Archive for August, 2013

Heart of Darkness

August 30, 2013
Leon Let's pick up where we left off last time, or rather, let's 
     make one more effort to speak about the Heart of Darkness, 
     since last time we only gave an introduction
Leon My big insight recently has been this notion of the 
     'universality of sentience'...
Leon What this means is that we all basically think 'the same', 
     all sentient creatures ... 'the same' in the sense of -- 
     well, I don't want to go over this again, but the basic 
     argument is that animals are in general much more rational 
     and manipulative than we think
Leon And the consequence being that we need will need to stop 
     thinking about 'paradigm shifts', about how, for example, 
     langauge fundamentally alters the way we think (I don't 
     believe it does), or how certain beliefs or methods 
     fundamentally alter how we think -- I called it 'the 
     immutable sentience'
Leon Furthermore, I said, last time, "There is no beginning and 
     no end, because insights are less like portals and more 
     like chesspeices"
Leon What this means is that we should think of variances in 
     sentience, not as essential changes in nature (ie, portals 
     into new modes of existence) but rather as chesspeices, as 
     moments of complication, or tension -- ie, the way in which 
     chesspeices relate to each other, the way in which gambits 
     pile up, etc
Leon Perhaps we can consider the metaphor of 'the sun' here -- 
     that moment when we are held in fascination by these 
     chesspeices is a time of daylight -- and thus, we can even 
     of dusk and dawn...
Leon But at the same time, we shouldn't forget, in considering 
     the daylight metaphor, that we are *not* speaking of a 
     "time of play", of a time of fascination due to *complexity*
Leon We aren't speaking about a golden age of self-understanding,
      self-celberation, metaphorization, play, and bad faith
Leon Daylight is not the golden age
Leon But rather (and perhaps this is why "daylight" is not such 
     a good term) Marlow spoke of the 'dreamlike sensation' in 
     Heart of Darkness
Leon ... to simply declare the result I want to reach as a 
     formula, daylight is a time of stability within a massive 
     disruption, a cataclysm, the cataclysm of the collapse of 
     play, the collapse of "the golden age"
Leon If Heart of Darkness takes place within a time of 
     disruption ... the disruption of black culture by the white 
     colonists (Marlow spoke about villages being abandoned 
     alongside trade routes -- and obviously there is Kurtz) and 
     of the white colonial effort by disease, death, corruption, 
Leon We need not be *too* specific I feel as to the nature of 
     this disruption -- I merely want to emphasize that it is a 
     time of the collapse of the golden age ... this notion of 
     the emptying out of play is essential to what I'm talking 
Leon (And this is why we rely on the intelligence of animals -- 
     intelligence in the sense of the understanding of play, 
Leon I mean, taken literally, all mammals, pups, and all social 
     animals exhibit obvious modes of play
Leon And, although we have very little insight, usually, into 
     the behavior of adult mammals, there is certainly some 
     understanding of the importance of play within a human 
     "golden age"
Leon The Wordsworth poem, Boy of Winander, speaks of a boy being 
     disrupted in the midst of play by some kind of radical 
Leon ...
Leon In contrast, daylight is basically, as we conceive of it 
     here, a time of perpetual revolution
Leon It is a time when the emptyness of play holds us fascinated,
      as well a moment when this emptyness and cataclysm is 
Leon Kurtz was "but a ghost" by the time Marlow reached him, he 
     was "nothing of this world" but yet he can be considered a 
     stabilization of this cataclysm
Leon Indeed, the Russian attributes to him countless things -- 
     he said that they stayed up late at night, in the heart of 
     the jungle, talking ("well, he talked, I mostly listened") 
     about many things -- the meaning of life, the purpose of 
     man, "even love". But can't these countless things be 
     understood as something that we cling to in the midst of 
     this cataclysm, or this vacuum, left by the emptying out of 
Leon Indeed, the attitude towards Kurtz by the Russian speaks of 
     a kind of honesty -- that is, the Russian didn't consider 
     what he was saying as a "portal", a way to become new 
     things, as a kind of teaching, as a technical process, as 
     "rhetoric" (in the sense of a way to manipulate people), 
     but rather as the truth as such
Leon And though Marlow never listened to him talk, or even 
     bought into what he was doing at all, he still spoke of 
     "wanting to hear this man talk", of "talking to him", ie, 
     of having a heart of heart. Yet Marlow also said that he 
     was 'but a voice'...
Leon It is the time when the voice ceases to be a means of 
     communication or manipulation but becomes the expression of 
     the truth as such -- or at least, less mystically, of a 
     kind of honesty
Leon That was after all our perpetual complaint here: that 
     civilization was "nihilistic" in the sense that people were 
     attracted to things that made money *because they made 
     money*, in most cases
Leon It resembles a mail order scam where the person sends money 
     to receive a business oppurtunity only to be sent 
     literature describing the selling of get-rich-quick scams ..
     . so maybe even a kind of mail-order pyramid scheme, if he 
     does chose to follow up on it
Leon I sort of lost moment in religion when it became so 
     pragmatic, when it came to resemble a kind of pyramid 
     scheme -- "fitter, happier, more productive" as Radiohead 
Leon err... the moment when I *realized* it was pragmatic, not 
     when it "became" pragmatic
Leon In contrast to this we speak of "truth" and "honesty" here, 
     which are words heavily loaded with moral meaning certainly,
      but which we would like to rather ignore
Leon I mean, we aren't saying that society needs to be more 
     honest, as if that were intrinsically a good thing, but 
     rather, that that time of honesty is a historical event, is 
     a time of daylight
Leon ... to sort of digress again, this is exactly the sort of 
     rhetoric that the Intended used at the end of the book in 
     describing Kurtz
Leon "I was happy once! Too happy! But now I will never see him 
Leon But Kurtz was "but a ghost", which suggests that what we 
     attribute to him could be understood in many ways
Leon Or also, that we have to read beyond the impasse of 
     formalism here -- I mean, we need to read past the 
     temptation to make an intellectual, black-and-white 
     distinction between Kurtz, in a formal sense, and the 
     society of nihilism
Leon Which is not to say that we can conceive of Kurtz in 
     countless ways, or even in other ways
Leon The thinking of honesty here is simply the positive image 
     that corresponds to the sense of cataclysmic shock
Leon Well, two things here
Leon (1) the origins of language and (2) the nature of this shock
Leon Regarding (1), I eventually want to make more grand 
     historical connections to this theory of daylight, and one 
     of the connections I want to seek is this notion that 
     langauge (and remember, sentience is basically unchanged by 
     language, the langauge capacity) arose during such a 
Leon Now, for (2), the it's hard to say what came first, I mean, 
     it's hard to make a linear causal connection between shock 
     and the metaphysics of honesty (ie, Kurtz, above)
Leon Indeed, there is a sense that the shock occupies the same 
     space as the metaphysics of play, the soup of play, the 
     society of nihilism
Leon I wrote a few days ago that the history of civilization was 
     basically nothing but the history of crime, ie, of accepted 
Leon Play and crime are the same, we said, an enormous pyramid 
     scheme, where we kind of forget (or was it ever there?) 
     that sense of letdown when we realized how pragmatic 
     everything was
Leon Shock and emptying out is latent on and sort of built up 
     upon this system
Leon I mean, even for something like math or physics, for the 
     hard sciences or whatehver, there is still certainly the 
     sense of there being a pyramid scheme here -- as we are 
     building upon the works of others, theories of whcih we 
     have our doubts
Leon Kurtz arises as a latent possibility, a new way to live, a 
     new way to approach language within the familiarity of 
Leon It is something that haunts our lives, you could say
Leon And this is basically what the metaphysics of honesty (and 
     we must not be caught at that impasse) is built upon
Leon ... the metaphysics of honestywill make scant mention of 
     the materiality of the voice but that becaus it has 
     forgotten its origins, in which case it is at once truth 
     and error -- I mean, truth in the sense of, a link to 

The Heart of Darkness Hypothesis

August 27, 2013

*Don’t click on the links here, I’m not sure how to get rid of them

Unfortunately in the last entry we were mostly concerned with a kind of theoretical development, but here I just want to elaborate on how this all applies to Heart of Darkness and on the argument being made in that book. The danger of theoretical development is really that we sometimes risk diluting the specificity of our insights. Heart of Darkness is about, well, a fascination with Kurtz, which is a singular insight, or a series of singular insights. But there is a corresponding “dreamlike sensation” that is the cause of this singular insight. Because Kurtz and the dreamlike sensation are in some sense the same thing. Kurtz is something that “doesn’t really exist”.

I just wrote on facebook, “There is no such thing as beginning and end because insights are less like doorways and more like chesspeices.”

I had an essay about painting a few days ago — which is probably not really all that correct now that I think about it, but I do want to talk about it. I basically spoke of an irreversible process in the development of painting. There is a moment, such as expressed in Boy of WInander, where we can no longer, for some reason, go back to the past, when the past becomes too much of a play. Yet the trick here — we have confronted this moment countless times before — is to let this moment retain its original mystery. “Melancholy” is applicable here — it is at once a commitment to someone specific — I mean, I relate it to heartbreak — yet at the same time an inability to go back, a loss of interest in the world at large.

… I always have in the back of my mind that Radiohead line, from Fog, “How did you go back, did you go back?”

So I think that the error, or a kind of impasse that I encountered here, when I thought about painting, was to attept to descriptively describe such a moment — I attributed it to a kind of emptying out the world. I mean, that’s why I became stuck, because I saw it as a formal shift within painting. But this is understandable, since we want to, eventually, make grandiose connections here, as regards to this moment.

I mean, this is why the “animal sophistication” argument is so important. I’m subscribed to a science blog and every week or so there is some new study that reveals how calculating and pragmatic animals can be. And this really makes one pause and wonder — behavior can’t be encoded genetically — and we can’t even relate it to a kind of ritual or habit (or even — what is ritual, after all, but supported by a kind of calculating, speculative rationality) — which really means that animals are thinking. This is the recurrent lesson here, it seems to me. I once tried to write some essays about the elaborte behavior of the jewel wasp and it seems to me that, in the end, all those efforts failed because there is undeniably a kind of thinking there.

By “thinking”, I am claiming more than, that concepts or at least equivalence classes are our (and the animal’s) basic access to reality. I am actually saying that there is some way in which animals behave as calculating entities, that they sort of understand these equivalence classes as concepts, as something that can be manipulated. Manipulation is very different from merely saying that equivlence classes are our access to reality — it is something that, for example, Star Trek isn’t even able to ascribe to Vulcans.

… as I was saying, the animal sophstication argument is important because we no longer want to argue for systemic shifts in the perception of reality — since we are asserting a continuity between all sentience — but rather we want to ask about the influence of specific insights. A few days ago I wrote about Spelunky and that is really, for me, the takeaway there — that there is a sweet spot, a Spelunkian sweet spot which we must remembe about our understanding, a sweet spot so easy to simply go past and forget. If there is a continuity in sentient intelligence then the real questions of origins is the way in which these insights take hold of us, as in Spelunky, and lead to this dreamlike state or the singular insight.

Now, returning to Heart of Darkness … well, for painting, the real occurence is not formal shift — rather, the formal shift is the specific insight and not the dreamlike sensation. Basically we have the general notion of painting progressing towards a kind of … “representationalism”. With perspectival painting, the vanishing point, or with still lifes, etc., there is a kind of loss of interest (cf, Boy of Winander) in the games that we play with painting, within painting. The whole thing seems kind of artificial. Now this is not to say that there is an end to mysticicsm. But there is, I believe, a kind of formal shift that recurs throughout various different genres: it can be thought of as a movement towards the pun, towards a kind of more abstract mysticism perhaps. Let me just paste here a segment from that draft:

Consider, for example, the development of painting: the time of relgious painting is now past. I mostly have in mind, and this is sort of an idiosyncratic link, something like Bosch, his elaborate paintings of hell, but there are plenty of other paintings that would function as well. There is a certain point, past the middle ages or something, when painting ceased to be allegorical, or allegorical in so direct a way. This seems to me like a vague loss of interest in the symbolic, which is not to say that paintings became representational, or that symbols ceased to exist. But rather, their role is now more indirect. As a kind of banal example, when we look at a more modern painting, like, say, a bowl of fruit, it would be missing the point to ask whether the apple is, say, supposed to represent sin or something, as the apple from the tree of knowledge. But nonetheless fruit continues to be a heavily symbolic element — I mean, why fruit? It is stationary, it has many colors — well, these sound like pragmatic considerations, but really they aren’t, since the question becomes why we are interested in things that are stationary or colorful, and the answer is that we have for some reason become concerned with the very moment of seeing — holding in abeyance the question of specific theories of seeing. Is seeing, for example, necessarily a ‘moment’ — can we be occupied with seeing? It really isn’t, but that’s part of the story that the bowl of fruit tells us. Is there a pure moment of seeing, some moment of aesthetic pleasure, some abstract understanding of color and form? Again, no, but these are part of the elaborate myth of the still-life, or at least one understanding, a kind of mythical background that isn’t really any less elaborate or populated than Bosch’s painting of hell, perhaps.

There is an eventness, a kind of violent singular eventness, a point of no return, to painting, but the nature of this movement is not really formal, though we tend to think of it as such. We are caught up in formal movements, we take on new ways of life, new behaviors, we become avante garde or something, but by that point we have forgotten about that initial insight, maybe we have lost it, or maybe we have internalized the trappings so much that it has become inevitable for all the wrong reasons. I mean, it is a weakness of we humans that we cling to some notion of an irreversible overcoming.

For Heart of Darkness we are concerned with the singular occurence of Kurtz and the dreamlike sensation of, perhaps, the jungle. In the final scene Marlow speaks of the trees that whisper, the “horror, the horror” and remarks:

Never see him! I saw him clearly enough then. I shall see this eloquent phantom as long as I live, and I shall see her too, a tragic and familiar Shade, resembling in this gesture another one, tragic also, and bedecked with powerless charms, stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream, the stream of darkness.


Progress Report

August 27, 2013

Well — boss — I actually have two drafts over the course of the last few days, one on painting, and another on a theory of history. I feel they are both pretty good but don’t feel complete in themselves — but I feel like they still give me something to think about. But here, I want to explore the consequences of what I call the “origins question error”, OQE let’s call it for short, and hopefully we will get a chance to talk about some historical applications of this principle.

Because I say so

Recently, and also in my drafts — well, let me just tell you about the draft on a theory of history I just wrote. The whole idea was that there was a kind of euphoria of freedom for the historian when he realizes that we are disconnected from our origins, for example, that our current society is not the one where language arose. I mean, this is the basic flaw of conservativism, and really of living in the world: that we cannot understand ourselves in this way. We cannot understand who we are by thinking about who we are at the present — and this in itself is a kind of historical paradox, but also, as we said, a sense of freedom for the speculative historian.

Now Conrad famously said of Heart of Darkness that he wanted to “make you see“. This phrase has taken on a new meaning to me — well, consider that the above sense of euphoria gives way to a kind of stress, the stress of having to say “because I say so”. The OQE has far reaching consequences — it doesn’t merely say that the present is not the source of our origin, more, it seems to render all explanations of what something *is* suspect (since really, when we ask what something is we often mean, “what is its origin?). That is, it is not merely an appeal to look further back in history, but to the need for the *speculative*: for making connections where no causal chain exists — it is in some sense a critique of *all* causal chains.

Well, to be more specific, it puts a limitation on our ability to decode the origins of our ideas. We have ideas *about things* at present, and it would be an error to believe that those things that we have ideas about are the *cause* of those ideas. I’m not actually saying that we should look to psychology for fundamental causes, but I’m saying that we could have ideas about things that don’t exist. Let me develop this by way of an anecdote:

Last night, on facebook, one of my friends was raising a ruckus about how we shouldn’t be so caught up in the Miley Cyrus VMA (Video music awards) scandal — I guess she had this really slutty dance or something — not when there are diseases and wars, etc.. Well, she didn’t say this, but she quoted an important sounding blog that did. For some reason this issue fascinated me, and I wrote, in response:

I’m a not all that stoic with the news — I’m not sure if this is cynical. If it interests me personally than I read it, if not, then I tend to ignore it. Sometimes the logics for pop cultural events are pretty intricate, while on the other hand there’s only so much you can say about wars and disease. I’ve decided that something interests you because of its complexity rather than because it panders to “baser instincts”. So, I honestly think if you really like porn it’s probably because you find it interesting or logically complex. The potential for self-transformation isn’t perhaps to force yourself to be concerned about the big issues, to force yourself to take interest in boring things, but rather to work out why you find it interesting, or to opportunize on moments for thinking.

For me, this exchange gets at this the precise sense in which the origins of our ideas are a mystery. I am not saying that we need to look at fundamental psychological forces, but rather, that there is a mystery to how we respond to things, a kind of fascination — tha we don’t respond to things “as they are”, but when they seem to take on some other significance. So, in this case — I mean, let me just say that I didn’t find Miley Cyrus’s dance all that interesting, I didn’t even bother looking it up, mostly because I don’t find it the least bit arousing — but I do make the argument that it is the fascinating and mysterious things that we find important, and that to force ourselves to concern ourselves with the bigger world may be passing up oppurtunities for insight. I mean, I would even argue that the war in the Middle East (which the article brought up as an example for being more important) may perhaps be understood — or at least, new insights gained, indirectly, via Miley Cyrus and the intricate sort of moral outrage that arises there.

I mean, speaking personally, I *was* inexplicably interested in the Zimmerman trial — but there are problems there as well. I mean, the problem with the Zimmerman trial is that everything is pre- or overdeterimined — it is about, basically, an incredibly fast escalation, towards the decision, probably on both sides, that the other person needed to die. This escalation was caused by a series of gestures, clothing choices, words, fragments and so on — which is fine, by the way. I’m not saying we need to slow down and understand who people REALLY are, since I’m not all that interested in what we’d find there due to my misanthropy. I was obviously pro-Zimmerman, but mostly — or rather, in a large part — because I saw one set of actions as being beneficial to society, or at least to me and my kind. At stake was a battle over the future, in a sense. But this is the error, the error of “conservativism”, of believing that the present world holds the origins to (and the keys for preserving) who we are, or, more compactly — that we are not who we are at present. The paradox is that such a gut reaction is, on the one hand, an error of conservativism and overdetermination, but on the other hand a seeing of things that *aren’t present* — at once error and potential insight.

This is why “make you see”, which is a further transformation of my formula “because I say so”, is so fascinating: because it speaks of seeing things that aren’t present perhaps at the very moment when we are so caught up in the present. This is a running theme of Heart of Darkess, perhaps the instance that comes most readily to mind is that moment when Marlow decides to throw his shoes overboard for no real reason. This is actually a recurring theme in the entire book, where people tend “overreact” to things — to react to something else in the logics of the present. So, the entire story regarding our attitude towards origins is that, from the euphoria of the freedom to historically speculate, we move to the stress of having to say, “because I say so”, and finally to the hope, in “making you see”, that there are nonetheless moments when we may come into contact with origins — specifically, those moments of reacting to things which aren’t really there.

Sophisticated Animals

A short word on animals and thinking. There is this whole notion that langauge fundamentally changes who we are, or that there is some fundamental difference between how humans and animals think. I don’t think this is actually true, I think that generalization, concepts, objects, etc. are an aspect of perception (or at least, sentient perception) as such, and not specific to humans. This gives us, on the one hand,  a kind of sweeping understanding of the world, and on the other hand, an attentiveness to particular moments. That is, on the one hand, I don’t think that we need to “forget who we are” in order to understand other cultures — that jhh                                                               jhpb, for example, we need to forget concepts of good and evil, self and other, criminality, lying, joking, and especially, *rational calculation* in order to understand another culture. Numerous behavorial studies have shown that there is a kind of rational, even numeric, calculation implicit in the behavior of animals. And much of the error of our understanding other cultures — which is basically the “Star Trek Error”, let’s call it. I mean, there, alien races were seen as somehow more noble, more honorable, etc. Both the Klingons and the Vulcans are somehow *incapable of crime* as Kirk is. Kirk is a kind of noble rascal. But this actually applies fairly generally to our understanding of all cultures — and maybe we have already overcome this bit of naivete — that somehow only “advanced” intelligences are capable of lying and crime. There is some saying that goes that “only humans kill for pleasure” or something but this is obviously not true.

But, as we were saying, on the other hand, despite this sweeping understanding of history, extending back perhaps even before civilization, as at least partly a history of crime, it also gives us a way to deal with specific historical arisings — namely, as reactions, perhaps even rational and calculating, to things or even objects that don’t exist.
Limitations of Painting
zeros, undeniable arisings, origins of language

The Kurtz Problem in Heart of Darkness

August 21, 2013

Kurtz is actually quite an interesting postulate by Conrad. It raises the question of the realtionship between evil — or at least “badness”, or evil in a comic book villian sense — and truth. Well, there is another form of “evil” in the book which is a kind of nihilism, the accepted criminality of the manager. This seems actually relevant in history, as, so the story goes, most efforts to overthrow a stagnant or criminal (ie, where criminality is accepted) system often end up themselves being an abuse of power.

And by “truth”, I mean a kind of reflective awareness, and more generally, some sense of understanding, some moment of being cut off from the past. There was something genuine about Kurtz which could not be reduced to shock and awe or simply the promise, the promise of another way of life, of power, and so on. I suppose that Heart of Darkenss could be about a kind of rock-and-hard-place situation in revolutionary history but at least there is the implication that Kurtz is somehow more closely allied with truth or a kind of truth movement. Well, when we think about truth we usually think of some kind of revelational process, but this is not the model I want to go after here. Rather I want to emphasize the “critical” nature of truth, of truth as negation. Most startling of all I want to consider truth as a kind of power over reality. Well, preliminary formulas may not be all that useful here, so let’s try another approach.

The basic oopposition I want to argue here is between the oneness of truth and the manyness of, not so much lie, but stagnation. Earlier we thought about stagnation or error as associated with a pursuit of promise, an exoticism, of other lands, and so on. That is, error is associated with the belief that the manyness of human concepts, or human distinctions, is in fact an essential manyness. This leads to a kind of stagnation in flourishing, which may be the paradox of the “golden age” — that the time of the production of countless distinctions is also a time of error. There are two things I want to talk about in this context, “allegory” and “nihlism”.

“Allegory” — Now the basic function of art of any form (this term being used very vaguely) is actually, not representation or simulation, but as a commentary on the nature of our interaction with art. For example, all video games are allegorizations of the compex activity of memorization, reaction, strategy, and decision-making, usually towards “humanism” or the established of a stable identity — within *many* other identities. And a book, as another example, is an allegory of reading. Being able to read a book, and not consider it “all that”, I mean, to consider it a mundane and natural activity, is a consequence of the book being a kind of commentary on our the mental activity of reading — and this, too, gets towards the notion of manyness of identity, and so forth. There are, for example, many genres of books, all of which are supported by an allegorization that maintains the stability of the essential manyness of such experiences.

“Nihilism” — Well, there is an attitude that simply dismisses this manyness, such as, for example, as a way to make money. This is attitude of Hollywood who churns out all these blockbusters that “tick the right boxes” and so on. Yet this attitude, really, doesn’t deny the essential manyness of such an experience, it is simply considers this manyness pyschologically.

The oneness of truth sounds almost like a scientific insight, but it is really, and this was my big insight yesterday, requires our own effort, ie, is a matter of insistence and participation. I don’t want to say, “contrivance”, as there is a kind of honesty to the insistence on oneness. And furthermore, this oneness is not a kind of overall awareness but rather precisely linked to the ability to *see* some agent. It may be associated with a kind of *loss of interest* in the manyness, a kind of melancholy even.

Let me relate a kind of personal example. I’ve recently been playing a video game called Spelunky. This game is quite fascinating in a very subtle sort of way, which is why it has been the source of some very interesting reviews — one reviewer speculated that it would be a great way to teach his (hypothetical daughter) about the ways of reality. (And why not a son? I wonder.) What’s so interesting about the game is that there is a kind of trickery involved — it looks and plays like a very standard platformer but it contains many elements that are all but impossible to react to but which can, on the other hand, be overcome with very simple methods once we are aware of them. The game requires either inhuman amounts of concentration and awareness or a kind of extrordinary patience that we normally aren’t used to maintaining for something so trivial. One reviewer said something to the effect that the lesson of the game is, “Don’t be a hero”. The most successful way for an ordinary human to play the game might be in the most cowardly manner possible, ie, In short, 1 or 2 second bursts of activity, followed by an assessment of all the risks, including any introduced by one’s own errors. One has to respond to the most apparently harmless missteps in a very serious way.

But this game is very interesting, and the language of the reviewers — and it is all but pointless to give a technical, descriptive account of the game — reveals an understanding of the allegorical stakes involved. Heroism, cowardice, father, daughter, teaching, etc. are all very interesting wasy to respond to a game that, superficially, is about going into a cave and collecting treasure. (Of course, in some way, all these elements can be found in the game itself, but as puns — and this would be the first step towards an allegorical understandign of Spelunky.) On the one hand, these elements point towards a new holism of gameplay, a new genre of games. But on the other hand, there is a kind of “sweet spot” to stop before one reaches such a point, which is the moment of, well, the greatest evocation of truth in the above sense. The game seems antagonistic to our efforts to construct an identity, one among many, in the world, it realizes the way, for example, video games tend to encourage the etablishing of the self in the world of an essential manyness and seems actively to hinder that process. More than one review have related — however meaningfully — the game to a kind of “father”, to a kind of stern and arbitrary one, one would imagine (– and is it necessarily one who has the best interests of the player at heart?). That sweet spot is that moment when the game becomes either a commentary on the very construction of the manyness of our identity, or, and maybe this is something equivalent in some sense, a fascinating and antagonistic agent of disruption.


A Love Letter to Spelunky

August 18, 2013

I furrowed my brow
Drained the rest of my canteen
And thought of her one last time
— (Randomized) opening narration to Spelunky

Spelunky ( is definitely one of my favorite games of all time — I’m not sure if it matters that the creator is Chinese. You can definitely read something into that I think, I was thinking about it the other day, when I died in the most ridiculous fashion for the Nth time and it sort of dawned on me that the game was designed to reward prudence rather than memorization. It felt like I was being taught a lesson, a Chinese sort of lesson. That is, the game is meant to be “unfair” to how we usually play — by becoming familiar with the surroundings and rushing through things. For example, ther is an arrow trap that is almost entirely harmless as long as you see it — like so many other things in this game — mostly harmless as long as you can plan for it. But if your rush through the trap will strike with a speed that is almost entirely impossible to respond to.

This is not an atypical response to Spelunky. Someone from Eurogamer recently wrote a review to the effect that it would be a great way to educate his daughter, by making her play this game. It tends to draw out that sort of reflective consideration. The emphasis on planning rather than memorization, on the dangers of assumptions, and so on.

Spelunky hails from a genre called “roguelikes” (fast becoming the genre for independent developers) that emphasizes difficulty, the combination of simple rules towards complex ends (usually resulting in death), and randomization. Perhaps the key aspect of roguelikes however, I mean, the principle upon which the above descriptive characteristics are founded, is the generation of reflective stories. The point of roguelikes, many a player may realize in a zen sort of moment, is not victory, nor doing one’s best, but the generation of interesting adventures. It’s fine to lose as long as one does it in an interesting way, in a way that, for example, reveals one’s own unexpected assumptions, or an entirely unexpected aspect of the universe, and so on. Of course, despite its emphasis on randomization, there is an overarching narrative of world view to roguelikes, which is what players of Spelunky pick up on.

This gets a at a general principle of game design. Game design is not the generation of a predefined experience, or a simulation of some form, but rather more of a kind of haphazard and sometimes random commentary on the player’s experience. One of the most fascinating aspects of roguelikes is that there is nothing really “outside the game”, I mean, in a game about “rogues”, about the exploitation of weakness, there is quite possibly no such thing as playing the game in a way that was “unintended”. And not even, perhaps, that, as they say, “the devteam thinks of everything”, that the game has completedly thought out all the N! interactions or whatever, but rather because the game comments on everything.

There are many striking aspects, in this regard, about Spelunky. Many have commented on its emphasis on a kind of internal reflection — as may be reflected from the (randomly generated) opening lines. It actually generates these reflections because it is enormously difficult — but in a particular kind of way. It is not difficult because it requires technical input or elaborate memorization, in other words, because of its learning curve but rather precisely because it is engineered, on some level, to defeat the learning curve, as much as that is possible. There are moments when one realizes that one is getting worse at the game. But, stepping back a bit, this is the sort of dialogue that we come to have with Spelunky, a kind of event that seems to occur on a different level altogether.

In general, a game may perhaps be defined by that territory that it claims ownership of, I mean, its field of commentary. The roguelike, traditionally conceived, provides a commentary on the windfalls, misfortunes, errors, gambits of the player within the system of the game. But there is another sort of commentary, which is why many find this game so endlessly fascinating, which derives from the way in which Spelunky anticipates how we approach games, our relationship to games in general and our relationship to memory. In this respect it also seems to reveal, in some sense, how stale the roguelike genre is in danger of becoming.

The Error of Otherness

August 13, 2013

The basic problem is the insight at the standstill. I can conceive of three approaches. (1) Otherness — but the problem with the philosophy of otherness is that it is, at the same time, so incredibly weak and yet all too powerful — not strong enough to concentrate power yet at the same time a massive drain on resources. (2) The idea of a historical, psychological *experience* of otherness, I mean, which would focus not on the pursuit of otherness but rather the historical model that involves that insight as motion (3) a kind of absolute selfishness, but also the most concrete, most focused — to conceive of that moment as an event that had *already been incorporated*.

Kurtz and Theories of History

August 9, 2013

History *is* power, I mean, the writing of history and not in the sense of events of the past — I guess we can use the word, historiography. This is sort of like the claim that “knowledge is power”, or that how on perceives the world influences how one approaches it. I actually have a variation of the formula in my notes: “Humanism can only be defeated by a *stronger* (ie, more convincing) historical theory.” This is actually quite interesting, since it seems to suggest that truth or rigor — “more convincing” — is itself a kind of power — rejecting the notion that lying, deception, brainwashing, etc. are the origins of power, such as, eg, Marx’s “Religion is the opiate of the masses.”

There is a kind of paradox that even I had forgotten (I must of at least once have been aware of it) regarding the word “crime” and my analysis of the relationship between history and crime in the last entry. There are two paradoxes, or rather two variation of the same paradox:

(1) Consider the (Benjaminian) quote, (something to the effect of) “at the origin of every great fortune is a great crime.” Now, passing over the liberal understanding for now and considering the conservative one: that all accomplishments somehow involve exploiting the established system — but is it *really* a crime? Isn’t it rather, at least most of the time, at least in the cases that the quote is referring to, more of a kind of accepted cheating, so that no one is being cheated at all?

(2) My definition of crime was independent of “law” (“The purpose of law is actually to legalize certain forms of crime”, I said) because crime, unlike law, is not based on culture (sort of like Kant’s distinction between the ‘a priori’ and the ‘a posteri’) but rather derived from the existence of criminal intent, which I casually defined as “lying, stealing, cheating”. But with the considerations above, is it really lying? Isn’t this lying based on some model of history, and therefore, some accepted kind of lying that fools nobody? The whole understanding of Apocalypto, remember, is not so much exploitation but rather *tolerated* or *humanized* crime, crime that ceases to be a crime!

But — returning to the question of what we can call for now ‘historiography’ — this principle of history and power feels very radical and very simple. … By the way, I have Benjamin’s ‘Thesis on the Philosophy of History’ in the back of my mind here, and particularly that line — “and historical materialism can win all of history, but only if it enlists the aide of theology, which is wizened and must be kept out of sight.” Well, the whole essay seems to be about a kind of empty, phyrric, “intellectual’s” victory — *unless* we keep in mind that ‘historiography’ isn’t merely the debate over who is right or wrong about the past but rather the very understanding of the present moment in the course of history, is ‘power as such’ — and this is indeed what he is proposing. This is such a radical point that it seems applicable even to animals and to the prelinguistic — that they are influenced via a model of history.

For the case of Heart of Darkenss there is the temptation to view Kurtz as simply bringing a kind of “shock and awe” to the natives … sort of like one of the tropes of the Twlight Zone (and maybe this is too obscure a reference?) where the person able to produce fire from a lighter is revered as a god — but what if, in contrast, Kurtz’s power derived from a recasting of history — not, in other words, from promises of power, fear, etc., but rather from a kind of expository knowledge?

Well, let be more precise here. Whenever we move away from ‘humanism’ we move towards a more internal sort of conflict, and history as a projection of that conflict. (And in this case, I suppose, we head towards ‘peace’, as if ‘internalization’ led to peace, but actually not really — since there is then the distinction between those who understand the tension and those who don’t.) And I recently realized the error of dwelling on ‘the psychotic’, since the psychotic is basically linked to that (non)criminality we discussed above — the psychotic is only one side of this conflict. And this is why most of the white people really just ‘mind their own business’.

I actually have in mind light and darkness, which are insights into the sign, allegories of readings. I suppose light can be associated with the white people? Well, not getting too far ahead of ourselves, it is actually associated with an *illumination*, a lighting, the movement towards light — but not in the sense of the illumination of the world or some object, but rather, as the *negation of darkness*, which is now seen as a ‘symptom’. That is, though these terms refer to some object, they actually refer to *each other* — and just to be explicit about our overall argument: I want to claim that Kurtz is someone able to comprehend this motion or this orbit, somehow. He is *both*, somehow, his words somehow evoke the truth about history and about the world.

This movement from light to darkness, and vice versa, is the engine of the world, the orbit of history. And yet light and darkness are not all that different — they are all but indistinguishable, actually, since they seem to bring our critical oversights in the other.


Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto

August 6, 2013

Faulkner has this short story called ‘Was’ about a little game, a hunt, being played by two plantation owners and their escaped black half-brother. But the title speaks of some event that ‘has occured’, the past perfect. It is a formulation or a thinking of the possibility of a non-criminal way of living — neither young nor criminal.

I recently wrote a note, on Facebook, about Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto’ that pointed out its grand historical message — the historical thesis there is what makes that movie exceptional — and it seems to me to be the most *political* movie I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t think I’ve made any secret of my … distaste or distrust of Obama. For me, and for Mel Gibson, the times seem a lot darker than the mind numbingly stupid concerns of that president — and Mel Gibson is, you know, a white guy, and probably somewhat anti-semetic, so not underprivileged or anything. But Apocalypto is a dark movie, a dark dark movie about civilization and culture in general, something that paints a picture but doesn’t put oneself as a shining beacon of light and hope. His understanding is basically of a nihilistic, culture, a culture of decay, of sickness, these being Nietzschean concerns. And, unlike what the extremists of liberals and conservatives think, this sickness cannot possibly be cured by simply being more righteous.

The thought occurs to me: that, while history as usually understood is nothing but the documentation of criminal exploits (and there is nothing wrong with crime, *per se*, crime is not inherently morally bad, that is, crime, law, and morality are all independent) — well, there is indeed the question, that Apocalyto raises, of the *right sort of crime*, ie, if criminality — that is, lying, stealing, cheating — is universal. But there is also the question of specific ways of criminality. I mean, the question is: if all crime is the same, are the centers of power nonetheless different? And is it our task, I mean, the task of society, to control that power.

Are the Mayans corrupt, decaying, old, or are they on the verge of a *new arisings* of power that they can’t quite control?

All this is related, for me, to ‘Was’. Was refers to the completed story and the completed event of that story. It is related to what I called ‘whereness’, or the opposition between where? and who? (the former being better).
Was is an attempt to conceive of a new way of living, one that would not be ‘criminal’, at first, it seems, in a strictly technical way. Yet we do have to grasp the technical possibility before we set our sights on grander objectives. And in any case, we’ve already dismissed the workings of more advanced civilizational rituals as merely a facade for an underlying criminality or bad faith.

In Apocalypto I get the idea there of the exploitation of insight. That apparently innocent act seems to be the foundation of all this. I mean, considering human sacrifices — there have been theories of it being, for example, an intimidation regime, a kind of suppression, or even a means of population control. But all this doesn’t get at the basic pretense towards *utility* that justifies *criminal* acts. That is, not ‘as a facade’ for the act, but the very blatant, bare, criminality of it, crime justified *as* crime. We are not even talking about religion any longer, perhaps, or if we are, our analysis is far more sophisticated than simply faith, speculative belief, and so on: since the endurance of all religions requires, as above, the justification of crime *as* crime.

I’m always reminded of that scene in ‘Life of Brian’ where there is some poor chap in a dungeon defending crucifixion. The funniest exchange in that scene for me was always:

‘So what do you think they’ll do to me?’
‘Oh, well, first offence … you’ll probably get away with crucifixion.’

This sort of subconscious support for, say, human sacrifice, *as crime* is what I am trying to get at, as outrageous as that sounds. Bracket off entirely the consequences, the pain, the spectacle, and so on: fundamentally all rituals are justified in the form of some kind of utility. Well, I misspoke — I am not talking about some kind of pragmatism, but some effect, some external effect — some relationship to the sign. A good metaphor for this, I heard this from somebody, was ‘standing outside a party looking in’: there was this scene in Great Gatsby apparently, I’m not sure if it was the movie or the book, where Nick, at a party, looks out the window and imagines what it would be like on the streets looking in — as perhaps the only way to experience the party. So it is this sort of broad, subconscious support that sustains criminality — and these sort of beliefs are not entirely separate from religious imaginations or allegories. Oh sure, there are psychopathic manipulators, and on the other end of the spectrum, genuine fanatics, but even they depend on that understanding, even if they carry it further than most.

So I think that it is in this context that something like Was, which seems far too technical in some respects — I mean, there is nothing *obviously political* about it — can be understood. It at the very least refocuses the question away from the effects, the consequences, the educational value, etc. — which will inevitably justify the status quo, even and especially if it comes from the left — towards the question of the sign itself, our relationship to the sign as an outsider looking in.

Was creates a holism that is hyperconscious in its avoidance of…

Insight and Blindness

August 1, 2013

Insight might be a “bad” thing, even thought it, as a moment of reversal, feels so authentic. Instead, I propose this notion of “intentionality”, which is something less than an insight, yet more stable as well. I also want to speak about “interest” and “the zero”.

We might be getting too old for insight, we will need to outgrow it, if that makes sense. Let me give a personal example. The latest insight I had involved the “darkness” of Heart of Darkness. This is sort of related to the idea that HoD is “boring”. But the idea is that Conrad pretty much intentionally wrote so that there were no real descriptions there to be had, no real vision there. I became aware of just how dark the world was, for example, just how broken up it was, just how little the words provided towards imagery. This insight, or rather this situation, is highly paradoxical — since, at the the very moment that I understand Heart of Darkness to have no vision, I thereby gain of vision of that text, which is, “darkness”. More than that, I gain a total, holistic understanding of the text or some fragment of the text — or more precisely, I gain a vision of intentionalities, perhaps even “external, manipulative intentions” as we had been speaking of in this blog.

But the fact is that the text is never ‘boring’, or equivalently, holistic. I mean, “boring” is equivalent here to “insight” — it basically means that we need not read the text anymore because have grasped the holistic formula there. It’s never boring because it is always possible to engage with it, and to ask questions of it, which it will answer. (Well, just as a side note, along the same lines, there is no difference between an active reading and a passive, appreciative reading. There is indeed the sense that, if we are unlucky, we may have to ask questions of the text so that we may get lucky with our understanding, as someone who has, accidentally, already picked up some key to the text will not have to — but the point is that the latter is not more “natural” than the former, they would be the same.) The text is never boring because it is always interesting to somebody, in other words — and this is because all readings speak to each other, and are not merely interpretations. Anyone who finds the text interesting will see, in those who find it boring, a symptomatic misunderstanding. (Again, boring and it’s opposite, interesting, relate to the question of whether we can “read” the text without understand each individual word, whether a “familiar” understanding is possible. Boring basically means, “familiar”.)

It’s actually not so much a paradox as an error, or rather, an initial insight and then a blindness. The initial insight is negative, it actually critiques earlier understandings of the text that claim that, for example, the darkness is the darkness of the human psyche. No — rather, the darkness is the darkness of being unable to see, it is the darkness of intention — the human psyche thing assumes an vision of the text. But then this negative insight because a positive vision, not only of the text, but also (the two always come together) of the world that produces the text.

But the question is, is this a necessary error, or is there some stability to be had here: is it possible to read a text at all, if every development of an insight leads inevitably to failure and blindness. I believe it is, ‘yes’, bug at this point it is an optimistic hunch. I want to suggest a few possibilities, and talk about three things: (1) participation (2) interest (3) the zero.

(1) Participation: Right after paragraph 60, which we talked about in the last entry, there comes a kind of “intermission” moment, a fascinating moment really, when the narrator of the frame narrative takes over for about a paragraph, as Marlow stops talking for awhile in order to take a drag off his cigarette. He pauses because he speaks of this “dream sensation” and the impossibility of ever communicating the feeling at any particular moment. These passages remind us of the task of Marlow, and what exactly he is trying to accomplish. There is a later moment when Marlow speaks about testimony and his “voice that cannot be silenced”. If Marlow is not really giving a story, then what is he doing? We shouldn’t try to postulate anything extravagent here, I mean, he is not being entirely manipulative — I mean, psychologically, he is performing a process that could be classified as storytelling, ie, recollection, communication, etc.. But — I noticed this first of all in the “grove of death” scene — we do notice that, in this process of recollection he is not attempting to duplicate that prior moment, as is the unstated purpose of most novels — well, nor is he trying to reflect back on a past moment with a clearer vision. But rather, he sort of picks and choses from the scene certain … pregnant symbols, I guess. For the grove of death scene, what the reader will notice is that there is very little empathy for the dying natives, which really isn’t as amoral as we would think — I mean, we shouldn’t rush to judgment on this matter. Marlow actually seems to read the scene in a literary way — he says, for example, that the native “let his head rest on his knees in an appalling manner”. “Appalling” is an interesting word to use at this point, it suggests an intentional effort by the victim, like that he was trying to appall me. So what is intersting is that, from a moral perspective, an attentiveness to intentionality might seem to lack empathy, but is actually the more attentive to the human as an intentional expressive agent, while empathy, on the other hand, in fact tends to see the human merely as “victim”. The other interesting thing about this passage is that Marlow is himself very much a participant. This becomes clear in this line, “I was shocked” — I mean, spoken flatly. There is no effort here to explain why he was shocked, no effort — as a creative writing guru might tell you — to “show, not tell”.

But, as we were saying, the process of “storytelling” here involves the attempt to pick out significant elements from the past. I mean, this is simply how thinking occurs in a very general sense. But there is no precise way to say what exactly Marlow is doing, well, no precise positive, descriptive way. Of course, we do speak about Marlow in the above passage, but these are of particular lines and motions. This may indeed be related to the whereness question we spoke of last time: the stability of the text derives from the ability, not so much to figure out the intentions of Marlow at a grand level (“participation”, yes, but this is not specific enough) but rather to identify where intentionality occurs.

(2) The critique of interest / democracy

(3) The zero / mathematics


Whereness of Heart of Darkness

August 1, 2013

There is a kind of fascinating scene, around paragraph 58, involving the brickmaker.

Whereness — What’s so interesting about this scene is that it thinks about a few different ways of thinking about what we’ve been calling ‘criminality’. So let’s talk first about this “brickmaker” of the central station. Marlow doesn’t really like him but you can’t blame him, I guess. He is a pragmatist, regards himself as a pragmatist, and has a great deal of resentment towards Kurtz, who he considers a kind of unaware hypocrite on some level. What’s interesting is the question of “whereness”, he isn’t fascinated with what Kurtz is, but he is troubled by where he may be, or where his influence may extend — and so he ends up mistaking Marlow for Kurtz’s co-conspirator.

So there is that — on the other hand, there is the literariness of the book itself, or of Marlow. There is an insight to be had involving certain passages, especially certain descriptive passages, where one realizes that Marlow might be choosing words that are evocative but not all that visual. The problem with intentionality here is comparable: again, we seem to know Marlow, so we are not really concerned with any kind of exotic intentionality. And yet even within this narrow field we still don’t really know where he is going. Again, the issue might be “whereness” rather than “whoness” — the book is on some level “about Marlow”, but Marlow is at the same time, not all that interesting, fairly well understood, yet still capable of anything here. There is Marlow the worker, or Marlow who expresses a kind of irrational hatred, or Marlow who maybe fucks with us, etc..

There is also a brief moment in those passages where there is a kind of grandiose moment that, unfortunately, may also be somewhat banal: “Beyond the fence the forest stood up spectrally in the moonlight, and through the dim stir, through the faint sounds of that lamentable courtyard, the silence of the land went home to one’s very heart, — its mystery, its greatness, and the amazing reality of its concealed life. The hurt nigger moaned feebly somewhere near by, and then fetched a deep sigh that made me mend my pace away from there.”

So this is definitely an interesting paragraph, on typing that out I was struck by the combination of the natural sublime and the lack of empathy. But these passages, recall, all started out with a hut catching on fire and one of the natives getting arbitrarily beaten for it. And so this native is here recovering from his wounds, but he will later go out back into the wilderness — “and the wilderness without a sound took him into its bosom again.” What itnerests me here is the the description of the forest that stands — “spectrally” — as if at attention, perhaps watching us or something else. The idea of a silence that “goes home to one’s very heart” reminds us of Wordsworth’s Boy of Winander, certainly. It goes home to one’s heart because the forest becomes a kind of intentionality that — is most definitely present, on some level, and perhaps even in this book. It is somewhat linked, for example, with the natives, who pass into its “bosom”.

There are two things I want to talk about here — the first is whether this form of intentionality is “greater” in some sense, or more important, than the “Kurtz problem” as conceived by the brickmaker. It might conflict somewhat with the “whereness” problem, since this seems more a matter of whoness. And yet whereness is definitely there still. But the way that it stands over the colony seems to remind us that there is something greater — but I don’t want to use the word greater here — but rather, something foreign, or maybe something related to what we called the “psychotic” earlier, and associated with a more fundamental, more alien manipulation — as opposed to what the bricklayer conceives of Kurtz as doing, as basically being a hypocrite. But this sort of manipulation still involves symbols — and that’s sort of like a big insight we had — that an alien, manipulative presence is not “before” or “more primitive than” language — we brought up Nietzsche’s metaphor of a coin that has been rubbed out so that it resembles metal in this regard, as a metaphor for language.

The other thing is the word “heart” — heart, bosom — in any case, this is a distinctively Marlowian word, it feels like. Sort of like the word, “bewitched” from a few paragraphs earlier, when he tells us that the pilgrims stood, as if bewitched, within a fenced in courtyard. There are certain moments when one realizes that, and maybe this is an aspect of the recollection of the text, that there is nothing to see in this text. A heart is an object, and it seems there, but it is absolutely invisible. The book is far from an objective account where we are free to form our own judgments, but rather, is a memory of Marlow who seems to be trying to peice together something — a Marlow that seems more interested in significance, and who, perhaps, is not so much describing as establishing a kind of correspondence between that moment and the present retelling. So this word also links this scene to more literary problems,

So, in conclusion, what is intersting in this scene are the ways in which these three levels of intentionality — those of the company or the project, that of nature, and that of Marlow, all seem to coexist and seem to inform one another. Are they fundamentally “about” one thing? And how are they related to history, and to power?