Monthly Archives: October 2005


Huizinga, J. Homo Ludens:A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. 1944. New York: Roy, 1950.

Did you know that the odds on Anne Boleyn’s brother Rochford’s acquittal were ten to one? Regarding the previous Homo book I wrote about:

I know of no sadder or deeper fall from human reason than Schmitt’s barbarous and pathetic delusions about the friend-foe principle [. . .] “war is the serious development of an emergency.” (209-10)

Am also reading The Book of Evidence. Rivals Burgess for earliest (though not least expected) use of the word “catamite.” Huizinga seems to have been something of a snob himself, but no one does snobs like Banville.

New Review of A New Kind of Science

Polymath Cosma Shalizi has an entertaining review of Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science. I have a paper in various stages of revision on the rhetoric of Wolfram’s book, and Shalizi’s discussion of Wolfram and the taxonomy of crankishness is very apt there. In fact, I invoked his guano comparison in the version I read at a conference.

I have to register disagreement in a few places, however. I suspect that there have to be correlations between any useful version of “complexity” and what is visually interesting to the cortex of an East African plains ape. Wolfram is indeed vague on that point, and I appreciate quantitative measures of complexity as an abstract principle, but I’m not convinced that it is as arbitrary as Shalizi thinks it is. I’ve read Investigations and am intrigued to learn of the apparent existence of a cult devoted to it (shape spacers?), though I very much appreciate that Shalizi has also been annoyed by Lakoff’s definition of cognitive science (the worst display of which I’ve encountered is in Philosophy in the Flesh).

Of Grammatology‘s inclusion in the list of crank works at the end is unfortunate, however. Putting aside the question of whether you think it is a major philosophical work or one filled with elementary misreadings (as Chomsky has said), it presents a trial for its readers. The other works listed there (and Wolfram’s) all seek to explain complex matters very simply.

Recent Reading

Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford, 1998) invokes Hegel on the perfectability of language: “[it] is the perfect element in which interiority is as external as exteriority is internal.” A pregnant statement, to be sure. I haven’t read Kantorowicz’s (mentioned by Agamben on p. 91) The King’s Two Bodies, but I wonder how influential Bloch’s Les Rois Thaumauturges was for its argument. Freud’s use of Karl Abel (a “now discredited linguist”) and his “On the Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words” is explored, and the Group Psychology essay would probably be worth paying more attention to in the development of biopolitical discourse, I suspect. Sorel and Le Bon and recapitulationist crowd logic seem to me to be important to Agamben’s argument, but I haven’t read his subsequent work yet, so I’m not sure how this has developed. The discussion of the lupine taboo and the bizarre spectacle of the poena culli (and the anecdote recounted in 565d and e of the Republic) led me to think of “The Hero as Werwolf” in divers ways. Celine, also, for the homo sacer proper.

A parting thought on Agamben: “Just as the law of the physical world, the heimarmene, integrates the individual bodies into the general system, so the moral law integrates the souls, and thus makes them subservient to the demiurgic scheme” (Hans Jonas, “Gnosticism and Modern Nihilism” Social Research 19.1-4 [1952]. 443).

Am currently reading with intense interest Roger Luckhurst’s The Invention of Telepathy: 1870-1901 (Oxford, 2002) and hope to have a detailed post about it later.

A Puzzle I Didn’t Care for

I began Not Just An Ordinary Ballerina while waiting on some comforters to wash and dry last night. Just so you know, “spoilers” are coming.

Early in the game, you find the following written on a blackboard:

 11426       34041
+ 6505        2431
 21234       42022

I thought–and immediately rejected–that this might be base-related. Why I rejected it, I don’t know, as, you may guess, that’s in fact what’s happening here. But anyway, you find another sheet of paper with “10612” written on it, indicating that it’s the code to the junction box which you can use to turn on power to the shopping mall you’re at after-hours on Christmas Eve in a desperate attempt to buy the aforementioned ballerina for your daughter. The control panel only has 0-4 buttons and a five-digit display.

Assuming that we were dealing with decimal here, I looked at the actual decimal sums for these figures and subtracted the ones listed from them. They turned out to be “3303” and “5550.” Sensing a pattern, I thought the difference between the four-digit sum and the actual code had to be “4044” with the imaginary sum being a five-digit number using only the digits 0-4. There are several solutions to that problem, which you can work out algebraically. And, using a spreadsheet, I did.

Of course they didn’t work because this is a stupid base problem. I wonder if the pattern I saw was a coincidence.

Two Articles from the LRB

Paul Laity on Lee Clarke’s Worst Cases and John Christensen on Raymond Baker’s Capitalism’s Achilles Heel: Dirty Money and How to Renew the Free-Market System.

I’m curious if there has been a sustained fictional treatment of a culture/civilization steadily planning for a highly improbable total disaster scenario chosen randomly from a field of many. Posner’s Catastrophe, among others, brought this to mind.

Key graf from Christensen:

Much of the growth of the offshore economy has been driven by British lawyers and accountants. As early as the 1920s, they pioneered the use of trusts, shell companies, transfer mispricing, re-invoicing, dummy wire transfers – which give the impression a company is operating out of a tax haven rather than its actual location – and special purpose vehicles. Dodging tax was the prime motive, but inevitably, as Baker explains, laundering narco-dollars and paying off corrupt officials involve the same processes as tax evasion.

Telepathic Rumors of Jack London’s Death Substantiated; Items

Upton Sinclair published Mental Radio in 1930, a curious work describing his wife’s telepathic abilities. There are more drawings and transmitted drawings per page than you’ll find in in the average Sinclair. There’s a mention of the late professor Quackenbos of Columbia, author of many books on hypnotism (32), and a description of how Craig, his wife, became worried about Jack London on a trip to California. Two days later they read of his death (22-3).

Noted items:

  • Byrne, Ruth M. J. The Rational Imagination. MIT, 2005.
  • Contains much discussion of counterfactual imagination.

  • Gai and Chu. Private Sector Involvement and International Financial Crises. Oxford, 2005.
  • Of perennial interest.

  • Cumane, Stephen C. Survival of the Fattest: The Key to Human Brain Evolution. World Scientific, 2005.
  • Put me in mind of Gilman’s related work. Recent research about metabolic regulatory properties of fat, cultural metaphors, etc.