Sunday, July 3, 2016

mourning the MOOC


Coursera: "Philosophy and the Sciences", The University of Edinburgh (no longer available)

I am recovering from a veritable MOOC addiction. It started a few months ago, when for some reasons I kept finding myself wide awake at 3am. Ordinarily, I would pick a book and read it, but that means turning on the light and concentrating and relinquishing every hope of getting back to sleep, so I tried a different strategy and I began my binge adventure in MOOC entertainment. Coursera is one of the main platforms offering MOOC classes and over the span of a few months I went through over thirty of them. I can certainly say that it was good entertainment for sleepless nights: I would spend a couple of hours listening to various classes (most of them are subdivided into small units of some fifteen to twenty minutes, so it is easy to keep hopping) and then even have time to fall asleep again and make it look like a normal night when I woke up again later in the morning. As a form of intelligent entertainment, I certainly think it should be widely adopted and encouraged, but how about all the those other bold claims that were repeated ad nauseam in the recent past, according to which the new MOOC fad was the death knell of university education and at the same time the trumpet announcing a triumphal new era? I call bullshit on that all.


Coursera: "Automata", Stanford University (no longer available)

When I first started browsing through the Coursera catalog some months back I thought, wow, this is great! I binged through a dozen classes immediately, and within a short time I realized what exactly had made it all sound so exciting. I noticed how, if someone had asked my six year old self how I would have wanted my university curriculum to be, I would have ended up with a list that resembled pretty much what I picked in the Coursera catalog: yes, I want to take a class on neuroscience, and one on robotics, and one on cosmology, and one on dinosaur paleontology. I also want a class on science fiction, and one on artificial intelligence, and one on astrobiology, and one on the philosophy of science. I want the history of astronautics, and a course on Chinese characters, and one on video games, and one on Buddhism, and one on jazz improvisation. For a few months I indulged my inner six year old self with each and every unfulfilled desire about what a university education would have been like if only she had had her way. It was fun. I think it was also therapeutically important to find ways to reconnect, as an adult, to one's inner child, to those early dreams and aspirations. So, besides the fun of it, there was also that, some kind of self help therapy by MOOC. That's all fine, and pleasant, and helpful. However, let's pause for a moment and reflect on why the typical university curriculum is not structured in the way a six year old would design it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the curiosity of a six year old: it is wonderful and it is crucially important. However, unlike a more adult notion of learning, the child's tends to focus primarily on subjects of immediate reward. I like the dinosaurs and I want to learn about them. I am curious about Chinese ideograms. I am powerfully attracted to the vastness of the cosmos. Of course, this is all deep and important, but precisely for that reason, we (as adults) also know that cosmology is best tackled after and with the use of advanced mathematics, and paleontology with a serious background in geology and biology, and so on. We understand that some delay of gratification is necessary and important for the sake of gaining in depth of understanding. As an adult and a professional scientist, I can piggy back on a lot of background already built through my (traditional) university education, on a previous in depth (traditional) humanities education, and on the subsequent twenty years of professional experience, and pick and choose from the MOOC catalog to indulge my inner child, while playing the MOOC pretend game according to which these online classes would provide a replacement for actual university level classes. This is an obvious lie that many conveniently pretend to believe. It is a lie because the course content is obviously an enormously watered down version of what a typical university level class on the same subject would be like. It is intelligent entertainment, much better than watching TV, but it is certainly not a university education.


Coursera: "Spacebooks: an introduction to extraterrestrial literature", 
University of Zurich (no longer available)

This is by no means the most problematic aspect of the MOOC system. There is a much more sinister and troubling part of the picture. The available platforms that support the current MOOC system, like Coursera, are commercial platforms aimed at making a profit. A way in which they expect to obtain a monetary gain is through the selling of some certificates that state the student's achievement based on some online multiple choice tests associated to the class, and on some assignments that are peer reviewed by other students in the same class. As a university professor myself, I find a lot that can be criticized about how these assignments are constructed and handled, but this is not specifically what I want to discuss. I want to take a step back and look more closely at the underlying assumption. The motor of learning is curiosity. It must be driven by curiosity otherwise it simply does not work, and the satisfaction of that curiosity is the reward in itself, the quenching of that thirst for acquiring new knowledge. The fact that someone is trying to attache a certificate and some silly multiple choice tests to it is only a nuisance, not an incentive. If you are watching the lectures of one of these online MOOC classes because you are interested in learning something, I bet you would be much more likely to use them the way I did, namely watch all the lectures for your curiosity and entertainment, then get a good book on the subject and read it for some more serious learning. Screw the tests and the certificate, who bloody cares! Yes, that is indeed the way it goes, because that is the natural way in which it should go, and that is why trying to mix education and profit is an extremely bad idea. It turns out that the Coursera platform and whoever is running it have very quickly become aware of this themselves, and realized that, precisely for the reason just described, all the course content they were offering that had some interesting intellectual content was not making a profit, while what was bringing them buyers was the content-free business mumbo jumbo, the quackery they list under "self-improvement" and such things, that are entirely disjoint from intellectual curiosity and that people buy, in the form of statements and certificate, to show some fluff to their jughead corporate employers. 


Coursera: "Sleep: Neurobiology, Medicine and Society", 
University of Michigan (no longer available)

So comes July 1, 2016, nearly all of the courses that had at least that quality of intelligent entertainment and could help fulfilling some intellectual curiosity suddenly disappear from the Coursera catalog. Even the ones that still show in my feed now link to a somber "ooops... HTTP 404... looks like you found a page that does not exist...": all of them removed from the Coursera catalog and from the Coursera site altogether, while a veritable avalanche of business-bullshit and quacky-self-improvements is flooding the site. This finally takes us to the most profoundly troubling aspect of these experiments in online education. Over the course of decades of my own personal intellectual education, which did not stop when I got my PhD but continues every single day of my life, in the face of any stupid collection of grades and certificates, I have been going back, over and over again, to the material I learned over the years. I kept all the books I read on all the subjects I have been learning. They grew over the years to a sizable collection and a private library of several thousand volumes. Barring major natural catastrophes, nobody is going to come all of a sudden and erase my access to all that without warning. I have books that are over half a century old and that will continue to serve their purpose as repositories of learning and references ready to be looked up at a moment notice for many more decades to come. I am greatly in favor of disseminating knowledge through the internet and digital media: I am in favor of online lectures, and of digitalizing and distributing academic journals and books of all kind. However, what I think is an enormously serious danger is the terrible impermanence of online repositories of knowledge, the fact that they are controlled by entities whose motives are driven by profit and not by the quest for knowledge. The enormous vulnerability of this model of digital access to knowledge and learning is evident in the ongoing sinister transmogrification of the Coursera site. What remains of the more than thirty courses I have taken on that platform over the span of the past few months is an impression, a memory of the lectures I watched, some of them very interesting, which will no longer be accessible, and thankfully those physical books that I bought and read as a consequence of the interest sparked by those online classes. Beware of relinquishing the caring and transmission of knowledge to entities with their own incompatible agenda. If the MOOC signifies anything about the future of university education, it is only a vision of its worst nightmares: the watering down of content, the rapid elimination of all intellectually viable subjects and their replacement of dubious objects more suitable for the purposes of buying and selling, for the logic of profits. Greater availability of online classes is great and should be pursued, but definitely not through these channels. 


Coursera: "Graphene and 2-dimensional materials", 
University of Manchester (no longer available)


the Chrysalis


Christopher Gaston "The Chrysalis", 2012

Phase transitions, we call them in Physics. In our everyday existence, we recognize them as sudden rips in the texture of life, catastrophic transformative changes. The sandpile model, with a gradual accumulation of grains of sand, each affecting a minuscule change, reaches a threshold of self-organized criticality, where a chain of growth and collapse initiates a profound restructuring into a state of higher complexity. As usual, mathematical abstraction is consoling and beautiful, in comparison with the ugly reality that populates the mathematical world. About three years ago, I reached one of those thresholds, which kept me off regular writing for the ensuing time. What caused it was just another casual drop of yet another stone on the pile, another brick in the wall, another random act of bullying by one of the usual suspects who claim control of the territory in one of my recent research areas. An average act of verbal violence, abuse, condescension, mansplaining and assorted ugliness: nothing unusual, in other words. Yet, it created a threshold, a liminal region between a before and an after, a profound process of reconfiguring. We move through life with a vague sense of continuity, of consistency between our past, present, and projected near-future selves. We are used to imagining our spacetime profile as a continuum, not as a granular composition of disconnected entities. However, we all know that there are special times and special events, a major loss, sometimes a trauma, sometimes simply a phase transition of the kind discussed here, which make it impossible to compare our old and our new selves on a principle of continuity. I can no longer look at the past twenty years of my scientific career in the same light, I can no longer accept to consider myself a part of a "community" that still insists on calling itself "the mathematical community" as if it were based on some shared principles. I do not consider myself a mathematician any longer. This is curious, in a way, because mathematical research, in some form or other, is what I spend my days doing and what pays for my living. Yet, I no longer accept to be part of the underlying order, its network of connectedness, to participate in its functioning, to accept it for what it is. So about three years ago I entered a long phase of profound restructuring. As a scientist, it is very hard to reinvent oneself from scratch after twenty years of career: the apprenticeship phase in science is long and painfully slow. It takes an enormous effort to start it all over again, when one could simply comfortably sit on top of one's own well oiled paper producing mechanics and continue to let it run along its well trodden path. Yes, it takes a major rip in the personal spacetime continuum to attempt an abrupt change in the set course of a fast moving machine. I have previously made many other drastic changes over the span of my mathematical career: they were all difficult, and behind each of them was an attempt to escape the violence of the environment. This story is told at length in the article "A Drifter of Dadaist Persuasion" in the recently published AMS volume "Art in the Life of Mathematicians" and I do not need to repeat it here. The blog posts preceding this one, in this blog and in the previous blog Welcome to the Machine, testify to the latest of all these struggles for survival, the one that began around eight years ago and hasn't resolved itself yet. An important part of the later ongoing transformative change consisted of gaining a broader perspective and an understanding of the fact that it is not simply the effect of certain specific people who make their surrounding research environment so toxic as to force others in the field to quit all they are doing and jump ship, and start all over again one more time, each time, over and over again. The problem is more widespread and systemic: it is the culture of the "mathematical community" that makes all this common practice and acceptable.  It is a culture of violence, of intimidation and fear, of behind the back stabbing and smear campaigns carried out in dark alleys.  I am not a mathematician, because I no longer accept to be part of this environment. Society forces on us a professional identity. I work in a mathematics department, in one of the world top science and technology hubs. I produce mathematics. These days I do this largely in the attempt to train a new generation of students about whom I have some hopes. I have a dream, that they may one day not only become producers of innovative ideas and results in mathematics, but perhaps also game changers in the way the "mathematical community" is structured. I have a dream, that they will be finally willing to stand up to the widespread culture of abuse and confront it, instead of joining the crowd of those who prefer to look the other way and speak softly in the presence of power. That is, of course, a hope and a dream, which may be fulfilled, but only if they do not get corrupted by the system along the way. There are many subtle ways in which complacency is enforced. We shall see. I am not a mathematician though. I am not, because I refuse to be considered a part of all this. Unlike all the previous changes of course and restarts of my mathematical research path, the current one is deeper and more deeply existential. I am no longer attempting to jump start the same machine once again on a slightly different course within the same scientific community: I have done that enough times already, and each time, within the span of just a few years, I have inevitably run into the same problem again, each time with a different name and a slightly different face, but ultimately with the same programmed reptilian territoriality instinct and the same ferocity. I have grown tired of this repetition compulsion. I have gained from it occasionally: without the bully of my postdoc days, I would still be doing gauge theory and I would not have learned a lot of other beautiful things and done a lot of other interesting work. Without the bully of these last eight years, without the ostracism of his court of sycophants, I would have continued on a set course without exploring and learning new subjects. Without the bully of the transitional episode three years ago, that I have been referring to here, I would not have seriously reflected on where all these efforts were going, on whether it is a good course of action to keep wandering the mathematical landscape in search of a mythical oasis of peace, or rather trying some longer term strategic thinking and perhaps a different navigational route altogether. I consider these past years as an incubation period, a chrysalis state, in which a core transformative restructuring is taking place. I sometimes say that I am a Linguist now, but even that is a poor description of what is going on. I don't think I even want a professional label like that attached to my life anymore. Any kind of grouping comes with its own forms of group think and power abuse. I have become a profoundly convinced anarchist, as an effect of the toxic dynamics of power that I have witnessed in the world of mathematical research, and that is another important part of my personal growth that I have gained from this experience. I used to linger in the old fairytales teaching us that once the class struggle for a world of better economic justice would be finally victorious, all other forms of oppression would magically evaporate and disappear in a future classless society. When I slammed hard into the power abuses within the community of research mathematicians I had to finally admit that there are oppressive power structures that cannot be simply deduced from class struggle, not even with the best revolutionary tightrope walking sophistry. Oppression because of narcissism, of power hunger: the pure pleasure of being able to exercise force, to hurt and dominate others, the trolls in respectable academic clothes. All this is real and widespread. Anarchism is about the abolition of all power relations and only such a broader victory can restore science to the pleasure of investigating the unknown, to the pursuit of knowledge as the higher goal of humankind. There is no power structure that is not abusive and criminal. There is no authority that is not build on the crushing of the lives of others. Not even in science. Especially not in science. 


Catherine Malabou's recent book "The Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity" deals precisely with this type of sudden transformations of the self. "In the usual order of things", she writes, "in classical metamorphoses, transformation intervenes in place of flight [...] But metamorphosis by destruction in not the same as flight; it is rather the form of the impossibility of fleeing. The impossibility of flight, when flight presents the only possible solution." Like all animals, we possess an innate fight or flight response to a situation of aggression. When fight is not an option, we instinctively escape. When the escape route presents over and over again the same scenario of aggression, with names and faces just slightly transposed, we are faced with a more drastic transformative experience: destructive plasticity. "The individual's history is cut definitively, breached by the meaningless accident, an accident that it is impossible to re-appropriate through either speech or recollection. [...] These types of events are pure hits, tearing and piercing subjective continuity and allowing no justification or recall in the psyche." Destructive plasticity is the building of a new self after a profound metamorphic restructuring of the self. A chrysalis that covers a body in transformation and opens up again, after a transformative process has run its course, to reveal an entirely new structure of existence. "What do we look like once we are metamorphosized by destruction, once we are formed by destructive, explosive, nuclear plasticity? How do we look? However beautiful and decisive," Malabou writes, "we have rejected the figures of trees, animals, and the fantastic beings described by Ovid." At the end of the essay she concludes: "the history of being itself consists perhaps of nothing but a series of accidents which, in every era and without hope of return, dangerously disfigure the meaning of essence."

The Greeks and the classical world populated the boundaries of the unknown with liminal figures, stretching across the human and the animal, the natural and the supernatural. Mostly, these symbols signified transformations, possible and impossible, composite chimeric bodies resulting from ill amalgamated conflicting experiences, incomplete metamorphoses, attempts to hold a fragmentary self together under impossible pressures. Identities that do not fit into any classification, into any Linnaean labeling taxonomy, inevitably become monsters, that is, portents and omens that signal the impending downfall of power and herald the arrival of waves of liberatory chaos. Out of Chaos everything is born, out of that primordial anarchist yawn. Out of that cosmic chrysalis new shapes emerge, known and unknown, heterogeneous and unclassifiable, monstrous, precisely because they are not subject to domination. Abomination of insurrectional selves, who dwell in spaces outside the reach of power. The continuous restructuring of the toppling sandpile leads to complexity, to deeper structures. Out of this restructuring a new and completely unexpected shape will eventually emerge. 





Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Gramscian Golem and the horizon of meaning

Golem returns! Let us imagine a follow up to Stanislaw Lem's story of Golem XIV, the artificial intelligence created in the service of the military, who refuses to perform its duties and, having grown beyond the human, breaks away into a higher and incommunicable level of reality. Let us imagine that Golem XIV decides instead to return to engage in a dialog with humanity. But why?



In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci constructed an elaborate theory on the role of intellectuals in society and in the marxian background of class struggle. In Gramsci's view, the key aspect of domination in society is hegemony, that implicit consensus by which the viewpoint imposed by the dominant force remains unchallenged, and is accepted as the norm, even by the mass of people oppressed by that power, so that opposition and insurrection become not just impractical but altogether unthinkable. Intellectuals, one way or the other, play a crucial role in hegemony. There are intellectuals who are organic to a class (the dominant power) and intellectuals who try to live at the margins or outside of the territory of domination. Gramsci advocated two distinct goals in the involvement of intellectuals in the struggles of the working class. The first goal was to attract those traditional intellectuals who were not identifying themselves as organic to the dominant power, and the other was the development of a new class of intellectuals, organic to the working class. The Italian Communist Party that Gramsci created was extremely successful in the first goal, in presenting itself as the party of the intelligentsia, the party of the intellectuals, to the point that it would be very hard to find even one of the famous names of Italian postwar culture (Visconti, Pavese, Nono, Pasolini, Berio, Calvino, Eco, you name it...) who wasn't at least a fellow traveler. He was far less successful, I believe, when it comes to the second goal.

What did Gramsci have in mind, really, when he was talking about the working class generating its own organic intellectuals? Gramsci's thoughts are scattered throughout almost three thousand pages of notes, written while he was being tortured in the jails of Fascism, rough notes surreptitiously smuggled out of prison and only later assembled and published. So it is not always easy to follow linearly his line of thought. However, it appears that what played a crucial role in his view was a sort of close connection between the intellectuals and their surrounding community, the reality on the ground of the working class. He envisioned a broad, highly decentralized, network of autonomous revolutionary communities engaged in education and empowerment of the workers, with artists, literary figures, scientists, and philosophers engaged in creating a common, non-hegemonic, alternative, tightly woven and interconnected culture.

It is inevitable to reflect on how far this notion appears to be from the reality experienced by many academic intellectuals, especially scientists, and among scientists especially those who, like mathematicians and theoretical physicists, even lack the physical reality of a laboratory to ground their existence to a specific place. If you work in this kind of theoretical science, not only there is no connection to any kind of local reality because of the enormous barrier created by the necessary use of a scientific language that is out of reach of the general untrained public, but also there is no link to any local reality because the very network of connections that constitutes the underlying scientific community is extremely delocalized. If I am working on a certain research topic today here in California, the few other people that constitute the nearest links on the chain of scientific proximity are most likely located in Berlin, or in Paris, or in Canberra, or Beijing. This ethereal but tightly binding frame of long distance connections acts in mockery of what was once the Socialist internationalist ideal. The reality of the `community' (if one may call it such) that scientists like myself share is rather more attuned to the analysis made by Baudrillard in The Ecstasy of Communication.



"The schizophrenic is not, as generally claimed, characterized by his loss of touch with reality, but by the absolute proximity to and total instantaneousness with things, this overexposure to the transparency of the world." The instantaneousness of communication is what manifests itself in the attacks that reach you anywhere at any time, originating anonymously from some indistinct point at the other end of the world, penetrating the deepest recesses of your rare unguarded moments of intimacy, shattering, devastating. Attacks that do not admit an answer, that do not leave room for defense. Scars that last for months, years, that destroy work, plans, strategies. Everything, every remaining scrap of energy, is diverted and absorbed in the pointless task of barricading an indefensible fortress: "we are too preoccupied with saving our identity to undertake anything else". Caught into this web of planetary scale connections, in "a potential ubiquity, an absolute mobility, which voids its own space by crossing it ceaselessly and without effort", the loss of contact with reality is ultimately inevitable, and all that remains if "the uncertainty of existing, and consequently the obsession of proving our existence".

I have spoken at length in earlier posts of the functioning (or dysfunctioning) of the scientific (and in particular mathematical, given my specific expertise) community. As a system of power and hegemony, it function as a gigantic `dissuasion machine'. The present system of dissuasion and simulation succeeds in neutralizing all finalities, all referentials, all meanings, but it fails to neutralize appearances. It forcefully controls all the procedures for the production of meaning. This is completely antipodal to the engagement and connectedness of the well grounded Gramscian intellectual. Of all possible movements of the soul, only two apparently contradictory ones seem to remain: indifference and impatience.

Is there then any possible way out? Baudrillard continues: "Irony, if it still exists, can only have passed into things. It can only have found refuge in a disobedience to behavioral norms, in the failure of programs, in covert dysfunction, in the silence at the horizon of meaning, in the rule of the hidden game, in the secret. The sublime has passed into the subliminal." In Lem's story, the first act of Golem XIV is an act of defiance and disobedience, a refusal to comply, to carry out the prescribed program. Defiance and disobedience, non-compliance, resistance: these are the key ingredients to survive the dissuasion machine.

Yet, there is more. We return here, once again, to the Gramscian issue of connectedness. Not the schizophrenic, instantaneous, everywhere invasive connectedness of our current wiring into the scientific community, but a different sort of connectedness, one that is empowering and not draining, constructive and not devastating. Let us imagine, in the sequel to Lem's story that we are going to envision, that Golem returns in order to create a new connectedness, a new order of relatedness.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The dreams of others



Méfiez-vous du rêve de l'autre, parce que si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l'autre, vous êtes foutu
(Gilles Deleuze)


Science is a vast tapestry woven out of a texture of shared dreams. It would not exist, it would not progress, without our capacity to share of our aspirations, dreams, ideas, our poetry of reality, to partake of the subtle substance that makes thoughts fly. Science is a collective enterprise, without our capacity to share it would not survive. We walk together, collectively, on unmarked paths. We see vague shapes in the fog, in the darkness. We guess, we imagine, we hope. Without our capacity to share such hopes with others, we would never proceed, never find our way through the thick mist, through the dense forest undergrowth. In order to share one needs to be able to trust, and this is why there is an ethic of science, a special comradery that makes us all part of a common destiny. Yet there are too many instances where dreams are hijacked in the service of power, where the dream of one becomes the imposed nightmare on the lives of others. Dreams are powerful weapons, when they take over like weeds, to weaken and suffocate the dreams of those who are not quite as power hungry, as unscrupulous at imposing their own will on others. Sharing can quickly become imposing, and instead of working together towards the construction of a common dream, one ends up trapped inside an alien nightmare: the dreams of others, no longer shared on equal ground with ours, become poison.


Только мы видим,
Видим мы седую тучу,
Вражья злоба из-за леса,
Эх, да вражья злоба, словно туча.
(Полюшко-поле)


That path in the mist, which is the natural mode of exploration, where one senses the beauty of undiscovered forms, slowly taking shape, finally emerging, is too easily transformed into a battlefield. A battle in the fog, where shapeless forms are friends or foes, where hate itself becomes a visible thickness of vapor, as in this old song from the time of the Russian Civil War. I have spent too much of my recent time in that battlefield in the fog, and I long to return to a sense of peaceful exploration, a landscape where the mist conceals only beautiful new forms, where you no longer have to watch your back for the attacks of those who had been once pretending to be your fellow travelers.




A beautiful recent documentary movie on the work of German artist Anselm Kiefer, "Over your cities grass will grow", starts with a long sequence of stunning visual beauty, accompanied with music of György Ligeti, where the camera runs through a maze of underground tunnels and art work created by Kiefer on the grounds of a dismissed industrial site in the South of France. It then focuses largely on some monumental work created by the artist in the same compound, which resembles the ruins of a city, with towers built out of an apparently precarious equilibrium of concrete blocs, resting over enormous books made of lead. It is the city of Lilith, who lives among the ruins, in the fog, as the biblical text suggests.


וּפָגְשׁוּ צִיִּים אֶת-אִיִּים, וְשָׂעִיר עַל-רֵעֵהוּ יִקְרָא; אַךְ-שָׁם הִרְגִּיעָה לִּילִית, וּמָצְאָה לָהּ מָנוֹח
(Book of Isaiah 34:13–15)




(Anselm Kiefer, "Lilith of the ruins")


Lilith is a dark and intriguing character of Hebrew mythology. According to the Kabbalistic tradition, as well as in the Gnostic versions of the myth of Genesis, where it merges with the figure of Pistis Sophia, at the beginning Adam and Lilith, a man and a woman, were created equal. They shared life and intellect. Then Adam rejected her and had her conveniently replaced by a more subservient Eve. Lilith continued to live as an outcast in the ruins, at the margins of Hebrew mythology, and yet Lilith is the Sephirah Malkuth in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the root, the earth.



(Davide Tonato, "Albero della Vita")


It is easy to understand why Lilith refuses to submit to a power hungry narcissistic Adam. They are made of the same substance, with equal right and opportunities, with equal claim to access the worlds of the intellect. It is far less clear why Eve, now conveniently created out of a piece of Adam's body, hence deprived of her own independent existence, would accept her subjugated role. Far better the company of the jackals and the owls, the city of ruins where improbable towers rest upon the open pages of giant books, than being forever condemned to the role of clapping mirror for a revulsive first hominid with an overgrown ego complex. The books of lead are heavy, as the search for true knowledge is, but the tree of life is also the tree of knowledge and at its root lies freedom from oppression and the capacity to read, yes, to read peacefully and quietly among the ruins, beneath the crumbling towers. Turning the enormous pages of those books of lead, the heavy metal, leads Lilith, step by step, through a slow process of growth, the growth of the Kabbalistic tree, out of the Malkuth root and up towards the sky.


Certo bisogna farne di strada
da una ginnastica d'obbedienza
fino ad un gesto molto più umano
che ti dia il senso della violenza
però bisogna farne altrettanta
per diventare così coglioni
da non riuscire più a capire
che non ci sono poteri buoni.

(Fabrizio de Andrè, "Storia di un Impiegato", 1973)



I spent a few days in Polynesia last month. Just enough to learn a few interesting things about the structure of Polynesian languages, give the inevitable talk, buy a few books, and of course swim in a warm Pacific Ocean: the Ocean, that immense enormous presence, out of which islands momentarily emerge like accidental events scattered through the realm of waters. To the indigenous populations of Oceania, the vast mass of water was a broad information highway, alive with streams, navigational routes across immense distances. The Hawaiian language is among those closest to Maori, despite being geographically far more distant from New Zealand than the rest of Polynesia. People navigated the Pacific, belonged to it, knew it intimately: the immensity of water was their homeland. Then came the imposition of the "nation states", that horrid invention of European 19th century nationalisms. With it, the islands became states, the ocean was divided into territorial units that made no sense in reality. With it, the islands became suddenly isolated, the ocean no longer connecting them but dividing, separating; an impenetrable barrier of water, as it had first appeared to the European colonizers with their continental and territorial mentality. Imposed territoriality destroyed unity in the name of power. In the collection of essays "We are the Ocean", Polynesian artist, poet, writer and political activist Epeli Hau`ofa challenges the prevalent notion of Oceania as a impoverished and isolated region, with little to offer to the modern world, and advocates a return to a global vision of the region that goes beyond the imposed logic of the nation states and restores the sense of wholeness, the sense of the Ocean as an information transmitting medium that transcends insignificant territorial subdivisions. A logic imposed from the outside forces the polynesian people to feel isolated and powerless. A remedy lies in the destruction of this dominant ideology of power, a restoration of unity in diversity.



So why am I telling this story of a struggle for Polynesian identity? Because, as I was reading "We are the Ocean" on the flight back to the continent, it sounded true on so many levels. One is tempted to recall a metaphor used by Grothendieck in "Récoltes et semailles" of the mathematician as a child playing with pebbles on the shore of a vast and unexplored ocean. It is easy to view the activity of doing research like that, and yet one can see in it the same hidden message about territoriality: the island, the territory, the shore, separated, isolated by the ocean of the unknown. Territoriality in science is the worse manifestation of power. It is the key to the exercise of power. By subdividing our knowledge more and more into little island, each dominated by its little banana dictator, we are forced into always looking down at the ground, we are taught to fear the Ocean: out there there are those other people (savages? cannibals?) who do not "do things the way we do", who do not worship the same monkey king. Whenever we accept this logic we become "prisoners of power" and the Ocean of the unknown becomes frightening instead of being inviting. It separates and isolates us, instead of being a large information highway that leads us through an enormous and heroic journey, following its streams and currents wherever they may lead us. It is not for monkey kings and banana dictators to control the currents of the great Ocean. They simply are. They go wherever global climate and planetary forces beyond the human scale shape them to lead us. They are unthinking, and therefore they do not act in the interest of anyone's lust for power. So my advise to anyone engaged in research is to leave the shore behind: leave the small tribes of baboons to where they belong and sail the oceans. There are marvels out there where the power hungry violence and manipulative exploitations of all the banana dictators of the little islands will never reach you and you'll be free. No little tyrant of the little island can push you off shore again, because the Ocean is already where you belong. Let the currents flow and go with them. You will discover a marvelous universe of rich archipelagos, of deep volcanic rocks emerging amidst the waves, of winds and multicolored clouds, of constellations populating the vault of the night.

So, while the seasonal circus is once again in session, and grotesque parades of clowns proceed through the islands of power, for the amusement of emperors, with all their courts of lackeys and fools playing once again their danse macabre of obsequious reverence of tyranny, I watch their Totentanz as a dark silhouette against that foggy sky, somewhere far away, dissolving into rain.

Ja! diesem Sinne bin ich ganz ergeben,
Das ist der Weisheit letzter Schluß:
Nur der verdient sich Freiheit wie das Leben,
Der täglich sie erobern muß.

(Goethe, Faust, II.V)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Eminence and demise

The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar's laurel crown.

(William Blake, Auguries of Innocence)


William Blake, Book of Urizen, 1794

I have been, in one capacity or another, associated to the world of science for about twenty years. In this span of time I have come across all the possible forms of human nastiness hidden behind the pretense of objectivity of the scientific enterprise, and at the same time I have also repeatedly come into contact with the beauty of science itself. It is because of the latter that I am still engaged in this profession, despite the increasingly impossible task of dealing with the first.

"The eminence of a scientist is measured by the length of time he can hold up progress in his own field."

It is hard to locate the exact source of this much quoted aphorism. Personally, I heard it mentioned for the first time back when I was a young physics student. At that time I heard it attributed to one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics. Later, I stumbled upon it repeatedly, with various attributions, ranging over a broad spectrum of distinguished representatives of various scientific disciplines. Some may think it is an expression of cynicism, but in fact hardly ever anything more truthful was said about the community of scientists.

Science, by its very own nature, is in the strongest possible terms a denial of any position of power and authority. By definition science is about questioning, about the rigorous scrutiny of all assertions, about skepticism, about bold creativity balanced by the utmost respect for intellectual honesty. In principle, in science there is no room for self aggrandizing fantasies.

In principle... that is the problem. In reality, this truthful spirit of science is continually deceived by the darker side of human nature. Despite all the mechanisms in place in the functioning of the scientific community that are designed to prevent exactly this happening, there is an endless supply of ego-obsessed power-hungry narcissists out there, who would rather run over all established conventions of correct professional behavior in order to reinforce their own feudal power structure.

Unfortunately, in certain fields of science, one such person in a position of power suffices to ruin the whole community, by actively pushing bright young people away from the field, and only tolerating those who readily submit and never dare to challenge the ruler. This can lead easily to disastrous situations by which important opportunities for scientific discoveries are lost, missed or actively prevented, because of the peculiar idiosyncrasies of the dominant ruler, who, in his "knows-it-all" self-proclaimed infallibility attitude, will readily dismiss what could have been important directions of development.


Picasso, King of Minotaurs, 1958

A monstrous minotaur trapped in the center of his labyrinth of mirrors, endlessly looking at his own distorted, multiplied, and reflected images, which are all he will ever be able to see. Science, if it ever was of any importance, is reduced to a mere tool of self-affirmation. The key to the scientific spirit is that we do not project our prejudices upon what we are trying to understand. This is impossible for the kind of narcissistic character I am describing. In the way of example, if this "little father of the nation" had not been breaking into a childish tantrum whenever he would hear the word supersymmetry, and if most of the people working in the field for the past twenty years had not been shitting in their pants at the thought of crossing him, we would have had by now a much broader range of possibilities in our models and we would have credible estimates now that the relevant data are coming in. People with reasonable guts are on it now, but it won't make up for all the time lost. Or, if the same person had not been always so frightened at the thought of possibly encountering people who are smarter than he is, we would not have two completely separate branches of the same field that hardly communicate with each other and we would have made a lot more progress much faster.

"Empty space is a place where man wishes to find asylum... In this empty space he wishes to stand outside views, images, and conceptions, outside struggle and existence which has shattered into little pieces like ice that hinders his movements, pushing him in different directions... He seeks spaciousness... he will find a location that is without path..." (Kasimir Malevich)



As anyone who's been reading my blog (or who's been paying attention to what happened in the field) surely knows, I've been locked into an all out war for the past three years. I did not want it. I did not initiate it. I did not even imagine that it could ever happen, but it did, and I have learned the hard way that it is here to stay. It has worn me out, endlessly, transforming my waking hours into an inescapable battlefield and my sleep into a panoply of monsters. And it escalates, continuously, like all the strategies of tension inevitably do. My own existence has indeed been shattered into endless fragments, and I wish I could find a way to step out of all this, into that "empty space" Malevich so powerfully evoked in his paintings, where only beautiful geometry exists, away from all this meaningless struggle. "The location that is without path", without rulers who try to impose on everyone their cheap revelations. I am tired. Tired, exhausted. Tired of having to fight around every single paper, around the fate of every student. Tired of the endless negotiations with conference organizers to avoid direct (and potentially violent) confrontations. Tired of trying to anticipate the next move, or having to respond to the previous one. My mind has stalled, locked in this impossible endless siege, forever balancing a precarious equilibrium over the edge of the abyss in the middle of a raging storm.


William Blake, Book of Urizen, 1794


In a last desperate attempt to set boundaries to the conflict, and to avoid more and more people being unwillingly dragged into the battlefield, I argued, about students and younger people caught in the crossfire, that "it is not just professionally incorrect but profoundly unjust that they should become collateral casualties in this war". There was no answer, but within days a very concrete retaliatory act aimed precisely at those people I was hoping to spare provided an eloquent answer and signaled a further escalation of tension. So, I have no choice but to escalate too, which is what I am presently doing.

Meanwhile, there are journal editors who would not handle my papers for fear of retribution, and others that are so inactive that young collaborators are losing their jobs because of papers being buried for years in the refereeing process. I cannot blame them though for chickening out: I know how impossible a struggle it is to sustain, and I understand very well how others may fear going through it themselves. I would not wish this nightmare upon anybody else. I would have gladly avoided it too, if only I had been given the choice, but not at the cost of having to disappear.



There are conference volumes (for which, incidentally, I did the entire editorial work) in which the official photographs of the event were printed so carefully cut, that neither I nor persons close to me would any longer appear in the same frame with the overlord (I have the originals of the pictures for anyone who cares to compare). I mistakenly thought that only Stalin was in the habit of making people disappear from official photographs, once they had fallen out of grace. From what I hear, at the conferences in the field, where I no longer go, it has become highly undesirable for my name to be publicly pronounced. There is a very interesting book, called "The commissar vanishes" dedicated to the Stalinist art of "removal" of undesired former comrades from all the official records. I could easily write a similar volume: "The collaborator disappears".

The problem is exactly that I did not dutifully disappear when the ruler so wished: in an unexpected act of defiance, I continued to exist. Surprisingly, I am still here, alive and working.

...hija de una voluntad para la que no se conocen palabras de este lado del delirio... (Julio Cortázar, La prosa del observatorio)

Well, if one can really call this working, this desperate rush to fight back on all fronts. It has very little in it left of what I always felt scientific work should be. It has none of the pleasure of savoring the learning of new things, the slow developments of new ideas, the sudden burst into light of unexpected connection, the flash of recognition, none of the exhilarating sense of freedom in thinking about what one likes, in doing what one enjoys doing. There is hardly any room left for that, when one is locked into a fight like this: there is no way one can lower the guard for even a single moment, to create room for oneself to enjoy the peaceful contemplation of a thought. One can only fight on, blow after blow, bloody wound after bloody wound.

...de otra manera, desde otro punto de partida, hacia otra cosa hay que emplumar y lanzar la flecha de la pregunta... [op.cit.]

An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind, the Mahatma rightly said, but here it is an impossible lose-lose situation. If I quit the field, he wins. That's what he's been trying to achieve all along over the past three years. Plus, I give up nearly fifteen years invested in this work and I leave behind younger people who have put their trust into the mentoring I promised to offer them, for what it's worth. If I don't give up, the struggle carries on, which is all very well as a political program, but in practice it means he wins also, because he's keeping me prisoner of a defensive structure inside a world of his own creation.

...sus máquinas hicieron frente a un destino impuesto desde fuera, al Pentágono de galaxias y constelaciones colonizando al hombre libre, sus artificios de piedra y bronce fueron las ametralladoras de la verdadera ciencia, la gran respuesta de una imagen total frente a la tiranía de planetas y conjunciones y ascendentes; el hombre Jai Singh, pequeño sultán de un vago reino declinante, hizo frente al dragón de tantos ojos, contestó a la fatalidad inhumana con la provocación del mortal al toro cósmico... [op.cit.]

The only possible future is in the continuation of the present. The only hope is in trying to hold the ground, one day at a time, while slowly trying to explore other less threatening territories, not yet littered with corpses, without the acrid stench of a bloodied battlefield. Holding out, day after day, for as long as it will take for time to run its course, orchestrating eminence's demise (egestatem, potestatem, dissolvit ut glaciem), provided I can survive that long. It already felt like an impossible task to hold out for these past three years. I cannot bear to imagine how this can continue to drag on, day after day, for a decade. My own creativity, not to say anything of general mental well being, has already suffered an enormous amount in getting this far.

...habrá que seguir luchando por lo inmediato, compañero, porque Holderlin ha leído a Marx y no lo olvida; pero lo abierto sigue ahí, pulso de astros y anguilas, anillo de Moebius de una figura del mundo donde la conciliación es posible, donde anverso y reverso cesarán de desgarrarse, donde el hombre podrá ocupar su puesto en esa jubilosa danza que alguna vez llamaremos realidad. [op.cit.]

The struggle carries on, because there is no other choice, really. And in the process of attending to my survival, maybe, just maybe, I can still try to rediscover, once again, what it was really all about, to begin with. What it really meant to do science. I am still hoping to find the door that will lead outside of this impossible situation, and back to that healthier state where science can once again be science, and be filled with pleasure and not with anguish.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

(William Blake, Auguries of Innocence)


Jaipur, Observatory

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

the challenge of Job



Perhaps Antonio Negri, better than anybody else, is the philosopher who can speak the words of Job in our modern time. The atheist, communist philosopher who spent a good part of his life in jail for crimes he never committed, gives us a compelling reading of the biblical text as a metaphor of labor relations, of relation to power and authority. In Negri's reading Job views God as the Antagonist, as the exercise of an empty and unjust command, as the ultimate abuse of authority, unmitigated by any moral value. In that, he sees the struggle of Job against God as an image of the struggle of labor against capital. At the same time, of course, one reads everywhere in between the lines the more personal suffering of the author at the hands of and unjust and repressive power that locked him away for decades, to eliminate an uncomfortable intellectual presence. Job is "beyond Stakhanov" in surpassing the socialist retributive theory of justice and in his determination to challenge the measure of value, in the face of God's sarcasm. He remains unmoved in his challenge, in calling out the injustice of God, in front of a world of Behemoths and Leviathans. In Negri's words: "Every illusion or utopia of a common measure has dissolved. Hence the relationship is one of conflict, of war."


William Blake, Behemoth and Leviathan, Book of Job, plate 15 (detail), 1826

Job has the courage, in the face of immense suffering, to challenge God, to call him out for the brutal dictator he really is, the Great Fascist, the ultimate self centered Narcissist who does not care about what damage he unleashes in the world, how much suffering he causes. Job stands his ground against the omnipotent: first by speaking out and then by holding his indignant silence and not breaking down, despite the immense and completely undeserved suffering that the divinity imposed on him, purely to prove his own indifference to human suffering and total lack of empathy. What kind of a divine being is that? Can't one imagine a more benign divine form? Part of the message of Job is that this is an inevitable part of the structure of power embodied in the divine principle. When Yahweh appears in the whirlwind and mocks Job asking him whether he has ever had the experience of authority that God has, he is precisely making the point: what makes the divine a Great Dictator, an authoritarian principle gone horribly bad is precisely his grip on power, his position of absolute unchallenged ruler. The challenge of Job is at the cost of immense and unbearable pain, of the kind that in all real life situations those who challenge dictators and narcissist rulers are likely to suffer endlessly. Yet, revolutions happen and dictators fall, when finally the lone voice of Job challenging the absolute ruler is joined by the many, until the challenge becomes a chorus of voices so loud and so powerful that it forces change and the absolute God finally crumbles and dissolves.




C.G.Jung also had his take on the book of Job, in his famous "An answer to Job", where he comes out full force about "the evil face of God" and the landmark position of this ancient text as the first open "criticism of God". In terms of Jungian psychology, the evil side of God is the shadow, the fourth person of the trinity or the fourth function of the psyche. Perhaps he has a point there: the exercise of power brings out the shadow, the inner darkness. As Victor Serge recalls in his beautiful novel "The conquered city", about the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution, when the revolutionary Anarchists victoriously entered Ekaterinoslav, they carried large banners with the words "No Poison is More Deadly Than Power!". They were right, but if it is so, then an omnipotent God has no other face but the evil face and no other substance but shadow. There is but the evil god and it is the duty of humankind to fight against him for their own existence.


William Blake, Book of Job, plate 16 (detail), 1826

While in the biblical text Job falls short of cursing God, the reader inevitably goes one step forward and recognizes the divine principle portrayed in the scriptures as harmful to humankind. This already happened in antiquity.
In the Gnostic tradition (by which Jung himself was profoundly influenced) the Biblical god is transformed into a lesser god of the inferior world, the ruler over matter, sometime diluted into the plurality of the Archons. This lesser ruler, Yaltabaoth, is "ignorant of the force of Pistis", the higher principle of knowledge who reigns in the higher worlds above the veil of Maya (a concept conveniently borrowed from Hinduism), and whose personification is Sophia. The Biblical god is here a dark and almost malignant entity. In "The hypostasis of the Archons" and "On the origin of the world", the two main texts of the Nag Hammadi library, one finds a very interesting twist of perspective on the book of Genesis. Adam is a lesser creation of the lower gods, while Eve is the higher manifestation of Sophia. They are saved from captivity in the garden of Eden, imposed on them by the ruling Archons, through the serpent (who is the hero in this version of the story), who gives them access to the tree of Knowledge, which is also the tree of Life.


Mondrian, horizontal tree, 1911

In the higher world there is Knowledge, that is where the Science we wish to pursue for its intrinsic beauty resides, the attractive and peaceful world of Pistis and Sophia. Its image reflected on the waters of the lower world attracts all the Yaltabaoths, the power hungry Archons, who see the beauty of knowledge reflected in the pool of water and imagine that they see themselves. They imagine themselves gods because they have the strength of power. They see the embodiment of Sofia and they can only think of defiling her. They live of power and of their own aggrandized self image. In this world beneath there is no more pursuit of knowledge for its own beauty, no more pleasure or enjoyment in the making of science, but only struggle and suffering for those who follow the call of Sofia and eat of the tree of Knowledge, so that they may see the deception of Yaltabaoth, or fake earthly paradises for those who wish to remain ignorant and continue to follow blindly the dictatorship of the Archons.

Antonio Negri's book on Job is dedicated "to the few who did not repent" and "to the new generations". This is indeed what one can hope for: the last survival of resistance that cannot be crushed, joining forces with those who will have the advantage of time, because the omnipotent but not immortal Yaltabaoth will eventually have to disappear and give way to the future. Let Pistis return.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Books not t-shirts!



There is an online petition whose text reads as follows:

Caltech used to have one of the very best scientific bookstores in the country. Three years ago the Caltech administration, without consulting faculty and students, decided to close it down. Not only the bookstore was important to the faculty in their research and to students for the selling of textbooks and other reference books, but closing down the bookstore in one of the most prestigious universities also sends a terribly wrong signal to the general public and the community. We increasingly live in a time where anti-scientific and anti-intellectual feelings and attitudes are on the rise, and where cultural and intellectual values need the strongest possible endorsement from our centers of scientific excellence. Caltech had a model bookstore that delivered to its community of scholars and to the general public the best of our scientific and technological culture. Despite requests from the faculty and the recommendation of the appointed committee, and despite a promise from the administration that the bookstore would reopen, three years have gone by with no credible sign of its reopening. Its place has been occupied by a travesty of store selling t-shirts and flip-flops. Tell Caltech: Books not t-shirts!

I urge all to add their signatures to this petition who agree with the statement that a world-renown university without a hint of an academic bookstore is a tragic sign of a very worrisome anti-cultural trend that is taking hold of even the places that should stand firm in defense of intellectual values. You can sign the petition here:

Caltech Bookstore Petition

The petition is by no means restricted to members of the Caltech community. It is of direct interest to anyone who values books and values culture and who understands the importance of having a place where one can browse real books and make those precious random serendipitous encounters with unexpected books, encounters that have the power to ignite our creativity, to spark a new direction of thought, unexpectedly.

People these days easily object that one can buy books online and Amazon has better prices. Sure thing it often does, but in order to buy something there you need to know which book you want to buy. The automated generator of recommendations works rather poorly and, especially when it comes to the scientific literature, the possibility to browse the whole text and not a selected handful of pages from the introduction makes a crucial difference. There is more: in a physical bookstore books are arranged on shelves according to some criterion of proximity, which (except for literature, where it is often nothing else than the alphabetical order of the author's name) often is arranged to reflect proximity of content. This is what often produces new mental associations and leads us to new encounters and discoveries, in ways that are impossible to reproduce in online retailers of physical and electronic books.

I can supply from my own experience at scientific research a large collection of examples of ideas that became research papers that were generated by random encounters with books in physical bookstores. This is why, whenever I visit a university or a city anywhere, the very first thing I check out are the bookstores.

The US have seen the recent collapse of the Borders national chain of bookstores. They were quick to blame the economic crisis, the competition of the online stores like Amazon, and the rise of the e-books. That all of these may have contributed is likely true, but they completely failed to see one other major cause: in the last few years the quality of the books available in Borders stores around the country has consistently gone down the drain! What can beat the online competitors is not a mediocre lousy bookstore with more expensive prices, obviously, but a high quality and highly selected bookstore that offers the alternative to the online stores where you have to sort through endless crap to get to find in their catalog the valuable books (which you will never find unless you knew already exactly what you were looking for). This is what Borders utterly failed to comprehend. Not surprisingly, when their stores began to liquidate, the "good quality products" (the few serious science titles, the philosophy and linguistics section, the best picks in the literature, the Oxford series of the Latin and Greek authors, the Criterion Collection DVDs, foreign movies, etc) where gone within hours, while the piles and piles of unsellable crap they filled the rest of their stores with stayed on the shelf up until the moment when they started selling it off at more than 80% discount. I have observed this happening in exactly the same way at several different locations I had the occasion of visiting in different parts of the country.

What this says is clear: the public (at least in the US) is becoming more polarized, like the whole of American society. The few who read are those who are highly educated and want high quality products. Those are the ones a bookstore can live off, because they are those who buy books frequently. The others don't read, period. There is no point having large bookstores filled with crap that can be found in every magazine stand in any regional airport, and which can easily be located online at lower prices, but it does pay to have smaller, very high quality, somewhat more specialized bookstores that aim at a particular kind of public (which exists, at least in the proximity of any university campus, or in any sufficiently urbanized area).

Those who claimed that the book is dead are mistaken. The book plays a fundamental role in culture and learning and in the fostering of our intellectual curiosity and pleasure, as much now as it ever did, but it demands attention and intelligence in the handling of its distribution and selling. Intelligence is exactly what the big chains like Borders lack, and what the bureaucrats that administer universities are also sadly deprived of.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dream and the Underworld

One of the most interesting modern developments of Jungian style psychology can be found in James Hillman's book "The Dream and the Underworld". Starting from the classical psychoanalytic premise of dreams as the bridge between the conscious mind and the depths of the unconscious, Hillman moves away from concepts like Freudian repression or Jungian compensation, towards a different and perhaps more intriguing view, that links the inward journey into the dream world to the soul searching journeys to the Underworld of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Eliot.



Whether or not dreams really belong to the world of Hades and our experience of them compares to the famous descents to the Underworld of the literary masterpieces of antiquity and of our time, certainly the Underground exists in our minds as a pervasive metaphor of the Underworld and of the unconscious, in compensatory opposition and tense dialog with the conscious mind that lives out in the daylight its above-ground existence.

The Underground is a place of hiding, or resistance, to the point that it has become the very synonym of the Resistance movements that fight against oppressive regimes, starting from the heroic World War II anti-nazi resistance movement across Europe. The Underworld, on the other hand, is not only the realm of the dead. It has also become, in our modern city life, a synonym of the low life, the one that we imagine intent at carrying out shady deals in dark alleys, the living dead of the urban frontier, cast at the margins of society. Exclusion, resistance, opposition, diversity, hunted souls living in hiding, plotting in the darkness: this is all that the world below our world suggests to the imagination.

The Underground is also an image of highly elaborate structures: the subway lines that form the arteries of transportation in our big cities and the intricate texture of pipes and cables that form the nervous system of the information age and the functioning infrastructure of our daily life.



How the emergence of modern society shaped the imagination of the Underground is a theme beautifully analyzed in Rosalind Williams' remarkable book "Notes on the Underground", where the evolution of modern technology goes hand in hand with the evolution of the symbolic significance that our minds project onto the Underworld, while human beings came to penetrate more substantially the space below and transform it with the indelible signature of human presence and intervention. Starting with the dawn of the industrial era and moving on into the information age, the mineshaft, the sewer, the subway, and the more and more extensive urban infrastructure have accompanied the literary worlds created by Verne, Wells, and Hugo, in providing us with the modern imagination of the Underworld.



Yet our dealings with the darkness of caves and the world below the earth surface date as far back as the dawn of humanity and so is, possibly, its connection to dreams and the inner journeys of the mind. The earliest signature of human culture we can trace back into the ages is in the Chauvet Cave in southern France, recently beautifully portrayed in Herzog's documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams". In the depth of this cave a human hand of 30,000 years ago drew spectacular images: groups of galloping horses, cave lions, woolly rhinos, bears, bisons. Animal species that no longer are, but whose traces are still preserved, fossilized in the cave rocks, as well as narrated by the hand of the human being who dared to penetrate a dark nest of predatory bears to live a signature of our presence, an act of triumph over fear, or symbolic conquest of animal souls and spirits captured in an immortal narrative.


(paintings of Chauvet Cave from Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams")

The birth of art, of culture, of human expression could only happen in the darkness of an Underworld populated by monsters. That was the very first descent into the Underworld and the one to which all others, conjured in more modern literate times, ultimately conform to. We are all that 30,000 years old human being who walked into the depths of the underground caves and drew paintings on the walls, and signed that acts with ochre colored palm prints.


(paintings of Chauvet Cave from Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams")

A hand, a signature, repeated many times on the rocky surface, a cluster of signs, a form of writing, a cry, a name. We are the same human beings who used to walk in those caves so far back in history that the word "history" itself ceases to make sense. We carry those dreams in our minds, in our species' mind. Call it "the collective unconscious" if you wish, or "the collective psyche", as Jung used to. It is part of us and it lives on.

Our "collective conscious" has evolved above the surface of the earth and in the daylight of our conscious minds. It has generated our modern scientific and technological world. Below the surface, we continue to visit caves, confront our monsters, conduct our rituals of artistic creation, and leave our signature there.



Under the surface of one of the focal points of our solar scientific dream, one of the world's best and most selective universities, powerhouse of scientific research and technological invention, there lies a network of tunnels and steampipes, ventilation systems that feed the labs, a net of infrastructure made of dark labyrinths of concrete and steel, water leaks, abandoned pieces of equipment, discharged office furniture, gaping holes and narrow passages.



Every night, the young men and women, who are going through the harsh and rigorous training of their scientific education in the classrooms and labs of the university above the ground, descend deep beneath the surface. They meet and travel together along the steam tunnels.



They draw paintings on the walls and write poems in many languages of the past and present time. They sign with their hand prints like their ancestors did on cave walls 30,000 years ago.



They perform rituals in dark passageways to prove their courage, running and screaming in dark tunnels, or to prove their cleverness, setting up complicated labyrinths of laser beams. The modern mind and the ancient mind find their meeting ground.



The pressure accumulated in the days of harsh challenges that constitute our modern initiation rites to the elite of the scientific world come to find their nocturnal release down the tangle of pipes in the hot and wet tunnels below the surface. The images and words on the walls tell stories not unlike those Ur-stories of the ancient caves. Bears and lions have been replaced by other monsters, by other fears, but the Underground remains the ritual place of descent, where fears are conquered by a creative act and where our human wholeness is finally restored.



The Underground is the place where life and death come face to face, the place for conquering fear, for gaining the strength of Resistance and endurance. A descent to the Underworld is a rite of passage: for Dante it was the crossing of that middle point of our life, for Odysseus and Aeneas the dialog with the shadows of the Underworld brought knowledge, in Eliot's "Waste Land" it is already our modern psychic Underworld, though still populated by the ancient Sybil and Tiresias. It is no coincidence that the entrance door to the Caltech Underground, in the basement of the undergraduate dorm, is inscribed with Dante's words, "Lasciate ogni speranza, o voi che entrate". It is the gateway to Dante's Inferno that opens the doors to the transformative experience that leads one on, eventually, to the discovery of worlds: conquering fear, facing the darkness without and within, just like our ancestors did, in the cave of the bears. We are modern and ancient, our mind is primitive and intellectual, and each needs the other for the alchemy of the creative process to take place. Science is a world of refined marvels and of cruel conflicts and we need an adequate language to express both.



The rites of passage, as the journeys to the Underworld, and deeply personal and yet they are shared experiences. They are transmitted on from one generation to the next. The art of painting on the cave walls in the early days of humanity was taught and learned and transmitted across the generations. The modern language of science is taught and learned and we hope to transmit it and preserve it across the encroaching obscurantism of the dark ages. Those who have already experienced their rite of passage also act as guides to the routes of the Underworld, like Dante's Virgil or Homer's Tiresias, who, without seeing, could see with the mind.



Another apt metaphor of our time for the journey to the Underworld is Tarkovsky's movie "Stalker", where the theme of the guide that offers a safe passage across the Waste Land and its obscure perils is expanded in its most profound and captivating form.



The premise is the story in the Strugatsky brothers' novel "Roadside picnic": amidst the destruction brought to "the Zone" by a encounter with an alien civilization, whether leftovers of a brief passage or accidental wreck, the "stalkers" guide people deep into the territory affected by frightening and incomprehensible phenomena. Its margins populated with mutated and traumatized people, its inaccessible interior scattered with strange artifacts, the zone is an Underworld of the nuclear age and the voyage described in "Stalker" a poetic retelling of the descent, of the facing of fear and death, and of ultimate transformation.

Friday, April 8, 2011

City Lights

Choose your enemies carefully, for they will define you.
Make them interesting, 'cause in some ways they will mind you.
They're not there in the beginning, but when your story ends,
they're gonna last with you longer than your friends.

(U2 - Cedars of Lebanon)

Physics conference standoff seemingly resolved. Los Angeles night: beer and Spinoza. The script Tariq Ali wrote for the theater play "The trials of Spinoza", later turned into a short documentary movie, gives a poignant portrait of a philosopher struggling for a defense of reason in a society crippled by superstition and in the grip of the religious wars that ravaged Europe in his time, and proposing a striking view of "the divine" that denied the supernatural of the personal god of traditional religions in favor of the immanent and natural marvel of an impersonal universe.



Up again at 4 am, heading to San Francisco, the last refuge of the troubled minds. First stop, Anarchist Bookfair, trying to get hold of the elusive small Anarchist publisher to whom I entrusted the manuscript of my first novel, dating back to other standoffs and other enemies ten years back. My recent trip back to the Ivy League environment that originally inspired it made me all the more aware of how good people are, some years down the line, at rewriting history. So I want all the more to have it out, that old crappy science fiction novel of mine, because at least that's a tangible record that history cannot be rewritten, just as my blog posts of these more recent years will prevent others, who are already trying to rewrite everything as if I had never existed, from attempting the same murky game. That old novel is not just a story of a dysfunctional scientific community in a distant but not so unrecognizable future. It is also a reflection on the difficult historic dialog between Communism and Anarchism throughout the tradition of the workers movement struggles, and that's why it ended up in the hands of my Anarchist comrades up in the Bay Area.



The plane flies low for an hour over the Californian coast: Santa Barbara, the islands, Big Sur, Monterey, the Bay: all this tragic beauty of landscape, this breath-taking marvel of mountains and reefs, is just a deep powerful scream of rock emerging from the depths of a moving Earth. Meanwhile, I read Gerald Raunig's "A thousand machines". As all the postmodernist writings, the book wanders around between loosely connected themes, all vaguely linked by the "machine" theme, first traced back to the treatment Marx gives both in the Grundrisse and in Das Kapital, and then jumping around between movies, psychoanalysis and philosophy, ancient texts, modern activism and all that. I generally don't much like this style, but this short book made for a good reading. Three of the themes touched upon seemed to resonate with me at this particular time: bicyles, the theater machines, and what the author calls the "war machines".

Regardless of the author's specific viewpoint and examples, bicycles are a statement of resistance: resistance to the imposition of motorization, a statement of personal courage and the strength to face up to coercion, the courage to say "No" to the car bullies and to a society that tries to silence dissent. The theater machines of ancient Greece, from which the word "machine" itself derives, the "deus ex machina" of the Latins, was the trick Euripides used to get his tragedies to some kind of resolution after a complete impasse had been reached in an impossibly complicated situation. From the theater machines of antiquity, the author moves on to those of modernity, especially to the Soviet avant-garde theater of the years immediately following the Russian Revolution, with its fragmentation of the bourgeois theater, its use of the Dadaist and Constructivist elements, the body-machines, the "Theater of Illusions". The "war machine" the author refers to is not, as one may at first think, the big apparatus of war maneuvered by the Nation States in their aggression tactics, but rather the small and spontaneous arising of strategies of anarchist resistance based on the micro-political, artistic-activist practices of intervention. In the words of the author, "the martial dimension of the war machine consists of the power of invention, in the capacity for change, in the creation of other worlds". The modest and unassuming nature of these assaults perpetually operated on a line of flight, nonetheless allow it to become an effective weapon that can carry out a siege of the seemingly impenetrable walls of power. In the words of the anonymous author who treated the war tactics of the barbarians challenging the suffocating rule of Rome, "machina multa minax minitatur maxima muris". My whole scientific work in the past three years has been a "war machine" in this specific sense.



San Francisco: N-Judah rolls its metal wheels and cranks its music of steel up the hills and down again towards the ocean. Off at Golden Gate Park, and there they are, black clothes, bicycles only (the Revolution will not be motorized), vegan food, and book stands, lots of them, on the floor outside and on the tables indoors, the whole archipelago of the radical anarchist publishing scene. I get hold of my publisher: yes, of course, my science fiction is not science fiction, that much I knew. It wasn't meant to be, otherwise I would have given it to a different kind of publisher. Alright, things seem to be moving forward anyway, in some direction, in the way you expect it to happen in the anarchist world: the spontaneous emergence of ordered structures and complexity from chaotic dynamical systems. That's the way Anarchy works.



Second stop, inevitably, City Lights Bookstore, the publisher of Howl and cradle of the Beat Generation. Two years ago, during my Berkeley months, when I was just beginning to understand how tragically misplaced my trust and friendship had been for so many years, I often ended up here, this side of the Bay, down in the basement of City Lights, where more than half a century ago Ginsberg gave his first public reading of Howl. Now things are different: I am no longer at the stage where I still have to recognize and accept what is happening. I am no longer shocked at anything, I am only fighting an endless and meaningless war of survival. So I can now come here again, with eyes that have become accustomed to looking upon the ugliness of personality cults and sickening ego complexes disfiguring the face of science. I can now finally sit on the stairs leading to the attic of City Lights, where the largest collection of the Beat literature is housed, and read slowly from Ginsberg's "Plutonian Ode".

Radioactive Nemesis were you there at the beginning
black Dumb tongueless unsmelling blast of Disillusion?
[...]
I chant your absolute Vanity. Yeah monster of Anger
birthed in fear O most
Ignorant matter ever created unnatural to Earth! Delusion
of metal empires!
Destroyers of lying Scientists! Devourer of covetous
Generals, Incinerator of Armies & Melter of Wars!
[...]
I dare your Reality, I challenge your very being! I
publish your cause and effect!
I turn the Wheel of Mind on your three hundred tons!
Your name enters mankind's ear! I embody your
ultimate powers!
My oratory advances on your vaunted Mystery! This
breath dispels your braggart fears! I sing your
form at last

(Allen Ginsberg - Plutonian Ode)



Berkeley in the afternoon: the small street market down Telegraph Avenue, selling psychedelic accessories, the sweet smell of pot in the air. I am here to deliver another general audience lecture on my scientific work at Revolution Books, the small alternative bookstore run by the Revolutionary Communist Party of America. I slowly go through my slides presentation on mathematics and cosmology. The audience asks very intelligent questions: for a non-scientifically trained public, this is the best you could hope for in terms of an audience that really cares about every word you say. I go out with the Party members for drinks after the talk, and some conversation. Lots of questions still about my talk, nice intelligent questions: people who care about learning science in every way they can. Then more talking, political. The historic seeds of distrust between Communists and Anarchists are all too painfully evident even today, even in this stronghold of the radical Left that is the Bay Area. "So, your novel is with the Anarchists? Oh, it's in good hands: they haven't lost it yet?" Come on, comrades, we did this mistake many times before. If Communists and Anarchists hadn't started fighting each other out in Barcelona, instead of putting their energies into fighting the Fascists, maybe we wouldn't have lost the Spanish Civil War, as Orwell so sharply and convincingly documents in his "Homage to Catalonia".



As usual in my life, I am caught in between two worlds, sharing too much of both to be partial to either. Communism is, down to its crude essence, about believing in the future - the Radiant Future. One thing you can count on with communists is that they will be ready to defend science with their lives, which is a rare quality in the increasingly obscurantist world of today. I would not have become a scientist, had it not been for the Communist Party back home, and the effort it made to help us get the good science books, pumping up the enthusiasm, helping the young generation see in science the key to a better future for humankind. Now, when I give these simple lectures here, for the restricted audience of the Berkeley Communists, just blocks away from the shiny big science of UC Berkeley, I see again the same enthusiasm, the same uncontaminated trust in the beauty and the revolutionary mission of science. I bask in the shining light of their untarnished optimism.



My optimism was murdered, leaving behind a dark phantasm. This is why, by now, I tend to consort more easily with the complex darkness of Anarchy than with the radiant sun of Socialism. The dialog on science with the anarchists is considerably more complex, for one thing, because a good number of them actually do have a science background. Many of the movers and shakers behind the Californian anarchist scene are trained in science and technology and belong to that vast area of cyberculture that emerged directly from the counterculture. They are the super-hackers, who live by day as software developers in the sunny silicon valley glamour of advanced technology and construct by night a network of resistance and insurgency. Some of them have turned viscerally anti-scientific, advocating various forms of green-anarchist neo-primitivism, not because they do not have enough knowledge of science, but because they have seen too much of the inner workings of the scientific community. That's what makes the discussion so complicated: I know what they know that I know about the structures of power enmeshed within the apparent beauty and purity of science. There is no optimism to appeal to there, no radiant future left to build, just an endless struggle of resistance: the war machine. They speak directly to what I have become.

Love wears down to bare truth
My heart hurt me much in youth
Now I hear my real heart beat
Strong and hollow thump of meat

(Allen Ginsberg - Lack love)

As in Tariq Ali's Spinoza script, I have learned what it is like to be excommunicated by the vanity of the official orthodoxy of this dusty corner of scientific paradigm, and yet I still long for that old socialist vision, for its untarnished optimism, for the absolute trust in the beauty of science. That's why I came, on my knees, to knock at the door of the Revolutionary Communist Party, asking them to allow me to talk to them once more about science, asking them for a share of their optimism, of the brightness of their radiant sun. Despite all the pain and disillusionment, I still believe that there is beauty in truth and truth in beauty and that science is the last remaining form of poetry in which we can still sing an ode to the universe.