Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘Borges

Thursday Thursday Thursday

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* A filibuster too far? Granting that no one has ever been thrown out of office for underestimating the attention span of the American people, filibustering a jobs bill at a time of 10% (official) unemployment seems like a really bad idea for Republicans interested in capitalizing on their apparent political momentum. Of course, this is the same party that spent eight months needlessly blocking the appointment of a woman confirmed today 94-2, so obviously we’re playing by different playbooks here.

* More bad policy that is also bad politics: the Republican “shadow budget” apparently calls for an end to Medicare. I’m so old I can remember when the Republicans were pretending they loved Medicare last summer. Can Democrats find a way to miss this pitch?

* The White House is how quietly telling people they support the course of action that is obvious to everyone.

* Visit Kcymaerxthaere, “a parallel universe that shares, to some degree, our physical planet.” Via MetaFilter, where a commenter notes this is reminiscent of the plot of Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

* Also at MetaFilter: great moments in prank wills.

* Vu and Kottke both have articles about proposed revisions to evolutionary theory, the first highlighting enviromentalistic biases in traditional evolutionary theory and the second suggesting horizontal gene transfer has been the dominant mode of evolution for most of life’s history on Earth.

* And today’s saddest headline: ‘Ancient tribal language becomes extinct as last speaker dies.’

Infinite Summer #5: Maps and Territories

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Anyone who has been in graduate school as long as I have recognizes a reference to maps and territories immediately:

If we were able to take as the finest allegory of simulation the Borges tale where the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory (but where, with the decline of the Empire this map becomes frayed and finally ruined, a few shreds still discernible in the deserts – the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction, bearing witness to an imperial pride and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, rather as an aging double ends up being confused with the real thing), this fable would then have come full circle for us, and now has nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.

Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.

What destroys the Interdependence Day Y.D.A.U. game of Eschaton—which I must admit is another personal favorite sequence in the novel—is exactly this Baudrillardian sense of (Pemulis’s words) “map-not-territory equivocationary horseshit” (337), i.e., the postmodern inability to distinguish between maps and territories that is, in the end, the inability to locate “territory” at all. For Pemulis this kind of cognitive breakdown threatens our ability to think at all:

Pemulis howls that Lord is in his vacillation appeasing Ingersoll in Ingersoll’s effort to fatally fuck with the very breath and bread of Eschaton. Players themselves can’t be valid targets. Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Payers are part of the apparatus of the game. They’re part of the map. It’s snowing on the players but not on the territory. They’re part of the map, not the clusterfucking territory. You can only launch against the territory. Not against the map. It’s like the one ground-rule boundary that keeps Eschaton from degenerating into chaos. Eschaton gentlemen is about logic and axiom and mathematical probity and discipline and verity and order. You do not get points for hitting anybody real. Only the gear that maps what’s real…

…and Pemulis shouts across that it’s so totally beside the point it doesn’t matter, that the reason players aren’t explicitly exempted in the ESCHAX.DIR is that their exemption is what makes Eschaton and its axioms fucking possible in the first place. … Pemulis says because otherwise use your heads otherwise nonstrategic emotions would get aroused and Combatants would be whacking balls at each other’s physical persons all the time and Eschaton wouldn’t even be possible in its icily elegant game-theoretical form. He’s stopped jumping up and down, at least, Troeltsch observes. Players’ exemption from strikes goes without saying, Pemulis says; it’s like preaxiomatic. Pemulis tells Lord to consider what he’s doing very carefully, because from where Pemulis is standing Lord looks to be willing to very possibly compromise Eschaton’s map for all time. (338)

It’s not hard to see Pemulis’s impotent, rage-filled anxiety over the fate of Eschaton’s objective purity as, in miniature, the reaction of traditional Enlightenment rationality to its challenge from an increasingly hegemonic postmodernity that is characterized by cognitive decentering, indeterminacy, irrationality, and labyrinthine self-referentiality. Pemulis is not the first to shout that we must build floodwalls against certain lines of speculation and deny the possibility of alternate subjectivities for fear of total cognitive chaos (whether said chaos is named postmodernism, social constructivism, cultural relativism, theory, or something else entirely)—to claim, in other words, that only a sufficiently abstractive and “objective” faux universality, the terms of which have always been agreed upon in advance, properly counts as Thought in the first place.

Two further thoughts emerge: first, that this anxiety about maps and territories is clearly a central problem for the reader of Infinite Jest as well, who, I think, must struggle to stay afloat in a narrative whose irony is confusingly unstable, with satire that is constantly threatening to devolve into parody and even to mere gag. 390 pages in, I find that I am still trying to get a firm grip on what is “real” and what is “not real” in this text, that is, what is best understood through a conventionally realist interpretive lens and what is better described as hyperbolic and hyperreal in the style that James Wood famously named hysterical realism.

And second, that the opposition between maps and territories laid out in the Eschaton section is central to one of the more memorable turns of phrase that DFW uses throughout IJ: the endless variations on “eliminate his own map for good” as a euphemism for suicide. That we ourselves are maps, not territories suggests, on the one hand, a idealist vision of the universe in which objective reality takes a backseat to our subjective understanding of it and on the other a psychoanalytic framing of consciousness itself as essentially false and illusionary—the latter take driven home at the end of the section by Hal’s need to feel his own face to see if he is wincing (342). What do we do if consciousness itself is a simulacrum without a referent, and all self-reflection therefore a kind of hopeless mise en abyme?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Late Night

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Late night.

* ‘Our Phony Economy’: Why measuring GDP doesn’t tell us much of anything we need to know. In Harper’s, via MeFi.

The purpose of an economy is to meet human needs in such a way that life becomes in some respect richer and better in the process. It is not simply to produce a lot of stuff. Stuff is a means, not an end. Yet current modes of economic measurement focus almost entirely on means. For example, an automobile is productive if it produces transportation. But today we look only at the cars produced per hour worked. More cars can mean more traffic and therefore a transportation system that is less productive. The medical system is the same. The aim should be healthy people, not the sale of more medical services and drugs. Now, however, we assess the economic contribution of the medical system on the basis of treatments rather than results. Economists see nothing wrong with this. They see no problem that the medical system is expected to produce 30 to 40 percent of new jobs over the next thirty years. “We have to spend our money on something,” shrugged a Stanford economist to the New York Times. This is more insanity. Next we will be hearing about “disease-led recovery.” To stimulate the economy we will have to encourage people to be sick so that the economy can be well.

* Springfield Punx Simpsonizes celebrities and superheroes. At right: Tobias Fünke.

* Al Giordano says Tim Kaine is growing on him for VP.

The number one rule in choosing a vice presidential nominee is “first, do no harm.” If you’re a presidential nominee, you don’t want a running mate that will distract from you, commit gaffes, speak off-message, or that secretly thinks he or she is too good to be number two.

And the second rule is, “then, do some good.” You want a VP that will reinforce your messages and make voters more comfortable with you.

Kaine is so far passing both tests with flying colors.

I’m not there yet—as I’ve mentioned before, just about everything I hear about Kaine turns me off—but Al’s instincts have never steered me wrong. I guess we’ll see.

* What are the essential reads in literary fantasy? Personally I’d have to start my list with heavy-hitters from the twentieth century (and my bookshelf) like Kafka, Borges, García Márquez, and Calvino…

* Mission accomplished, corporations! Wal-Mart employee voluntarily enforces her entirely false belief that “copyright lasts forever.”

* And will Burn After Reading, the new Coen Brothers comedy, be the new greatest movie of all time? All signs point to yes:

Short Cuts

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Short links this morning because I’m self-consciously going into manic mode today to try and get a paper done.

* America still needs a hero (woo ooo): they’re actually trying to make a Short Circuit 3.

* “It’s not that the genie is out of the bottle — it’s that 100 genies are out of the bottle,” said Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. Normally known for optimistic forecasts of lowering oil prices, Mr. Yergin’s firm now says the price could rise to $150 a barrel this year.

The world’s diminished spare production capacity remains the strongest single catalyst for high prices, Mr. Yergin says. The world’s safety cushion — the amount of readily available oil that could be pumped in a moment of crisis — is now around two million barrels a day, according to most estimates. That’s just 2.3% of daily demand, and nearly all of the safety cushion is in one country, Saudi Arabia. Everyone else is pretty much pumping all they can, which makes the world vulnerable to political or other shocks. Via Washington Monthly.

* And at McSweeney’s, Borges teaches self-defense.

Written by gerrycanavan

May 7, 2008 at 12:44 pm

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