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Archive for September, 2012

I’m going to spray wildly some thoughts about Weird Council in the hope that some of them cohere, or even more optimistically, attract comments…

We closed with China reading and fielding questions. The story he read condensed a number of the features of his work that make it so rich for research. Dialogue-heavy, it was perfect piece to read: sharp cracks whipped between its two protagonists. Dense and infolded like the chrysalis at its core, it welded commodity fetish to US neo-imperialism, presenting the idea of a deep black-market in numinous dark artefacts of a very contemporary nature: insects used in instruction 9) of the US torture manual for interrogating suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

At the end of the Q&A China remarked that he was surprised not to have been asked any questions about Speculative Realism (heretoforward SR), noting that as an audience we were either too cool or not cool enough. I’d kind of wafted at some of these ideas in my talk so felt as if I’d bottled it a bit: in truth, it hadn’t occurred to ask anything at all; by that stage in proceedings my thinking gubbins had gummed up. With twenty-four hours’ distance it is once again slithering.

On the SR front, then, his story was highly intriguing. Imagined non-human objects had interior lives, biographies, even, and affected the humans between whom they passed with much more than their exchange value: they had agency. This agency had originally been conferred onto them by what humans did (or had done to them by other humans in their presence) but ultimately the insect inserted into a box as a torture weapon reverted to chrysalis form and did not re-emerge: became unknowable, unusable, except, perhaps, as a commodity; yet pregnant with futurity.

I’m wary of any kind of direct reading: this story seems freighted with object ambiguity. One is tempted to correlate numinosity with the noumenal, and I guess this is where my understanding of SR falls short (I suggest that this means I am on-point cool). Because if these objects are perceived as having noumenal lives, inaccessible to human thought, we’re recapitulating Kant and we aren’t doing the work of SR, letting the objects be objects and removing human thought from the centre of the process. Yet granting objects the kind of pregnant form of becoming that is the nature of the chrysalis – not to mention a chrysalis in which the insect pupating is powerfully, darkly magical – is to give them a kind of quasi-knowability perhaps appropriate for what might be quasi-objects. Their agency remains, indeed, their potential agency is metaphorically increased.

Glancing back to Graham Harman’s essay on Lovecraft in Collapse, which is available on his site here (while ‘fessing that I haven’t read his Zer0 book on Lovecraft) he argues that Lovecraft’s unrepresentables and unknowables are exemplars of a ‘weird realism’ that undermines Kant’s noumenal. There’s a lot more to say here. China’s remark that he was interested in totalities and in particular in competing totalities indicates that there would be fruitful research to be done in After Finitude, Badiou etc. There is certainly much for me to ponder about how n-dimensional geometry fits into a philosophy that argues for mathematics as providing us with the tools for escaping correlationism. At the moment my thoughts around this are folding in on themselves like the hypercube animation doing its perpetual rounds below so I’ll not push any further at this right now.

Instead, there’s something I want to add to the discussions on genre theory revolving around Suvin’s definition of sf as a literature of ‘cognitive estrangement’, a discussion very fruitfully engaged by Jon Rieder, Rhy Williams, Sheryl Vint and commented on by Roger Luckhurst and China. I want to push a bit at the idea of cognition and – surprise surprise! – I’d like to use n-dimensional geometry as the lever with which to do it. (Suvin, by the way, is highly approving of Flatland, whose ‘novum’ he deems a lot more radical than it actually was – the ‘novum’ aspect of Suvin’s definition was pretty neatly challenged by Jon Rieder’s more fluid account of genre as something socially and culturally imposed on a text, rather than internally expressed).

The cognitive logic that leads us to n-dimensional space is solid enough in logical terms – we reason it by analogy, as from two dimensions to three, so from three dimensions to four. Just because it is produced through the privileged discipline of geometry, or by analogy, a process of reasoning sanctioned since Aristotle, that doesn’t mean that we find ourselves in a situation any different from a fairyland. Geometry is a model of space governed by a set of axiomatic rules, but we can tweak those rules and produce new geometries. We can then read back from the tweaked model and speculate spaces that conform to the tweaked versions. The process has been led by reason, but a form of reason no different to metaphor, because geometry is a metaphor for space and can be abreal. We’ve just been quite merrily translating backwards and forwards between metaphors and the thing they express.

This insistence on cognition does not seem to distinguish between the types of reasoning employed by supposedly materialist science, even when those forms of reasoning are metaphorical. I’ve had a look at Engels’ Anti-Duhring and Lenin’s Empirio-criticism and in their focus on tracking down idealism, these foundational materialist theories of science go all the way in the other direction. This definitely wants some nuancing and I’m sure Rhys could clarify or correct this and it’s something I’ll try to develop in greater detail, but wanted to post while the conference was still pretty fresh.

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The below is the text of a paper I gave at Weird Council, a conference on the work of China Miéville that took place at Senate House last weekend. I post it here because it is essentially a higher spatial reading of a selection of his novels – I will post some further thoughts and responses to the conference at my other blog hopefully later today but in the meantime would like to offer the most enormous thanks to organisers Caroline Edwards and Tony Venezia.

The introduction and one or two lines in it respond to Roger Luckhurst’s plenary, which will hopefully find its way online at some point in the future. Apologies to those readers to whom these bits make no sense. The accompanying slides are on scribd here but the tesseract won’t be animated. That’s here:

Ladies and Gentlemen. I feel compelled to warn you that since Professor Luckhurst’s presentation yesterday of the revelatory findings of his inter-disciplinary working group, I have entertained the gravest doubts about this paper. It contains research passed on to me by my colleague Talbot, a thaumato-lexicographer working on Miéville’s novels who is aware of my research interest in n-dimensional space. Talbot is officially on research leave in Alexandria, although I am certain I saw him on the Kilburn High Road earlier this week. Given recent discoveries, I don’t think that the possibility of bi-location can be entirely ruled out. I have suppressed some of the more outré annotations below for fear that they might later crop up in konvolut n+1. Talbot presents this as a primer, but I am not altogether sure that it is not in fact a grimoire…

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Worldweave (IC, PSS)n. A ‘concatenation of threads in impossible spiral symmetry’ (Iron Council 233) that binds together ‘unmundane dimensions’ with the mundane.

The text immediately hands over to Yagharek, to describe what he sees after journeying on the back of the Weaver, the transdimensional spider-like creature that he describes as a ‘dancing mad god’:

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The crawling infinity of colours, the chaos of textures that went into each strand of that eternally complex tapestry […] each one resonated under the step of the dancing mad god, vibrating and sending little echoes of bravery, or hunger, or architecture, or argument, or cabbage or murder or concrete across the aether. The weft of starlings’ motivations connected to the thick, sticky strand of a young thief’s laugh. The fibres stretched taut and glued themselves solidly to a third line, its silk made from the angles of seven flying buttresses to a cathedral roof. The plait disappeared into the enormity of possible spaces. (PSS, 400)

I start with the worldweave because it includes a number of ideas that will resonate through this primer, higher dimensionality, first and foremost. It gives a perfect indication of the way in which our mundane space is entangled in higher dimensional space in complex and knotted ways.

The reference to the aether is also highly suggestive and routes us directly to the end of the nineteenth century, the period in which ‘unmundane’ dimensions were theorised in mathematics. In the late nineteenth century the aether was supposed to be a space-filling perfect medium through which waves of light propagated.

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William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, proposed that atoms might in fact be vortex motions in the ether: that matter was formed from knots, or spirals, in the perfect medium, proposing, in essence, something very like the worldweave.

It’s also intriguing to read all those objects listed in a novel published in 2000 in the kind of paratactic pile-up that is the favoured rhetorical device of the very current Object Oriented Philosophy movement. Here, a quotation of similar style from Bruno Latour, has been excised. The worldweave is, for all sorts of reasons, a phenomenal space, a world in which human intelligence is no longer central. And, indeed Isaac struggles with it more than Yagharek. This would also be continuous with a Kelvinian atomic universe in which everything was composed of wee swirls in not a great deal…

But it is the idea of unmundane dimensions that I want to develop in the first half of this primer.

Take for example…

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Planurgy (K) – n. Trans-dimensional origami.

In The Kraken, Anders, a practitioner of this cutting edge knack with which objects can be topologically manipulated explains:

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‘What you’re really trying to do with planurgy is get things into other space, you know?’ ‘Abmaths’ has led to a revolution in origami, he explains, before demonstrating the practice by folding a digital cash register into a hand-sized Japanese crane.

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‘The bulky thing collapsed on itself in fold-lines, different aspects of unbroken planes slipping behind each other as if seen from several directions at once.’

Seeing something, or at least depicting something, from several directions at once was a stated aim of both futurist and cubist visual artists.

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In this they were led by ideas of higher dimensioned space, typically encountered in works by theosophists – primarily C.W. Leadbeater – or in Paris, through the works of Poincare, Princet and Jouffret. Lynda Dalrymple Henderson’s book remains the motherlode for the influence of n-dimensional and non-Euclidean geometries on Modernist artists.

The reason a speculated four-dimensional space would allow this multiple perspective is that we can demonstrate by analogy that access to a higher dimensioned space allows an intelligence to see the interior and aspects of lower-dimensioned objects that observers in the lower space would not be able to see.

It has other features. You can move in and out of a lower dimensioned space at will. Closed three dimensional spaces are open to you and with access to the interior of objects you can achieve co-presence. You can also bi-locate, move into the lower space at different points at the same time – albeit with different bits of you. Perhaps most weirdly, you can achieve the kind of folding – or flexure – of solid objects described in planurgy. This was demonstrated using the methods of projective geometry by Felix Klein and Simon Newcomb in the 1870s and 1880s.

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This projection of the animated section of the four-dimensional analogue of the cube gives an indication of the kind of enfoldedness of our own space within higher space.

As an aside, something very like planurgy occurs in Ian MacEwan’s first ever short story, Solid Geometry, in which the husband in an unhappy marriage discovers the secrets of nineteenth century higher dimensional thought in his great grandfather’s papers and folds his wife into the space. This was made into a film starring the young Ewan Macgregor and features nudity. Talbot seems to think this will be exciting for someone who spends most of their time reading about nineteenth century maths.

The challenging features of this new kind of space pose problems for language, as is demonstrated by the definition of the immer given early in Embassytown…

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Immer (E)n. ‘The immer’s reaches don’t correspond at all to the dimensions of the manchmal, this space where we live. The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on.’

Let’s hop straight on while we’re there and address the manchmal.

This coinage stresses the contingency of the everyday experience when it comes to space.

This is an excellent description of the relationship between a higher dimensioned space and the space of n-1, or one fewer, dimensions. It highlights the prepositional problem caused by higher space, as evidenced in the confusion over what to call it when it was first theorised

– suggestions in the 1880s included pro-space, meta-space, hyper-space, throughth, even. The problem is that many prepositions are spatial – to, from, above, below, up, down, through, beyond – and that many adverbial prefixes are prepositional: ad, ab, pro, meta, per. All spatial prepositions are derived from the experience of lived space and prove insufficient for describing relationships or movements in higher space. What is the meaning of ‘above’ or ‘behind’ for a four-dimensional being?

An entire semantic category is rendered inaccurate when we are dealing with higher space. Some gestural use might be made of through, beyond or other atelic directional prepositions but in serving to remind us of three-dimensional space – and the reader will always constitute this space when she reads these words – they fail in signification.

The only way out, I would suggest, is the creation of new language. Charles Howard Hinton, a leading theorist of higher space in the fin de siècle, borrowed the Greek words ana and kata to describe directions in the fourth dimension and in so doing came the closest to addressing this problem.

Pretty rapidly, fiction responded to the emergence of these new types of space, and those responses served to underline the insufficiency of three-dimensional language and the distress at the idea of non-mundane spaces. In 1884 Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland took the ingenious approach of launching its narrative from the lower dimensionality of the plane. In this otherwise very playful novel, the narrator, A Square, finds the experience of being raised into the third dimension extremely disturbing:

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An unspeakable horror seized me. There was a darkness; then a dizzy, sickening sensation of sight that was not like seeing; I saw a Line that was no Line; Space that was not Space: I was myself, and not myself. When I could find voice, I shrieked aloud in agony, “Either this is madness or it is Hell.” “It is neither,” calmly replied the voice of the Sphere, “it is Knowledge; it is Three Dimensions: open your eye once again and try to look steadily.”

There’s a brief allusion to Flatland in Embassytown, about which maybe we could impose upon the author to comment later. Madness was a persistent threat of higher space. There’s a lot of attention being heaped on Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End right now, but I prefer his fin de siècle hackwork as Joseph Conrad’s amanuensis. In The Inheritors, a novel co-written with Conrad and published in 1901, the fourth dimensionists send their victims mad. The narrator Grainger is given a glimpse of the fourth dimension:

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I felt a kind of unholy emotion […] What had happened? I don’t know. It all looked contemptible. One seemed to see something beyond, something vaster – vaster than cathedrals, vaster than the conception of the gods to whom cathedrals were raised. The tower reeled out of the perpendicular. One saw beyond it, not roofs, or smoke, or hills, but an unrealized, an unrealizable infinity of space. (8-9)

Again, the stress was on the impossibility of representation. It is notable that it was popular genre fiction that tended to address this space head on. We encounter higher space in the work of Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, George McDonald, George Griffith, Mary Wilkins Freeman and it is typically represented as a site of threat.

You might have guessed where this is heading. The writer who brought these kinds of spaces most forcefully into play was H.P. Lovecraft. I think you’ll recognise the tone of some of these earlier quotations in this selection from Lovecraft. Here, from ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, the account of second-mate Johansen of R’lyeh:

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he dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces – surfaces too great to belong to anything right or proper for this earth […] I mention this talk about angles because it suggests something Wilcox had told me of his awful dreams. He said that the geometry of the dream place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. (165-166)

Lovecraft merrily mixes together non-Euclidean and n-dimensional spaces, but this was common in all kinds of cultural accounts of the new geometries. The story ‘Dreams of the Witch House’ is the richest source for Lovecraft on higher dimensional and non-Euclidean space. Indeed, its central character, Walter Gilman is studying ‘non-Euclidean calculus’ at Miskatonic university.

He rents a room of ‘”queerly irregular shape’ that was previously inhabited by the witch Keziah Mason, who during her trial “had told Judge Hathorne of lines and curves that could be made to point out directions leading through the walls of space to other spaces beyond.’ He begins to dream of ‘prisms, labyrinths, clusters of cubes and planes, and Cyclopean buildings’.

Lovecraft’s fascination with ‘unplumbed space’ was a key element in his creation of the sense of the weird, his cosmic horror. I may not win myself any fans by saying that I think Lovecraft represents the pinnacle of the crisis of representation set in chain by non-Euclidean and n-dimensional geometries. In fact I think it’s the crisis itself that he deploys and mines for all its worth. He has some of the jargon – but, interestingly, not even a smattering compared to his impressive geological vocabulary – but he deploys this jargon in a gestural way. For an example of representational crisis cunningly deployed, take this passage from At The Mountains of Madness:

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There were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped discs; and strange, beetling, table-like constructions suggesting piles of multitudinous rectangular slabs or circular plates or five-pointed stars (10)

Graham Harman writes of this passage:

The near-incoherence of such descriptions undercuts any attempt to render them in visual form. The very point of the descriptions is that they fail, hinting only obliquely at some unspeakable substratum of reality.

I think Harman is being generous with the first sentence here. You could have a bash at drawing these structures – and indeed many people have – but the objects are described in entirely Euclidean language – indeed, in the very language Euclid himself invented: cones, cylinders, rectangles, cubes, pyramids. Truncation, terracing or fluting don’t make them non-Euclidean: these are familiar architectural motifs. Lovecraft’s move is, as Harman observes, to deny them coherence: you can’t surmount a truncated cone with a cylindrical shaft because a shaft is an inversion of an architectural feature, a lack of matter.

So I agree entirely with Harman’s second sentence. The descriptions do fail: I’d like to qualify this statement, though, by saying that what they’re failing to do is to represent the ‘monstrous perversions of known geometrical laws’ that they claim to be showing. They’re a nifty dodge, a swerve.

Talbot then returns to Miéville and I think he bounds somewhat carelessly over nearly a century of genre fiction. He lines up the Weaver and the Slake Moths with Cthulhu and Azathoth, trans-dimensional monsters all. In early Miéville, the trope of higher dimensionality owes a fundamental debt to Lovecraft, but builds from there.

Miéville’s work responds to the crisis of representation posed by ‘non-mundane’ space by recognising the need for the invention of new vocabularies and that this becomes increasingly evident in the more recent novels.

In fact, new spaces, in Miéville, generate new language. Think of the Weaver’s cubist utterances, like something out of Gertrude Stein, who was well aware of the fourth dimension and its influence on cubism, and who likewise wanted to depict objects from multiple angles.

Think of the changes on language wrought by the colonists who come from beyond the immer, that liminal ‘langue’ from which immersers return changed. Or how about…

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Orciny (C +C)n. A mythical interstitial City that exists only in words, particularly in cacographic marginal scribbling.

Orciny is nothing but language – rumour, Bowden’s illegitimate research presented in Between the City and the City, generating the field of discourse entered by Sherman, Rosen, Vijnic, researched and annotated in the margins by Mahalia. Orciny, ‘this fool’s conspiracy’ as Ashil calls it, is generated by the hybridity of…

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Breach (C +C) n. 1) The crime committed by a citizen of either Besz or Ul Quoma who transgresses directly into the other territory. 2) The authority that polices such crimes. 3) The interstitial and abstracted location occupied by this authority.

v. To commit the crime of 1), to transgress from Besz into Ul Qoma or vice versa.

Breach. There’s a note here referring to Andrew Butler: ‘Breach denies hybridity’. It aks: does Bowden reintroduce it? It continues, breach is neither one nor the other but both, at the same time. Overlaid, underlying. Underwritten, over-writing? Breach is polysemous, a word that refers to a number of different concepts. It is introduced to the reader slyly: we read of Borlu unseeing an old woman before we encounter breach; we read of the Dopplircafe, a real-world analogue of a shared space used by Jews and Muslims side-by-side, that primes us for this idea of two cities that are not just beside, but through each other, densely interwoven in areas of…

Cross-hatch (C +C)n. Areas where Besz and Ul Quoma occupy the same space simultaneously and two distinct idioms of architecture abutt each other. Citizens of either City will be required to ‘unsee’ or ‘unnotice’ each other in such areas.

The crosshatch produces the bravura closing scene in The City and The City’s main narrative, the arrest of a transgressively – and here ‘trans-‘ is crossed out and replaced with hyper, before settling on schizogressively pimpwalking Bowden, a kind of blasphemous bodypopper. Here, quantum physics is indicated, rather than higher dimensionality. Bowden is ‘Schrodinger’s pedestrian’, in both spaces at the same time. His ‘strange, impossible’ gait is a new thing: it demands new vocabulary; it is ‘not properly describable’. Here Miéville briefly recapitulates the linguistic crisis of representation in a text that otherwise brims with linguistic creation. This is the exception that proves the rule, claims Tablot. This scene creates from the hybrid space a new embodiment, a new way of being in space, a way of being so new it’s yet to be named…

Unlike, Embassytown, which is renamed…

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‘By Embassytown I mean the city. Even the new Ariekei have started to call the city by that name.’ So says Avice Benner Cho, using the new language, Ariekei embracing the possibilities of polysemy built into their polyvocality.

It’s to Spanish Dancer, the most gifted linguist in all of Miéville’s novels – the most gifted story-teller, too, because that’s what we’re dealing with – that Talbot gives the closing words.

As he addresses the Ariekei on their return to the city, Spanish eloquently, and in that slightly stilted alien voice, speaks of the generative connections between language and space that Miéville’s work both enacts and hopes for:

‘When the humans came they had no names, and we made new words so they would have places in the world.’

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