Weekend Gloss: Oh Graving Faces

This poem responds to Geoffrey Hill’s injunction, given during one of his recent lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, to the young poet to produce something farouche and surprising: “give us a black swan“. It doesn’t fulfil, or claim to fulfil, that rubric, but rather attempts to sidestep it – rather than “stir up the agon” with Hill, getting tied up in the paradoxes of attempting to fulfil an order to behave unpredictably, it focuses on a very normal thing, “a white / swan on black water / drifting”, and makes it the central figure of a perceived change in, or shift in the sense of, the surrounding natural world.

Black Swan is the title of a fun but ultimately silly film about ballet and sex, and of a book of Nassim Taleb’s I never got all the way through. The latter’s sense of a “black swan” as a surprising event of uncomputable probability is more what I, and I assume Hill, had in mind, although I wouldn’t put it past him to have been thinking of Natalie Portman at the same time.

The “black swan” is an event characterised by its inability to be grasped by what Taleb calls the “degenerate metaprobability” of orthodox accounts of the character of financial risk. Black swans show up from time to time in the normal run of things, but appear as unthinkable exceptions from the point of view of a theory of probability that takes risk to be structurally manageable. Hill’s choice of metaphor appeals to us to see the culture industry, including what is recognised and promoted as poetry within it, as based on a similarly defective, because risk-averse and managerialist, theory of literary profit and loss, and constitutionally unprepared for the black swan that a good poem can sometimes be.

The gambit taken by this poem is to treat a white swan, an ordinary inhabitant of nature, as an “evental site”, a being on the edge of the void. It’s also quite simply the recounting of an anecdote. Many years ago I was out walking along the riverside in Tupsley, Hereford, with my girlfriend at the time who was visiting. Evening had fallen, and we saw a swan drifting in the middle of the river. Chloe, who was studying Classics, felt the presence of the Goddess in the situation, and argued quite sincerely that we should turn back and not continue walking through the fields. Something had changed, and we were no longer welcome: it would have been crass and imprudent to go on disturbing the place with our youthful and somewhat quarrelsome presence. Electing to take ourselves seriously about this, we turned about headed briskly back home, full of spooky thrills and a strange relief at having recognised what was required of us.

The title is from Werships, a piece by the Australian death metal group Portal, which ends with the repeated lyric “Bow! Oh Graving Faces!” – this seemed appropriate to the manifestation of a supernatural visitor.

David Peace’s Jimmy Savile Novel

How do you deal in fiction with a figure as grotesque, as calculatedly and yet unfathomably outlandish, as Jimmy Savile? The only morally and aesthetically satisfying approach would be to write a novel about Savile in which Savile himself never appeared – a novel about the Leeds club scene, the BBC, Top of the Pops, about the NHS, Stoke Mandeville and Broadmoor, in which the characters that mattered were the victims, the enablers, the bystanders, the blithely ignorant and those in wilful denial. Blot him out entirely, but bring the institutional contexts and the human consequences of his abuses into focus. Call it, I dunno, Now Then or something – a reckoning, a commination.

Someone has to do it. David Peace is probably thoroughly sick of being asked when he’s going to do it. However, given the “Savile does not appear in person” rubric, he could quite reasonably answer that he already has – the world of 1974 is identifiably Savile’s world, corrupt, swaggering, heedlessly violent and violating. What’s needed is to bring the same vision to bear on the past 20 years, to run it right up to the present. Now Then. Do you think the age of smartphones and the internet, of instant access to information and to the means of disseminating information, doesn’t still have its secrets, hidden in plain sight?

Friday Trem: Goodbyes

One of my favourite acts of the late 90s was Dave Pearce’s Flying Saucer Attack, whose eerie, folky, bedroom-shoegaze was the template for a lot of what I did with w/trem. FSA had what I call a “complete” aesthetic, which is perhaps unintentionally recalled by the recent Indie game The Rapture Is Here And You Will Be Forcibly Removed From Your Home: reality is breaking down (isn’t it always?), black ships are eating the sky, you might as well give yourself up to it as a shimmering heat-haze consumes everything. Musically, the rule is: let the artifacts consume the signal. Multitrack until the hiss takes over; turn up the feedback on the delay pedal until “ringing” resonant tones start to emerge from the fuzz. It’s an approach to the constraints of low-tech recording that makes a virtue of necessity, of not having Kevin Shields’s budget to blow. FSA probably softened me up for Xasthur, which Simon Reynolds once described as sounding like Robin Guthrie “doing warm up licks on his guitar and FX rig, hampered by the world’s most disabling migraine”. A major point of continuity between w/trem and Spiral Jacobs is that I’ve had the same shit microphone for about 16 years.

Anyway, here’s a tune that cleaves quite closely to the FSA palette in some respects, although it’s brighter and more drum-heavy than they usually were. It’s one of the instrumental interludes from Speaks Your Weight.

What is the ontology of code?

If, as is sometimes said, software is eating the world, absorbing all of the contents of our lives in a new digital enframing, then it is important to know what the logic of the software-digested world might be – particularly if we wish to contest that enframing, to try to wriggle our way out of the belly of the whale. Is it perhaps object-oriented? The short answer is “no”, and the longer answer is that the ontology of software, while it certainly contains and produces units and “unit operations” (to borrow a phrase of Ian Bogost’s), has a far more complex topology than the “object” metaphor suggests. One important thing that practised software developers mostly understand in a way that non-developers mostly don’t is the importance of scope; and a scope is not an object so much as a focalisation.

Cover of "Object-Oriented Modeling and Design with UML"

The logic of scope is succinctly captured by the untyped lambda calculus, which is one of the ways in which people who really think about computation think about computation. Here’s a simple example. Suppose, to begin with, we have a function that takes a value x, and returns x. We write this as a term in the lambda calculus as follows:

\lambda x.x

The \lambda symbol means: “bind your input to the variable named on the left-hand side of the dot, and return the value of the term on the right-hand side of the dot”. So the above expression binds its input to the variable named x, and returns the value of the term “x”. As it happens, the value of the term “x” is simply the value bound to the variable named x in the context in which the term is being evaluated. So, the above “lambda expression” creates a context in which the variable named x is bound to its input, and evaluates “x” in that context.

We can “apply” this function – that is, give it an input it can consume – just by placing that input to the right of it, like so:

(\lambda x.x)\;5

This, unsurprisingly, evaluates to 5.

Now let’s try a more complex function, one which adds two numbers together:

\lambda x.\lambda y.x+y

There are two lambda expressions here, which we’ll call the “outer” and “inner” expressions. The outer expression means: bind your input to the variable named x, and return the value of the term “\lambda y.x+y ”, which is the inner expression. The inner expression then means: bind your input to the variable named y, and return the value of the term “x+y”.

The important thing to understand here is that the inner expression is evaluated in the context created by the outer expression, a context in which x is bound, and that the right-hand side of the inner expression is evaluated in a context created within this first context – a new context-in-a-context, in which x was already bound, and now y is also bound. Variable bindings that occur in “outer” contexts, are said to be visible in “inner” contexts. See what happens if we apply the whole expression to an input:

(\lambda x.\lambda y.x+y)\;5 = \lambda y.5+y

We get back a new lambda expression, with 5 substituted for x. This expression will add 5 to any number supplied to it. So what if we want to supply both inputs, and get x+y?

\begin{array} {lcl}((\lambda x.\lambda y.x+y)\;5)\;4 & = & (\lambda y.5+y)\;4 \\ & = & 5 + 4 \\ & = & 9\end{array}

Some simplification rules in the lambda calculus notation allow us to do away with both the nested parentheses and the nested lambda expressions, so that the above can be more simply written as:

\lambda xy.x+y\;5\;4 = 9

There is not much more to the (untyped) lambda calculus than this. It is Turing-complete, which means that any computable function can be written as a term in it. It contains no objects, no structured data-types, no operations that change the state of anything, and hence no implicit model of the world as made up of discrete pieces that respond as encapsulated blobs of state and behaviour. But it captures something significant about the character of computation, which is that binding is a fundamental operation. A context is a focus of computation in which names and values are bound together; and contexts beget contexts, closer and richer focalisations.

So far we have considered only the hierarchical nesting of contexts, which doesn’t really make for a very exciting or interesting topology. Another fundamental operation, however, is the treatment of an expression bound in one context as a value to be used in another. Contexts migrate. Consider this lambda expression:

\lambda f.f\;4

The term on the right-hand side is an application, which means that the value bound to f must itself be a lambda expression. Let’s apply it to a suitable expression:

\begin{array} {lcl}(\lambda f.f\;4) (\lambda x.x*x) & = & (\lambda x.x*x)\;4 \\ & = & 4*4 \\ & = & 16\end{array}

We “pass” a function that multiplies a number by itself, to a function that applies the function given to it to the number 4, and get 16. Now let’s make the input to our first function be a function constructed by another function, that binds one of its variables and leaves the other “free” – a “closure” that “closes over” its context, whilst remaining partially open to new input:

\begin{array} {lcl}(\lambda f.f\;4) ((\lambda x.\lambda y.x*y)\;5) & = & (\lambda f.f\;4) (\lambda y.5*y) \\ & = & (\lambda y.5*y) 4 \\ & = & 5* 4 \\ & = & 20\end{array}

If you can follow that, you already understand lexical scoping and closures better than some Java programmers.

My point here is not that the untyped lambda calculus expresses the One True Ontology of computation – it is equivalent to Turing’s machine-model, but not in any sense more fundamental than it. “Functional” programming, a style which favours closures and pure functions over objects and mutable state, is currently enjoying a resurgence, and even Java programmers have “lambdas” in their language nowadays; but that’s not entirely the point either. The point I want to make is that even the most object-y Object-Oriented Programming involves a lot of binding (of constructor arguments to private fields, for example), and a lot of shunting of values in and out of different scopes. Often the major (and most tedious) effort involved in making a change to a complex system is in “plumbing” values that are known to one scope through to another scope, passing them up and down the call stack until they reach the place where they’re needed. Complex pieces of software infrastructure exist whose entire purpose is to enable things operating in different contexts to share information with each other without having to become tangled up together into the same context. One of the most important questions a programmer has to know how to find the answer to when looking at any part of a program is, “what can I see from here?” (and: “what can see me?”).

Any purported ontology of computation that doesn’t treat as fundamental the fact that objects (or data of any kind) don’t just float around in a big flat undifferentiated space, but are always placed in a complex landscape of interleaving, interpenetrating scopes, is missing an entire dimension of structure that is, I would argue, at least as important as the structure expressed through classes or APIs. There is a perspective from which an object is just a big heavy bundle of closures, a monad (in the Leibnitzian rather than category-theoretical sense) formed out of folds; and from within that perspective you can see that there exist other things which are not objects at all, or not at all in the same sense. (I know there are languages which model closures as “function objects”, and shame on you).

It doesn’t suit the narrative of a certain attempted politicisation of software, which crudely maps “objects” onto the abstract units specified by the commodity form, to consider how the pattern-thinking of software developers actually works, because that thinking departs very quickly from the “type-of-thing X in the business domain maps to class X in my class hierarchy” model as soon as a system becomes anything other than a glorified inventory. Perhaps my real point is that capitalism isn’t that simple either. If you want a sense of where both capitalism and software are going, you would perhaps do better to start by studying the LMAX Disruptor, or the OCaml of Jane Street Capital.

Monday Poem: Oh Graving Faces


a black swan he says
give us a black swan
easy now
no need to stir up the agon

over what very well might
be nothing
a white
swan on black water

through late evening
as the light
and shadows lie down across
the way you came


soundtracked with low strings
with tremelo
or bearing portent
sinister modulation

of the air
enclosing stillness
the clouds’ high striated
rippling in convection

as the white neck bows
and horses in the next
grey field
start and trample
shaking themselves loose

Weekend Gloss: “Understand Less”

After Slumber is an unfinished sequence about the history of civil disorder in the UK between 1979 and 2009 – “thirty years of hurt”, as another of the poems in the sequence has it. I had a notion of writing one poem for each stanza of Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, but came to a halt after just 17, leaving all kinds of things hanging – amongst them “anarchy the skeleton” as a heavy-metal mascot in a chariot race, where the “chariot of Pluto” had careened off-course and was descending into Hades like the good ship Event Horizon. I may take it up again at some point.

Each poem in the sequence began with a “seed phrase”, written in ALLCAPS, with other significant words or phrases appearing ALLCAPSed from time to time. “UNDERSTAND LESS” is a paraphrase of then-British-Prime Minister John Major’s assertion that “society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less” in an interview given three days after the discovery of the body of the toddler Jamie Bulger, who had been murdered by two primary school children. The quotation also appears, paraphrased as “we should condemn more and understand less”, as an epigraph to Irvine Welsh’s The Marabou Stork Nightmares, a strange, surprisingly ambitious book about the linked cycles of colonial and sexual violence.

Once you have the Bulger murder in mind, I think any obscurities in the poem should quickly resolve themselves. Like Welsh’s book, it’s about violence, fantasy, vengefulness and senseless “oppugnancy” as “the truth of power” (note how “voicing the truth of power” modifies “speaking the truth to power”; it’s significant that “anarchist”, throughout the sequence, is freely applied to both Tory free-market ideologues and the window-smashers of the black bloc – the latter with more sympathy than the former, naturally).  “Some are left / as ghosts in their own lives” refers most obviously to Bulger’s killers, but also to the loved-ones of the victims of such violence, who from time to time are called upon to appear on television demanding vengeance. It’s always seemed to me indecent to incite grieving people in this way. The claim that both “understanding” and “condemnation” are impostures with respect to the tragedy and horror of the Bulger case is being made quite straightforwardly.

Non-readers of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series may need telling that “CRUCIATUS” is a spell which inflicts agonising pain on an opponent, although Rowling doesn’t actually have her teenage heroes filling their enemies’ bowels with boiling lead. “My appetites are strange / even to me”…

The inhuman-in-human

One of Laruelle’s signature moves is the substitution for some concept X (for example, “human”) of a real instance, the X-in-X (for example, “the human-in-human”), which stands for the real material addressed by or assembled behind the concept. The human-in-human is the occasion of the “human” as a transcendental term (that is, as something thought). This is, to a first approximation, Laruelle’s version of the deconstructive practice of “writing under erasure”, where the term which denotes some concept is written struck-through, visibly cancelled, like so: human. The struck-through term is then the trace of this cancellation, a kind of epitaph for the concept which continues to refer, without the concept’s authority, to that which the concept indicated, the evidence or occasion on which it rested.

So, for example, we might say that in the light of the theory of evolution, any philosophy which posits a metaphysical distinction between human beings and all other animals no longer holds up; thus, any humanism based on the notion that there exists some exceptional human essence which divides human beings from “nature” in general is no longer tenable. Yet there are still real human beings, and these – the human-in-human – were in the last instance what gave rise to the philosopher’s “human”. What’s more – and here is where Laruelle seems more forgiving, in a sense, than Derrida – once we detach the philosopher’s “human” from the system – metaphysical humanism – in which it was implicated, treating it as manipulable, re-mixable “transcendental material” (roughly, a bundle of thought-stuff), we can see that it still responds to or resonates with the real in some ways. Man may not be the Rational Animal, but human beings do reason; we may not be uniquely capable of divining and responding to the Moral Law, but our lives are affected, and can be powerfully moved, by moral impulses. We do not have to efface the philosophical image of Man (as Foucault famously suggested, proposing a wager that “Man will be erased like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea”): the non-philosophical Vision-in-One enables us to reframe it as responding to the real, only without possessing the power to insist that the real in turn respond to it.

I am largely going by Katerina Kolozova’s account of Laruelle’s non-philosophical humanism in the fourth chapter of Cut of the Real here. On the basis of that account, I think it makes sense to describe Laruelle as a humanist, and as a humanist “in theory” (according to a non-philosophical understanding of the scope and powers of theoria) as well as “in practice”. That is, if we see Althusser’s formulation, “theoretical anti-humanism, practical humanism”, as taking a cancelling, erasing, eliminationist stance towards the philosopher’s image of the human, then we can also see Laruelle as recovering and repurposing that image in a novel, non-dogmatic practice of theory. Nothing that has belonged to human thought is ever lost, abolished, torn down or destroyed in Laruelle’s theoretical practice: that practice is radically accommodating, on condition that thought divest itself of dogmatism, of “pretension”, of the will-to-sufficiency.

My principal objection to Laruelle (which I know I’ve made before) is that in treating chôra, “transcendental material”, as endlessly manipulable and re-mixable, as material-for-fiction or metaphor-for-poetry that is tractable in any way one chooses, he ultimately de-realises it. This is especially, and in my view egregiously, true in the case of Laruelle’s handling of mathematics, in particular the mathematics of fractals and of quantum theory. Thought has its own real, which is the self-limiting integrity of formal structure; this integrity is the way in which thought insists in the real. To say this is not to say that the real has the structure of thought, or that the real is structured in such a way that structures of thought can mesh with this structure and obtain some guaranteed purchase on it. It is to only to say that there are (some) real structures, and that the formal-structuredness of mathematical proofs is as real in and for them as, for example, the lived experience of suffering and victimhood is for human beings. Formal-structuredness is intrinsic to thought: it is what persists of thought over time, resisting dissolution or decomposition into indifferently-recomposable material. It is the manner in which what can be thought according to this or that formal rubric is limited thereby, and the manner in which this limitation gives rise to invention.

It seems to me that there is an ethico-political pre-decision at work in Laruelle, a decision in favour of that which resembles suffering and victimhood – the ululating formlessness of the human cry – over that which resembles the bright, sharp world of geometric forms, of abstractions that persist without travail. The former belongs, immediately and in the depths of its solitude, to the human-in-human: it is real without question, as close as can be to the “last instance” by which all else is unilaterally determined. The latter is ultimately treated as an imposture, as unreal on its own terms: there is no violence towards anything that matters in pulling it to pieces. This pre-decision is deeply consonant with Laruelle’s “heretical” stance in defence of the human-in-human against predatory abstractions and philosophical finger-traps, but it is not justified – or, I think, justifiable – in terms of his own thought as it is essayed. For if we suspend this decision, which is not philosophical, then we are neither obliged to privilege the suffering creature as the site of a special access to the real – throbbing along with the pulse of the universe, as it were – nor licensed to treat quantum mechanics as a plaything. We may begin to take seriously the inhuman-in-human; that is, the admixture within the real of the warm, care-giving and cared-about, vulnerable and ethically demanding victim-creature with the glacial and impervious immortality of Euclid’s axioms and Gödel’s theorems.

On Unearned Privilege

Something seems wrong to me about the expression “unearned privilege”, and I’ve been trying to think about what it is. I think it comes down to the following things:

Some of the privileges attached to social attributes such as maleness or whiteness are not the kind of thing anyone could earn, in principle. Nobody can deserve those privileges, no matter what they do, because they are intrinsically unjust: they only exist, and can only exist, by virtue of racial and gendered oppression. Let’s call these “zero-sum” privileges. They’re based on the redistribution of a good that exists in some fixed, limited amount away from an egalitarian norm, or one based on “to each according to their need, from each according to their ability”, and towards a biased distribution where some people have to be unfairly dispossessed in order that others might unfairly prosper.

Other such privileges are better thought of as rights that everyone should have, but that some people are unjustly denied. In principle everybody could have these rights without anybody having to be oppressed in order to secure them – they are “non-zero-sum privileges”. (I don’t like referring to them as privileges at all, but let’s leave that for now). Again, the point isn’t that some people have them without having earned them, but that everyone should have them without having to earn them.

Furthermore, there is a weak sense in which some privileges are in fact “earned”: there are things you have to do in order to obtain access to them, and it is possible to fail at doing those things. These are “non-automatic” privileges. They may still be distributed unfairly, or unfairly withheld from people who should be able to access them, but you don’t get them just by being something (e.g. white or male). A case in point: the head boy in my year at school failed to gain entrance to Oxford; I did gain entrance, through the same process. In all the ways that matter in that situation, he was more privileged than I was (he was very highly confident of success, and I’m ashamed to admit that I rather enjoyed his failure). But I “did better” (and/or “was luckier” – there is a strong random element in this) in the entrance examination and interview. While in every respect my having been in a position to take and do well in the Oxford entrance exam, to be taken seriously in an interview and offered a place, were functions of significant privilege and gave me access to greater privilege still, I could nevertheless have “failed to earn” it. In at least that sense, I did “earn” it – or at least, I did something that I could have failed to do (and others more privileged did fail to do), that because of my existing privileges was able to count as “earning it”.

Many very privileged people are in positions where being willing to work diligently and develop their talents will pay off significantly better than just coasting along: there is a positive correlation between effort and reward. The non-automatic character of such rewards is an important factor in the ideology of merit to which many of them subscribe. It’s often asserted that those who have particular privileges have them because they deserve them, because they have earned them through their own efforts or because they merit them through simply being better sorts of people. Referring to “unearned” privilege is a way of refusing this justification – of saying that superior effort or merit is not the reason why a particular group of people, such as white men, has the privileges that it does. But this refusal loses a lot of its bite when dealing with with non-automatic privileges, where unjustly-apportioned rewards are made conditional – for those who are given access to them – on demonstrations of something that counts as merit.

This is particularly true in the software industry, where I work. It would be absurd to suppose that the predominance of middle class white heterosexual men in this industry was due to that category of person’s just being innately better at making software. But it’s also true that for the middle class white heterosexual men who enjoy such an unjustly dominant position in the industry, the rewards they are privileged to be able to access are non-automatic, significantly conditional on their diligence and skill. Software developers (like, I would imagine, City traders) do a lot of “earning it”, and are likely to be very psychologically resistant to being told that they have not earned it. But the real issue, once again, is that when it comes to unjust privileges, whether zero-sum or non-zero-sum, automatic or non-automatic, whether they are “earned” or “unearned” is strictly besides the point: they are unjust.

If we want people to relinquish their attachment to the ideology of merit, we should seek to convince them that unjust privileges cannot be earned (and that rights should not have to be earned), rather than that they specifically have not “really” earned them. That is, rather than chivvying people to participate in a performative false modesty about their accomplishments (“ah, well, I suppose I’ve just been lucky really…”) – a favoured activity amongst frankly already rather privileged leftists, and incidentally quite toxic to the self-esteem of people from less privileged backgrounds who have worked extremely hard in order to get somewhere – we should focus on the injustice of the social hierarchies that mean that their diligence and skill are nurtured and rewarded, while those of others are not.

contra tyrannos

Eliminate the intrinsic, accentuate the plastic. Associate the former with rigid social discrimination, the latter with enlightened tolerance-of-choices…

I can’t bring myself to give up on Geoffrey Hill’s sense of the intrinsic as that which resists tyranny, where the latter is construed precisely as command of plasticity – both the power to mould, and the power to insist that you be (and see yourself as) limitlessly mouldable.

This can cut both ways; re debates about gender identity, for example, what’s often at stake is the question of what is to be regarded as intrinsic, and hence a locus of resistance: the body-in-person versus the performatively-gendered body, for example. The phrase “coercively assigned” implies a subject of coercion, something that is not intrinsically disposed to be what it is coerced into trying (and, often, symptomatically failing) to be.

We don’t have to pathologise the intrinsic, assign it an aetiology, treat it as correctable. Its value often lies in its incorrigibility: eppur si muove. Indeed, it is in refusing to pathologise it, in embracing and affirming it, that we may also be said to “choose” it and to proclaim that choice as a valid one.