Facts and Communications

It seems to me that the following section, from Erving Goffman’s essay On Face Work, understood in political terms, is a lot more helpful than explanations provided by those who generally appeal to facts as being a trump card (categorised as ‘appealing to the referee’, or ‘speaking to the manager’, something that gets generally attached to the FBPE crowd or liberal centrists by the left).

Facts are of the schoolboy’s world—they can be altered by diligent effort but they cannot be avoided. But what the person protects and defends and invests his feelings in is an idea about himself, and ideas are vulnerable not to facts and things but to communications. Communications belong to a less punitive scheme than do facts, for communications can be by-passed, withdrawn from, disbelieved, conveniently misunderstood, and tactfully conveyed. And even should the person misbehave and break the truce he has made with society, punishment need not be the consequence. If the offense is one that the offended persons can let go by without losing too much face, then they are likely to act forbearantly, telling themselves that they will get even with the offender in another way at another time, even though such an occasion may never arise and might not be exploited if it did. If the offense is great, the offended persons may withdraw from the encounter, or from future similar ones, allowing their with-drawal to be reinforced by the awe they may feel toward someone who breaks the ritual code. Or they may have the offender withdrawn, so that no further communication can occur. But since the offender can salvage a good deal of face from such operations, withdrawal is often not so much an informal punishment for an offense as it is merely a means of terminating it. Perhaps the main principle of the ritual order is not justice but face, and what any offender receives is not what he deserves but what will sustain for the moment the line to which he has committed himself, and through this the line to which he has committed the interaction.

Goffman, Erving. Interaction Ritual (pp. 43–44). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Notes on Dublin Books 1: The Chester Beatty Library, MS 751

This important 13th century Samaritan Pentateuch – the first five books of the bible and the only books in the Samaritan canon – retains evidence of continual use over centuries including inscriptions by its owners in the 15th and 16th centuries.

This opening shows clear traces of kissing, an act reserved for especially sacred passages, such as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20.1-17)

Exhibition note for Samaritan Pentateuch,
Abi Barakatah
1225, Palestine (historical region)
CBL Heb 751 at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

Logos: The word he utters, the truth that it contains…

They are not kissing the vellum – the animal skin stretched and scraped, depilated, and boiled of its fat. The needlemarks from the skin, stretched on its frame and scraped, are still visible.

They are not kissing the calligraphy, even though the scribe, Abi Barakatah, was one of the most famous and exquisite calligraphers of the 13th Century.

They are not kissing the words of J, E, P, or D. E in this case – Exodus 20. E, who got their initial because they used ‘El’ for God, and Were Not Concerned with Priestly Matters.

Nor are they kissing R – the Redactor, who filleted and assembled the sections of the Pentateuch with paste and cuttings.

These letters! What visions of politics and power in that distant time and land they conjure!

My thesis is that the redactors of Genesis and Numbers have one overriding concern, that is for the prospects of the priestly corporation which they belong to, and which includes their northern brethren in Samaria.

Mary Douglas, Jacob’s Tears: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation, OUP (2004)

Those sensitive, sensuous and reverent lips are touching and kissing the utterances of Moses, and by extension, for it is stated at the beginning of Exodus 20, God:

And God spake all these words, saying…

And yet they are kissing all. The route of transmission of those words to the reader is the route back for the kiss. Though a magician or theologian might say that the route of knowledge needn’t be the return route of divine intimacy.

When I kiss your lips, and we look at each other as if we could look at each other forever, at least until the next kiss, it is into that farthest, most intimate place we gaze. But it is also the lips we taste, and each other’s body that we hold so closely in that moment, and no other. And the smell of your hair, like grass.

The preservation of matter (or conservation of energy in other terms) and the transfer of information are always essential to get to the bottom of any subject or object or any thing that concerns us whatsoever*.

The connexion between the kissing of the page and God necessitates our entire field of humanities, and more besides.

In Eros and Magic in the Renaissance Ioan P Couliano covers the variety and intellectual history of Classical and Renaissance theories of love. How rays from the eyes communicate the image of the loved one via pneuma into the creation of a phantasm of the beloved, perceptible to the soul.

This leads him to quote 13th Century poet and inventor of the sonnet, Giacomo da Lentino:

HOW A WOMAN, WHO IS SO BIG, PENETRATES THE EYES, WHICH ARE SO SMALL

If we closely examine Bernard of Gordon’s long description of amor hereos, we observe that it deals with a phantasmic infection finding expression in the subject’s melancholic wasting away, except for the eyes. Why are the eyes excepted? Because the very image of the woman has entered the spirit through the eyes and, through the optic nerve, has been transmitted to the sensory spirit that forms common sense. Tranformed into phantasm, the obsessional image has invaded the territory of the three ventricles of the brain, inducing a disordered state of the reasoning faculty (virtus estimativa), which resides in the second cerebral cell. If the eyes do not partake of the organism’s general decay, it is because the spirit uses those corporeal apertures to try to reestablish contact with the object that was converted into the obsessing phantasm: the woman.

Ioan P Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, University of Chicago Press (1987)

Now, we can all laugh about this… but in that description is the recognition that any theory needs to account for the material transmission of information that leads to this object cathexis. And in that transmission are very deep matters indeed, much of science and psychology, and areas more generally that remain unfathomed and are still mysteries.

There are analogous issues in the nature of metaphor, another form of transference, which we can see in complex form in a diary entry by Rilke:

I invented a new form of caress: placing a rose gently on a closed eye until its coolness can no longer be felt: only the gentle petal will continue to rest on the eyelid like sleep just before dawn.

Rilke’s Diaries, from this excellent essay by Marjorie Perloff Reading Gass Reading Rilke

As the heat is transfered to the imperceptible petal, so God’s breath and the kissing of the manuscript intermingle, and somewhere in there, between petal, eyelid and heat transference, among the mysteries still to be resolved, are the kisses I treasure.

This post can be read in conjunction with The Squalid Rag, on the destruction of meaning, or Three Ghost Stories for All Hallows E’en, on how ghosts may reach the reader.

*Question: when information is lost in communication as per Shannon etc where does it go? I realise this is the subject of entropy, but I am dumb, and don’t quite get what the equivalent of thermodynamic equilibrium for information would be)

**This reminds me that I must post on the collapsing of distribution chains in media flows

More Things Can Happen Than Will Happen

I have concluded that a lot of poor decision making and thinking happens because people do not understand the concept ‘more things can happen than will happen.’

They are people who claim they understand risk and probability, but nothing about how they go about things suggests that this is in fact the case.

It is a problem with men particularly. The specific way in which they do not get it is because they have a desire for events to prove them right, or to be ‘right’, in quite binary ways. Dogmatic statements, ex cathedra, and a rather moody, cynical or sceptical manner when it comes to other scenarios are a giveaway of this psychology.

[Later insert]: I meant to say that I think it is to do with the exertion of power and its importance to many men. I wonder if being right is less important than being able to impose ‘being right’ on others. That includes minimising or in some other way diminishing the occasions when an outcome differs from the prediction. It’s not just that forgetfulness of when you were wrong causes this, it’s also a useful personal and (projected by those in power onto an organisation) institutional method of maintaining your rightness. You can impose that forgetfulness on others, or make it costly for them to call it out.

There are other methods of preserving rightness that go along with this:

  • Constant caveating, so that you can always point out you were right really
  • Aggressive assertion of extremely binary views, but chaotically and varying from time to time, even within the sentence-memory of, say, a meeting

It’s extraordinarily psychologically and institutionally unhealthy.

This post in part prompted by a footnote to Helen deWitt’s excellent short story My Heart Belongs to Bertie.

I began reading obsessively about statistics and probability. Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk was one inspiration; he says: “The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more than a whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature.” Analysis of probability seemed more compelling than ever for fiction; I spent endless hours grappling with R, a programming language with strength in statistical graphics.

R is open source, and it has come a long way since I first downloaded the DMG.

What hasn’t changed, I think, is the gap between people who see why understanding chance matters and people who just don’t get it—people who don’t see why this is crucial to the most basic questions of ethics. I have more glamorous plots in my portfolio than the primitive efforts on display in this story, but the philosophical issue was what I hoped to bring into the open.

DeWitt, Helen. Some Trick (pp. 41-42). New Directions

(I mentioned in the previous post my second happiest birthday, and in fact this specific story has a direct connection with my happiest birthday, in that it was published in an art gallery exhibition catalogue that I picked up visiting the deserted exhibition on my birthday. One of the exhibits was a stack of the catalogues. The story was one of the pieces in the catalogue.)

This sent me back to Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, which is a very good book, and which contains the sentence:

The Greeks understood that more things might happen in the future than actually will happen.

Bernstein, Peter L.. Against the Gods (p. 64). Wiley

The subject is in the news again with the imminent publication of William MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future and the general salience of effective altruism.

Institutions and Ideologies

On holiday, and re-reading the beginning of Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s The Self Awakened, full of enormously potent and clarifying observations, and often quite intellectually thrilling to read, so much so that it gets my ‘feels too good’ suspicion heuristic going.

Anyway, out last night having a – is it possible to get bad food in Cádiz? – very good meal, on my x glass of wine and was unable to get past the sentence (my italics) in this paragraph on ‘shrunken pragmatism’:

A further consequence of this position is to exclude the possibility that we might be able to transform the character of our relation to the social and cultural worlds we inhabit rather than just to change, little by little, the content of the arrangements and beliefs that comprise them. It is a mistaken view. Institutions and ideologies are not like natural objects, forcing themselves onto our consciousness with insistent force and reminding us that we have been born into a world that is not our own. They are nothing but frozen will and interrupted conflict.

Roberto Mangabeira Unger, The Self Awakened

Once again forcibly reminded just how frozen 12 years of economic stagnation has made the ideology of the political and mainstream epistemic space in the UK.