Foucault meets Moby Dick

Almost finished Foucault’s The Order of Things. The powerful chapter on Labour, Life and Language attempts to build fundamental levels of existence based on processes of creation and change (as opposed to being and exchange) in contrast to models based on taxonomies of representation. Labour – Ricardo building fundamental value on Adam Smith, arriving at Marx and Nietzsche, Life – Cuvier building a hierarchy of levels of classification around Lamarck and Jusseau where form is fundamentally subservient to function; Language – Bopp building a process view around Schlegel and Grimm where language is defined by its history of (ongoing) development not frozen in written form, and by the activities, events and processes willed by it’s users, not objects described or represented.

Moby Dick reared his head in the Cuvier / Lamarck analysis, where the anatomical features of cetaceans are related to the fundamental aspects of mammals – something on which Melville dwells at deep and gory length.

Multiple, fundamental “levels” – a common thread in Pirsig, Maslow, Post-Modernism and now specifically Foucault.

Hippie-dom / Sixties / Revolution / Drug culture

Some strange thoughts on tie-up between anti-establishment / conspiracy theory views, the “freedom” of sixties popular culture, together with the “conspiracy of silence” Galbraith / DeLorean / Argyris / Emperors’s suit of clothes view of “rationalisation”, and Jorn’s choice of seeing and denial in the following quote from his “Thoughts on the sixties” ….. “Between 65 and 68, a huge transformation affected millions of people in the world, very deeply, allowing them to see problems that had been totally denied before.” The Kesey / Heller / Pirsig drivers cannot be independant of this. Jorn’s biographical music / culture / politics pages are an interesting starting point to follow-up some of this stuff. Strange that whilst I can find no explicit link between Jorn’s political / cultural viewpoints and his literature-based interest in “AI”, both aspects are independantly very strong in his published thoughts, whereas my thesis starts from the point that this link is in fact a key part of human knowledge. (See Jorn’s Biographical Page and follow the footnote musical and literary biography links via Richard Stone to Ken Kesey, Haight-Ashbury and the rest of the sixties drug-culture – Jorn is a couple of years ahead of me agewise, but there is a spooky parallel between his musical influences auto-biog and my own.)

Several philosophers, and writers of metaphysical bent, have made use of mind-altering drugs to see things as they “really are”. It seems clear that breaking with accepted norms “as rationalised” by the immediate society, however this is achieved, is part of the knowledge / enlightenment jigsaw puzzle. At some level this is almost trivial / obvious, but it seems a key mechanism to understand.

Moby Dick – Fact From Fiction

Fact or Fiction ?
Well through Moby Dick now (96/136’ths) and still finding so much on so many levels. The blood-soaked anatomical detail and unctious stench and sensation in the butchery is numbing, and you can see how early reviews met with issues of poor taste ! As I mentioned earlier – one striking aspect is the balance between fact and fiction in the “documentary” account of the whaling industry, Melville’s own experiences and the (presumably) fictional narrative of Ahab, Moby Dick and The Pequod. Researching that aspect, I find, as expected, that there is no shortage of opinion on the matter. Hard to tell where romaticised telling of truth become actual fiction. Seems the apparent documentary aspects (eg in The Affidavit) are indeed essentially true.

OK, OK following a few more Google hits – so clearly this fact vs fiction aspect is a well trodden path (I did say I guesed it would be, didn’t I – see earlier). Seems to be a standard US exam question on US literature. End of that thread, except …. by the way did I forget to mention, I have a family connection with whaling going back three generations on my wife’s side of the family, so I have more than a passing interest. May get some relevant photographs and documents up on the personal pages for those interested, but I digress.

On the other hand, like why did I choose to read it as part of this information modelling research ? …

“Who would have looked for philosophy in whales, or for poetry in blubber. Yet few books which professedly deal in metaphysics, or claim the parentage of the muses, contain as much true philosophy and as much genuine poetry as the tale of the Pequod’s whaling expedition [….] and the graphic representations of human nature in the startling disguises under which it appears on the deck of the Pequod [….] all these things combine to raise The Whale far beyond the level of an ordinary work of fiction. It is not a mere tale of adventures, but a whole philosophy of life, that it unfolds.”

London John Bull, October 25 1851.

(I’d have to agree – and, by the way, it is more greatly absorbing than a “mere adventure” too. Very similar mix of qualities achieved by Pirsig. Ha – qualities ! Of course as i mentioned earlier, the reason I am reading Melville, is the “prodigious comparison” with Pirsig’s ZMM by reviewer George Steiner.)

Moby Dick & Francis Bacon

Reading list re-established !
Mentioned a month ago that I was reading Melville’s Moby Dick, and finding it enthralling so far. I got distracted however, and in the meantime read John Henry’s biography of Francis Bacon – Knowledge is Power, mentioned below and have since completed and enjoyed that (review to follow), together with dipping in and out of selected lectures from Poincare’s work, the selection edited by SJ Gould (much tougher going to find the relevance.) Poincare was a “geometer” – a perceiver of the big picture and claimant of sweeping generalisations – his arguments sound good on a rhetorical level, with exceptions ignored, but I’m not sure I can find much convincing rigour – I guess you have to be a mathematician. I think “maths-as-a-thing-of-beauty” is cool, I’ve certainly bought it for four decades, but it’s getting a bit overdone recently by the likes of Ian Stewart et al.

Struggled to get back into Melville, having put it to one side, but now back in full flow over one third through. I see now that my stumbling block was the series of chapters (scenes) on deck, written in the style of third person stage directions (unlike the rest in “I Ishmael” first person) which culminate in Ahab announcing in dramatic style his pursuit of Moby Dick to the assembled crew. One of the fascinating aspects for me is the degree to which the novel is a true story versus the fiction of Ahab and Moby Dick. For example, not only are Melville’s sea-faring credentials clear from the beginning, and the historical detail on the whaling industry, but in the sections explaining the credibility of Ahab’s attitude to Moby Dick, and that of the experienced crew, Melville cites in documentary fashion the cases of many “well-known individual whales” including names and ranks of the various ships and captains involved, with approximate dates. One of these chapters is entitled “Affidavit”, and Melville is clearly laying out supporting evidence – “Look, I’m not making this stuff up. Truth really is stranger than fiction.” If it’s just a literary ruse it’s very effective. I guess others must have researched all of this, (there is no end of books on Melville !) but I will just have to check-out this aspect – I’ve swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

Marvellous turns of phrase and humour throughout (too many subjects to mention here – race (colour), politics, communication, perception, motivation and madness to name a few.). Particularly enjoyed the passages describing the first lowering of the boats from the Pequod, and discovering the unexpected fourth boat (which I wont spoil by describing the circumstances), followed by the all action description of how Starbuck’s boat, with Ishmael, makes difficult and hazardous progress across the rising and falling waves, is upturned by the whale and ultimately smashed by being overrun by the mother ship in the grey squally conditions. You come out of it aching and sodden. By contrast their rescue and safe return to the Pequod is glossed over in a single, easily-overlooked statement. A little concentration pays off.

Some very interesting linguistic analysis too – not just the diverse historical and geographical sources of the words and styles, but artefacts like multiple threads of aliteration “crafted” in the one sentence and so on (don’t have the text to hand as I sit here, so I’ll dig out some quotes later – they’re worth it.)

Note the Hudson River analogy, when talking about [great] lakesmen – linked in Pirsig’s mind too ?

In view of some of my other threads majoring on “irrationality” and Catch-22 – the passages on Ahab’s “madness” when he returns from his original fateful encounter with Moby Dick, being “rationalised” by all who perceived it, drew lots of annotation for later use. As you can tell I’m getting a lot out of Moby Dick on many levels. (More than one drop of human blood per gallon of sperm oil at any rate.)

Physics and Philosophy – Heisenberg

Reading Physics and Philosophy by Werner Heisenberg (c1958/p1962)
Having previously read the Physical Principles of Quantum Theory, to get a first hand account of the Uncertainty Principle, found this much more readable volume of his. Pretty comprehensive summary of Philosophical views of the “reality of matter and atoms” from the Greeks to Hume and Russell. Illustration of uncertainty principle effects at each step seems to be leading to many worlds (no buts so far as I can tell). Says the quantum / uncertainty view of the world is a “paradigm shift” in the way the reality of the world is viewed. Makes allusions to human scale manifestations, without really illustrating with examples (yet), so far all his examples are at the quantum / measuring device level – still, only 1/3 of the way through. Some excellent fit with Pirsig static (matter) / dynamic (energy) perspectives, and problems with One/Duality/Binary vs Plural views of possible states. Expect the latter to lead into where quantum computing gets its alternative view of “information” – will develop further when completed.

Also suggests a new thread – distinctions between Metaphor, Analogy and Model. Let’s be honest, when we say this is a Metaphor or an Analogy to help understanding of the principles and effects of something, are we also saying it is a Model of what actually exists ? Is this distinction meaningful or not ? Either way, every time I see “many worlds and multiverses” I get this dilemma in my head. I can see why Stephen Hawking screams whenever he hears of Erwin Schroedinger’s overcooked Cat – just like Chares Handy’s overcooked Frog !

Also obtained Melville‘s Moby Dick, and Poincare Writings edited by SJ Gould.
The most cited sources in so many others.

Lila – Brain Dump Notes

Pirsig’s Lila – finished at last, after many interruptions.
Will add a review, but may need to re-read final few chapters to absorb.
Thoughts for now.

The lunatics take over the asylum again. Should I be worried ? – in ZMM I identified with Phaedrus, in this, I am Lila ! The “game” of Catch22 and the “character” of Cuckoo’s Nest feature very strongly, but only implicitly, in passages about “insanity”. (The reference to an imposter in an asylum, spotted by the inmates, but not the staff – is surely a reference to Cuckoo’s nest, or shares a common source. Similarly the strategies inmates play to convince staff of “sanity” are full of Catch22 allusions – no references made to Heller or Kesey anyway.)

Levels of intellectual / social / biological cultures very reminiscent of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (not mentioned by Pirsig), as used to describe motivation of individuals and groups within organisations / cultures. A culture having ascended to a higher level (or dynamically within a higher level), those levels below become static “hygiene” to be challenged / controlled from the higher culture, but not undermined, without replacement foundations. Equally, static cultures must not be allowed to control / restrict higher dynamic cultures – necessary controls to avoide degeneracy must come from within or from higher levels. This is the main framework of Pirsig’s commentary on “morals”, and the concepts of absolute goodness and badness, and or course, his “Metaphysics of Quality”. (Consequently – lots of good stuff on the bounds of scientific argument vs value judgements.)

Main thread revolves around “anthropology” and its history as a “science” (or not). Encouraging to my main thread – pointing to ethnography / behavioural / process model for “information” (Interesting description of Philosophology as distinct from Philosophy.)

Lots of new references (philosophical and philosophological) and lots of namedropping arising from his post ZMM celebrity. The general line is a clear development of his thoughts in ZMM, but somehow as a novel, it is less gripping than the original, possibly due to the constant references to the previous book. The underlying narrative, Hudson river boat trip / New York locations (and WTC / Manhattan skyline references too) has some good emotional twists though, so definitely recommended reading (after ZMM – no point reading out of sequence.) Post Moby-Dick note – Did Pirsig have Melville in mind when he chose the Hudson ?

[Post Note 2002 – since reading ZMM and Lila, Pirsig became for a time a project in his own right – see Pirsig Pages. Interesting, updating links in 2015, that these notes already carry all my ongoing agenda items – except maybe the realisation of scientific vs anthropological knowledge-and-decision-making converging in governance or “cybernetics”.]

William James Sidis

William James Sidis – new thread prompted by Pirsig / Lila
Sidis – the original April Fool ?
William James Sidis could speak five languages and read Plato in original Greek by the age of five [ps perhaps he was Greek – more western/US/English-speaking arrogance – aside]. At eight he passed the entrance for Harvard but had to wait three years to be admitted. Even so he became Harvard?s youngest scholar and graduate in 1914 at the age of sixteen. Frequently featured in ?Ripley?s Believe it or Not?, Sidis made the front page of ?The New York Times? nineteen times. The story defies all conventional norms and may even sound like a joke if you found out that Sidis was born on April 1, 1898.

Quantonics – Sidis web resource.
The W J Sidis Archives
Huge resource – many links and archives including Dan Mahoney, Cathie Slater-Spence, Buckie-Fuller as well as Lila extracts / reviews.

Main interest apart from Sidis own contribution to Anthropology / Enthnography, is the attitude of the world to Sidis. April Fool / Burnt-out Genius or Boy Wonder ?

[Post Note : See also Sidis and Buckie-Fuller links in the Pirsig Pages – via side bar.]

Where After Lila ?

Reading Lila by Robert Pirsig (unfinished)
Carries on where ZMM left off. Will review when finsihed.
“How It Will Be” from Native American Indian perspective
Spotted this poem on Robot Wisdom which is peculiarly apt and spooky wrt Lila.

Also from CounterPunch via RobotWisdom a piece on Western Arrogance, although specifically about Dubya, Afghanistan and the Mid-East in general.

Also via RW this piece from ZDNet on post-Napster stuff.
Relevant because of human peer-to-peer behaviour patterns I believe.

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