinist and anti-McCarthyist - i.e. he took what we now take to be the only virtuous path through the marsh of the day - which required considerable bravery and fairness (as the respective failures of Orwell and Sartre on the matter show). The chapter on "How Not to Criticise Marxism" is amazing, distinguishing types of Marxist that people still confuse these days. He died just before publishing this, thus missing the great wave of neo-idealism from Frankfurt, a wave that more determines the character of today's radical Left than the classical economics detailed herein. He prepared the ground, but would not be one of them.
    4/5. [5 hours, some skipping.]

  • The Rorty Reader (2009) by Richard Rorty. Epochal, encompassing, uplifting. I've been in love with the idea of Rorty for years. (He is: the renegade Analytic, the outrageous unifier, the literary soul, the pessimistic utopian, the great puncturer, and the bravest postmodernist by far - because he just comes out and says it, bites the bizarre bullets.) He is illuminating about philosophy of mind, poetry, foundationalism, the public/private divide, feminism, America, MacKinnon, Derrida, Davidson, and Dewey (obv), among lots of other things. One can usually taste meanness in postmodern writing - stemming, I suppose, from our sense of being hopelessly undermined by it - but never in Rorty. I found this really hard going - I've been reading it since January - despite his being utterly clear, original and sometimes funny.
    5?/5. [Long. 40 hours?]

  • Surface Detail (2010) by Iain 'M' Banks. Meditation on consequentialism and moral progress, only more fun than that sounds. ("Consequences are everything.") I'm a big fan of his Culture novels, but this is only good. Spends 300 pages setting up its thirteen protagonists into like seven plot threads. As a result, he has to repeat a lot of exposition to keep us - including, in one instance, a full page of quoted dialogue which we'd heard 50 pages back. Oddly simplistic despite its fifth-order intentionality, then. Surface Detail fills out some of the mechanisms and organisation of the Culture; throws his usual bucket of ideas at the plot (graphic descriptions of Hell, a first-person account of an aquatic, hair-thick species, an extended section in a Medieval convent) and keeps a good amount of tension and mental strain going. Good, full of simple dramatised philosophy.
    4/5. [6 hours]

  • Matter (2008) by I M Banks. This entry's mostly set on a C17th world, the rest given over to barely interesting galactic politics. The Culture novels feel free to wave away technological plot devices with talk of "energy grid!" or "nanotech!", but Banks shows off hard-scifi cred here, giving a few lovely, moving images based on meteorology and astrophysics. A scathing note on the current-affairs blogosphere:
    A rapidly expanding but almost entirely vapid cloud of comment, analysis, speculation and exploitation...Welcome to the future, she thought, surveying the wordage and tat. All our tragedies and triumphs, our lives and deaths,our shames and joys are just stuffing for your emptiness.
    Ending is good and brutal, made me stop and infer for ten mins afterward. So, yeah, Banks has been playing the same "ooh, neo-colonialism", "ooh, consequences", "ooh, angst in utopia" note for a while. But it's a good note.
    3/5 for a 4/5 series. [5 hours.]

  • Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner (1987) by Alistair Reid. So beautiful: set of long essays punctuated with poems. He's a poet, Hispanicist, translator and long-time New Yorkerer. He was right there when the Latin American lit boom began, giving Neruda a home in London - mates with Marquez, insofar as anyone is. I like his prose even better than his excellent poems.
    Foreigners are, if you like, curable romantics. The illusion they retain, perhaps left over from their mysterious childhood epiphanies, is that there might somewhere be a place – and a self – instantly recognizable, into which they will be able to sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh. In the curious region between that illusion and the faint terror of being utterly nowhere and anonymous, foreigners live.
    I love him for his scepticism about identity - the piece on returning "home" to Scotland is great because of his distance from it. "Scotland":
    It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
    when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
    and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
    Greenness entered the body. The grasses
    shivered with presences, and sunlight
    stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
    Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
    the woman from the fish-shop. ‘What a day it is!
    cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
    And what did she have to say for it?
    Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
    as she spoke with their ancient misery:
    'We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!
    5?/5. [3 hours]

  • Desperate Characters (1970) by Paula Fox. Amazing, portentious realism. Wife: "Oh, never mind what I say." Husband: "I don't and I can't." Fox draws intense, evil significance out of ordinary irritations (a cat bite, a smashed window, a feud at work) - as we do when at our lowest. It's dark without being Gothic; apocalyptic without melodrama; heartbroken without self-pity. On a hospital waiting room:
    It was a dead hole, smelling of synthetic leather and disinfectant, both of which odors seemed to emanate from the torn scratched material of the seats that lined the three walls. It smelled of the tobacco ashes which had flooded the two standing metal ashtrays. On the chromium lip of one, a cigar butt gleamed wetly like a chewed piece of beef. There was the smell of peanut shells and of the waxy candy wrappers that littered the floor, the smell of old newspapers, dry, inky, smothering and faintly like a urinal, the smell of sweat from armpits and groins and backs and faces, pouring out and drying up in the lifeless air, the smell of clothes... a bouquet of animal being, flowing out, drying up, but leaving a peculiar and ineradicable odor of despair in the room as though chemistry was transformed into spirit, an ascension of a kind...
    The quiet, careful way that every character is sketched in their paranoia is convincing, and unnerving. Sure, it's about upper-middle class people's pain, but that's still pain. The least tractable kind, in fact.
    4/5. [4 hours]

  • Stuff White People Like eBook (2010) by Christian Lander. Didn't really get the point of this. It mocks a certain small, ridiculous group - C21st upper-middle-class lefty American hipsters -and sets them up as the whitest people in the world. I'm in the same boat as the author - white guy liking "white" things (The Wire, green tea, public transport, Europe) and worrying that this marks my participation in class trends that exclude people. I also share his contempt of people with contempt for practicality. So this is, I suppose, a handy guide to the fads of a certain group of middlebrows in our particular cultural moment. Insofar as it encourages actual class consciousness among alt.consumerist hipsters: hooray. Insofar as it sneers at trends that actually could change the world if adopted en masse (e.g. vegism, bikes, talking about diversity, engaging with foreign art), boo. 
    2/5. [1 hour.]

  • An Embarrassing Book Title (2010) by Tim Ferriss. Hodgepodge of extreme, supposedly scientific Pareto "lifehacks" for: rapid weight-loss, lazy bodybuilding, polyphasic sleep blah, regeneration from chronic injury, DIY female orgasm therapy. (One of the worst tropes in reading culture is the stupid presumption that to read something is to approve of its contents. So, I feel bound to mention that I'm not interested in the stats-obsessed quasi-pro-ana muscle busywork this book centres around; I don't like his Silicon Valley technicism either; his conspicuous consumption of medical attention is risible ("Just $3800 four times a year for this battery of vanity tests!"); as is his desperate name-dropping self-promotion.) Came across it in the course of my new favourite hobby: grazing on other peoples' Kindles. Ferriss has a ... creative grasp of biochemistry, and his brute lack of self-doubt lets him be productively provocative (e.g. "I do not accept the Lipid Hypothesis of cardiac disease"; "DO NOT EAT FRUIT"). He quotes heavily from more expert people, and he does do everything he advocates. The main advantage of him is that he is fearless about ridicule, actually following what he sees as the evidence. Thus there's a long section on the bodybuilding potential of vegetarian diets - which got him lots of scorn from the meathead-o-sphere - as well as an idiosyncratic list of the substrates that vegists are often missing. (Boron, anyone?) Alongside the unreflective drive to thinness, his most telling concern is his fixation on testosterone and morbid fear of infertility. So I scoffed at his fear of phones irradiating his testicles - but there actually is reason to think so. Less annoying than your average loud guru pseud.
    3/5. (1 hour, lots of skipping - which he actually explicitly recommends.)

  • Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy. Say it is 1985 A.P. (After Peckinpah). How can anyone write anything new about poor white psychopaths in the hot rural places of Victorian America? The answer turns out simple: just have prose so tight and freshening - a jet hose comprising one-third Bible, one-third Emerson, one-third Ballard - that you again uncover the  elemental bones of the Western. Also savagely de-emphasise your characters. Place them in enormous, indifferent vistas; give us no inner monologue - nor even indirect report of subjective life; have no speech marks to set their words apart from the landscapes (do not draw the eye to their presumed humanity); have no apostrophes, no hyphens even, lest we remember; have as few names as possible, leave them as types - "kid" or "captain" or "mexican" or "brave"; set their incredible violence among such vast places it looks like little; have few capital letters but for God's. Lock your readers out; make everyone and everything opaque. (As he says himself:
    In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence.
    These cowboys and injuns punctuate the beautiful land of Central America with hanged babies; rings of decapitate heads; a four-eyed dog; a man calmly eating his own shit; endless thirsty hallucinogenic despair. This is exhausting, quite hard to read:
    All night the wind blew and the fine dust set their teeth on edge. Sand in everything, grit in all they ate. In the morning a urinecolored sun rose blearily through panes of dust on a dim world and without feature. The animals were failing... That night they rode through a region electric and wild where strange shapes of soft blue fire ran over the metal of the horses' trappings and the wagonwheels rolled in hoops of fire and little shapes of pale blue light came to perch in the ears of the horses and in the beards of the men... the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.
    (As well as this Nabokovian trudge through the middle section, McCarthy sometimes steers close to the comical with sentences like "Itinerant degenerates bleeding west like a heliotropic plague.") A typical human interaction in this book is "The kid looked at the man"; no more. There's plenty of grandeur - just not in humans. At the centre of the book stands the Judge - Satan, Ahab and Moby Dick all in one. ("His skin is so pale as to have almost no pigment.") Racism, fear and poverty form the baseline. The Comanches, for instance, are here worse than demons 
    ...grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns... riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning...
    - "at least demons are Christian"!

    Lots of descriptions of the stars, inbetween brutalities
    The night sky lies so sprent with stars that there is scarcely a space of black at all and they fall all night in bitter arcs and it is so that their numbers are no less...

    The stars burned with a lidless fixity and they drew nearer in the night until toward dawn he was stumbling among the whinstones of the uttermost ridge to heaven.
    For the first time I understand why Aristotle's physics divides the world into different celestial and terranean operations: from down here back then, the stars look so clean and permanent, they're just not of our world, dirty, unhinged, and endangered as it has been, for almost everyone.

    4*/5, but I understand if it's 2/5 for you. (11 long hours)


  • Open City (2010) by Teju Cole. Careful, slow-burning diary-novel. We follow Julius, an upper-middle New Yorker doctor who lives, largely, in the absence of overt reference to his race (half-Nigerian, half-German). For existential reasons, he walks and observes. ("The creak-creak of the swings was a signal, I thought, there to remind the children that they were having fun; if there were no creak, they would be confused.") Cole mixes in plenty of banality, setting up the tension to come, in which the brooded past breaks in, and freedom (in its American, European and larger, shadowy senses) is weighed up and found to be a very mixed bag. The most interesting & flawed character is the Moroccan critical theorist Farouq - a hypereducated livewire working in an internet cafe. (Who probably got to me because I flatter myself to be like him... if I had racism and massive chips on both shoulders to deal with.)
    4/5. (4 hours.)

  • Read aloud: Stranger Music (1993) by Leonard Cohen. I don't think he's depressing! Does that make me in some way broken? Anyway: Cohen the Jewish Buddhist leverages literary power from a faith he does not own: his poems are thus as erotic and grotesque as the best Christian writing. Much funnier and more concrete than his songs, too. Sure, everything is ominous in his work, but it's also banal, and these often admit they're ridiculous. To my surprise he is never obscure; to my relief he is never fatally wounded by the vicious retribution his many flaws invite. His is a gnarled urban spirituality. A strong, unlikely comparison: Bukowski. They both fixate on: plain poems about poems, bitter desire, nakedness, grandiose self-loathing, losers in love, and the significance of everyday things. (Look at this: "The art of longing's over and it's never coming back.") Speaking of Bukowski: is Cohen sexist? Arguable. For every slap in the face like 'Diamonds in the Mine', there are several tendernesses ('Portrait of a Lady') and self-aware apologies for lust. I would say: shocking and honest about patriarchal shapes, generally not unfeminist. ("You took my fingerprints away / So I would love you for your mind.") Moments of chastity inamongst the randy fury - for instance he never says 'God', always 'G-d'. Lots about the Holocaust too, mostly its banal consequences.
    Kiss me with your teeth
    All things can be done.
    whisper museum ovens of
    a war that Freedom won
    The newer stuff is generally weak, because less wry, profane and specific.

    (4/5 with lots of 5/5 moments: 'French and English', 'Israel', 'A Working Man', 'Queen Victoria and Me', 'Montreal' 'Hydra 1960', 'A Cross Didn't Fall on Me', 'Disguises', 'It's Probably Spring'.)

  • Altered Carbon (2002) by Richard Morgan. Class act: cyberpunk without cheap gothic neon and lolspeak; noir without cartoonish conventions. A meditation on identity and consent via sex and violence. Genuinely. The Scene: Consciousness can be up- and downloaded. In this world, if you are rich enough, you do not die. If you're richer than that, you can be uploaded into a young clone of yourself - otherwise you take whatever marginalised corpse is going and adjust your sense of self to fit. He picks out implications from this tech brilliantly (e.g. what happens to celebrity culture?). The inevitable neologisms are excellent, intensely suggestive of the new culture's inner life: death is just "storage"; bodies are just "sleeves" and to be reincarnated is to be "sleeved"; a plasma gun is a "sunjet". Murder is just "organic damage". Catholics are (once again) the world's underclass - unable to travel interstellar because it involves casual storage (suicide) and resleeving (heresy), and killed with near-impunity because they alone cannot testify at their own murder trials. Cartoonish moments: our anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs is attacked or apprehended 7 times in the first 150 pages.) People transition gender with regularity. Morgan makes a bold essentialist statement, which is somewhat backed-up: "To be a woman was a sensory experience beyond the male... To a man, skin was a barrier. To a woman it was an organ of contact. That had its disadvantages." (Kovacs is tortured, horrifically, as a woman.) Advertising can be beamed obtrusively into your mind. The UN has become a Shady Galactic Empire. It is strongly suggested - not least by our trained-psychopath protagonist - that this transhuman society is more psychopathic, owing to the lower stakes of violence, injury, and taboo-breaking. Gritty but not just gratuitous. Better than Gibson.
    4/5, at least. (9 hours.)

  • Read aloud: Poems of the Late T'ang (8th & 9th Century), translated by Angus Charles Thomas (1965). I've been playing at knowing China for years, but of course I do not. (For instance, I picked this calm, modest book up unwittingly, and learn it is the gold standard translation by the greatest Western sinologist of the day.) It's a great hook: supposedly, Chinese poetry (world poetry?) peaked in the Ninth Century. For almost their whole history, passion and violence were considered inappropriate topics for poetry! They resented melodrama and fantasy in their poets! I must be jaded to think this is great. The poets seem all to be old men trying not to care about death - "snail shell men", in Ancient Chinese. They are mainly ultra-concrete - lots of masterpieces about mountains and rice and fish. Graham is a droll, masterful guide, making the requisite comparisons to Baudelaire and Pound for me, the clunking reader. (I can only assume the strange meters he uses are good approximations to the original.) The war between Confucianism and Buddhism is prominent here, and is hard for me to imagine -probably because I have a Hollywood understanding of these two "serene" "coping" philosophies. Li Shangyin's (李商隐的) "Written on a Monastery Wall":
    They rejected life to seek the way. Their footprints are before us.
    They offered up their brains, ripped up their bodies: so firm was their resolution.
    See it as large, and a millet grain cheats us of the universe:
    See it as small, and the world can hide in a pinpoint.
    The oyster before its womb fills thinks of the new cassia:
    The amber, when it first sets, remembers a former pine.
    If we trust the true and sure words written on Indian leaves
    We hear all past and future in one stroke of the temple bell

    Like a typical Westerner, I like the weirdoes: Li He (李賀), who's their wild fantasist (Blake?) and Meng Jiao (孟郊), barren kin of Poe. I enjoyed this, but don't really have the tools to judge:
    TBC/5. (3 hours)

  • Read aloud: De Rerum Natura / The Nature of Things (-0060) by Lucretius, translated by Alice Stallings. An epic, declarative philosophy of peace and pre-scientific science. Lucretius poses a serious problem for a neat theory of poetry I like (from IA Richards): the claim that poetry's meaning and significance is almost independent of its truth-value; that poetic language is thus the opposite of scientific language, in which truth-value is the first and critical quantity. De Rerum messes with this because it explicitly sets out to lecture us on the ultimate reality of all things in verse. (Maybe I can say that "from the European Renaissance onwards" poetry becomes the land of the irrelevant fact.) Anyway: long, full of skippable stuff about a random rich guy (Memmius), but also a catchy guide to Epicurus, the most modern and loveable Attic Greek. (He was secular, undramatic, naturalist, tolerant, good-humoured...)
    And yet it is hard to believe that anything
    in nature could stand revealed as solid matter.
    The lightning of heaven goes through the walls of houses,
    like shouts and speech; iron glows white in fire;
    red-hot rocks are shattered by savage steam;
    hard gold is softened and melted down by heat;
    chilly brass, defeated by heat, turns liquid;
    heat seeps through silver, so does piercing cold;
    by custom raising the cup, we feel them both
    as water is poured in, drop by drop, above

    Also worth reading for the ironies that Epicurus' lucky guesses and near-misses generate - e.g. ghosts aren't real, being just images of mental atoms, and so on.
    4/5. (3 hours.)

  • Wild Harbour (1936) by Ian Macpherson. Post-apocalyptic Morayshire folk do Cold War survivalism before the Cold War? I was of course primed to love this, but it's a lead ball of a book, drab and flattened. This probably makes it a brilliant picture of the era's background of vast fear, but that doesn't make for a good read. The three characters are just scared, and though their hardships are harsh indeed, they're oddly unaffecting. The political economy that drove them out there is completely absent, only represented by sketched armed thugs. Nor is the world-justifying love of the central couple convincing, either. So it's tragic, but in no meaningful or honourable way. The prose does sometimes have a lovely Doric lilt - "We were but young in stealth. As we drove along the Spey, the silent night was full of ears that harkened to our passing. It was midnight when our second journey ended, and dark, dark." - and local loons will get a kick out of it.
    2/5. (2 hours)

  • Read aloud: Of Mutability (2010) by Jo Shapcott. Wasn't this massive, as contemporary poetry goes? ('What dyou mean it's on display in the front of the shop?') Of water, London, transformation, plainness. It's a moderate book. Moderately sad, moderately whimsical, moderately vulgar ("Piss Flower"), moderately modern, moderately transcendental. Good. Am I supposed to say this makes it immoderately British?
    3/5. (1 hour)

  • Read aloud: Women's Poetry of the 1930s (1996), edited by Jane Dowson. Raising up unjustly obscure things is one of the main points of having academics around. However, half the poets in this actually refused to be segregated in their lifetime (that is, refused to be anthologised as women, or at all). Dowson is candid about this, and half the book is just suggestive little biographies as a result. Though she is shackled to the humanities' chaste, hyper-qualified prose ("I have tried to illustrate that through their interrogations of national and international affairs, their preoccupations with cultural politics and their experiments with language and form... rejects the language of centrality and dominance...") and their fear of judgment / love of equivocation ("If consensus over a 'good poem' is neither desirable nor possible, then value is largely determined by context..."), it's not exactly hateful. Whether through Dowson's bias or the necessities of the time, these poets are even more independent than their male counterparts. Of those selected, Stevie Smith and Edith Sitwell are already fully reclaimed as the canonical boss ladies they are. Two big oversights of mine: Naomi Mitchison and Sylvia Townshend Warner. Mitchison is amazing - wise when wounded, droll and passionate, politicised but never journalistic: check out "To Some Young Communists", "Woman Alone", "Old Love and New Love". Warner is both blunt and metaphysical. (Others are just passable. Vita Sackville-West's are surprisingly poor, in fact. Highlights: "Beauty the Lover's Gift?" (bitter objectification); "Pastoral" (Manly Hopkins after empire). "A Woman Knitting" (the infinite in the finite); "Song of the Virtuous Female Spider" (satirising pious motherhood clichés); "The Sick Assailant" (rare for the time: male violence focus); "On August the Thirteenth" (on abruptness, gentle impotence of human pretensions).
    4/5. (5 hours)

  • Read aloud: Red Ice (1987) by Colin Mackay. Bitter, accusatory collection from a self-described "European pessimist" (i.e. Diogenes, Hobbes, Arnold, Spengler, Schopenhauer). Politically betrayed, he goes in for nihilism. "We were hungry for belief / hope fed us human flesh." Aside: Mr Mackay had a bloody tragic life, suffered without even any thrilling hubris or heroic end. Of course, many, many Canon artists had unusually hard lives and/or mood disorders. But it's not necessarily that sad people write better in general. Instead, readers - we cheap egoists - are just not receptive to others: we need to be woken up to a book, whether that's by recommendation, or biographical detail, or some other gimmick. A tragic biography is the most reliable primer. (Witness the death bump.) I would love Mackay's poems to be incredible; I've never been as primed as I was by reading Mackay's published suicide diary. But they're just ok. Of moons, angels, deserts, atomisation, Hendrix. Red Ice was written well before Bosnia (the crowning, horror of his life), but it's already overflowing with dense ruined empathy and snarly emptiness and survivor's guilt.

    Are there great paintings in only black and grey? Well, yes, sort of. Calvary features four times in twenty poems. ("the mountains are mere hills / the calvarys are daily and inconspicuous / and we are retreating into closed worlds") Mackay was playing at genocide logic, forty years after Adorno and twenty-five after Geoffrey Hill. (Does it matter, being late to the worst thing ever? No, but do it right, do it new.) The brute fact of the C20th drives him to nostalgia and lairy isolation ("[I said] I will be me for the hell of it / [he said] "you working-class tory / you aren't worth a shit".) So the poems are chaste and flat, romanticism with the innocent wonder ripped out; unleavened except for his spurious racial memory of everything being ok, once. (Wordsworth at Katyn.) (I do not think highly of Wordsworth.) The long title poem has automatic force, being as it is about the gulags and the shame of Stalin apologism (and Lenin, tbf). But it's also uncompressed, clumsy with rage ("stop these follies of the human race!"). It contains a direct condemnation of MacDiarmid, which is rare and titillating. On the like of his and Sartre's hypocritical silence on Stalinism:
[They said to]
"Find something in your own hemisphere!"
to salve my Commie conscience with,
to express solidarity with.
(If only there was someone I could
express solidarity with...)
There is one poem that gets somewhere: "Phantoms", a fast, vocal, twisted/triumphant repudiation of war and hippies alike. And "Holy, Wholly My Own" is admirable Golden Age crap. Faint praise: 'Nightwatchman of the lonely ex-socialist Scot's soul'. Anyway: for loads of reasons it's not nice to attack the hegemony of the sad in art. 1) They are still good, when they're good; 2) they are often Witnesses, speakers-against-power, and anyone can be crushed and saddened by having to do that; 3) leave them some bloody consolation!

2/5. (2 hours)


Books I once thought were 5/5s
  • What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire (Bukowski is odd: you can blast through any of his books in like a half an hour without losing any of its message or effect - but I still don't think of him as a 3/5 writer. Also, I don't see how anyone can resent his free verse, because it doesn't suggest it's any better for being "free".) A really good 3/5.
  • Infinite Jest (1998) by David Foster Wallace. The most 4.5/5 book ever.
  • White Noise (2000) by Don DeLillo (actually 4/5)
  • Our Band Could Be Your Life (actually 4/5)
  • Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (3/5)
  • The Crow Road (2000) by Iain Banks (3/5)


Union Terrace Gardens #2

Three teens unshaded sodden
in brief brilliance
crane at youtube's tinny cauldron
- brighter, greener, bustier
than the park reprieved.

Fair enough spillover
living public living room;
I crane at miserable book
– drabber, greyer than park concrète –
and, supposedly, at world to come.


"The Decline" (1999) by NOFX

I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject.
- HD Thoreau

The great thing about bein' a human: the ability to reason;
But reasoning don't work when no-one cares:
two parts apathy, one part despair

Going on and on about Decline has been the pastime of conservatives. But then 'The Decline' - a lurid eighteen minute portrait of Imperial America by punk's once-reigning left-statists - is remarkably similar to the Tory-prog dystopias of, say, Rush; they share gross length, scifi gloom, and self-aggrandising individuality.

Where 'The Decline' is a cartoon version of Chomskyan politics, Rush were cartoons of the novels of Ayn Rand (herself a cartoon Nietzsche). Rush are (or were) the pop embodiment of giving in to romantic individualism. Now, we know this as the basis of right-wing life - but even the most Left leftist has to have some: at minimum,they glory in their ability to see through the neoliberal individualist script of our times. Since NOFX care about said oppressive script, we arrive at a contradiction which is also the principal contradiction in punk: how can the desire for social justice coexist with the love of doin' what the fuck you want? Do you want Chomsky or do you want Kant?

(Not that Kant was a permissive hedonist, but he is a handy symbol for individual conscience and self-creation. Wordsworth would also work, for the totally personal projects that make up at least half of the meaning of life.) Decline is notable for other reasons - it is long-punk and it is concept-punk and is still, somehow, good - but as usual I fixate on the ideological.
Context: NOFX are a tolerant bunch. Consider 'Happy Guy' (a song about leaving Christians alone), 'Vanilla Sex' and 'Cool and Unusual Punishment' (about consenting adults), 'Clams Have Feelings Too' (the argument from marginal cases), 'The Brews' (subverting Jewish stereotypes), 'Lori Meyers' (a stab at the sex-work question), or 'She's Nubs' (which has a go at affirming disabled people's sexuality...). Despite the comedy schtick, the band do act out a kind of Enlightenment egalitarianism. What unites the political stuff with the fart jokes is that each involves the embrace of losers; failure, or marginalisation, as lifestyle.


What exactly is said to be declining? America? Democracy? Morals? The economy? Punk? The song is, of course, vague. But it has drunk of the diluted Frankfurt School, in particular their idée fixe on capitalism's irresistible mind control powers. ("Hegemony".) So:

  • Reading #1: "Civil society has declined. Capitalism infected everyone with malign individualism, and now we are numb, solipsistic and stupid. It's over; we lost." An adolescent political economy, sure - but that's all you need to get started. Through this clumsy song, I learned the phrase "laissez faire" (LAY-ZY FAIR) aged 12 and correctly associated it with vast institutionalised suffering. That's not nothing.

So: demand both 'radical freedom' and 'social justice'. Thing is, social justice often requires sacrifice on someone's part (even if that sacrifice is only undoing an existing inequity, as with progressive taxation, or minding your tongue): you can't have it and 'radical' negative liberty. I don't think there can be any such thing as Left-libertarianism. This isn't a particular failing of punk; the philosopher Richard Rorty calls the tension between public and private virtues the most intractable question in all ethics and politics.

Is there really a contradiction? In some cases you can get both - e.g. encouraging women to opt out of traditional submissive social crap invariably boosts both individual women and their society - or as regards decriminalising drugs - which is warranted by the awful consequences of prohibition alone (cf. creation of an under-underclass out of the reach of public services; toxic adulteration; vast police expansion; the destructive prison cycle). But not always, or often.

More generally, we just want individualism which doesn't drag down the collective. This is not as easy as you might think. Maybe you can salvage freedom-talk by saying "we want freedom for everyone, not just rich white men - which is what 'freedom' has tended to mean in practice". But that requires heavy intervention, and some people understandably insist on seeing (government) intervention as the opposite of freedom. (I don't see how this can stand up to basic knowledge of what societies do to certain unlucky groups.) The contradiction is real - and philosophy's perennial failure to cope with it means we have to navigate between its horns by ear. This actually works ok, provided you are at least minimally compassionate, and don't mind losing ideological purity.

A bypass: in the political climate of much of the world, to argue for this kind of justice - via positive discrimination, progressive taxation, strong welfare, active diversity education - is already to be nonconformist - and so to begin to be individual. But even though I recognise the large-scale suffering, and agree with the project goals, I'm not militarising. This is because I think they (the New Left) are wrong about the decline of civil society, compassion, and free thought. Also because we're too clumsy en masse for revolution to have much hope of serving up anything but cool speeches, disappointment, and blood. I'm with Rorty, bizarre wet pragmatist though he is. The core claim of Chomskyans is that "the United States [et al] are run by a corrupt elite which aims at enriching itself by immiserating the Third World." The sometime global bully, sometime quasi-fascist. For some reason, this clear-sighted attention to the crimes of empire is usually tied to rejection of the Enlightenment (impartiality, individualism, technology, all that good stuff). Suspicion is always warranted, things have been bad indeed; but they would have been worse without Enlightenment ideas. We are "willing to grant that [the West] could slide into fascism at any time, but proud of its past and guardedly hopeful about its future."

Shall we get on to the actual song?


If you’re not a conspiracy theorist some of the time, you’re a sucker.
- John Emerson

Fellow members, Club 'We've Got Ours'
I'd like to introduce you to our host;
He's got his, I've got mine: meet the decline

First off: The Decline is really an EP of many 30 second songs stitched together. Its narrative is choppy: "BOO! Issues! Greed's bad, nationalism's bad, guns are bad, stupidity is bad, cultural hegemony is bad, drug laws are bad, powerful Christian right are bad, egoism's bad, apathy's bad. facelessly unfair economics, governmental murder." Broad sections:

1. Boo! Guns, irrationality, religion! (0:00 to 3:46)
2. Boo! war on drugs! prison! (3:46 to 6:15)
3. Boo! (Musical exposition) (6:15 to 7:17)
4. Boo sadness! (Call it anomie to be charitable) (7:17 to 9:42)
5. Boo! (Recap) (9:42 to 11:03)
6. Boo sadness! (11:03 to 13:57)
7. Boo everything! (The end of the world sounds like epic quietLOUD skate punk) (13:57 to end).

I find it helpful to write out the themes. The main epic one at 6:15, 10:34, call it "[The Decline]":

This ^ is Chomsky as trombone. The end of the radical world.

A second reading of The Decline's decline involves wheeling in another bulky philosophical engine:

NOFX, super-rich band of Chomskyans, extremely permissive boys of the rationalist strain in punk are also, obviously, a dumbass band. Immature trolls full of puns, scat and innuendo. Even so, their Decline is about rejecting immaturity, in the special moral sense that Kant used the word. (This immaturity is just refusing to think for yourself, whether out of fear or learned incapacity.) The song's first disdain is reserved for asking "Where are all the stupid people from?" (Nationalism is supposedly to blame. Also commerce: "The man who used to speak performs a cute routine.")

This is what's thought to justify strong individualism: maybe it's only by standing alone you can attain certain heights - of originality, impartiality, hardness, spirituality. Problem for Left "libertarians" like NOFX: there's absolutely nothing to say that thinking for yourself will lead to rejecting capitalism. Plenty speaks against it, in fact. So:

  • Reading #2: "Kantian maturity has declined fatally, in America, in the C20th." In the absence of NOFX giving extended historical arguments about the relative consciousness of Americans: meh. It was always low, and there are more tools to increase it now than ever before. (NOFX are immature in the common sense, but at least a little mature in this elevated sense.)


Appendix 1. Paradoxes in the received idea of punk

  • Punk tried to have both romantic individualism and social activism at the same time. (Good for it!)

  • Punk despised the hippies while adopting lots of their practices - e.g. hedonism, bohemianism, basement gigs, aesthetic experiment (in certain prescribed dimensions) - as well as their social role as the West's young internal Other.

  • Punk did everything it could to be provocative - mostly in order to mock the resulting outrage. This universal irreverence conflicted with its po-faced element. The Punk held nothing sacred but punk (and sometimes Marx).

  • Punk tried to politicise nihilism!

  • Punk painted itself as utterly revolutionary, anti-tradition, with 1975 being its Year Zero - but it actually sprang directly, without variation, from 60s US garage rock and 'trash culture'. (And that music was a conservative masculinist reaction to the hippies.)

  • Punk was anti-art in a very theatrical way. (In New York, it was all anti-art art-school kids.)

  • Punk, generally associated with anti-racist right-ons, was an almost wholly unfunky 4/4 music played almost wholly by whites - and this aesthetic segregation was representative of social segregation. (In the form of the overwhelmingly white 'Alternative' music, it perhaps still does represent that.) I concede that Bad Brains are canonised in Punk, and that Ska and Dub's crossover into punk was both rapid and lasting.

I wrote about punk as a political ideology; that piece can explain why there are so many of these: only some of these elements are of the essence of Punk, with the rest resulting from the customising incoherent whims of various individual punks.



Punk concept albums are rare, probably owing to their general suspicion of ambition. There's Zen Arcade, of course; The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks; maybe Group Sex. And it surprises no-one if Mike Watt is subversive: his Contemplating the Engine Room is expansive proletarian psychedelic punk. I also recently came across the lurid and authentically paranoid Only Lovers Left Alive, a biazrre, catchy affirmation of every anticommunist conspiracy theory going. There's been a few released recently, some actually worth your time. Metafiction is in:

Remarkable stuff. Love story for anarchists gets blown apart halfway through by open discussion of literary theory, socialisation, and the very idea of the grand narrative. Four narrators, not many more chords, lots of fodder without tasting of Pink Floyd.

  • Titus Andronicus' The Monitor (2010)
This seems to be about the American Civil War... and also the life of Billy Bragg. No, really.

  • Cursive's The Ugly Organ (2003)
Tuneful straight metafiction. "INTROSPECTING SO HARD IT HURTS. Don't mock me. I AM SAD ABOUT BEING SAD." Takes ordinary emo navel-gazing and, I dunno, looks at videos of it.

  • Thermals' The Body, The Blood, The Machine (2006)
Brief (36mins) and dirty. Seems to be The Handmaid's Tale retold for teenage skaters. It's the now-standard antitheist cartoon: all Christians are of the conservative right, all Gods are the Old Testament bastard, everything fun is getting banned. Still.

(I omit the two most famous examples - American Idiot and The Black Parade - because they both appeared just as mainstream punk, in the form of emo, finally sank into the undifferentiated gumbo called "alternative" "rock" music. Also because they're deeply uninteresting.)

* When I say 'punk' I mean "that derivative post-post-punk or pop-hardcore which favours simple scuzzy guitars and unpleasant lyrics". There. Drop the pitchforks please.



Long punk songs are interesting because they break with punk's original protestantism: Bündigkeit uber alles, against the interminable Indulgences of prog. Unfortunately this is often the only interesting thing about them, since they're jam sessions by people who espouse amateurism. The clearest precursors to The Decline are the boring 'From the Cradle to the Grave' by Subhumans and Crass' furious elaborate analysis of the entire Cold War world, 'Yes Sir I Will'. Here is a playlist of others, listen here if you have nothing better to do tonight:
  1. "Another World" by Richard Hell & the Voidoids (8:12)
  2. "Shut Down" by The Germs (9:41)
  3. "...And Now Back To Our Programming" by Aus Rotten (15:52)
  4. "(I Saw You) Shine" (8:32) by Flipper. ("Sex Bomb" is shorter but actually good.)
  5. "Kids of the Black Hole" by the Adolescents (5:28).
  6. "Glazed" by Rocket from the Crypt (8:20).
  7. "Pay the Man" by The Offspring (10:22). Surprising! low on lyrics though.
  8. "No Big Surprise" by Nomeansno (11:07).
  9. "The Bristol Road Leads To Dachau" by The Prefects (10:09)
  10. "Clear Your Head" - Pennywise (15:42)
  11. "Believe In Yourself" - Stalag 13 (15:33)
  12. "Die Letzte Sau (Live)" - WIZO (14:02)
  13. Lots of late Black Flag, e.g. "Nothing Left Inside", "Scream" and "Three Nights".

  14. ("Heaven Sent" by Half Japanese is apparently 60mins, but isn't online, thankfully.)

Finally, an earnest and loveable 8 minute concept suite by NY's best oldest semi-pro pop-punk band, the Putrid Flowers: it's the last eight tracks here.


midsummer miscellany

(c) Jenny Morgan, 'Midsummer Hare'

It may be that curiosity comes at the expense of commonality.


We need a term for high-IQ people who are, nonetheless, idiots. I suggest 'arch-idiot'. Usage: "Almost the entire field of financial economics was composed of archidiots." Taleb uses nerd as a technical term for this; Marx, ein Fachidiot. The culture at large uses savant, but this is not quite right and would stick the boot in to autists yet again. We also say book-smart, but that's anti-intellectual: our problem would not cease with the banning of all poncey books, since our problem is with those that abuse the poncey books.
Archstupidity (n.): The presence of strong abstract reasoning in the absence of emotional intelligence, empirical feedback, or actual rationality. Leads to the ubiquitous, dangerous assumption that since one understands one complex theory (C++, economics, cell biology, Heidegger), one understands all complex things (love, economies, cancer, Being).


"So in closing, fuck you pandas. If you’re too stupid to get on all that hot panda ass, well then you deserve to die."
- an angry man, speaking for you

Pandas have problems; but people too have a serious panda problem. Panda-talk is one of the remaining places it's acceptable to openly despise the weak: a cranny for social Darwinism to breed in. Mate James tried to rationalise this - saying that it's not pandas' weakness or deviance from the Darwinian script that we despise, but their conservatism, their listlessness, their inability to change. I think you know fine well what it means.


Today we'll prove that a straight line is sometimes a circle. (This is a mad but elementary result in Euclidean geometry.) We can understand this informally with the diagram above: as circles increase in diameter, the curvature of a given arc AB decreases, with the logical endpoint being curvature zero: a straight tangent. So a circle of infinite radius is an unimaginable circ/line chimera. The proper argument can be put lots of ways; here is a simple one:

  1. From three points we can always construct their one associated circle. (Since the perpendicular bisectors of their two line segments must pass through the centre, and the radius is then trivial to find).
  2. If these 3 points are on a line, though, their perp. bisectors are parallel.
  3. If we then grant a line-at-infinity, the intersection of these bisectors - the centre they seek - exists, but infinitely far away;
  4. So their circle's radius is infinite.
  5. So the circle of three points on a line is a line. (Properly, a 'Euclidean horocycle', or 'collinear circumcircle').
Contentions abound: "Why doesn't this argument instead conclude that (1) only holds assuming the three points are not on a line? (Why isn't the circ/line a "degenerating case"?)  Obtaining curvature zero requires a division by infinity (Curv = 1/R, R=∞), and infinity isn't a number! And, don't parallel lines never meet? What on earth lets you get away with this line-at-infinity crap?" Good questions!
  • Why isn't this "collinear circumcircle" just dismissed as degenerative? Why add in this line-at-infinity? How can parallel lines meet?
It all began because geometers didn't like caveats. (If parallel lines never meet, then the plane they extend over is infinite and incomplete.) They also had a good reason to piss about with infinity: the real plane has problems of incidence, and one new plane ("the projective plane") can be used to solve these generally and easily. Recipe for projective geometry: take the real plane, add in one strange "point at infinity": the point that both positive and negative line directions meet at when extended to a figurative horizon. On this plane, lines are actually cyclical, and, as we'll see, circles are actually, sort of, linear. This circularity includes the line-at-infinity (the dotted line here):

If our parallel bisectors intersect at this bizarre line, then we know the centre lies on the line-at-infinity (given this again, and given that we've built this whole bloody system to ensure that incidence is universal, and that all this holds up beyond the Limit). Specifically, our infinite chimera is perpendicular to the line of the original three points: the red line (by projective logic, the centre is both of the red dots there). So, the circline's not an exception to (1), because our circline is not a limiting case: it exists, in more than one well-motivated system. (Note, if it makes you feel any better, that two infinite circles can be thought of as parallel circlines.)

  • Infinity isn't a number! How can you use it as a denominator? Why should we expect classical definitions of geometric objects to stand up to infinitudes?
There's a proof of the curvature-method that uses limits instead here. With regards to breaking Euclid: it's the same as with anything: we see what happens to the system at extremes and then talk to each other about what it means.

  • Boo! I don't like limits! I define a tangent as that which only ever has one point of contact; so it's constant through increasing radius; so, you lose.
Feel free to move the goalposts. Make yourself at home. (There is a conflict of definitions. But since a circle is not, formally, "a very round thing", but "that plane figure that is the locus of all points equidistant from one fixed point C", I think our one wins out.)

Given all the above, we drop our intuition that "lines are never circles". Infinity is liable to do that to intuitions. So? What's the significance? Probably nothing, as usual - but it's cool to note that the medieval philosopher Nicholas of Cusa used the above argument as a Platonic gadget for seeing the outline of things we cannot really see (like, he thought, God). The infinite in the finite, and other old chestnuts.


I wrote a thing about identity and my failing engagement to the immortal mind-queen Maths.


Found myself in a roomful of pre-drinking clubbers talking about how much they drank last night, and were going to tonight, and how the people not currently in the room were skanks. In silent mental self-defence, I elaborated on one woman's thesis, that "Booze is awesome":
Assuredly is. Why? Because it legitimises bad behaviour. Because it levels conversation, precluding nuance. Because it exaggerates emotions. Because it alone allows you to  express said emotional state to others without enormous sanitising. Because it makes life less unentertaining (because it contrives situations for ridicule, and mutual ridicule). Because drunk people aren't alone (because booze uncovers the falsity of the Cartesian, centralised self)! Because it dulls the pain of being - a pain you never examine, for fear of what it might mean for your chances of ordinariness and cinematic happiness.

Did write this while drunk, so, y'know.


"'He affects a large tolerance of the world - he keeps out of it. [But] I think no one can really be like that - either you're dismayed and baffled, or you reduce everything to aesthetics or politics or sex sociology or whatever.'"
- Paula Fox's Otto


I wonder how often Yoko Ono listens to the Beatles.


A mate recently rocked my comfortable, sneering position on postmodernism. I had made the tired point that in fact the realisms and metaphysics-of-presence that the New New Left revile have often been the oppressed's last refuge in the face of totalitarians distorting history and the present. Allowing this, he gave the following analogy, which is, I think, a third-order argument. (First-order: "is there a world?" Second-order: "are there possible worlds?" Third-order: "why do people argue that there are (or are not) possible worlds?"):
"There is a classroom. A fierce teacher stands at the head; the class work busily under his eye. What if all of Theory was just getting the teacher to leave the room? Some people predict social chaos and unchecked evil when you remove the old, objective structural rods. But maybe the class would just keep working - and that'd be the ultimate proof of the teacher's authority - the self-regulating, self-controlling class. Proof by exhaustion."
Only problem with this amazing analogy - and you can imagine the best jesters of French theory getting the joke - is that it understates the vitriol aimed at the Teacher among today's queer/eco/race Foucauldians. It's not that we are taking the teacher out for a tea break; no, we strip him naked, paint him orange and dismember him in front of his class. That's the real corollary of the academic sneer that is the mirror of mine.


Really really good line in the otherwise stupid show Supernatural:

"Hunk #1: We make our own future.
Hunk #2: Yeah; got no choice."



Early class analysis missed a lot of things. A fairly minor one: the world maintains a gross inequality in the distribution of posterity. (Who pays the piper is worth a thousand words.) Posterity is that cartelised mixture of fame and honour a certain kind of person will pay vast amounts to secure. (For instance, the great works of classic poets were often bankrolled by people who wanted their moneygrubbing behaviour gilded and inset in eternity.)

It's arguable how much we currently manage to couple achievement to posterity. (Since, on the one hand, reality tv exists, but on the other: "Writers are remembered by their best books, politicians are remembered by their worst mistakes, businessmen are never remembered for anything." - Taleb.) 

Marxist history and its deradicalised form (the banally named "social history") have done quite a lot against this - and, with the internet, posterity could even be democratised a bit. But not I think, until celebrity culture dies.

I used to say things like "The truth cannot be sexist." This sounds good, but isn't really true: there are many false beliefs that have made themselves contingently true by exploiting human plasticity. Consider: "Women are worse at leadership"; "There were few great female artists" (up to the C20th).

There are many countercases to these, from many slices of history. But these kinds of beliefs were beaten into generations of people, and so came to seem essential, and so no-one had time to challenge all of them. (This is how I rationalise Hume and Kant being bastard racists.)

limits to self-invention

...we give you no fixed place to live, no form that is peculiar to you, nor any function that is yours alone. According to your desires and judgment, you will have and possess whatever place to live, whatever form, and whatever functions you yourself choose.

- Pico della Mirandola

...a human being, for moral purposes, is largely how he or she describes himself or herself.
- Richard Rorty

I and my friends have a theory of identity, a  inspired by an implausibly positive reading of the oddball sociologist Erving Goffman. Call it bootstrapping:

  1. what you like is a large part of who you are; 
  2. you often grow to like what you choose to do (adaptive preferences); 
  3. you can choose what you do
  4. so to some degree you can choose what you like (2&3); 
  5. so you can sometimes sort of choose who you are (1&4).

Compared to the received view of identity, which holds that "Once grown, you are an essence of given things that will not change. Biology + Childhood + Peers = Self", this approach to life leads to excellent things: freedom from more obvious social determinism; allophilia; psychological neoteny; and less distortion of beliefs by tribal forces. Let's unmask:

  • Goffman Thesis: We are dramatic creatures; we inhabit multiple roles; we gain and lose roles as we go along. And if identity is a performance, then due study of codes and conventions allow you to take on identities. Not as a 'fake' or 'wannabe', but a real performer. Goffman gets called cynical for saying that human interaction is the presentation of masks; bootstrapping sees him as a liberator instead (see Macht, below).

  • Gordon Thesis: What you like is a large part of who you are. Language, money, race, and other illiberal things aside, what divides us is not our origins or even what we believe, but what we like. This applies whether the object is Muhammad, Naruto, or sex with other men (or all of the above). Preferences divide us via two reinforcing effects: because we automatically group up with people with similar interests, and because it's hard for us not to misunderstand people with very different preferences.
(...what really matters is what you like, not what you are like... Call me shallow but it's the fuckin' truth..." - Nick Hornby's Rob Gordon.)

  • Turing thesis: A necessary test for identity is to "fool" those who already have the identity. What passes is close enough.

  • Macht Thesis: Given certain constraints, with enough perseverence, you can choose what you like. Among good people, that's actually the lion's share of who you are. Identity is not only fluid and performative and all that good modern stuff: it can be imposed on yourself. As well as nature, one's metapreferences can become second nature.

It has worked. One of us changed from a studiedly anti-sport crumpet to a die-hard Liverpool FC encyclopaedia at very short notice. In the space of two years, another took himself from deadbeat, drunken self-loather to literally the hardest-working summa-cum-laude in his cohort. (Though some of the self-loathing stuck.)

I'm emphasising the preferential part of identity (over the essence or tribal part): this is not to say that someone who likes black culture a lot thereby becomes black.

This is great news! It suggests that with enough work, there is almost no-one you cannot associate with. (Barring bigotry, the ultimate dividing preference.) Bootstrapping goes against the prevailing pessimism of e.g. anthropology, whose solution to white monetary imperialism is to mentally lock us away from each other into 'cultures'. I'll grant their point about the incommensurability of world-schemata if they grant the joy of playing football with people you share no language, background or life goals with.


Unfortunately for this sunny picture of human potential: most people think identity is a serious business. Depending on what you set out to like, bootstrapping could be seen as disloyal (when you decide not to follow your family's faith), decadent (when you have a procession of unused musical instruments in the loft), or appropriative (when you call yourself African after buying up land there).

In addition, I'm quite committed to the idea that identity is intellectually corrosive; it is that which must be minimised if you want to avoid large delusions. How can we balance our vital suspicion of identity with bootstrapping's enthusiasm for it? Well, just note that it's the freedom and lightness of identity that we value; the main problem with identity is that its unconditional and exclusionary character leads to lifelong cognitive bias and groupthink.

Please flag the following as pseudo-scientific insinuation, but: do check out work on neuroplasticity.


Worse: I recently bumped up against a counter-example. Despite trying for 6 months - despite strong motivation* and personal affinity - I have failed to make myself into someone who like maths. Absolute abstraction holds no charms. I can do maths, but I do not know it. The analogy is: if you only have functional ability in maths - no proofs, no sense of field dependencies, no originality - you're a monkey driving a car. 

* Broadly, the motive is: the human mind can barely handle important complex stuff without it, and I should like to handle some of that stuff in my life.

Some ad hoc explanations leap to mind:

  • There is almost nothing quasi-real about maths. Unlike the other identities we've tried on, in maths your beliefs don't make a difference: you are always either right or wrong. (Or the answer is undecidable. Or the problem is NP-hard given P≠NP. Or worst of all, your answer is malformed: "not even wrong". But note that these para-truthvalues leave no room for human variation either.)

    Consider: thinking you are in pain is to be in pain; believing certain claims about Christ makes you a Christian. But when we do maths wrong - if you think that [log10 x log100 = 3] - we're maybe still doing maths, but we necessarily step away from the identity proper. No amount of Lacanian ambiguity can save you from this.

  • Maths is utterly internalist: it's thus unforgiving of the ambiguity or amateurism that the bootstrapper needs to get started. Some people go as far as to say that if it's ambiguous (not just fuzzy) then it's not maths. It takes a long time before one's opinion of mathematical questions counts for much, and even then it is subject to strict and clear criteria. (Can someone with severe dyscalculia be a maths fan? In an unusual and important sense, I think the answer's no.)

  • One can excel at something via willpower, talent, or love. In this instance I have none of these qualifiers. Because I don't love maths, I do not really know it. The things that make people love maths - its unique apodictic thrill, its aesthetic power, its foregone intensity, its esoteric spirituality - may only be perceptible to those with a certain born flair.

The last retcon offers me a sad bullet to bite: perhaps I am simply a candle-powered mind, unsuited to laser thoughts. In any case I'll persist, because it is ludicrously useful; it is a seriously underappreciated sphere of human creativity; and because I refuse to live in fear of it anymore.

On a brighter note, maths may well be the limit case of our happy project, casting light on its process and boundary. It might be the area where functional knowledge falls most short of real understanding, and thus real identification.


Is bootstrapping obvious? I don't think so, judging by how static and crudely determined our political, recreational, and working lives generally are. Is bootstrapping empty self-help nonsense? I don't think so, judging by how much I like the idea.

some philosophers seem to be angry with images for not being things, with words for not being feelings. Words and images are like shells, no less integral parts of nature than are the substances they cover, but better addressed to the eye and more open to observation. I would not say that substance exists for the sake of appearance, or faces for the sake of masks, or the passions for the sake of poetry and virtue... all these phases and products are involved in the round of existence...

- George Santayana