Friday, April 19, 2013

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.

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