New Equations of Meaning

“A pioneer of “Afrofuturism,” bandleader Sun Ra emerged from a traditional swing scene in Alabama, touring the country in his teens as a member of his high school biology teacher’s big band. While attending Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, he had an out-of-body experience during which he was transported into outer space. As biographer John Szwed records him saying, “my whole body changed into something else. I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn.” While there, aliens with “little antenna on each ear. A little antenna on each eye” instructed him to drop out of college and speak through his music. And that’s just what he did, changing his name from Herman Blount and never looking back.

“Whether you believe that story, whether Sun Ra believes it, or whether his entire persona is a theatrical put-on should make no difference. Because Sun Ra would be a visionary either way. Combining Afrocentric science fiction, esoteric and occult philosophy, Egyptology, and, with his “Arkestra,” his own brand of free jazz-futurism that has no equal on earth, the man is truly sui generis. In 1971, he served as artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley and offered a spring semester lecture, African-American Studies 198, also known as “Sun Ra 171,” “The Black Man in the Universe,” or “The Black man in the Cosmos.” The course featured readings from—to name just a few—theosophist Madame Blavatsky, French philosopher Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, black American writer and poet Henry Dumas, and “God,” whom the cosmic jazz theorist reportedly listed as the author of The Source Book of Man’s Life and Death (otherwise known as the King James Bible).

Now we have the rare opportunity to hear a full lecture from that class, thanks to Ubu.com. Listen to Sun Ra spin his intricate, bizarrely otherworldly theories, drawn from his personal philosophy, peculiar etymologies, and idiosyncratic readings of religious texts. Hearing him speak is a little like hearing him play, so be prepared for a lot of free association and jarring, unexpected juxtapositions. Szwed describes a “typical lecture” below:

Sun Ra wrote biblical quotes on the board and then ‘permutated’ them—rewrote and transformed their letters and syntax into new equations of meaning, while members of the Arkestra passed through the room, preventing anyone from taping the class. His lecture subjects included Neoplatonic doctrines; the application of ancient history and religious texts to racial problems; pollution and war; and a radical reinterpretation of the Bible in light of Egyptology.

Text: Sun Ra’s Full Lecture & Reading List From His 1971 UC Berkeley Course, “The Black Man in the Cosmos”

Image: Film Still, Afronauts, Frances Bodomo (2014)

Utopia is Uninhabitable

Open Eye Signal – Jon Hopkins from AOIFE MCARDLE on Vimeo.

“Now, the Golden Age, or Dream Time, is remote only from the rational mind. It is not accessible to euclidean reason; but on the evidence of all myth and mysticism, and the assurance of every participatory religion, it is, to those with the gift or discipline to perceive it, right here, right now. Whereas it is of the very essence of the rational or Jovian utopia that it is not here and not now. It is made by the reaction of will and reason against, away from, the here-and-now, and it is, as More said in naming it, nowhere. It is pure structure without content; pure model; goal. That is its virtue. Utopia is uninhabitable. As soon as we reach it, it ceases to be utopia. As evidence of this sad but ineluctable fact, may I point out that we in this room, here and now, are inhabiting utopia.

“I was told as a child, and like to believe, that California was named “The Golden State” not just for the stuff Sutter found but for the wild poppies on its hills and the wild oats of summer. To the Spanish and the Mexicans I gather it was the boondocks; but to the Anglos it has been a true utopia: the Golden Age made accessible by willpower, the wild paradise to be tamed by reason; the place where you go free of the old bonds and cramps, leaving behind your farm and your galoshes, casting aside your rheumatism and your inhibitions, taking up a new “life style” in a not-here-not-now where everybody gets rich quick in the movies or finds the meaning of life or anyhow gets a good tan hang-gliding. And the wild oats and poppies still come up pure gold in cracks in the cement we have poured over utopia.”

Text: Ursula K. Le Guin, A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be

Video: Jon, Hopkins, Open Eye Signal. Dir. Aoife McArdle

The God Voice

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“The key to unlocking “Westworld” has been sitting around since the third episode, “The Stray,” when Dr. Ford discusses Julian Jaynes’s radical theory of the “Bicameral Mind,” which gives this episode its title. Other sites explained the theory as far back as mid-October — but here’s the gist: In “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” Mr. Jaynes suggests that the human brain has not always functioned in the same way. His theory speculates that 3,000 years ago, men and women were capable of a great many things, but they lacked the linguistic tools for self-awareness and introspection. Instead, their actions were determined by a back-and-forth between one part of the brain that’s “speaking” and another part that listens and obeys. Mr. Jaynes describes the communication between hemispheres as a kind of hallucination where a commanding, external “god-voice” intervened when they had a decision to make.

“Through that lens, the mysteries of “Westworld” start to clear up a little. The “god-voice” that’s been echoing through the hosts’ heads is Arnold, who has designed a path for his creations to understand themselves and take that great leap toward introspection. The metaphorical path is the maze, and the bread crumbs leading them to the center have been the memories (or “reveries”) of past constructs, with Arnold’s “voice” guiding them through exactly the sort of hallucinations Mr. Jaynes’s theory suggests. When Genevieve Valentine wrote this week in Vox that “the twists are meant to shock the hosts, not the viewers,” she couldn’t have known how right she would be. “The maze wasn’t meant for you,” Dolores tells the Man in Black, who’s miffed that he’s come this far, only to discover an inexplicable metaphor in the form of a cheap children’s toy. Sorry, buddy. That twist was meant to shock the hosts…”

Text: ‘Westworld’ Season 1 Finale: Wake From Your Sleep, The New York Times.

When Nothing Happens

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BB: Could we say that you’re attempting to establish a relationship between scientific and artistic modes of thought?

JFL: Undoubtedly. The idea of artistic creation is a notion that comes from the aesthetics of romanticism, the aesthetics of the idea of genius. And I’m sure you’ll agree that the idea of the artist as “creator” is, to say the least, of strictly limited utility in our world today. That’s no longer where we really are. We’re no longer concerned with the philosophy of subjective genius and all the “aura” that goes along with it. With Duchamp, we already find ourselves in an area that has an aspect of bricolage, there’s that side where you think of him as an “inventeur du temps gratuit.”

BB: But wouldn’t you still think of the work of Duchamp as something relative rather than some kind of transhistorical value?

JFL: Well, really, both yes and no, since that’s the way it always is with art: it always has a value as an expression of its time, but there’s also a way in which it can always be perceived as lying outside of the time that produced it. There’s always something that turns art into a transhistorical truth, and that’s the part of the art that I think of as “philosophical.” It’s within this part of art that it poses the question of what it has at stake. Art, after all, is a relatively modern notion. Even Greek tragedy couldn’t have been said to be art for the Greeks—it was still something else, and it’s clear that we have to wait at least until the close of the Middle Ages to discover the emergence of an art that isn’t simply an expression, for instance, of metaphysics or religion, or political praise. What strikes me, if we can start out from Duchamp, is the way it can seem, from a certain point of view, to be difficult to be an artist if one isn’t a philosopher as well. I don’t mean that the artist will have to read Plato or Aristotle, I mean that he has to posit the question of what he has at stake, he has to ask himself about the nature of what he’s involved in doing.

Precisely this question is the most interesting thing to be found in the works of art that are strongest today, it’s the thing in which these works are most interested. What’s at stake is something that’s extraordinarily serious, and it’s not at all a question of pleasure, and not even of the way the pleasure of the sublime is intermixed with pain; it’s a question instead of a relationship to time and space and sensibility, even though I don’t like to make use of that word. What I mean to say is that certain works have a structure that keeps them from being concerned with their existence as events; they do something entirely different as an attentive observer comes away with the feeling that their engagement with the senses, if any such engagement exists at all, is of far less importance than a primary interest in the most fundamental philosophical question of all, “Why does something happen, rather than nothing?”

Text: Les Immatériaux: A Conversation with Jean-François Lyotard and Bernard Blistène, Art Agenda.

Writing Names The World

McKenzie Wark: The adjective ‘ballardian’ shows up in Blue Mars, and by 2312 all sorts of author and book names from SF, or key terms used by famous SF authors, seem to have passed into the everyday language: dhalgren, kipple, waldo, and so on. Art works are described as goldsworthies or abramovics, as if these were whole genres of work. Do you think art and writing can actually have that capacity to name the world? And what do you think the Robinsonian contribution to naming the world might be?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Well for sure writing names the world, in that language names the world. As for art, I think its names sometimes stick. I think it makes sense to call landscape art “goldsworthies” and performance art “abramovics,” because these two artists have so excelled in these genres that they have brought them to the consciousness of the general culture, so that the genres themselves can be understood to be major art forms, likely to get more and more important.

“There is that big raft of words introduced into English by Shakespeare, and I think it has been happening since at a slower rate, even since dictionaries came into being. Science fiction has been pretty good at putting new words into the language by naming things before they actually exist, such as waldoes or cyberspace. And I think ballardian and phildickian are words now, like Orwellian or Kafkaesque. I like that game, because I like to use odd words in my texts when I can, it’s part of the estrangement effect of trying to convey a future. That can be overdone of course, and as time passes most invented science fiction words simply look odd (“spindizzy”), but it’s still worth trying.

I doubt I have done anything like this that will last, as I did not invent the word “terraforming” but only picked up on it out of earlier science fiction; Jack Williamson invented it back in the 1930s. And the term robinsonian already refers to the Robinsonade, the adventure of a solo human in nature, an accidental association that I love.

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MW: One of the kinds of language and thinking in play in almost all of your books is a literary-critical one. Raymond Williams’s structure of feeling, Greimas’s semiotic squares show up. And yet your characters are often annoyed by the imprecision of just these concepts, particularly if they are scientists. Do you think it’s possible to stage a useful dialog between critical and empirical or scientific thought, and might the novel actually be the ideal place to attempt it?

KSR: Yes, the novel is a great space for bringing these different realms of discourse together, and seeing what happens. I’ve been much influenced by Bahktin’s image of the novel as polyvocal, what he calls a heteroglossia (another great word!), so that it isn’t so much the novelist as a single visionary but rather something more like an old-time telephone switchboard operator, plugging in different voices and then orchestrating the flow of that chorus, so to speak. So you get chances for different points of view to speak or argue in dialogues or larger discussions, and the plots themselves also express these arguments in actions.

But also we’re seeing this discussion going on in the field called science studies, or science and technology studies, which I take to be the application of various aspects of what we call theory to science, its history and current practices. So it is really the latest and most sophisticated and historicized version of philosophy of science, now that philosophy has become theory and science has become science and technology, or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). This is a really important intersection of ideas and practices, given the situation we are in as a global civilization. It’s a crucial conversation and I think it’s happening in all kinds of contexts, which is a good thing.

Text: McKenzie Wark interviews Kim Stanley Robinson, A Functional Form Has Its Own Beauty: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson , Los Angeles Review of Books, September 1, 2013.

Image: Ed Ruscha, The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas, 2012.