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Culture as rhizome

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I have passed some sort of event horizon and am falling without hope of escape into postmodernism.

This is my first introduction to Gilles Deleuze (&  Félix Guattari’s?) concept of the rhizome as it applies to the (re)production of culture.  He developed it in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, which is the sequel to Anti-Oedipus.  I found this definition in the glossary of a postmodern look at Pokemon (via wikipedia), which was published in the online journal Rhizomes.  I now really want to read the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia.


“Rhizome: A prostrate or subterranean root-like stem emitting roots and usually producing leaves at its apex; a
—Oxford English Dictionary Online.

As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the originary source of “things” and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those “things.” “A rhizome, on the other hand, “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles” (D&G 7). Rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with no specific origin or genesis, for a “rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (D&G 25). The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and propagation.

In this model, culture spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or trickling downwards towards new spaces through fissures and gaps, eroding what is in its way. The surface can be interrupted and moved, but these disturbances leave no trace, as the water is charged with pressure and potential to always seek its equilibrium, and thereby establish smooth space.

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May 14, 2013 at 9:12 pm

Arguing with Johnathon Z. Smith around the definition of religion

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Reading within sociological Symbolic Interactionism has had me doubting the usefulness of creating definitions for religion that presume to work outside of a specific social context.  I am tempted to identify wholeheartedly with J.Z. Smith‘s criticism, below, but I don’t think it’s perfect.  And here I go down the rabbit hole again… from Smith:

I take it we can agree that the term “religion” is not an imperial category.  It is a second-order abstraction.  This changes our previous mode of discourse.  While it is possible to speak of theorizing about religion in general, it is impossible to “do it” or “believe it” or be normative or descriptive with respect to it.  Ways of meaningful speaking of first-order phenomena have become impossibly conjoined to a second-order abstraction resulting, at the very least, in misplaced concreteness.  What meaning, then, can the word “religion” have in such a situation?

College catalogs and college-level textbooks display two chief understandings.  The first employs the language of religion and postulates some essence of religion (usually vaguely defined in terms of ultimacy or transcendence) which becomes manifest in particular historical or geographical traditions or artifacts.  However, the mechanism of the “manifestation” is rarely exhibited, and the ubiquity of the alleged essence is not much insisted on after the opening chapter or first lecture in the introductory course.

[… goes on to sketch the quality of “religious” …]

It is we, that is to say, the academy, who fill these definitions with content or meaning, who give them status, who employ them as part of our language.  It is we in the academy who imagine kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders, families, and genera–life, after all, is lived only at the level of species or individuals.  As Herb Fingarette wrote on another topic some years ago: “Home is always home for someone…. There is no absolute home in general.”  Mutatis mutandis religion in general. (Smith, J. Z. “‘Religion’ and ‘Religious Studies’: No Difference at All,” published variously and available here.)

Smith seems to strip the social dimension of experience from reality by creating a false dichotomy between “imperial categories” and “second order abstractions,” which he works to undermine by equating them with a Platonic-like absolute.   His claim that life is lived “only at the level of species or individuals” and what it implies seems too clean to me.  Yes, there is no absolute Platonic ideal of “religion,” but surely individuals and species are, to a certain extent, also examples of “misplaced concreteness” as well?  To be blunt, the seeming greater reality of “imperial categories” is no more or less than “second order abstractions” — that one seems more real than the other is a matter of tempo and point of view.  Around the edges, where individuality is constructed socially or where we examine the physical material stuff of bodies, their order, their replication — is there anything here any more concrete?  The abortion debate certainly seems to underline that our cultural definition of what constitutes an individual is not clear.  Perhaps I overstretch.

Let’s look at the simple metaphor that compares “home for someone” with “absolute home in general” — this is a false dichotomy.  There is home for one person, but that person’s idea of home is contingent on other ideas and experiences of home, and there are fuzzy, interlinked social clouds of ideas of home around any one expression of home.  That, in a frozen moment of time, there are physical manifestations that are “home” do not mean that the reality of homes is anchored in physical space or even directly observable behavior.  That there is no cosmic dictionary to provide us with “absolute home in general” does not invalidate the usefulness of observing how humanity across cultures creates environments around themselves and their families, constructs spaces of physical shelter and security, etc.  Nor is this sort of abstract thinking the exclusive domain of the academic.  Any brush with difference is an occasion for this sort of reflection.  A sheltered individual raised in an American suburb exposed to a Bedouin’s tent or a hobo camp or a commune — any individual who finds many differing examples of “home for someone” begins to reflect on what and why each of these constitute “home,” even if they may not be capable of articulating clearly what this “home” concept is.  I assume our collective tendency toward hard ontological categories is an artifact of our cognition and is intimately related to language.

That “religion” is much more difficult to approach than “home” seems appropriate.  I find myself leaning toward an existentialist approach and am tempted to locate “religion” within the fuzzy-edged social space of humanity coping with mortality, being in time, and the fluidity of language/meaning and identity.  I am not prepared to give “religion” an absolute definition.  Like the discussion of “home,” I think that the social function of clear definitions is relevant only within bounded social contexts — there are not absolute languages (languages that function outside of specific social contexts).

The social context of “religion” is not just the academy, and I disagree that the academy somehow created “religion,” though certainly it has shaped understandings of it.  Rather, I think “religion” has come about in response to multiculturalism — in response to the need to describe different approaches to common circumstances.  This is sort of half-baked, I know.  I need to think on it.

“While it is possible to speak of theorizing about religion in general, it is impossible to ‘do it’ or ‘believe it’ or be normative or descriptive with respect to it.”  I think I have to largely agree to this if one assumes that the goal of “religion in general” is an absolute Truth.  As I said, there is no absolute language.  Even mathematics, the great God of the empiricists, assumes discrete entities belied by time and scale.  However, I try to avoid creating false dichotomies, and I don’t believe in the dream of founding my ideas in some sort of bedrock of absolute Truth — Russell and Gödel are the cautionary tale.  I think there are human experiences that are widely common (if never absolutely so) and that outpace language’s ability to bridge cultural divides, but that doesn’t stop us from working in the interesting interstice between ‘religion for someone’ and ‘absolute religion in general.’  Perhaps this is akin to Wittgenstein’s “of these we must be silent […] if it seems that we have talked about them […], we should deeply investigate what has been said and realize that that which cannot have been said was only shown.”  The acknowledgement that there is something that cannot be said is a beginning and a challenge.

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March 21, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Odds & Ends: Articles on Nietzsche, Science & Genetic Altruism

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I’ve been reading a very helpful article on Nietzsche’s political and moral philosophy by Brian Leiter and Edward N. Zalta (ed.) from the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  My interest in Nietzsche most recently relates to his influence on Austin Osman Spare, Hugo Ball, and (perhaps indirectly) Andrew Chumbley.  I had started by jumping headfirst into Zarathustra, but I found myself in argumentative cul-de-sacs frequently.  Backtracking and reading the article thoroughly for some perspective first seems a much better idea.  So far, I am irritated by the seeming contradiction in Nietzsche’s insistence that “values” are essential (e.g. the value implied by the phrase “higher men”) with his systematic destruction of every shared perspective from which values can be discerned.

In other reading, I came across an interesting essay, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences, by Eugene Wigner.  The gist is basically: “fundamentally, we do not know why our [mathematically-expressed physics] theories work so well. Hence, their accuracy may not prove their truth and consistency.”  It’s a variation on the same unease with the philosophical underpinnings of mathematics that drove Russell and Whitehead to write Principia Mathematica, only Wigner has examined the idea that mathematical ideas appeal to scientists studying physical phenomenon in part because of their beauty — their usefulness seeming improbable and only being proved later.  It’s yet another reminder of the difference between “reality” and the limitation of scientific models to represent that reality.

Finally, here’s an article on rats displaying altruistic behavior in an experimental setting.  Paul Ree and George Price cheer; Nietzsche, not so much.

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January 9, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Gary Snyder on Art, Religion & Language

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In the introduction of Imagining Language, I came across this: “Gary Snyder’s recognition of languages as ‘naturally evolved wild systems.’ ‘So language does not impose order on a chaotic universe, but reflects its own wildness back.'”  I found the concept of language as “wild” to be very interesting and challenging.  For several years, I have been beating myself up over my own insatiable, obsessive love affair with books.  My self-criticism is that I have sacrificed my own internal wilderness — my sense of intuition and other non-rational ways of being as well as my kinship with the linguistically silent external world of forests, pain, physical desire, etc.  To hear language described as wild, putting this guilty pleasure of reading and writing on a spectrum with the healthful reconnection with the forest that I never seem to manage… it is startling.  I am tempted to use it to justify my guilty habit of words, but I think it serves only to point more strongly at the mystery that I have been circling where words are balanced by silence and the two intertwine.

In trying to learn more about Gary Snyder and his ideas surrounding the wild nature of language, I found an interview with him published in the the Paris Review of Poetry in 1996.  Here are some fragments:

There’s no question that spending time with your own consciousness is instructive. You learn a lot. You can just watch what goes on in your own mind […] I think anyone who does this comes to realize that we have a very powerful visual imagination and that it is very easy to go totally into visual realms where you are walking around in a landscape or where any number of things can be happening with great vividness. This taught me something about the nature of thought and it led me to the conclusion–in spite of some linguists and literary theorists of the French ilk–that language is not where we start thinking. We think before language, and thought-images come into language at a certain point. We have fundamental thought processes that are prelinguistic. Some of my poetry reaches back to that.


I think language is, to a great extent, biological. And this is not a radical point of view. In fact, it is in many ways an angle of thought that has come back into serious consideration in the world of scientific linguistics right now. So, if it’s biological, if it’s part of our biological nature to be able to learn language, to master complex syntax effortlessly by the age of four, then it’s part of nature, just as our digestion is part of nature, our limbs are part of nature. So, yes, in that sense it is. Now, of course, language takes an enormous amount of cultural shaping, too, at some point. But the structures of it have the quality of wild systems. Wild systems are highly complex, cannot be intellectually mastered–that is to say they’re too complex to master simply in intellectual or mathematical terms–and they are self-managing and self-organizing. Language is a self-organizing phenomenon. Descriptive linguistics come after the fact, an effort to describe what has already happened. So if you define the wild as self-managing, self-organizing, and self-propagating, all natural human languages are wild systems. The imagination, we can say, for similar reasons, is wild. But I would also make the argument that there is a prelinguistic level of thought [I agree]. Not always, but a lot of the time. And for some people more than other people. I think there are people who think more linguistically, and some who think more visually, or perhaps kinesthetically, in some cases.


Interviewer: Let me quickly ask you about your book of selected poems. No Nature, as a title, obviously takes many aback. It seems apocalyptic until you realize that it’s a kind of Buddhist joke: the true nature is no nature, the nature of one’s self is no nature. Is that correct?

Snyder: Yes, and it’s also a critical-theory joke.

Interviewer: In what sense?

Snyder: In that some folks hold that everything is a social construction, and I add that society is a natural construction, including the industrial and the toxic.

I am disappointed by Snyder’s use of “nature.”  I have made the skeptical argument about nature before that Snyder is referring to humorously in the last exchange, but I think I have come to see nature as referring to something sacral or set-apart.  Humanity participates in nature passively, but I think we have been separated from it culturally by our out-of-balance destruction.  I realize that our destructiveness is strictly “natural” — that nature involves epoch-ending destruction —  but the word “nature” ceases to have any pragmatic meaning at all if it is made elastic enough to signify everything.  A line has to be drawn around the meaning of nature somewhere.  I choose to draw that line so that it excludes many of our worst cultural habits from the realm of the natural.  Far from further distancing humanity from nature, I feel that “setting apart” nature is an act of stating a clear destination that human culture must strive towards.  Given Snyder’s wibbly-wobbly use of the word, I’m not sure that his assertion that “language is natural” contains an underlying meaning beyond “everything is natural.”

Moving on, Snyder also made some interesting observations about the relationship between art and religion:

I don’t think art makes a religion. I don’t think it helps you teach your children how to say thank you to the food, how to view questions of truth and falsehood, or how not to cause pain or harm to others. Art can certainly help you explore your own consciousness and your own mind and your own motives, but it does not have a program to do that, and I don’t think it should have a program to do that.

Interviewer: So you mainly draw that line on ethical grounds?

Snyder: Well, there’s ethics, there is philosophy, there is the spirit of devotion, and there is simply its capacity to become a cultural soil, a territory within which you transmit a way of being, which religion has a very strong role in. And then there is the other end of religious practice and Buddhist practice, which is to leave art behind. Which is to be able to move into the territory of the completeness and beauty of all phenomena. You really enter the world, you don’t need art because everything is remarkable, fresh, and amazing.

Interviewer: So how do you keep writing?

Snyder: Because you don’t want to live in that realm very much of the time. We live in the realm of forms, we should act in the realm of forms. Jim Dodge and I once went to a Morris Graves exhibit in Oakland, where he was arguing with me about this Buddhist position in regard to art. I was saying, “You don’t need art in a certain sense, Jim.” So he went to the Morris Graves exhibit looking at the Morris Graves paintings, and I went through it looking at the spaces between the paintings with as much attention, and pointing out wonderful little hairline cracks in the plaster, the texture of the light, and so forth. There is a point you can make that anything looked at with love and attention becomes very interesting.

Interviewer: So you think people should read the margins of your books?

Snyder: This is an oral art. They should listen to the unsaid words that resonate around the edge of the poem.

Interviewer: Just as Chinese poetry is full of empty words, deliberately empty words for the ch’i, the sort of breath, to circulate through.

That passage starts with Snyder’s attempt to sketch some definitions for “art” and “religion,” which immediately seem to sort of overlap and become a bit confused.  It is interesting, because he’s trying to make a case that the two are separate but seems to dwell more on where they overlap.  I would argue that good art effects in the viewer a transformation that allows for a “move into the territory of the completeness and beauty of all phenomena.”  That is what I get from my favorite poets, but I also understand art’s power to move us in very specific ways.  Personally, I think that the boundaries of religion, art, and language are going to become very blurry around the phrase “ways of being.”

There — in those last two sentences.  Do you see it?  The Void again.  The Void and “a sort of breath.”  I feel like a paranoiac seeing patterns.

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December 5, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Posted in Poems, Reading & Links

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Raw Journal – Winter 2011

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“When the last thought is reached it is found to be the first that arises in consciousness. This is the sense of “I”, which, because it is the source of all that is conceivable, has its origins in and therefore must be the Inconceivable, i.e. God, the Absolute. This idea leads directly to the concept of the New Sexuality which is basic to Zos Kia Cultus.” – Kenneth Grant, Images and Oracles of AOS, p52. Compare to “I” in Chumbley’s Azoetia.

Spare’s KIA is a species of divine emptiness from which inspiration springs. It is the state of mind that allows for the intelligence of things to manifest (whether as the direct intercession of external spirits or via unconscious inferences does not matter). It is the Void that Speaks. LYKEIOS originated as a reference to the wind that issues forth from caves or openings in the Earth, and reference to this substance was made in relation to the intoxicating fumes said to assist the oracles of Delphi. It is Breath from the Void. This Void is point of origin for the Muse. Sexually, it is male and female best represented as the moment of conception when both are conjoined.

Sacred Alphabet and its Houses seem to be variations on states of unknowing, or an apoestetic* collection of yearning for unity (thus alphabet of desire).

Silence that speaks… breath from chaos… demanding knowledge from emptiness… Alogos (see Zos Kia)… Lykeios (and Bansuri) as wind-wolf… Rumi’s reed flute

* “Apoestetic” is not a word.  I think I meant to combine ‘apo-‘ and ‘kinesthesia,’ thus “without knowledge of the movement of the body” (automatic drawing).  It’s likely that this is one of Chumbley’s or Semple’s neologisms that I picked up and corrupted.

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December 4, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Posted in Idle Thoughts

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Notes from Imagining Language

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The anthology Imagining Language, compiled by Jed Rasula & Steve McCaffreyis fascinating and massive.  I can see why used paperbacks are going for $85+ Thanks to MH, I’ve managed to get a library copy over the winter break.

Here’s some notes and excerpts:

From the Introduction:

“… by language we mean the cognitive ground of subjectivity as well as the social texture of community.”

“Whether the linguistic sign is taken as a building block of the universe or as an alphabetic unit, there is a tantalizing threshold at which signification reverts to noise and vice versa, where the apparently insignificant looms into imaginative consequence.”

“The socially delinquent compass that the French paradigmatic is not sufficient for a language imagined under the sign of the clinamen — a model that retains Gary Snyder’s recognition of languages as ‘naturally evolved wild systems.’ ‘So language does not impose order on a chaotic universe, but reflects its own wildness back.”

“As the ‘end of the book’ is declared [because of the Internet], our authors remind us that the book was never fully distinguishable from an atmospheric and environmental background — the “book of nature” and the “cosmic script” — nor can language be extricated from the computational complexity of the brain and the imaginal manifold of the body. To say of language that there’s no getting out of it is not a declaration of nihilistic entrapment, for language is above all the transcultural image of flexibility; of provisionality and commitment, perplexity and security, certainty and wonder. To wonder about language is to pass into that realm where we can imagine anything at all.”

– Jed Rasula & Steve McCaffrey

Jan Nepomucen Miller would have loved the emoticon… for that matter, I wonder what Futurist poets would have made of the pragmatic corruption of language in digital media — from ASCII art to abbreviated text speech.

Lookup Malevich’s Suprematist paintings and compare to A.N. Chicherin’s “Quadratic Skaz” as well as Chumbley’s geometric art in Azoetia.

Look up Eugene Jolas’s journal ‘transition.’

Interesting neologisms from ‘transition’:
returningties (James Joyce)- eternities; cycles turning upon themselves; the ouroborous.

paideuma (Leo Frobenius)- ensemble of psychic forces governing a culture; soul of a culture.

readie (Bob Brown)- machine for reading (Brown’s idea anticipated computers)

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December 4, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Posted in Reading & Links

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Hugo Ball & the Secret Language

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Wikipedia has sent me down another rabbit hole.  This time it’s Hugo Ball and Dada, with this line from the Austin Osman Spare article: “Spare’s work is contemporaneous with Hugo Ball’s attempts ‘to rediscover the evangelical concept of the ‘word’ (logos) as a magical complex image.'”  What I found was that Ball did seem to have much in common with Spare.  Most notably, both Ball and Spare were heavily influenced by Nietzsche at about the same time circa WWI, and both went on to conclude (presumably after doubting traditional structures of truth and meaning thanks to Nietzsche) that profound spiritual transformation can only take place on a non-rational or subconscious level.  Ball’s sound poetry and its underlying assumptions about language mirror Spare’s automatic drawing and alphabet of desire in fascinating ways.  Both Ball and Spare have been praised as anticipating the Surrealists.

I found an essay that has served as a decent introduction to Ball’s spiritual ideas: Religion in Flux: Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings: Dada’s Prophets of the Word (PDF) by CJ Hoffman, a masters student in English [this link may not work, as it appears that this PDF is not being intentionally shared with Google’s pilfering spider].

Let us return to that introductory moment: standing before the crowd, sweat running down his forehead, throat spouting out shadows of the unimaginable, Ball has finally become his own priest, written his own secret language, and released his own inner harmonies of the word: D A D A.  Reflecting upon the moment years later in his dairies (and, like several of the original Dadas, claiming he coined the word), Ball would claim that he named Dada when Dionysius the Aereopagite, a Catholic saint who spent years of his life in the desert on top of a pole in search of God, called upon him twice.  For Ball, Dada was a blaring desperate cry out to God, his own version of waiting seven years in the desert for a moment to share a word with Him, and that his poetry and performance were alchemical linguistic experimentation in search of His ear, in hopes of bringing himself and others to that mystical moment as well.


In his introduction to Flight Out of Time, John Elderfield notes that, for Ball, “the ‘power’ of words necessitates care in their use and that art generally is something irrational, primitive, and complex that speaks a ‘secret language'” (xxvii).  Ball, after his performance as the Magic Bishop, came to realize that he might not have given the care necessary to the magical, complex, and irrational “secret language” that he was dealing with.  That night, he fell under the weight of the words, suffering from a nervous breakdown and spiritual exhaustion (Steinke 178). [Hoffman 27]

Ball’s attempt to bypass the rational mind entirely and speak directly to a primitive spiritual latency via a secret language is precisely what Spare was attempting with his use of sigilization and the alphabet of desire.

Beyond the specific similarities with Spare, Ball seemed to be dealing with the same issues of Mystery and “Breath of the Void” that I have been exploring.  For example, Hoffman points out an instance in Hall’s early poetry in which he writes “If it’s true that the poet/Is blessed, in hours such as these,/To hear even silent speech/And to feel it inwardly…”  Hoffman points out that the elipses in the poem is actually s symbolic representation of “silent speech” and seeks to make a space within the mind of the reader to “feel it inwardly” (15).  This has rich comparisons with Anne Carson’s theme of ‘speech that falls silent,’ which I touched on here.  Ball’s work — and Dada in general — also has interesting relationship to the experience of foreign/unknown language, which is a subject treated extensively by contemporary artist Xu Bing.

Hear some of Hugo Ball’s sound poems performed.

Hugo Ball is only half of the fascinating leads from the wiki article.  The other lead is this: “Walter Benjamin’s thesis that ‘Mediation, which is the immediacy of all mental communication, is the fundamental problem of linguistic theory, and if one chooses to call this immediacy magic, then the primary problem of language is its magic.”  MH is kindly bringing me a copy of the expensive o.o.p. anthology where this is cited so that I can explore further (Jed Rasula, Steve McCaffery, Imagining Language: An Anthology, MIT Press, 2001).

Fragments for later: Look up Nietzsche’s “Dionysian” concept, which Hoffman describes as “the necessary and revolutionary creative and irrational impulse of man” and also the concept of “Logocentrism” (19).  Have a look at Kandinsky’s “On the Spiritual in Art.”  Compare Spare and Chumbley’s eccentric and mystical use of language with Nietzsche’s criticism, which Hoffman describes as “words must create effect on their own and immediately. without ‘equating what is unequal’ with a system of ‘canonical and obligatory’ tropes and metaphors” (25).

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December 3, 2011 at 12:30 am