Friday, April 19, 2013

Going Through My Hard Drive

Here is another piece I wrote during the early work on my thesis. I had somehow stumbled away from architecture and into epistemology. I'm posting it because I think it's interesting and maybe I will make something more of it later. Sorry the layout is a little dodgy. Images are as unruly in Blogger as they are in Microsoft Word - and that's saying something.

The Grandeur of Rome:
  History and Myth with Playing Cards

Those objects most representative of a culture become invisible. They have nothing remarkable about them; people find nothing odd about them. They disappear because there is nothing to see. Our culture is distilled to its most pure state in such objects. 

Take, for example, a deck of playing cards. Bicycle® is the most common brand in North America. The pack is instantly recognizable. They make a wide range of special decks; this is the most common – the blue “Rider Back”.
Bicycle Playing Cards:
Trusted Since 1885
Open the pack and the first two cards will be the information card and a card with the ranks of poker hands. The next fifty-two cards will be the eleven cards of each suit, starting with the Ace of Spades. Last are the two Jokers. Fifty-six cards in total. Consider the cards in this deck for a moment.

The so-called face cards represent the members of a Royal House. In some decks the face cards of each suit are explicit representations of historical individuals. The Jack, Queen, and King are all worth ten points in most games but they are considered in a specific order – the King is higher than the Queen, who is higher than the Jack. They possess the same value but a different rank.

There are no Ones in a standard deck – everyone knows this. Instead, there are Aces. The odd thing about an Ace is both its value and rank are binary – it can be used as the highest ranking card or the lowest, worth either eleven or one. Unlike the other cards, that have an illustration of their rank or value on their face, the Ace has an ambiguous representation.

"Unit" or "Unity"

This is the Ace of Spades from Bicycle’s Ghost Deck, used primarily by magicians rather than gamblers. The 808 logo has no significance, except to distinguish the brand from a competitor who used a 606 logo. The central form and ink colour designates the suit, in this case a Spade, and the value is noted in the corner markings as “A”.

The word Ace is derived from the Latin root as, meaning either “unit” or “unity”. This is why the Ace has two possible values; it either designates an individual or a group. The individual is the lowest rank, with a value of one, while the group is given the value of eleven to demonstrate it is greater even than the King.

The other odd card in the deck is, of course, the Joker, this from the same Bicycle Ghost Deck. The Joker does not have a designated suit or value. Casinos throw the Jokers away. Most of the time we have no place for them. Jokers can assume the value of any other card in the deck. But, no matter what they represent, they remain Jokers. In the history of Rome, Gods are like Jokers. They are themselves and they are something else.

The reason for this cursory review of the standard deck of playing cards is this; the deck is organized in a way we understand so well we never even see the need to think about it. It is obviously symbolic of the ranks and values of society and, yet, the oddness of Aces and Jokers goes unnoticed. It is not a coincidence the Joker was first added to the standard deck in Germany - the heirs of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Ace is exactly what its name and nature suggest – it is either an individual or it is a group, either lowlier than a Deuce or higher than a King. The Joker is mystery, the Changeling, the God. It can be anything except itself and, no matter what form it takes, must always remain itself. Before Rome is founded, Herakles is a cattle-thief, and murderer, a God.

There is no better illustration of Ancient Rome's history and mythology than that contained in a deck of playing cards. To understand the interaction between the People and the City, you must understand the Ace. To understand the connection between the People and their history, you must understand the Joker.

Thesis Insanity

I wrote this as the prologue to my thesis. Then, sensibly, I removed it. I am posting it now because it's funny and it gives an indication of my mental state at the time. I have since recovered, thank you.


I thought this was going to be simple; simple is better than complicated. I would write a brief exposition of the nature of space. I could read what the Greeks and Romans thought about space, and then I could write about it. I forgot I would have to figure out what I think about space. That’s Complication Number One.

Space is simple, I thought. There is nothing to it (ha ha). It is so simple even economists can write about it clearly and sensibly; nothing economists write makes sense to me. Space is shrinking, or has already shrunk. That is if you believe the economists. If you believe the physicists, space is expanding. If you believe the psychologists, it gets bigger and smaller (depending on the situation). What one thinks is never so much a matter of proof or fact; it is a decision to believe. That’s Complication Number Two.

Economic theory can explain the nature of space for a society but not for an individual. Psychology can explain it for an individual, but not for a group. Physics explains it in mind-bending terms like a peanut in Johannesburg and a golf ball in New York. Nobody can explain the nature of space for both individual and group. That’s a big problem since the primary fact of humanity is the condition of plurality. That’s Complication Number Three.

Space is everything that has nothing in it (not counting air, dust, small insects, and cet) but it is only recognizable because of objects in and around it. I am not interested in objects, I am interested in the not-object surrounding them. But I can’t say anything about one without mentioning the other. And the nature of objects is infinite, diverse, and as ambiguous as the nature of space. That’s Complication Number Four.

I don’t like complicated things. I prefer simple ones. I wanted to write something simple. I thought this was a question of my skill as a writer; if I possessed sufficient skill I could write without recourse to big words and sentences with seven subordinate clauses. Now I realize my skill as a writer has little to do with anything. Plato said, “Apollodorus said, “Socrates said, “Diotoma said, “Everything is created by magic””””. Diotoma, according to Socrates, according to Apollodorus, according to Plato, actually said ““““love”””” but it amounts to the same thing. So my simple exposition about space is now a simple thesis about magic and love. This is Complication Number Five.

The clearest text I could find on the modern experience and understanding of space is Heidegger’s Being Dwelling Thinking. The essay was inspired by an all-but-forgotten line from Hölderlin, “Poetically, Man dwells”. Three words. This is not what inspires confidence. And it has nothing to offer concerning what Man might do non-poetically. Since I’m already stuck with magic and love, I might as well add poetry to the list. Heidegger has ‘being, dwelling, thinking’; Hölderlin has ‘Poetically, Man dwells’; I have ‘magic, love, poetry’. Simple. This is Complication Number Six.

The essence of space is possibility. It is what allows all other things to be. While reading Heidegger it occurred to me (and I don’t know how this never occurred to me earlier) ‘to be’ is one of the sixty-six irregular verbs in English. One cannot ask ‘what is being’ because ‘what is’ is already a question about the nature of being. To illuminate the extent of this problem I spent an entire day saying ‘be’ instead of ‘is’; what be being? It be a real problem. Thbe be Complication Number Seven.

Space and place are generally considered synonyms in modern English. But they are obviously different. Space refers to nothing, place refers to something. This is a similar problem to that of defining space without reference to its boundaries but it is not the same. Place can be defined by an object—such as the bridge in the already-mentioned Being Dwelling Thinking. The nature of place is clearly a very different question than the nature of space. This is Complication Number Eight.

In Western musical convention the frequency of notes is described in Hertz, for example A is 440 Hz. The difference between each half note is 1.05946309436 Hz, or the twelfth root of 2. The equivalent described in a distance is a wavelength of 3.53398848465e-9 M. A human hair is approximately 850 000 times the width of a semi-tone. Yet a semi-tone is the difference between major and minor, between music that sounds happy and music that sounds sad. When people start using numbers like the twelfth root of two my head fills with the ozone stench of fried synapses. But the difference between C E G and C E-flat G is something real that happens in space, it has an emotional impact on everyone who hears it; and it happens in 1/850 000 the width of a strand of hair. A city is not something that happens in a fraction of a metre. This is Complication Number Nine.

This is a good place to end my list of Complications because nine is a magic number and the truth is always odd. Nine Complications is nine too many. When things get complicated I retreat to what I know best — Rome.

As I have said, I like simple. So when I started this particular investigation of Rome I thought it would be best to start at the beginning: it’s a very good place to start. Never mind beginnings are muddled by magic, love, and poetry. This is Rome and I know Rome. At least, I know enough to be comfortable starting there, with Livy’s Early History of Rome.

Livy was a stout-hearted man, to be willing to take on such a task. When he started writing Rome was already 750 years old, or so he thought, it is actually both much older and much younger. Someone attempting the history of Rome cannot be frightened by ambiguity, or confusion, or multiplicity. Livy survives precisely one paragraph before he is forced to admit, “From this point there is a twofold tradition”. He isn’t speaking of the Foundation of Rome, not yet. He has only made it as far as Aeneas and his compatriots’ arrival in Italy. We are four generations from Rome’s founding, or five, or six, or we have already missed it by several hundred years – there is a manifold tradition.

Why do we care about the origin of Rome? Because it is the origin of origin. For fifteen hundred years Europe has been taking the best of itself to Rome, in hopes of finding there the reasons and origin of what they have already. To prove the existence of something, it is enough to prove Romans knew of it. It is not necessary to explain its origin. The origin of Rome provides for all other origins. This is why logicians write ‘quod est demonstratum’ at the end of their proofs. Roma locuta, causa finita.

The overwhelming impulse is towards simplification. Something is understood when enough detail has been stripped away so that it is like something else, which we already understand. Some things resist simplification. I resist simplification.

This is the fundamental nature of space – it is devious. You have to keep an eye on it because one moment there is nothing there, and it is properly called space, the next Rome has appeared. There is perpetual combat between space, which resists the appearance of everything and wishes to remain empty (and thus most like itself), and magic, which wishes to create things from nothing (defying physical laws, and thus being most like itself).

These last two go together in the story of the Foundation of Rome, the desire to resist simplification and the action of magic to violate space. Livy does not want the story of Rome’s foundation to be simple – how could it be? Roma is a Goddess. How do men create Gods? Surely it is anything but simple. And where did Rome come from? How can this question be asked; Rome cannot be anywhere other than where it is. It came from Troy, from Alba, from Heaven, from itself. All of these together are not enough to explain it. The only explanation is magic. Which is no explanation at all.

Sibilla, the Prophetess of Cuma, visited Tarquin Superbus, last King of Rome. She offered him nine books for 300 gold pieces. He refused. She began to throw books on the fire. Tarquin stopped her when she had only three remaining and paid the original price for the last books. The books contained a complete history of Rome but instead of looking from that moment backwards in time, they looked forward and described all that would happen from that moment on. This is legend. This is also history. What those books contained was also legend and history. Legend, Michel Serres tells us, tells us how to read what there is to be read. What is there to read? History and legend. History and myth. The story of multiplicity and magic and the story of myth. The story of magic and magic. This is what is to be read. What does this have to do with space?

Rome is the history of space’s defeat by magic and blood-lust.

Meaning and Meaninglessness

An all-but-forgotten line from Hölderlin, “Poetically, Man dwells”. Three words. This sent Heidegger on the search that would produce Being Thinking Dwelling. He worked backwards from the words – what does it mean to dwell? Knowing this he could begin to move forwards. 

When we say something ‘means’ something, what does that mean?

I have submersed myself in written words. I did this in anticipation of acquiring knowledge; instead I have lost my conviction written words have anything to tell.

There is a phenomenon psychologists call ‘semantic satiation’. This is the technical name for what happens when you say a word over and over until it loses all meaning. “Shreddies, Shreddies, Shreddies, Shreddies, Shreddies, …” There is no term for what happens when all words lose their meaning.

The Sybil of Cuma wrote her prophecies on leaves and scattered them at the supplicant’s feet. The almost-irresistible urge is, of course, to put them back in order. Why? Perhaps the Sybil might not know more about the nature of text than those who seek to impose logic on collections of words.

The name of the concept of concepts is ‘word’. This is what logic tells us. Word is the name of names.

The Egyptians knew about names; they are magical. All magic can be beneficial or detrimental. The Egyptians thought it best to conceal their magical names. So did the Romans; the penalty for revealing Rome’s magical name was death. What was Roma’s magical name? Roma. How do I know that? Did someone have to die?

Naming is the essence of all things. It is the first act. It is the beginning of separating cosmos from chaos. What is chaos? Only a name. What is cosmos? Only a name?  Naming is the fundamental act of love. Uttering (outering) a sound to give name to something is sacrificing part of your spirit (Latin spiritus, ‘breath’) to bring a thing closer to you. But what can be understood about the magical act of naming is really very trivial.

All speaking is magical, since you can only speak names. All writing is magical for the same reason. What can one understand if one doesn’t understand magic? Can words tell us of their own nature? No, it would be like jumping over your own shadow. However, there is nothing else to be done but continue as if I am master of the magic of words. Stick around, later on I’ll play with some fire.