Monday, September 30, 2013

Horse_ebooks as a Free Will Fetish

"It seems we cannot get enough of our mechanical mirror stage."

- Peggy Nelson, Not a Bot (

Things like "whimsy" and "dada" (and even the basic human capacity for "spontaneity") all happen at the intersection of meaning and randomness. They fascinate us because, by cross-referencing our symbol systems with the universe's inscrutable patterns of noise and happenstance, we get some sense that the universe itself is actually conscious, or purposeful, or whatever.

@horse_ebooks was a token of that always-captivating emergent significance. My Twitter feed filled up with tearful farewells when it was outed as a human "conceptual art project," and I felt disposed to join them. At least for me, the dismay results from losing that sense of whimsy and emergent meaning. Knowing it's a human, contriving the meaning and simulating the random factor, somehow steals away that elusive magic.

Of course, this illuminates one of the dialectical dissociations that underwrites human consciousness: we are fascinated by randomness, because we cannot entirely come to terms with it. Fortune tellers seeks out the most chaotic, meaningless systems possible (cards shuffling, tea leaves tossed about by convection) and insist on ascribing symbolic significance to the outcomes.

Pure purposefulness (corresponding to a deterministic universe) is boringly predictable. Pure randomness (quantum and non-deterministic) is boringly nihilistic. But somewhere at the threshold between them, we sense free will as a glimmer of purposeful indeterminacy. So we seek out things like @horse_ebooks and divination rituals, which seem to draw a connection between those two causal universes. Maybe this is one of the human mind's integral background processes: to search for evidence of our own agency in the framework of the universe.

For whatever reason, @horse_ebooks is much less interesting as an intentional art project than it was as an algorithmic gesture toward cosmic agency. Some psychological need was obviously being filled, and now it's not, so we're going to have to go back to our tarot cards.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Crypticism 2: Clinically Obscure Language in The Matrix and Cyclonopedia

I shall begin this post with a confession: I loved The Matrix Reloaded. I was shaken by its wild ambition, and being an adolescent, I was a sucker for the absurd fight scenes and the renegade cyber-floozy cyberpunk angle. But looking back on it, what now especially surprises me about the film -- one of the things I find most striking about its structure -- is how bold that climax was, the moment of heightened clinical stillness in the Source, where the Architect confronted Neo with a mind-contorting explanation of the Matrix's edifice of dissimulation.

The first time I watched Reloaded in the theaters, I just struggled to figure out what the Architect was talking about. There was something there about a cycle of Eternal Return, a feedback loop that required a few humans to be liberated so that an anomalous quantity could be vented. Underneath that carnival of abstractions, there were higher issues at stake... Neo as a messiah-sacrifice, guided to this moment by his own inevitable resistance instinct, now being called upon to destroy himself out of love for the larger human race. Somewhere in that dilemma, there was a slave's paradox: survival of the species meant recommitting it to subjugation; the pursuit of freedom was the spill-over that was presently threatening to destroy the Matrix and the species being held there.

I love the first line.
"You have many questions, and though the process has altered your consciousness you remain irrevocably human, ergo some of my answers you will understand and some of them you will not."
In one rather long sentence, the Architect triggers a whole bunch of responses we often have to overwritten prose: the feeling of being lost in a bombardment of phrases, the sense that the author has some kind of contempt for the reader, and the knee-jerk ambivalence (or even disgust) many casual readers feel as a result. Postmodern theorists, with Derrida leading the pack, have made sort of an art out of dragging the reader through dense and twisted prose, and his critics have reacted spitefully. In the process, both Derrida and his critics have provided us with landmarks of cryptic language: Derrida's deconstructionist texts, and Alan Sokal's intentionally meaningless essay Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.

What these writers highlight is the dialectical function of cryptic language to simultaneously reveal and obscure meaning. Arguably (and in my opinion, it's an argument with merit), opaque language is sometimes justified by the complexity and ambition of the concepts behind it... people like Derrida and Heidegger have to make up words and torture their prose because their thought is plumbing depths that common, non-academic language can't yet capture. However, it's hard -- nigh impossible -- to separate this revelatory function from mere self-indulgence, language made artificially incomprehensible in order to obscure an absence of rigor, or a dearth of ideas. This is what's generally referred to "being pretentious" or "trying too hard"... and it's one of the hobgoblins, whether intentional or not, of Alan Sokal's prank paper submitted to Social Text.

What complicates the critique applied by Sokal is the fact that cryptic language has an aesthetic and rhetorical effect, even in its opacity. Derrida was a smart guy, and he was most certainly conscious of his stylistic choices... and once we acknowledge that he was being purposeful and intentional, we can see him less as a fraud and more as a pioneer of the cryptic mode, which the writers of The Matrix Reloaded used to such memorable effect.

The scene with the Architect is fairly long, and the dialogue is brisk, academic, polysyllabic, and witheringly precise. It is also a prime example of intentionally cryptic prose, a sort of dispersed substrate of psychocybernetic jargon that Neo sinks into with his first dignified question to the Architect.

This particular speech, which can be read in its entirety here, is not flat-out incomprehensible (unlike, for instance, Sokal's essay). If you read it over a couple times, and maybe look up a couple terms in cybernetics, you shouldn't have trouble making sense of the Architect's explanations. However, within the conditions of an actual cinematic experience, it's obviously not meant to be simple exposition. For anyone seeing it for the first time, it seems to move at a blinding speed, and those viewers will be lucky to pick up even a few broad ideas from the coleslaw of technical terms.

Most action films hit a plateau of suspense at the climax, cap it off with a violent resolution, and then let out a breath of relief, turning sharply into the denouement. The Matrix jerks this progression off-course when Neo enters the Source, interrupting the intensity of the action with a sudden shock of stillness. In this stillness, the physical intuition that governs the action sequences gives way to a sort of incomplete, elliptical cerebral ambivalence, defined by the Architect's chilling clarity riddled with entropic gaps: the viewer is suddenly pushed to absorb information, to grapple with a conceptual model of the Matrix, but is denied easy access to that big picture, because it’s obscured in this cryptic language.

I see this as a bold decision in The Matrix Reloaded: the decision to hinge the climax on stillness and opacity, the decontextualized clarity at the eye of a storm. Visually, the scene is sterilized, like various other “inner sanctums” of the absolute mind, and the Architect's performance is impassive and lawyerly. Beyond this sense of irrecoverable alienness, though, what are the emotional tones of this scene? In particular, what’s the emotional and narrative resonance of that cryptic language?

First of all, there’s a sense of disorientation and lack of control within a rigidly-controlled text. That voice will continue droning on, it can’t be stopped, and your capacity to process that information can scarcely keep up with the exposition. However, there’s also a sense of overriding order, suggesting the presence of an inaccessible intelligence: either superior, or simply absolutely alien.

The Matrix Reloaded uses this incomprehensibility to project, via implication, an unknowable Other, a superintelligence that has remained obscured behind the Matrix until now. It also suggests, via an array of cues (tone of voice, posture, dismissive attitude) an absolute superiority, an awareness that's much larger than Neo or the audience, with a more complete picture. At this particular moment, the possibility that this entity is simply creating an illusion of superiority is left in the background. It becomes more important in The Matrix Revolutions; it’s also a relevant factor in our own discussion of cryptic language itself, complicated by Sokal's skepticism toward crypticism. For now, though, such caveats are left unacknowledged.

Stuart Hall, a prominent cultural theorist, has talked a lot about how information is encoded for transmission. One of the noteworthy points he makes is that the production end needs to encode information, and then the recipient needs to decode it. Each of these moments in the chain of communication has its own code, its own rules of meaning and grammar and interpretation, and if the message is to maintain its integrity, both codes (the producer's code and the audience's code) need to support it. Hall points out that misunderstanding is generally the result of asymmetrical codes, which are, for that reason, a bad thing.

Encoding/decoding systems give us one way to look at cryptic communication. In cases like The Matrix Reloaded, the dense, over-processed language is used to invoke an asymmetry of code systems: the entity producing the information (the Architect) has much more control over the encoding process than the person trying to consume the information (the audience, and Neo, its surrogate). The decoding process is deficient, and this suggests both the superiority of the encoder, and also the presence of unassimilated meaning, gaps in the final product of the communication due to the failure to decode some of the information and implications.

In fact, The Architect makes a point of this asymmetry. After Neo initially asks, “Why am I here?” the Architect offers a dump of words that sum up Neo’s function in the Matrix. Neo realizes that this sudden rush of information contained a lot of important background, but intentionally left out the key point, so he says, “You haven’t answered my question.” This is apparently an admirable feat of decoding, because the Architect responds, "Quite right. Interesting. That was faster than the others."

The Matrix’s Architect scene is succinct and imbued with grave implications: it is the climax to an ambitiously intense film, and it changes the trajectory of the series in preparation for Revolutions. The use of cryptic language is important, giving a new dimension to the formerly-anonymous AI antagonist, but it’s also deployed carefully. Now it’s time to consider, as a contrast, certain works that have taken the paradox of opaque communication and cryptic language much further.

I’m just finishing a book right now called Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, by Reza Negarestani. Maybe you can tell, just from the title, what kind of pretension this book is operating under? From the blurbs on the cover, the book sounds like a deconstructed horror story, a la House of Leaves. It’s really not, though… it’s actually a book of deranged, highly speculative theory with a lack of supporting evidence, framed as fiction: theory that stops just sort of truth-claim, and only goes so far as to say, “Here is an unsubstantiated, but subversive, interesting, and frightening way to look at the geopolitical universe!”

I can tell you straight away, it would be hard to read Cyclonopedia without some experience reading other kinds of theorists: deconstructionists, continental philosophers, and occultists, especially. It would also help a lot to understand some of Middle Eastern and Islamic culture, which I did not, going into the book. It’s speckled with terms like Wahhabism, Taqiyya, Gog-Magogism, and various other concepts drawn from fields of knowledge that would strike average American readers as esoteric and specialized.

The resulting prose is dense, half-serious, and half-deranged, spilling out of intelligibility and becoming a kind of tortured poetry of abstraction. I liked it at times, although I also found it mind-numbing at other times (your mileage may vary, of course). Some striking ideas echo through the verbal edifice, as well: that the Middle East is a sentient entity, that war is a self-sufficient force that drives politics, that oil is the Earth’s way of resisting the cosmic hegemony of the sun. These ideas are ripe insects, entombed in an amber grave of cryptic theoretical language. If that’s your thing, then give Cyclonopedia a try.

If The Matrix Reloaded used crypticism to establish a character -- or, more properly speaking, an intellect -- then Cyclonopedia took it a step further. The Architect was the encoding party at the other end of a line, but everyone was still in the same place, which was the topic of the shared communication: the Matrix itself, complete with its relationship to humanity and Zion. The language of Cyclonopedia, on the other hand, does not simply reveal/obscure a character... it reveals/obscures an entire world, a mysterious semantic domain, defined largely by its vocabulary, structured by its operative concepts.

This act of world-building through language is part of what connects Cyclonopedia with science fiction as a narrative genre. This is why it's often called "speculative" theory: in order to appreciate it, you have to let yourself sink into its self-contained world, the same way you have to sink into the language in A Clockwork Orange. There are a few anchors to connect Cyclonopedia to our own world -- the Middle East, terrorism, HP Lovecraft -- but it's largely a semantic field unto itself. The cryptic code gives us a dizzy, tightly-constrained glimpse into this world, but it's only enough to suggest that there's a lot more going on in there than we can apprehend.

The Otherness of these works -- the "Other" as an ineffable intellect in The Matrix, or as an impenetrable web of scholarship and mysticism in Cyclonopedia -- should be recognized for its peculiar quality: the fact that it's characterized as intelligent and detached, rather than primitive and violent. This is, after all, the usual issue with portrayals of the Other, whether in Heart of Darkness or in Tolkien's hordes of Orcs and Haradrim (Southmen): the Other, as an object of both fascination and fear, is, at best, romanticized as an innocent child of nature... and more often, as a horde of faceless, undifferentiated, animalistic, hyper-sexualized foes.

These kinds of "Others" are generally described visually, or depicted in images, as Conrad does with the "Africans" (Congolese) he sees from his steamboat: "But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage." Or, in a film like 300, the Other depicted as a sea of masks, never speaking (except perhaps through a translator), an overwhelming visual presence, distanced and detached from the viewer by the objectivity of the optic brain.

So though the Other of cryptic language is still an exotic, unknowable presence (or a dim, half-rendered world), it's an intelligent Other, because language is inherently interior and cerebral. You can mark this as one of the unique features of the cryptic mode of writing, that's difficult to replicate in almost any other medium: the ability to create an Other that is more sophisticated than the POV, more abstract and advanced, and that bears the unique qualities of detachment, artificiality, and absolute self-control.

In an age of accelerating complexity, technology that seems to take on a supervisory role in our lives, and emergence that seems to be overwhelming our traditional mechanisms of control, maybe the runaway intelligence of a cryptic passage is becoming more threatening than the cartoonish tantrums of an Orientalist horde. Welcome to the horror of a new millennium.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Crypticism 1: An introduction to a preoccupation

I've created the term "Crypticism" to describe my current fixation on things that are intentionally, aesthetically incoherent. I don't mean they literally can't be understood... rather, that they push the boundaries of basic comprehensibility. For a couple blog entries, I want to talk about this idea. I know I don't discuss books much, but for at least these entries, I'll be mostly lingering in the realm of literature, with occasional forays into film dialogue.

I like how this word -- "cryptic" -- is connected to the word "crypt," in that both have to do with obscurity and concealment. Here's the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary:
1630s, "hidden, occult, mystical," from Late Latin crypticus, from Greek kryptikos "fit for concealing," from kryptos "hidden" (see crypt). Meaning "mysterious, enigmatic" is recorded from 1920. Related: Cryptically.
It's a strange and amazing analogy... that language is sort of like a cemetery, or a morgue, and that the meaning is the substance that's locked away. The image is totally reversed from our normal picture of language as a device for clarity, communication, and exposure. If, in cryptic language, the meaning is willfully buried, it's because it's lifeless and decaying, a decomposed remnant of what it might have been when it was embodied in vibrant, transparent language.

I don't have to be so Manichean about the whole thing, though... death is not evil, as the Tarot tells us. If we were really to exhume the bodies of our ex-countrymen, we would discover that they've taken on new life... the life of the Earth, with its vermin and bacteria, with its organic evolution of the flesh and the bones and the clothing those bodies were buried in. The "death" of meaning is not so much about its stasis, as it is about its renewal through dissolution. In cryptic language, meaning unfolds from its corporeal shell, returning to the Earth and being resurrected as new raw material.

Cryptic language is not merely a mistake or a trick to conceal incompetence. It is a powerful stylistic tool, a vehicle for flirting with meaning without inflicting the violence of closure. In cryptic language, we can see the borders of a whole world, an interior governed by intimate and alien logics, whose vocabulary only brushes up against consensus. The mode of cryptic language is can be a performance, a misdirection, or a glamour...  a way of preserving mystery and plurality while sculpting meaning... and it can also be ruthlessly authentic beyond any pretense of politeness. The result can be a truly multithreaded text, or it can be an empty shell, a vessel inviting the reader to pour themselves into it.

I've got two types of cryptic language in mind, and hopefully I'll get around to writing about both. The first type is stream-of-consciousness writing, which attempts to access the contents of the mind before it's been structured by language.

The second type of cryptic language I want to discuss is intentionally obscure intellectual exposition, which I've been running across more and more lately. There's probably a whole thesis to write on this topic, as it occurs in postmodern theory, occultism, and at the margins of specialized disciplines. Its use as a stylistic effect is becoming more common, and I don't know of a word that's been invented to describe it.

There are a few particular works that have inspired this little excursion. The first is the iconic, brilliant, hopefully immortal House of Leaves, written by Mark Danielweski. The second is the book I'm just now finishing, Cyclonopedia, which, like HoL, provides some examples of both types of cryptic language. The third is a book I got most of the way through, but didn't quite finish, entitled Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, that (in my reading) is a prime example of stream-of-consciousness writing.

If anybody knows of any writing or studies of language or journal articles that might be relevant, definitely let me know. I'm not an expert on these rhetorical modes, and my musings may be numbingly primitive, or wander far afield of the technical understandings. Still, when I get an idea into my head, I can't help but talk about it. Hope that's okay with everyone.