Split

Oh, what a week it has been, with the fallout of the protest and following riot here in Grand Rapids. Note that those were two separate events with (mostly) two separate sets of people, with two entirely different agendas.

So it is appropriate that my birthday gift to myself arrived on my birthday – Schizo-Culture, a boxed set containing a facsimile of the journal Semiotext(e), volume III No. 2 from 1978 (The Book), and the papers from the Schizo-Culture conference on madness and prisons (The Event) sponsored by Semiotext(e), November 13-16, 1975, at Columbia University. I would have loved to attend, but I was six years old.

The list of writers, readers and panelists herein is breathtaking – Michel Foucault, William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, John Giorno, John Cage, The Ramones, and over three dozen others.

This kind of reading – decidedly leftist, decidedly intellectual, decidedly radical – puts my head in a good space for making sense of the utterly chaotic state of the world. In the past three months the COVID-19 lockdowns have increased the interpersonal and societal pressures to the point that the protests in response to the deliberate murder of George Floyd by police officers have spread around the world and show no sighs of diminishing or abating. Indeed they seem to be growing, if the news from Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. are any indication.

And I say it is far past time that the police and the police state were held to account for the increasingly right-wing, fascist state of this country, of which Donald Trump is both a symptom and an accelerant.

Given recent events and my own recent readings in capitalism – carceral and otherwise – and similar, these are timely books, and I expect many more such will come my way over the coming months.

My reading over the past week has been decidedly escapist. I am about two thirds of the way through Mike Shel‘s Aching God, a self-published fantasy novel about which I had doubts at the start, but how has me thoroughly hooked.

For writing, I am mostly journaling though when I can get my head in that space I continue to accumulate notes for the book I hope to write this summer. In fact for my birthday yesterday I wrote the first sentence, just because it seemed the thing to do.

This assumes that there will be a world left in which to publish a book when it is finished. We can but hope.

A Big Book in a Small Stack

It was a quiet week for the acquisitions department here at Winkelman Abbey. But what it lacked in the X axis it more than made up for in the Y. From left, we have A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, followed by the most recent issues of Jacobin, Willow Springs, and Poetry Magazine. On the right is To Leave with the Reindeer by Olivia Rosenthal, the latest from my subscription to the catalog of And Other Stories.

All of which is to say, one deliberate purchase this week.

I feel like I have been orbiting Deleuze and Guattari for a very long time. Back in my Angry Young Man days in the late 1990s I amassed a collection of titles published by Autonomedia and Semiotext(e), publishers of very wild and far-out titles from a wide variety of unconventional, leftist and radical writers and thinkers. One of those books (unfortunately lost in a long-ago purge) was Nomadology: War Machine, from the chapter of the same title in the then-unknown-to-me A Thousand Plateaus. I understood very little of it at the time, but it haunted me. These were words from thinkers operating on a plane of existence so far above my own that they might as well have been performing magic.

Over the years I forgot their names but the sense of the conversations stuck with me. It felt like peeling back a layer of reality and seeing some of the inner workings of the universe.

This past summer my girlfriend and I traveled to San Francisco where we made a pilgrimage to City Lights Bookstore, which had been a goal of mine for some decades. Wow, what a store – probably the best-curated bookstore I have ever seen. The Philosophy section held scores of titles and thinkers which were new to me, or which I had only ever seen as references in other places. And of course. A Thousand Plateaus was one of them. That brought Deleuze and Guattari back into my awareness.

Shortly thereafter I borrowed Plateaus from the Grand Rapids Public Library, attempted to make sense of it, and made almost zero headway. Then I did so again, a month later. Then I resigned myself to the fact that I will be forever haunted by D and G if I did not add this book to my personal library, and so here it is.

In the reading side of things, I finished The Black God’s Drums by P. Djeli Clark this past Thursday, and absolutely loved it. Probably my favorite read of the year so far. Clark’s use of language and patois in world-building is wonderful and, though this is not precisely the New Orleans so near and dear to my heart, it is close enough to make me feel some serious longing and wanderlust.

Currently I am a little over halfway through Scarborough, by Catherine Hernandez. I picked this one up several months ago and attempted to read it while on a business trip to Las Vegas. Reading that book in that city made me want to burn everything to the ground. So I set it aside. Now that I am not in the worst city in the world I am able to read and enjoy this beautiful, heartbreaking book.

Links and Notes for the Week of February 3, 2019

Flash Fiction: Luck, or Something Like It

“Luck, or Something Like It” is a flash fiction inspired by the prompt “Luck” from Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds. This scene immediately follows my previous story “Looking At Ourselves“.

Professor Smith dusted off his jacket and looked around. The room in which he suddenly found himself was huge, with no walls, and a suggestion of a ceiling far overhead, but that could also have been low cloud cover. The space was quite crowded. The floor was uneven and seemed to be made of stone, and he changed his assessment from “room” to “cave”.

“Smith!” he heard a voice yelling nearby. “Smith! Where are you?”

Smith smiled and waved. Professor Lin shouldered her way through a crowd of young people, who Smith vaguely recognized as his neighbors.

“Lin! Over here!” yelled Smith.

Lin made her way carefully to Smith, glancing down at the floor.

“Did we…” said Lin.

“I think so,” said Smith.

“Then we’re in…” said Lin

“Good question,” said Smith. “Not heaven certainly. I recognize some of my students.”

“And not hell,” said Lin. “I see my doorman, Jerry.”

“Good man, was he?” said Smith.

“One of the very best.” said Lin. “He died a little over a month ago.”

“Ahead of the crowd, as it were. So. Purgatory?”

“Perhaps,” said Lin, and raised a hand “Jerry! Halloo! Over here!”

And elderly man, with a bald head and bushy moustache, wandered over to join the two academics. Lin took one of his hands.

“Jerry! It is so good to see you again!”

“Doctor Lin! Likewise.” The corners of Jerry’s moustache drew up into a smile. “Kind of crowded here, all of a sudden.”

“The meteor hit,” said Smith, and offered a hand. “Smith. A pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” said Jerry. “Doctor Lin mentioned you from time to time.”

“Positively, I hope!” said Smith. “Lin tells me you’ve been here for a little while. Where is ‘here’, exactly?”

Jerry snorted. “The Bardo, they tell me. We’re all biding our time before we head back to the world. People popping in and out all over the place.”

Lin frowned. “The Bardo, eh? So we’re between lives?”

“Sounds about right,” said Jerry. “I’m Baptist myself, or I was. This whole reincarnation thing is taking a while to wrap my head around.”

“The Bardo! We’re in luck!” said Smith. “Another go at getting things right.”

Lin frowned. “Maybe not. If we are waiting here for our turn at reincarnation…”

Smith’s face fell. “And the world was just destroyed…”

“See, this is why I was happy being a Baptist,” said Jerry. “We only had to worry about our souls once.”

“And we’re sure this is the Bardo?” said Lin.

“Sure as I’m standing here.” said Jerry. “There’s some folks in yellow robes seem to have it all figured out. I never even heard of the place before my heart attack.”

“Er, what happens if we’re supposed to reincarnate and there are no, er, vessels?”

“Beats me,” said Jerry. “I don’t know who’s really in ch-” He abruptly vanished with a small “pop”.

Lin and Smith stared at the empty space, then at each other.

“Maybe he came back as a microbe?” said Smith.

“I’m not sure it works that way,” said Lin. “Maybe reincarnation isn’t bound to one planet.”

“You’re saying he just went back as an alien something?”

“Perhaps,” said Lin. “Buddhism is bound to one planet. That doesn’t mean that the thing Buddhism points toward is also bound to one planet.”

“Nonsense,” said Smith. “If that is the case, where are all the aliens? All I see are a lot of people.”

“Do you see any animals?” said Lin. “Any birds or insects or anything like that?”

Smith looked around. “No, now that you mention it.”

“Maybe they have their own room. Er, cave. Space?”

“Afterlife.”

“But it’s not really ‘after’,” said Lin.

“Intermission?”

“That works. Let’s walk around.”

Smith smiled and offered his arm. Lin hooked hers through his, and they set off through the crowd. After a while Smith said, “I don’t feel like we’re making progress.”

“And I’m not exactly sure how long we’ve been here. The Book of the Dead says forty days, but who is to say if time works here the way it works—worked—back home.”

“It makes sense that it doesn’t,” said Smith. “Space certainly doesn’t.”

“So we don’t know exactly when we’ll head off to the next place.”

“Interesting phrasing,” said Smith. “If space has come unbound, then perhaps time has too. Maybe we stay on the same planet, but we go back to, well, whenever. The 1800s. Or the time of the dinosaurs.”

“Or two billion years from now, when the planet reforms and life begins anew.”

“And wouldn’t that be strange,” said Smith. “No different from being on an alien planet.”

“So in the end we know where we came from, but not where we are—”

“The Bardo,” said Smith.

“But that doesn’t really explain anything,” said Lin. “As I was saying, we’re not sure where we are, and we certainly don’t know where we’re going.”

“So we just have to trust in a higher power?” said Smith.

“Or a lower one.” said Lin.

“That doesn’t sound encouraging,” said Smith. “Maybe Dante—”

“Not lower as in infernal,” snapped Lin. “Lower as in intrinsic. A more basic function of the universe. Not consciously directed by some external agent.”

“A deeper octave of a fractal?” said Smith.

“Yes!” said Lin, squeezing Smith’s arm. “The little details are reflected in the larger picture.”

“So at some level it is all determinism,” said Smith. He sighed and shook his head.

“At some level, perhaps.” said Lin. “But at this level, it could all be luck. Maybe it’s all down to timing. I died at a slightly different microsecond than you did. I come back as a furry critter new Alpha Centauri, or something, and you come back as a polyp in an ocean near Betelgeuse.”

“And there’s a line vessels in the universe waiting for a line of souls. Interesting idea!”

“Time and good behavior,” said Smith.

“Right place, right time, and the Eightfold Path.”

“Ten is a nice round number,” said Smith. “Am I imagining things, or is the crowd thinning out a bit?”

“Seems to be,” said Lin, “Though it could be Brownian motion distributing everyone more evenly in this space.”

Smith squinted into the distance. “No, people are definitely leaving. Seems to be picking up pace, too.”

“I guess this is goodbye again,” said Lin.

“And no terrible vodka this time,” said Smith.

Lin smiled. Smith vanished with a small pop. Lin closed her eyes as a wave of vertigo washed through her, and reopened them to something completely unexpected.

ConFusion 2018: Science Fiction and Philosophy

(These are my lightly edited notes for a panel I attended at the ConFusion Fantasy and Science Fiction Convention in January of 2018)

PANEL: “Science Fiction and Philosophy: Exploring the Connections”

DESCRIPTION: “SF has been called the literature of ideas, and the ideas explored in SF have become increasingly philosophical throughout the history of the genre. What are the most illuminating thought experiments in recent and classic SF? Which philosophical questions do they raise? And how are philosophers in today’s universities employing SF in their teaching and research?”

PANELISTS: Andrea Johnson, Dyrk Ashton, Ken Schrader, Nathan Rockwood

NOTES:

MY THOUGHTS:

This panel was interesting in that so much of the discussion revolved around listing works which address philosophical questions, and not a lot of addressing the questions themselves. This bothered me at first, but on reflection I realize that these panels are meant to be introductions and overviews, not necessarily deep dives into the subject; if for no other reason than that the panels all stand alone, and if two or more share a subject it is only by coincidence. That said, I appreciated the breadth of suggestions, and particularly that they included games. Computer games, if the narrative is sufficiently complex, can be seen as simulations and testing grounds for ideas which are not always easy for an individual to address in the real world.

Absolut(e)

Had an interesting talk about the notion of absolutes over on 12Stone today, to wit: Is there such a thing as an absolute?

So: Is there such a thing as an absolute?

Without defining a specific thing as being “absolute”, we are dealing with abstract mental models. So in my opinion something which is absolute must exists wholly unto itself and have neither external influences or external dependencies. Therefore an absolute must be a closed system. Assuming the ultimate truth of the laws of Thermodynamics, the universe could be said to be a closed system. At least, from the inside it is a closed system. From the outside…well. Things get a little more complicated than your standard Venn diagram.

The set containing the numbers {1,2,3,4,5} is a closed set. From within it is exactly and only those five numbers, and the existence of the number 6 does not alter the existence of the first five. Neither does the existence of the numbers 1,2,3,4, and 5 influence in any way the number 6. Using mental models any number (heh) of absolutes can be discovered.

When trying to apply the notion of ‘absolute’ to ‘real’ things the argument immediately breaks down. Buddhist tradition has it that no single thing truly exists, because there are no things which exists completely unto themselves. A coffee cup is a combination of the materials of which it is constructed, the time involved in creating it, and the human-imposed concept of ‘cupness’. Take away any one of those things and it is no longer a coffee cup. That which we call ‘coffee cup’ is an identifiable point in a process which started at the beginning of the universe and which will (might?) stop at the end.

So where does that leave the Absolute? An absolute can be identified when the sum total of it is observable. That knocks everything out of the running except the Universe, and that must be taken on faith because, stuck in the warp and woof of it as we are, it is impossible to see it from an outside perspective. And let us not get into the religious ideas of the Absolute.

An absolute is a thing which must exist free of context.

So this whole long discussion ended up fragmenting, as online discussions often will. I have a lot to contemplate. One of the participants posted a link to a fascinating Socratic dialogue regarding free will, called Is God A Taoist? , which I enjoyed immensely.