Auden: aspects of our present Weltanschauung

Looking for something in Auden, I hit another passage, about human nature, art, tradition and originality (below), that I couldn’t put my finger on when I last needed it a few months ago. We’re edging towards the World Brain, but it can’t come fast enough:

It seems possible that in the near future, we shall have microscopic libraries of record, in which a photograph of every important book and document in the world will be stowed away and made easily available for the inspection of the student…. The general public has still to realize how much has been done in this field and how many competent and disinterested men and women are giving themselves to this task. The time is close at hand when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica. — H G Wells, ‘The Brain Organization of the Modern World’ (1937)

Auden. I’ve often referred to this passage and am very happy to make it ready to hand through pinning it here:

3) The loss of belief in a norm of human nature which will always require the same kind of man-fabricated world to be at home in. … until recently, men knew and cared little about cultures far removed from their own in time or space; by human nature, they meant the kind of behaviour exhibited in their own culture. Anthropology and archaeology have destroyed this provincial notion: we know that human nature is so plastic that it can exhibit varieties of behaviour which, in the animal kingdom, could only be exhibited by different species.

The artist, therefore, no longer has any assurance, when he makes something, that even the next generation will find it enjoyable or comprehensible.

He cannot help desiring an immediate success, with all the danger to his integrity which that implies.

Further, the fact that we now have at our disposal the arts of all ages and cultures, has completely changed the meaning of the word tradition. It no longer means a way of working handed down from one generation to the next; a sense of tradition now means a consciousness of the whole of the past as present, yet at the same time as a structured whole the parts of which are related in terms of before and after. Originality no longer means a slight modification in the style of one’s immediate predecessors; it means a capacity to find in any work of any date or place a clue to finding one’s authentic voice. The burden of choice and selection is put squarely upon the shoulders of each individual poet and it is a heavy one.

It’s from ‘The Poet and The City’, which I think appeared first in the Massachusetts Review in 1962 and was then included in The Dyer’s Hand (1963). Lots in this essay. ‘There are four aspects of our present Weltanschauung which have made an artistic vocation more difficult than it used to be.’ The others:

1) The loss of belief in the eternity of the physical universe. … Physics, geology and biology have now replaced this everlasting universe with a picture of nature as a process in which nothing is now what it was or what it will be.

We live now among ‘sketches and improvisations’.

2) The loss of belief in the significance and reality of sensory phenomena. … science has destroyed our faith in the naive observation of our senses: we cannot … ever know what the physical universe is really like; we can only hold whatever subjective notion is appropriate to the particular purpose we have in view. This destroys the traditional conception of art as mimesis …

4) The disappearance of the Public Realm as the sphere of revelatory personal deeds. To the Greeks the Private Realm was the sphere of life ruled by the necessity of sustaining life, and the Public Realm the sphere of freedom where a man could disclose himself to others. Today, the significance of the terms private and public has been reversed; public life is the necessary impersonal life, the place where a man fulfils his social function, and it is in his private life that he is free to be his personal self.

The electric garden of our minds

Last month, on my way back down the Euston Road after seeing the window displays at the Wellcome Trust, I had time to go to the Gagosian Gallery for Crash — Homage to J G Ballard. The experience was of overload, but I got the chance to pop back again last Thursday. Two visits certainly paid off.

… only a commercial gallery of this pulling power could manage the loans to flesh out Ballard’s text so grandiloquently; no museum could have responded so quickly, or quirkily, to the novelist’s death last year. The idea of a visual tribute to a writer is so marvellous and generous that one wishes it was as standard as a memorial service or an obituary. — Jackie Wullschlager, FT

As some reviewers have suggested, there are works on show here that seem … a little beside the point. All the same, some of these are striking:

Works with an, at-best, tangential connection to Ballard stand out, foremost being Paul McCarthy’s “Mechanical Pig”, an astonishingly life-like plastic sow cruelly wired up to machinery, twitching and heaving in a tortured coma. This freakshow attraction goes beyond sensationalism to bring us face to face with our mechanised use of livestock, and is a great example of contemporary art’s relationship with impact advertising. I was mesmerised by its laboured breaths, each one threatening to be its last. — Ballardian

I liked … the Eduardo Paolozzi:

Gagosian: Crash — Homage to Ballard

Three decades before Andy Warhol immortalized the Campbell’s Soup can, Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) was crowding childhood scrapbooks with images of American popular culture he found in old magazines, newspapers, and comic strips. … As the novelist J. G. Ballard noted in his introduction to General Dynamic F.U.N., “Here the familiar materials of our everyday lives, the jostling iconographies of mass advertising and consumer goods, are manipulated to reveal their true identities.”  Nothing is as it seems and irony abounds.  Lady Godiva rides a motorcycle; Christ’s image is profaned as a paint-by-number; flesh turns green and lettuce grows blue.  Paolozzi reconfigured unrelated images to form a tangle of references and connections, leading viewers in as many directions as there are ideas, images, and products in our modern world. — Saratoga Today

The artist’s friend and sometime collaborator, J.G. Ballard, described General Dynamic F.U.N as a ‘unique guidebook to the electric garden of our minds’. … For Paolozzi, the modern age, exposed as ephemera, is a necessarily fragmented collision of visual stimulus and influence, and his work is a ‘health warning for an uncreative and thriftless society’. — Southbank Centre

The Warhol, Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice), 1963 (reflected: Richard Prince — Elvis, 2007):

Gagosian: Crash — Homage to Ballard

The Jane and Louise Wilson DVD projections:

Gagosian: Crash — Homage to Ballard

Peter Campbell, writing in the LRB (about the exhibition’s catalogue):

On the page facing Allen Jones’s Archway (a sculpture in the Heathrow Hilton, Ballard’s favourite London building), you read that ‘sitting in its atrium one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human being. Within this remarkable building one could never fall in love, or need to.’ Even when the overlap between a work and anything Ballard wrote is accidental, or vague, there is common ground in his attention to the look of things. He saw them as a painter might. His language was precise and often technical: his vocabulary when cars are involved is that of a maintenance manual; his sex scenes look like an atlas of anatomy.

‘I’ve always wanted really to be a painter,’ he said in 1975. ‘My interest in painting has been far more catholic than my interest in fiction … I’ve said somewhere else that all my fiction consists of paintings. I think I always was a frustrated painter.’ He not only envied visual artists, he believed in their power. ‘I didn’t see exhibitions of Francis Bacon, Max Ernst, Magritte and Dalí as displays of painting,’ he wrote in 2003. ‘I saw them as among the most radical statements of the human imagination ever made, on a par with radical discoveries in neuroscience or nuclear physics.’ … In the catalogue Will Self writes of Ballard’s ability to see the nature of what has grown up around us: ‘Bleak man-made landscapes, technological, social and environmental developments and their psychological effects – these are aspects of the dystopian society we all live in now. Ballard may have started out as a science fiction writer, but his texts now read as social fact.’ …

Ballard’s sense of something wrong with the world our appetites and ingenuity have created makes ordinary things – suburbs, roads and high-rises – look different, as they might in the lurid glow of an approaching storm. It is a gift to art that has been appreciated.

The Independent has a nice gallery piece where Charlotte Cripps talks to some of the artists involved. Loris Gréaud:

J G Ballard was not in the future but in the ultra-present.

"If we want to contribute to some sort of tenable future" …

Artworks in general are increasingly regarded as seeds — seeds for processes that need a viewer's (or a whole culture's) active mind in which to develop. Increasingly working with time, culture-makers see themselves as people who start things, not finish them.

And what is possible in art becomes thinkable in life. We become our news selves first in simulacrum, through style and fashion and art, our deliberate immersions in virtual worlds. Through them we sense what it would be like to be another kind of person with other kinds of values. We rehearse new feelings and sensitivities. We imagine other ways of thinking about our world and its future. …

As artists and culture-makers begin making time, change and continuity their subject-matter, they will legitimise and make emotionally attractive a new and important conversation.
Brian Eno.

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Cooling down

Travelling back from the foothills of the Pyrenees, where it was very, very hot, and catching up on my feeds and email. Just read this from David Weinberger:

… there is no corrective for fallibility. We live in the breach between the world and how we take it. We are that breach. It closes only when they shovel the dirt over us. Until then, there are only degrees and modes of fallibility.

That doesn't mean the authorities have no authority. It does mean that there is nothing with total authority. We're stuck with always having the argument about what to believe because knowledge is a way to manage fallibility, not to escape it.

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That Douglas Adams post, finally

I must be the last person in the universe to have found this, but far better late than never. These substantial quotations are what I most like from his 1999 piece for The Sunday Times, 'How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet' — 1999! Amazing.

A couple of years or so ago I was a guest on Start The Week, and I was authoritatively informed by a very distinguished journalist that the whole Internet thing was just a silly fad like ham radio in the fifties, and that if I thought any different I was really a bit naïve. It is a very British trait – natural, perhaps, for a country which has lost an empire and found Mr Blobby – to be so suspicious of change. …

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are. …

Because the Internet is so new we still don’t really understand what it is. We mistake it for a type of publishing or broadcasting, because that’s what we’re used to. So people complain that there’s a lot of rubbish online, or that it’s dominated by Americans, or that you can’t necessarily trust what you read on the web. Imagine trying to apply any of those criticisms to what you hear on the telephone. Of course you can’t ‘trust’ what people tell you on the web anymore than you can ‘trust’ what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural scepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we can’t easily answer back – like newspapers, television or granite. Hence ‘carved in stone.’ What should concern us is not that we can’t take what we read on the internet on trust – of course you can’t, it’s just people talking – but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV – a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make. One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no ‘them’ out there. It’s just an awful lot of ‘us’.

Of course, there’s a great deal wrong with the Internet. For one thing, only a minute proportion of the world’s population is so far connected. … Another problem with the net is that it’s still ‘technology’, and ‘technology’, as the computer scientist Bran Ferren memorably defined it, is ‘stuff that doesn’t work yet.’ We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs. But there was a time when we hadn’t worked out how many legs chairs should have, how tall they should be, and they would often ‘crash’ when we tried to use them. Before long, computers will be as trivial and plentiful as chairs (and a couple of decades or so after that, as sheets of paper or grains of sand) and we will cease to be aware of the things. In fact I’m sure we will look back on this last decade and wonder how we could ever have mistaken what we were doing with them for ‘productivity.’

But the biggest problem is that we are still the first generation of users, and for all that we may have invented the net, we still don’t really get it. In ‘The Language Instinct’, Stephen Pinker explains the generational difference between pidgin and creole languages. A pidgin language is what you get when you put together a bunch of people – typically slaves – who have already grown up with their own language but don’t know each others’. They manage to cobble together a rough and ready lingo made up of bits of each. It lets them get on with things, but has almost no grammatical structure at all. However, the first generation of children born to the community takes these fractured lumps of language and transforms them into something new, with a rich and organic grammar and vocabulary, which is what we call a Creole. Grammar is just a natural function of children’s brains, and they apply it to whatever they find.

The same thing is happening in communication technology. Most of us are stumbling along in a kind of pidgin version of it, squinting myopically at things the size of fridges on our desks, not quite understanding where email goes, and cursing at the beeps of mobile phones. Our children, however, are doing something completely different. Risto Linturi, research fellow of the Helsinki Telephone Corporation, quoted in Wired magazine, describes the extraordinary behaviour kids in the streets of Helsinki, all carrying cellphones with messaging capabilities. They are not exchanging important business information, they’re just chattering, staying in touch. "We are herd animals," he says. "These kids are connected to their herd – they always know where it’s moving." Pervasive wireless communication, he believes will "bring us back to behaviour patterns that were natural to us and destroy behaviour patterns that were brought about by the limitations of technology."

We are natural villagers. For most of mankind’s history we have lived in very small communities in which we knew everybody and everybody knew us. But gradually there grew to be far too many of us, and our communities became too large and disparate for us to be able to feel a part of them, and our technologies were unequal to the task of drawing us together. But that is changing.

Interactivity. Many-to-many communications. Pervasive networking. These are cumbersome new terms for elements in our lives so fundamental that, before we lost them, we didn’t even know to have names for them.

Labyrinths and Internet

Fascinating, and frustrating, posting at things magazine: I'm not sure why the advent of 'global communications technology' is seen as leading to the demise of reliquaries, and I certainly don't date the going of the 'divine on the defensive' to about a 100 years ago — that's being going on since at least the sixteenth century. As Cornelius Ernst (see here, paras 6 & 7; Tim's address), my favourite twentieth century theologian, puts it: 'I cannot think of a single clerical philosopher of real distinction since the Middle Ages (and whether it is appropriate to speak of any medieval thinker as a 'philosopher' is of course problematic)'.

But I was interested by this (thanks to Matt Webb for drawing my attention to it):

The internet feels like a giant reliquary at times. … The web is also like being stuck in a giant uncatalogued library, with every dusty shelf offering up hidden treasures; you just have to hunt for them. Our mental picture is a combination of the Gormenghastian, before the great fire, and the octagonal library in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The latter was apparently inspired by the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, a brutalist construction by Mathers and Haldenby, in collaboration with Warner Burns Toan & Lunde. The library does have a medieval aspect , a fortress of knowledge (according to the Wikipedia, one of its nicknames is 'Fort Book'. It's also the subject of the widespread 'sinking library' urban legend).

Eco's fictional medieval library was strongly influenced by
Jorge Luis Borges, in particular the Argentinian's Library of Babel, an unfolding, labyrinthine, almost infinite space, that apparently contained all knowledge:

'When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope.'

… Perhaps the internet is also best understood as a dual system (and not just the DOS vs Mac hierarchy that Eco playfully compared to religion back in 1994). We suggest that rather than just a cabinet of curiosities (the traditional wunderkammer remains a popular web metaphor), the internet is in fact a combination of reliquary and labyrinth, both a maze of one's own making and a receptacle for wonder, a place where getting lost is a self-conscious act, portals act as balls of twine, to be unwound or ignored at your peril.

The internet as 'a receptacle for wonder': I linked last year to something Matt Jones posted about awe and wonder and the net. The image of the net as labyrinthine library containing all knowledge makes me think of Dante's great image in the Paradiso (Canto XXXIII; Borges' fantastical library of course recalls this, in deliberately distorted form), when he looks into the heart of the eternal light and 'Within its depths I saw ingathered, bound by love in one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe' ('Nel suo profondo vidi che s' interna, / legato con amore in un volume, / ciò che per l'universo si squaderna', Temple Classics translation).

'Reliquary' I am less sure about. I think it more useful at this point to do more work on the net-as-memory (individual +) and on what light might be (unexpectedly) shed upon this by studies such as Penelope Reed Doob's The Idea of the Labyrinth — which dedicates some pages to the relationship between labyrinth imagery and medieval understanding of memory and memory practices (on which, I recall, there's Mary Carruthers' book, The Book of Memory, amongst much else). Gabriel Josipovici years ago drew attention to the labyrinth as 'the favourite image of modern literature', 'the mazes of Kafka, Proust, Beckett, Borges and Robbe-Grillet' (The World and the Book). It takes me further than I meant to go in this post, but I can't resist quoting this from Gabriel's book:

In place of Dante's ordered journey we find ourselves involved with heroes who wander without map or compass along paths which are endless for the simple reason that we would not recognise the end even if we came to it. … there is no emergence for the heroes of modern fiction from the labyrinths of reflecting mirrors and demonic analogy. At the end they are no nearer the exit than they were at the beginning. All they have done is move through all the arteries of the labyrinth. Yet this, if they but knew it, is both the exit and the answer. … the writing was the travelling.
Unlike Dante, we have no vantage point from which to 'look back, standing on solid ground, over the winding uphill way, with its little figures of men and women dotted about at various stages of their own ascent' (The World and the Book). The internet, without end, is our own faithfully reflecting mirror, or demonic analogy.

A History of Violence

Tom Stall/Joey Cusack (Viggo Mortensen)

What a fine and powerful film. Instead of 'everything is permitted', Cronenberg gives us 'everything is visible and apparent' (Shaviro — see below).

Many in the audience I saw it with late last night left disappointed: if they were expecting a straightforward Western/thriller for the 21st century, then, yes, they'd every right to feel their hopes had been dashed, but Cronenberg takes our genre expectations, and much more besides, and plays upon these to create something far-reaching. In his review (Guardian), J G Ballard wrote how, 'The characters in Cronenberg's films behave as if they are inhabiting their minds and bodies for the first time at the moment we observe them, fumbling with the controls like drivers in a strange vehicle'. And Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader said:

There's hardly a shot, setting, character, line of dialogue, or piece of action in A History of Violence that can't be seen as some sort of cliché. Its fantasies about how American small towns are paradise and big cities are hell are genre standbys that Cronenberg milks at every turn. But none of this plays like cliché; Cronenberg is such an uncommon master of tone that we're in a state of denial about our familiarity with the material -- a kind of willed innocence that resembles Tom Stall's own disavowals.

Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris)

We're made to stand back, to stand outside the roles into which we, and the films we watch, slip so effortlessly and to read everything that happens as strange and disturbing. Even the ending, so tantalisingly conventional in its expectations, remains with us as more than merely unsettling. Steven Shaviro:

As Tom, Mortensen is simply too blank to “identify” with; as Joey, he doesn’t display any of the self-congratulatory feeling that even Clint Eastwood (wonderfully minimal in expression as he is) does ultimately allow himself when he is in vengeful mode. … the greatness of Mortensen’s acting, in particular, lies in the way he switches from one to the other of his two ‘characters’ or personalities, so that ultimately he seems to be trapped in a no-man’s-land between them. He’s a man without qualities, which is why both of his personas seem unpsychological. The conventional way to tell this story would be to make one of the personas more basic, more in depth, revealing the other persona to be just a mask; but this is precisely what Cronenberg refuses to do.

Shaviro is particularly good in analysing the two sex scenes and, like him, I found them nearly equally unsettling (a word you can't easily avoid using again and again about this film) — and yet they are, nominally, so different:

The first involves playacting, as Edie drags Mortensen-as-Tom off to a secret tryst in the course of which she dresses as a cheerleader, and they pretend to be making out while their (whose? hers, I think) parents are sleeping in the next room. The second is when Mortensen-as-Joey drags Edie down the stairs and brutally fucks her in what is at least a near-rape (she ultimately seems to consent, though it’s clear that she continues to feel loathing as much as desire). What unites these two opposed scenes is that they both seem similarly distanced and performative, except that there is no sense of any realer or truer self behind the mask of the performance. The first scene is a parody of what adolescence is supposed to be like; the second is a parody of what maturity or adulthood all too often turns out to be like. This is why I felt a bit queasy during the first scene, and found it almost as disturbing as the second one. Both scenes suggest a kind of void, and a failure of contact: the two people never really come together. (Is this what Lacan meant by declaring that “there is no sexual relation”?). It’s not a void that one can feel anguished about, however; for the selfhood, or sense of “thrownness” at least, that would allow one to feel anguish is precisely what is missing, what has been replaced by a void.

Tom Stall/Joey Cusack (Viggo Mortensen) & Edie Stall (Maria Bello)

Ontological alienation, indeed! So much to be said, but here's Shaviro again (such a good posting) — first on the role of Tom's son, Jack, and then on the Moebius strip quality of the movie:

Jack Stall (Ashton Holmes) — left

… this movie really is a “history,” in the sense that it tracks the emergence of violence, and the different forms it takes at different times and in different circumstances. Violence is generated — almost as a autonomic effect — out of tiny rifts in the social fabric, or in the fabric of social myth (I mean, in the myth of noir as much as in the myth of wholesome “we take care of our own” Americana). This is why we get the story of Jack (Ashton Holmes), Tom’s teenage son, who erupts with violence [in response to bullying — above] in a parallel way to his father: as if what came back out of the past in the father’s case were generated as it were spontaneously, out of his very need to struggle, as an adolescent, with the (entirely stereotypical) problems of autonomy from the father and coming to terms with normative formations of masculinity.

The common interpretive tendency in cases like this is to see the ‘dark’ side as the deep, hidden underside of the ‘bright’ side, the depths beneath the seemingly cheerful surface. But in A History of Violence, everything is what it seems. Both sides, both identities, are surfaces; both are ’superficial’; and they blend into one other almost without our noticing. The small town, with its overly ostentatious friendliness, is a vision of the good life; but brother Richie’s enormous mansion, furnished with a nouveau-riche vulgarity that almost recalls Donald Trump’s penthouse, is also a vision of the good life. In their odd vacancy, they are both quintessentially American (this could be, as Cronenberg has hinted, an allegory of America’s current cultural divide: blue states and red states, which actually are more continuous with one another than anyone on either side recognizes… this is something, perhaps, that only a Canadian could see, as it is invisible both to us Americans, who are too caught up in it, and to people from outside North America, who are too far away).

Ballard's review is a must, too: eg,

The title, A History of Violence, is the key to the film, and should be read not as a tale or story of violence, but as it might appear in a social worker's case notes: "This family has a history of violence." The family, of course, is the human family, a primate species with an unbelievable appetite for cruelty and violence. If its behaviour in the 20th century is any guide, the human race inhabits a huge sink estate ravaged by unending feuds and civil wars, a no-go area abandoned by the authorities, though no one can remember who they are, or even if they exist. …

What is so interesting about the film is the speed with which the wife accepts that her husband, for all his courage, is part of the criminals' violent world, in spirit, if not in actual fact. A dark pit has opened in the floor of the living room, and she can see the appetite for cruelty and murder that underpins the foundations of her domestic life. Her husband's loving embraces hide brutal reflexes honed by aeons of archaic violence. This is a nightmare replay of The Desperate Hours, where escaping convicts seize a middle-class family in their sedate suburban home - but with the difference that the family must accept that their previous picture of their docile lives was a complete illusion. Now they know the truth and realise who they really are. Their family has a history of violence.

There's a flat-footed review in the Observer and a semi-compromised one in the Guardian. k-punk has a characteristically stimulating piece.

Institutions of this new century

via Pasta and Vinegar:

« My ideal XXIst century institution would appear less like an “institution” as such, than as a constantly evolving and flexible organism, or a network connecting people on a “global” mode, people who have ideas and people who act. It should be able to respond to the most varied forms of thought and media, and more precisely, to face the challenge represented by the new complexity arising from the merging of new forms of social emergency and new technologies. And while it develops it should also take in account the emergence of this other fact : the collapse of the centre of the world. »

Hou Hanru : curator indépendant in "Qu’attendez vous d’une institution artistique du XXI° siècle ?" (What do you expect from a XXIst century art institution ?). Ed palais de Tokyo. Conteners

I've always had the greatest problems with institutions and institutional life. ('Regimentation and education are incompatible' — Gerald Vann, OP.) Hou Hanru's vision is something I can understand and respond to. Nicolas Nova (Pasta and Vinegar) comments (I'm selecting and, in this instance, changing his emphases):

… it seems that this kind of definition is more applied recently to private companies in our supercapitalist days … Will private companies be organized like art groups? interactive labs?

(My son, Tom, who's studying in Paris, showed us round the palais de Tokyo earlier this year.)

Layered, furcating stories in time and space

Kim posting Stories in Urban Spaces and my happening to be re-reading Borges (in the Andrew Hurley translation), made me go back to 'The Garden of Forking Paths' (1941).

Borges' narrator, Yu Tsun, is the great-grandson of Ts'ui Pen, a 'governor of Yunan province … who renounced all temporal power in order to write a novel containing more characters than the Hung Lu Meng and construct a labyrinth in which all men would lose their way'. Ts'ui Pen is murdered after 13 years of work on these labours, and what survived was a 'novel (that) made no sense' — and 'no one ever found the labyrinth'. Early in the story, Yu Tsun, on the run, reflects that 'all things happen to oneself, and happen precisely, precisely now. Century follows century, yet events occur only in the present; countless men in the air, on the land and sea, yet everything that truly happens, happens to me.' Choosing a name from a phone book (the reason for which choice only becomes fully clear at the end of the story), he finds himself at the house of the famous Sinologist, Stephen Albert. Improbability is heaped on improbability (after all, this is anti-literature, no matter that it is also literature of exquisite skill, intelligence and inventiveness), and Stephen Albert is not only intimate with the life and work of Ts'ui Pen but has, he believes, cracked the secret of both novel and labyrinth: they are one and the same. Ts'ui Pen had left a fragment of a letter: 'I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths'. Stephen Albert explains to Yu Tsun:

'I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths.' Almost instantly, I saw it — the garden of forking paths was the chaotic novel; the phrase 'several futures (not all)' suggest to me the image of a forking in time, rather than in space. A full rereading of the book confirmed my theory. In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the work of the virtually impossible-to-disentangle Ts'ui Pen, the character chooses — simultaneously — all of them. He creates, thereby, 'several futures', several times, which themselves proliferate and fork. That is the explanation for the novel's contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger knocks at the door; Fang decides to kill him. Naturally, there are various possible outcomes — Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they can both live, they can both be killed, and so on. In Ts'ui Pen's novel, all the outcomes in fact occur; each is the starting point for further bifurcations. Once in a while, the paths of that labyrinth converge: for example, you come to this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another my friend.

… 'The Garden of Forking Paths' is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as conceived by Ts'ui Pen. Unlike Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent and parallel times. That fabric of times that approach one another, fork, are snipped off, or are simply unknown for centuries, contains all possibilities. In most of those times, we do not exist; in some, you exist but I do not; in others, I do and you do not; in others still, we both do. In this one, which the favouring hand of chance has dealt me, you have come to my home; in another, when you come through my garden you find me dead; in another, I say these same words, but I am an error, a ghost.

Life as layered narrative, diachronically and synchronically; shared and individual, typical/general and unique — knowledge fundamental to our sense of being human. The advent of technologies which could allow us to interact with place and time raises questions that are profoundly old. (Kim's questions towards the end of her post made me think of urban plays, from medieval pageants to contemporary community projects — The Dillen, for example.) The extension of all this, in and through new technology, into new "theatres" of play, entertainment and education … The possibilities for grass-roots up development, for social and communal initiatives which bypass official or authorised pictures of the polis … 'infinite stories, infinitely branching' (Borges, 'A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain', 1941).

But in Borges, 'infinite stories, infinitely branching' suggests a weariness and meaninglessness. (Ecclesiastes, 12.12: 'Of making many books there is no end and much study is a weariness of the flesh'.) This melancholy may even embrace the world. 'The Library of Babel', 1941, conceives of a universe, the Library, as 'unlimited but periodic': 'If an eternal traveller should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder — which, repeated, becomes order: the Order'. In this story, the librarian finds this an 'elegant hope'; this reader finds the thought dispiriting.

Will a glut of gorgeous visualisations and interactive, highly social "games" deepen our melancholy — too much meaning to be finally meaningful? Or, instead, will the glamour of technology encourage us to forget and to take again the picture for the world? I doubt there will be anything new in the range of answers we come up with to either of these questions.

In 1984, Harold Fisch published A Remembered Future and wrote of how art can give us 'the unappeased memory of a future still to be fulfilled'. More recently, Heaney has written of how 'We go to poetry, we go to literature in general, to be forwarded within ourselves. The best it can do is to give us an experience that is like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering. What is at work … is the mind's capacity to conceive a new plane of regard for itself, a new scope for its own activity' ('Joy or Night', 1990, in The Redress of Poetry, 1995). New ways of presenting layered narratives, as yet but 'tiny glimmers' (Kim's phrase), will acquire their maturity as art when they allow us to conceive a new plane of regard for ourselves as both unique and typical, simultaneously liberating us from the lonely egotism of Yu Tsun, where 'everything that truly happens, happens to me', and the merely 'unlimited but periodic'.

RepRap Project

I blogged about Dr Adrian Bowyer and his RepRap Project back in March. Now, the Project has its own site and CNN has (finally!) got round to reporting the news (link via Boing Boing). From the front page of the Project's site:

A universal constructor is a machine that can replicate itself and - in addition - make other industrial products.  Such a machine would have a number of interesting characteristics, such as being subject to Darwinian evolution, increasing in number exponentially, and being extremely low-cost.

A rapid prototyper is a machine that can manufacture objects directly (usually, though not necessarily, in plastic) under the control of a computer.

The project described in these pages is working towards creating a universal constructor by using rapid prototyping, and then giving the results away free under the GNU General Public Licence to allow other investigators to work on the same idea. We are trying to prove the hypothesis: Rapid prototyping and direct writing technologies are sufficiently versatile to allow them to be used to make a von Neumann Universal Constructor.

Martin G commented on my original posting, 'Don’t we have to ask ourselves, 'What’s new here?'. Anyone who’s bought an off the shelf Rapid Prototyping machine can of course feed in CAD files of anything they wish — including parts for new RP machines . . .'  As I noted back then, Dr Bowyer (private communication) said, 'As far as I am aware, I am the first person to suggest using rapid prototyping to make a von Neumann Universal Constructor'.

There's also a RepRap blog — and it has a feed.