Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke visited [Claude Elwood] Shannon’s house a number of times. A device Shannon called the “ultimate machine” left him unnerved. “Nothing could be simpler,” Clarke later wrote. “It is merely a small wooden casket, the size and shape of a cigar box, with a single switch on one face. When you throw the switch, there is an angry, purposeful buzzing. The lid slowly rises, and from beneath it emerges a hand. The hand reaches down, turns the switch off and retreats into the box. With the finality of a closing coffin, the lid snaps shut, the buzzing ceases and peace reigns once more. The psychological effect, if you do not know what to expect, is devastating. There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing—absolutely nothing—except switch itself off.”
Patterson, S. (2010). The Quants. New York: Crown Business, pg. 25
One is aware of that species of self-torture which, in the absence of any external or social constraints, was then the order of the day, afflicting precisely those possessed of most exceptional minds. Things which torment ordinary people only in passing and which, because unengaged in self-contemplation, they seek to banish from their thoughts, were instead acutely registered and observed by the better sort, and set down in books, letters, and diaries. But now the strictest moral demands placed upon oneself and others were commingled with an extreme negligence in one’s own actions, and the vague notions arising out of this semi-self-knowledge encouraged the strangest proclivities and most outlandish behavior. This unremitting work of self-contemplation was further abetted by the rise of empirical psychology, which, if unwilling to describe anything that causes us inner unrest as wicked or reprehensible, could nonetheless not entirely condone it; and thus was set into motion a permanent, irresoluble state of conflict. Of all the full- or half-time idlers intent on digging into their innermost depths, Lenz excelled in cultivating and perpetuating this state of conflict, and thus he suffered in general from that tendency of the age to which the depiction of Werther was meant to put a stop; but he was cut from a different cloth, which set him apart from all the others, whom one had to admit were thoroughly open, decent creatures. He, by contrast, had a decided propensity for intrigue, indeed, for intrigue pure and simple, without any particular goal in view, be it reasonable, personal, or attainable; on the contrary, he was always concocting some twisted scheme, whose very contortions were enough to keep him wholly entertained. In this way, throughout his life his fancies played him for a rascal, his loves were as imaginary as his hates, he juggled his ideas and feelings at whim, so that he would always have something to do. By these topsy-turvy means, he would attempt to impart reality to his sympathies and antipathies, and then would himself destroy this creation again; and so he was never of use to anybody he loved, nor did he ever do harm to anybody he hated, and in general he seemed only to sin in order to punish himself, only to intrigue in order to graft some new fiction onto an old one.
His talent, in which delicacy, agility, and extreme subtlety all vied with each other, proceeded from a genuine depth, from an inexhaustible creative power, but, for all its beauty, there was something thoroughly unhealthy about it, and it is precisely talents such are these that are the most difficult to evaluate. One cannot fail to appreciate the outstanding features of his works; they are suffused with by something quite sweet and tender, but this is intermixed with instances of buffoonery so baroque and so asinine that, even in a sense of humor this all-pervasive and unassuming, even in a comic gift this genuine, they can hardly be pardoned. His days were occupied by airy nothings to which, ever assiduous, he managed to give meaning, and if he was able to idle away his hours in this fashion, it was because, given his outstanding memory, the time he actually devoted to reading always proved to be most fruitful, enriching his original way of thinking with a great variety of materials.
- Goethe, J.W.; Oxenford, J. (trans.). (2003). Poetry & Truth. Pennsylvania State University;
- excerpted in Büchner, G.; Sieburth, R. (trans.). (2004). Lenz. New York: Archipelago Books, pg. 135, 137, 139.
Lenz eventually came to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia, which inspired Georg Büchner to write a speculative biographical novella based on the diaries of Johann Friedrich Oberlin, at whose house Lenz lodged for a period of three weeks as his mental health steadily deteriorated. I post the above excerpt here due to its incisive analysis of Lenz’s personality, which I admire both for its perspicaciousness and the way it highlights Lenz’s relation to the Romantic zeitgeist. As well, Deleuze & Guattari refer to Lenz in the opening pages of Anti-Oedipus. See here for an excellent synopsis of Lenz’s life and place within schizoanalysis.
[I recently had to type this out for an acquaintance, so I figured that I might as well post it for fellow confuzzled readers of D&G. One should, however, note the suspicion of 'tautological' definitions explicitly posed by Bourdieu, evidently adopted from Wittgenstein, who decried the assumption of Western metaphysics that every word references a distinct object. Rather, says Wittgenstein, we should look at words in terms of what they do: as a 'toolbox'. Here, then, is a glimpse into some of the tools utilized by Guattari and Deleuze, though these are by no means exhaustive, tautological definitions, but merely two-dimensional renditions of multifaceted concepts. For other renditions, the reader is directed to this and this, as well as the following books:
- Parr, A. (Ed.). (2005). Deleuze Dictionary. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press.
- Bonta, M. & Protevi, J. (2004). Deleuze & Geophilosophy: A Guide & Glossary. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press.]
One of my goals this year is to start reading Deleuze & Guattari’s two-volume Capitalism & Schizophrenia series. I’m familiar with the work of Guattari thanks to Gary Genosko’s excellent (though at times mind-bogglingly recondite) introduction to his work, though I must confess that all my current knowledge about Deleuze has been accumulated solely through blogs and discussions. I decided to peek at the endnotes of both texts with an eye out for ‘pre-readings’, since I not only want to know what they are saying, but how they came to their conclusions. Not that I intend to postpone reading D&G until I finish all of these, but at the very least, I think that one should be somewhat familiar with the works’ antecedents, even if that just means reading their Wiki pages. These, then, are the authors & works they cite for each respective text; multiple works by the same author are separated by plus signs.
Trying to Get Immanence Out of a (Philosopher’s) Stone: Archetypes, Sociobiology, & Harry Potter, And What They Have To Do With The UK Riots
[This is too late in the game to do anyone much good, I realize, but I feel that I still ought to put in my two cents regarding the August riots in the UK. I wrote this during my breaks at work when I was on 12-hour shifts, so all that I had time to do when I got home was to read blog entries about the riots; nobody hailed the end of them, so I (amusingly) did not realize they were over until the 23rd, after reading the Wiki page. To my credit, at least, I successfully predicted its outcome (though I feel silly in saying that); I will therefore leave the tense unaltered. In order to make my linking of Harry Potter to the Tottenham riots seem less farfetched, I recommend readers to first peruse this.]
There are a number of popular (i.e. non-academic) intellectual movements whose objective is to find an immanent basis for the meaning of signifiers. One such example is Jungian archetypes, which states that various symbols are innate in the human mind, and thus that symbols are “universally recognizable.” As well, the sociobiology of Desmond Morris seeks to ground social phenomena in biological instinct (once again, innate), e.g. he ascribes the tradition of women coloring their lips red to the fact that when a woman becomes aroused, her lips become engorged with blood, appearing fuller and redder; thus lipstick is a display of availability for mating, just as is the peacock displaying its feathers. A third, more contemporary instance of this tendency can be found in the Harry Potter series. In Hogwarts, students of witchcraft & wizardry are taught combinations of signifiers (e.g. a “swish & flick” of one’s wand combined with the words “Wingardium Leviosa” pronounced in a specific way) which are somehow inherently connected to their magical function. There is no talk of ‘inventing’ spells; presumably experimental wizards merely spout out Latin-sounding words in hopes that they’ll bring a result connected to their etymology. This essay will outline the three views described above; show how meaning is in fact not immanent, but for the most part purely arbitrary; and show how this immanent treatment of signifiers resonates within the UK riots, perhaps to the point of precluding any significant cultural change.