Reading: Sean Carroll — The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself

Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself made it onto my reading list because of another theoretical physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, who reviewed it mid-2016. I’m reading it now because I need my regular fix of sciencey, astrophysics stuff and it seemed to compliment the other stuff I’m reading at the moment (also all the other science books on my list are textbook affairs with commensurate eye-bleeding price).

I have to say from the outset I’m not the imaginary audience for The Big Picture, nor am I especially enjoying it. I wish I was because I enjoy the hell out of what he writes about, and appreciate he can do hard science without pissing all over philosophy and the humanities, unlike quite a few popular atheist science bros. He manages to rope in Wittgenstein (who is always wholly relevant and informative in any situation), my dear favourite Leibniz gets a go for calculus, as well as best of all possible worlds, and principle of sufficient reason; he even manages to have an entire chapter on gender and identity and I’m showing my age here but I’m still pleasantly surprised when I see how unremarkable these matters have become — even in the last decade, in fields not explicitly feminism/queer/gender studies/etc.

So why am I not enjoying it so much? It could be the recurrence of disproving Laplace’s and/or Descartes’ demons, or explaining from extrapolations of different parts of physics the impossibility of (or at least extremely unlikely) things like mind-body duality, having a soul, life after death, god. Which makes it an invaluable book for people who themselves have questions and doubts about these subjects, but from my personal experience kinda useless in persuading even the most casual of ‘spiritual’ types to give up their astrology.

I used to be a much more diligent atheist, until atheism was taken over by white hetero bro New Atheism colonialism and ruined it for the rest of us. I like Caroll in this regard because he isn’t absolutist. Paraphrasing here, he says while nothing we see or know about the universe requires a god, nonetheless that does not preclude one (or many), just that if there was a god or gods, they would have to adhere to the laws of physics like the rest of us do — as far as we can tell by the current, pretty bloody good state of our understanding of physics. He also says that irrespective of the existence or not of god or gods, religion serves a cultural purpose spanning millennia that saying “God doesn’t exist, because physics” isn’t going to miraculously cause mass conversion to atheism.

For a white, hetero male writing on the Big Questions — historically the domain of self-congratulatory alpha males — he’s done a banger of a job of steering through all that anachronistic baggage. But steer through that he does, stopping off along the way to describe then disabuse us of what’s fundamentally a Christian, or Christian-derived view of the universe.

Maybe it’s because he tries to cover so much that it feels to me he paraphrases philosophers’ and scientists’ ideas so they read like, “close enough”, as with describing Lucretius’ concept of the clinamen (which I don’t think he actually named, but was what he was describing), or Leibniz’ ideas. Or maybe it’s that he holds on somewhere to an uncritical belief that physics is above all this and is the one neutral — as well as correct — way of viewing and understanding the world. The correct part, sure, as far as we can tell now, but neutral? I wonder if some of the hostility directed at 20th century philosophers by scientists (which again, he isn’t doing) is because the logic in pointing out that language creates the world is pretty solid. Whether it’s Wittgenstein, Derrida, or others, even after throwing out whatever bollocks they wrote, we’re left with this. And to have a bunch of soft humanities academics repeatedly and in various ways tell the hard scientists their rationality and neutrality is dubious at best, because language is a limit on describing and experiencing the world, is going to get messy.

It’s not even a question of agreeing or not with him. Newtonian physics? Yup, same for Einstein’s relativity, general or special. Quantum mechanics also. It might be that I find the experimental side of things lacking by comparison to the theoretical. For example observations of cosmic microwave background by COBE, WMAP, and Planck observatories currently provide the best evidence for, and more or less confirm the Big Bang theory, specifically the inflationary model. Questions such as “What is the universe?” “Where did it come from?” “What was there before it existed?” while not definitively answered are comprehensively narrowed down. The discovery of the predicted Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider and concurrent lack of discovery of new particles also set limits on possibilities, or at least pushed various other competing theories to do some heavy re-theorising. But mentions of these experiments seem sparse compared to Descartes and his cogito ergo sum. More of the former and less of the latter would have moved things along far more enjoyably.

But maybe all this, multiverses, the Planck era, macroscale quantum theory are too advanced for the intended reader, like introducing all the exceptions to the rules before explaining why the rules as are they are and where they came from. For my imagined intended audience, then: it’s comprehensive and brings together a lot of threads of physics from the history of Western science and philosophy that make it a good general introduction. It’s kinda boring though. I’d rather read Sabine Hossenfelder or Ethan Siegel, whenever they get around to writing a book.

Finally, the history of Western science since the Enlightenment has been one marked by arrogance, overreach and the worst of humanity given legitimacy through its declaration of rationalism. And one marked by frequent declarations of , “Yeah, we learnt our ethical lesson, we’ve got it right this time,” before cocking it up again. I’m not sure there can be a grand Theory of Everything, which is what Carroll is proposing. Like Mark Zuckerberg imagining he can reduce people and their desires to code, or transhumanists imagining they can upload their minds, it speaks of a smallness in understanding the world and a meanness in how they value it. There is always something that remains, that cannot be assimilated, a residue this reductionism cannot account for and cannot consume.

Reading: Jo Walton — What Makes This Book So Great

Jo Walton. Not a writer I’d give to just anyone. “Frances! I want sci-fi to read!” “Iain Banks!” I will say, “With or without an M.” Jo Walton though, you have to do some prep-work first. Or love libraries. Or anyway read a lot. Iain Banks you can go from “What is ‘Book’?” to guzzling the Culture series in a matter of hours; Jo Walton, you need the padding first that comes from some form of literary guzzling.

Jo Walton. One of my rare favourites. Among Others was first, four years ago. Got my dubiously prestigious Book of the Year. The Just City and The Philosopher Kings. Whatever I might have written here (without clicking those links, I’d like to remember it as favourable), my memory of them is of books I feel I’ve read more than once; books for when someone I know will appreciate this kind of literature, I will say “Jo Walton. You should read her”. Which is the heart of What Makes This Book So Great.

Jo Walton, reader of more than one book a day. Sure, if it’s Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, I can sort of keep up — for a day. No endurance here. She’s a beast. Reads like that and writes like that. This is a collection of her blog posts from Tor.com from 2008-2011. The Contents run for six pages. It’s like Among Others where she references fifty or sixty — no, 169! books from the history of science-fiction and fantasy, and manages to comment on all of them all the while carrying on a story not quite a spectacularly depraved as The Wasp Factory.

I sold a box of books recently. fifty-ish. Exchanged them for credit at Saint George’s. Books for books. It worked out to be around 5:1. So I have ten or so new ones I’m dealing to, trying to make a dent in my wish list. I shuffled potential candidates for an afternoon, and this was one that made the final cut. I’ve finished two others before even beginning to write this, slightly out of synch here. Not to worry. Jo Walton is a brilliant, sensitive writer whose vocation fits perfectly her love. I get a mad kick out of reading her for the transcendental moments when her ideas riot in improbable, literature-saturated thought experiments. She starts with an essay / blog post on re-reading, the joy of certitude when returning to a favourite versus the treacherous possibility of disappointment in reading something new; and conversely old favourites that now reveal themselves as thin and lacking; new works that open entire worlds. I read her and think of my own re-readings, think of books that have moved me, changed me.

Reading: Jo Walton — My Real Children

Jo Walton’s Among Others was my fiction Book of the Year in 2012. A new author for me then, when I was consciously moving to read women sci-fi and fantasy authors and trying to expand beyond my triumvirate of Iain Banks, China Miéville, and Charles Stross. Among Others was a work that barely seemed fantasy from the perspective of the narrative, yet the way of writing belonged undoubtably to that, even if ignoring the sublime homage that it is to libraries and science-fiction and fantasy from the ’60s and ’70s.

Surprisingly for me, I hadn’t then gone on to order all of Walton’s previous works, but as soon as I found out she had a new one coming out, I placed it on pre-order. My Real Children arrived on my bookshelf a while ago, though I’ve only now begun it. I have to dispense with the cover first.

Dasniya looked at it, then me, with a look of ‘What on earth are you reading? I hope you’re not going Romance Novel on me.’ I cringed. I cringed when I saw it in Saint George’s also. It is truly horrible in a sepia stock art and Photoshop text gradient way, long before taking in the image itself. A willowy young woman, superimposed over herself in two different poses, lace dress exposing the back of her neck and arms. Lens flare. Yes, lens flare. I’m surprised there’s not a delicate downy feather floating somewhere. It does a massive disservice to the book, even though it’s the story of a woman whose life seems to have split into two histories some time post-World War Two.

Compare it with the hard skiffy of Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice cover done by artist John Harris, a cover that recognises the content within, represents it uniquely, and even celebrates it, knowing what a substantial work it is and proud to say so. Walton’s – and I’ve only begun reading it – I suspect in its own way is no less substantial; she is a formidable writer and storyteller, yet the cover is a careless throwaway, disrespectful to both the writing and the author. It’s also condescending: fantasy is feminine and doesn’t need care or attention. Admittedly also Leckie’s cover plays into the hard sci-fi trope of masculine covers; contra that I could argue it represents its place in the history of hard sci-fi and space opera, and acknowledges the authors and artists that come before by having such a cover, as well as accurately portraying the spacecraft in the story. Walton’s cover does no such thing. Such a cover does not contain the possibility of Miami being nuked, which certainly happens somewhere in the story.

Perhaps my grudge here is that there is a potential (and real in at least my case) audience for My Real Children that is identical to that of Ancillary Justice, but the cover is a very hard barrier to the audience of the latter picking it up (metaphorically or actually), and this barrier is rooted in what I can only describe as misogyny. And quite frankly, any publisher that hasn’t been following the past couple of years of what’s been going on on this topic in sci-fi and fantasy, done some serious reconsidering, and worked to address these problems has not been doing their job and deserves to be fired.

It’s curious for me that when I write about a book lately, I spend so much time on the cover. I love a good cover. I love seeing its spine on my bookshelf, the specific colour, font, paper, texture making it unique, and an especially good cover for me makes the book itself even better because it shows that somehow in the process of publishing it they got it right, and they really care about the book. A good cover is a work of love. (An aside: Walton writes about the various covers for Among Others.)

So, in the pages then. An old woman suffering from dementia, who imagines two different histories, and the changing physical structure of the home she lives in seems to bear out this reality. Or perhaps it’s just the confusion. We follow her back through time to post-war Oxford, where she is a contemporary of Wittgenstein. Yes, this is Walton at her most beloved for me. I’m reminded also of Iain Banks’ Transition. Besides her writing and choice of words, I am drawn to her for the small stories she tells. It’s not Rajaniemi’s solar system-spanning apocalypse with whole planets dropping into black holes, nor is the entirety of humanity and all life on earth at stake (despite Miami), yet there is a vastness in her stories of a single person, and remain science-fiction, and beautifully written science-fiction at that.

I have a short pause the next three days, so I am dedicating myself to single-mindedly enjoy one of the best authors around. It’s unlikely to shunt Ancillary Justice off my Book of the Year pedestal, but highly probably they’ll be sharing it.

Reading: Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen — Generic Singularity

Some months ago (Which tells you how much I’ve slipped on blogging what I’m reading), I was in Saint George’s picking up something or other and talking with Paul, and found myself holding a rather heavy slab of pages bound in starkly impressive yellow. A book on the philosophy of aesthetics, art, and artists by a Berlin artist, Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen. It wasn’t so expensive as far as heavy philosophical publications go, so I took it home. I’d been reading a bit on aesthetics at the time, so it seemed fitting.

I began reading it last night, after finishing with Hannu Rajaniemi, and did the usual “peruse the index and bibliography” finding plenty of the current philosophical idols, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, even Kristeva, Heidegger, Kant, Merleau-Ponty … Lacan … fucking Freud … ok, off to the table of contents then.

For a very long time I’ve had a simple, effective method to elucidate if an author is worth reading or is in fact full of shit. Germain Greer and Margaret Atwood are full of shit. Oh but their blahblah is so good and important and they are important writers, nay, National Treasures! They also happen to have made some extremely transphobic statements in the past that if they’d made such remarks about gays, lesbians, Jews, any other group whom we all have an articulate understanding of how they are stigmatised in society, we would always mention this in the same breath, just as we do with, say, Wagner and his anti-semitism. Yet it was perfectly acceptable in ’70s and ’80s feminism to advocate genocide for transgender people (largely at that time referring to trans women), and despite vast change and improvement, especially in the last decade, the level of stupidity emanating from people who should know better is tiresomely common. Hence my need for a simple, effective method of working out if a writer should be taken seriously, or if they’re ignorant, dangerous bigots: Has said person made transphobic statements or remarks, yes/no?

Which brings me to 2. OWN BEING. A. The intimacy of own being. 2. The monstrous body. 1. The sexual plane. of Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen Generic Singularity. ‘The monstrous body’. I have a little yawn. It’s as large a cliché – and misunderstanding – as ‘gender is performance’. A quote from Spinoza. I like Spinoza a lot. “No one has thus far determined what the body can do.” The lazy thing to do now in philosophy is to waste a few trees chanting ‘monstrous, monstrous’ until it forms a fetish in the utterer’s throat and one can feel all scatologically ‘edgy’. It’s become vanishingly rare in the current time of queer philosophy for any body that in some small way seems to jar against the claimed homogeneous norm to not be named monstrous and thus achieve awesomeness. My yawn at Spinoza and ‘monstrous’, and the conspicuous lack of female authors in the bibliography (around ten in total on fifteen pages of bibliography – or one for each Heidegger work cited) … well, we can see where this is going.

Page 65: “A sub-phenomenon is the question of transgendering.” I let out a “What the fuck!” right there. What exactly the fuck, Asmund, is ‘transgendering’? Oh, wait, let me continue! “These are instances where a man feels like a woman or a woman feels like a man and pursues this feeling to the point of altering his or her body through surgery, hormone treatments, name-change and clothing-change.” Which is where I put this waste of paper down and fight back the urge to spit. It’s the cis equivalent of mansplaining. (He then goes on to bizarrely conflate gender identity with sexuality, and later claims that neuroscience can differentiate male and female brains. I laugh a little at the mediocrity.)

I have no idea where he got the word transgendering from, but it’s not in common use on any of the queer, feminist, trans, anthropological, journalistic, human rights (and so on) websites and blogs I read, nor in any serious literature I can recall in around two decades of reading in this area. It does seem to be more associated with anti-trans sentiments, either of a right-wing or radical feminism perspective, which I think wasn’t the kind of ‘monstrous’ Asmund was aiming for.

The succinct point here is Asmund doesn’t know what he’s talking about by any reasonable measure when it comes to writing about transgender (bodies, issues, identities, legal and medical matters etc) and has merely co-opted the lives of transgender people of which he knows nothing about to push his own ‘edgy’, ‘radical’ philosophical aesthetic. This is bullshit, wrapped in academic language and propped up with two thousand years of western philosophers. And if he’s so wilfully completely incompetent when writing about trans people, we have to assume his incompetence on everything else he’s written. There are many, many brilliant works written in philosophy, on aesthetics, on art, on identity. This isn’t one of them. This is a work full of shit.

Reading: Bertrand Russell — In Praise of Idleness

Because all the books at the top of my reading list cost bonkers amounts for some incoherent reason, and simultaneously, none of my triumvirate of science-fiction writers have anything due for at least a few months, leaving me with the dread experience of considering labels on bottles as stimulating reading, except my eyes can’t focus on small blurriness, and further, all the philosophers I used to love (Deleuze, Derrida, I’m looking at you — or at least, your corpses), I find prattle on far too much about the boring continental philosopher standards of Marx and Freud, not to mention a dazzling absence of feminism (it’s easy to write about Man as the single, solitary experiencer of the universe when you aren’t a woman raising a child), so I’m in a bit of a conundrum, a bit of a fix.

Bertrand Russell, I choose you! Mostly for the title. Well, and he was a champion of Wittgenstein. who I still adore (probably for the comedy value in his unintentional bleakness), and who, it turns out, writing in the ’30s, was far more of a feminist and other things of equality and human rights than a good deal of philosophy since. One for positivism then. He does say some decidedly weird things though, which seem to come from taking the idea of analytic philosophy and logic a little too literally, and often entirely missing the messy parts of humanity, emotion, irrationality, selfishness and altruism, things that can’t be reduced to sensible conclusions. It’s quite embarrassing at times. His attack on Marxism was also lacking, though has some useful points to consider, given my next reading task (and task it is).

But anyway, idleness and useless knowledge. Yes. Much needed. In abundance would be satisfactory.

These — especially for me the latter of the two — are often points of private and public contention. For example, what is the point and use of my long-standing interest in Central Asia? My interest in China can perhaps be explained through a use model in that I lived there, and have friends there, and so it’s maintaining an interest that serves a purpose. But Central Asia (or let’s be specific here, the Pamirs and that vast, tangled knot of mountains in the east)? Why? Will I ever write an essay on the subject, or otherwise contribute other than apparently passively through acres of reading? Probably not. So then, useless. And more examples abound.

But suppose that useless knowledge — knowledge that doesn’t serve a purpose, isn’t for something, doesn’t produce a measurable outcome — suppose it was held in esteem as stocks and shares, capital and investment is now. Useless then, only in the frame of reference.

process/unprocess – last day

Yes, finish.

Quick, no? Two weeks and it goes and everyone packs and leaves and within an hour no trace is left of us being there. And as quickly, the feeling of emptiness and the other feeling of disappointment. The two are entangled, wondering if we should have done more with the time we had, wondering if what we did with that time in fact amounts to anything.

We went through what we had four times today, including one which was the showing. There wasn’t much reworking of things today; a culling of a couple of bits to make things more manageable for me being a one-legged hoppity invalid, much talking between runs to sort out details, mostly though it was ‘set’. After two weeks, what did we have?

The showing and today wasn’t everything. Last week we spent a lot of time on ideas with ropes and knots for the first three days before moving off onto completely other things. This rope stuff showed up in the final part a little, but in itself perhaps represents an entire body of ideas that might go off into various other things and not show up here much at all. The rope stuff that did show up—low, semi-suspensions in a mess of ropes, many ideas that have been played with in the last several months, had a quite different feeling to the rest of the stuff; it’s difficult to know each time if it will ‘work’, as the randomness of the ropes means it evolves in unique ways each time. Though the ideas that cause one clump of ropes to be chosen over another are what’s important anyway.

The other scenes – wild dancing together; a dialogue on knowing if I have hands (while having them nibbled on); truly awkward floor partnering; a poem by Nietzsche with hummed accompaniment of Wagner – all feel like they could become something more, and were really just initial sketches. Maybe they need to be tighter, allowed to expand more, grow through reiteration, and maybe they seemed nonsensical to people watching, or incomprehensible, but I think for what we are trying to do they have something coherent enough to continue with.

We have a video, maybe some images from it will appear shortly (though me watching it at the moment is improbable). Of course we are musing on how to continue.

That is all. Cleaning up, dinner later with Hans and Anuschka … a plan for a day off in Ghent on the weekend.

Also to say, Gala and I would like to thank Rosas and the people there who invited us for the Summer Studios, and who made the two weeks there an absolute idyll. Working there in such a relaxed and friendly environment, and in such a beautiful, huge studio is quite the luxury. And to have a garden, trees and solitude to be surrounded by … also the lunches, macrobiotic three-course meals which I am going to miss very much. I could be happy working this way for a long time.

process/unprocess — three legs

The macrobiotic lunches are what we wait for, first into the cafeteria. Also coffee. There is a so-so café around the corner that makes up for its slot-machine ambience with tables outside and rather strong coffee. We also talk a lot. Luckily most of the time when someone comes into the studio we appear to either be deep in process, or better yet, standing. In truth, much of the process, if it could be said to be present at all, is an unprocess.

I was thinking about the personal humour aspect of this today. It could be said to be a connection between two people. For example, often on stage or in an improvisation, what is important is feeling the connection between you and the other person or group. This is a somewhat mystical thing, as it, “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it”. It is usually accompanied by a significant amount of seriousness, of  “being in the moment”, which lends an air of great, yet unquantifiable importance to the goings-on.

What we originally thought and talked about was if it might be possible to not just recreate the gestures and goings-on of our conjunctions of stupidity, but more importantly, to keep the real laughter and enjoyment. Luckily it’s not so hard for us to lapse into juvenile comedy routines, so we don’t have to search too hard or long for amusement. But this thing between us, perhaps it is like the above ‘connection’, which dancers can drop into quite easily—it’s a signifier of authentic performance after all, so somewhere, attention in training is given to it.

So I thought, perhaps what we should be doing is paying serious attention to maintaining that slight delirium between us, and from that everything else would follow.

We had to rethink two of the main sections today, as I decided to trash my ankle yesterday afternoon, so chaotic partnering on all four legs is off the table. Turns out what can be done with four legs is funnier with three. Sometimes I feel like we’re the Encyclopedia Dramatica of dance, or at least we get the crumbs from that table and gnaw on them. I was enjoying endless movement jokes we amused ourselves with though. Still, it’s become ever so slightly more scary-funny. As for the other part, now that’s just a long line on floor partnering, and it’s funnier when one of us get the wind knocked out.

After two weeks then, with a showing coming up tomorrow, I wonder what it is we have. It feels like something we’ll go on with, it feels like it could be a lot more involved, possibly to the point where it’s relentlessness is exhausting to watch. It’s also not all immature gags, though to go from the former to the latter without seeming cheap or saccharine or painfully earnest is tricky. The last thing I (we) want is for people to watch it and feel some kind of heart-warming resolution.

How do we want people to react? Is that even a question? Do we want them to laugh when we do, nod seriously when we do? I don’t thing there’s a simple coherency between the obviously (personally) amusing stuff and the (seemingly) more calmer and sober. Or perhaps it’s a performance of what we do together, but isn’t a sentimental story of us. (Though I watched a bit of Black Books and was startled by the culinary similarities.)

Tomorrow, last macrobiotic lunch, last day in a huge studio, last day wandering down and up the hill, to and from. Plans for more though.

process/unprocess showing at rosas

A short invitation to a showing of some sort this Friday:

The last two weeks, Gala Moody and I have been in residence at Rosas in Brussels working on something.

There is some:

dancing (including, but not limited to: jumping, turning, hopping, skipping, mostly together, (perhaps only using three legs)),
philosophy by Wittgenstein,
poetry by Nietzsche (read by Gala),
music by Wagner (hummed by Frances),
rope bondage,
at least one breast,
laughing,
hands.

We will be in Studio 1 for 20 minutes to half an hour this Friday afternoon.

Where:
Studio 1
Rosas
Van Volxemlaan 164
1190
Brussels

When:
Friday 29th July at 1620

Anything else?
it is free,
we may talk about it after,
there might be drinks later.

We would like to see you there,

Frances + Gala

process/unprocess week 2 day 1

I am humming.

Gala stands over me. She is reading the Aftersong from Beyond Good and Evil. We look at a couple of translations and the German text. He is quite unfriendly.

I am humming still. Most of today was spent humming. Or when I couldn’t make enough volume, then, “Da Daaaa Da Daaaa LaLaLaLa—La La-La Laaa”. Yes, Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture.

We are not playing this scene for comedy.

There is quite a bit of (for us) potential comedy in all that we are doing, but this scene we both feel has a gravity to it, no matter how much our desire to play it for laughs of the schadenfreude type seek to overwhelm it.

Earlier, we worked on the other scene that has quite some text in it. This time, Wittgenstein. He talks about hands a lot. Coming back on the train from Amsterdam (much fun! much sleeping!), I read over On Certainty. He has a tendency in this text to pose questions as though someone was speaking, a rhetorical device. When the encumbrances around these spoken sentences are removed, one finds what is left is a strange but logical conversation. (For brevity in the performance, I removed the excess “I have a hand”s, as it lent a certain monomania to the proceedings.)

This week we are in another studio. Big? Yes! Places to hang? Also yes! Unfortunately the wall we have to jump off and I get to bounce off is decidedly concrete. Nonetheless, it should add an element of torment to our fun.

Here is the text. Perhaps to say that what I am referring to as a hand, which Gala is doubtful of, is not the hand you might expect.

Gala: I don’t know if there’s a hand here.

Frances: Look closer. I know it is so. There is a hand there.

Gala: She knows that there’s a hand there.

Frances: I’m incapable of being wrong about this: that is a hand. I know that here is a hand for it’s my hand that I’m looking at. What right have I not to doubt the existence of my hands?

Gala: How do you know?

Frances: Here is my hand. I know where you touched my hand. I know, I am not just surmising, that I am seeing a hand.

Gala: Have you got two hands?

Frances: I know that I have two hands. That I have two hands is an irreversible belief. I could not accept any experience as proof to the contrary.

Gala: And what is a hand?

Frances: Well, this, for example.

Gala: I don’t know if this is a hand.

Frances: I know that it means now for me. At least that I shall act with a certainty that knows no doubt, in accordance with my belief. I know that that’s a hand.

Gala: Is that really a hand? I doubt whether that is really a hand.

Frances: I know that this is my hand.

Gala: Are you sure? Do you know it is?

Frances: How do I know? I know that that’s a hand. I have two hands. This is a hand, not… This thing that looks like a hand isn’t just a superb imitation – it really is a hand. I know the position of my hands with my eyes closed.

Gallery

process/unprocess – first week remainder

Today is a day off, my first in two weeks, so I am sitting on a train, north of Antwerpen towards Amsterdam—a weekend (or rather a night in parentheses of two part-days) visit to see Lewis and wander a city I last visited after my first time at ImPulsTanz in Vienna.

How do I remember the week, then? The first three days were very much spent on working with rope. Our initial ideas and talks moved around making something of our shared idiocy, but what we were doing these days was quite serious. Out of which, came what?

An unsurprising proof, that one can, using all the messy tying (untying), quite easily suspend oneself. Really, it’s just a matter of getting enough rope between self and floor. It’s somehow more comfortable that traditional shibari figures, as well as being much looser—especially when I tied myself. Contra this, many of the ideas for working together fail once suspended. The tension on the rope is simply too great to allow for easy unthreading. Instead, thinking of the long tying (long, loose connections between limbs), and applying that to the ring and body, it’s possible to make a low suspension with a lot of movement in it.

We left this on Thursday—also Lewis’ last day with us. Thinking back to what had entertained us that night in La Monnaie, it was a single rope (or maybe two). So we tried long messings-around sometimes with one rope, sometimes with many, until some ideas began to appear. This became the kernel of Friday.

We also had ideas to work with texts from Niezsche (Gala) and Wittgenstein (me). I was thinking back to last time I spent a holiday with Ludwig, and what had interested me then. It wasn’t the Tractatus, though admittedly I have a fondness for that, which is also a fondness for his thinking. I was thinking of his later writing regarding that text, but could only find an unpublished collection of his writings that may have become a text had he not died first. It is titled Über Gewissheit — On Certainty. Much of it deals with Wittgenstein’s thoughts on Moore’s ‘Proof of the External World’, and ‘Defense of Common Sense’, in a manner immediately recongnisable as in his style.

Gala and I spent yesterday—in-between trips to the café for macrobiotic lunch, coffee and pauses—making some sense of what we’d done in the previous days. It seems to have resulted in perhaps 20 minutes of unrefined yet interesting enough things to be worth spending more time on. We dance even.

We dance a lot in fact, and probably shall dance some more. It won’t be a finished piece of course, but it seems to have something within which is what we were trying to find. How is it possible to reproduce stupidity without loosing the original enjoyment? Stupidity here being a kind of play, for example like children do which has elements of taunting, cruelty, nonsense, hyperactivity (probably also not stopping when we should and living to regret it). It also has a duo of Wagner and Nietzsche (well, me humming the Tannhäuser overture and Gala reading the aftersong From the High Mountain ending Beyond Good and Evil.

There are other things to try next week, but after a week of a process I went into completely and intentionally unprepared, it seems to have found something a small but useful distance away from failure.

As for unpreparedness, it’s normal for me to go into a new work with much reading, research (yes, that word), and some notebooks worth of ideas. I can usually talk about what I intend to do with some clarity and coherency, and have enough ideas to work on to ensure that we won’t all be sitting around waiting for me to feel inspired.

It’s a curious method then to start with barely anything. An idea to work on our shared amusements, another to have Wittgenstein and Nietzsche make a showing, a third to have something of rope and shibari. That’s all. Sure all of this is not unfamiliar to me and occupies for some years a part of my attention, but to have no notebook, no roll call of tasks to try, no real idea what the first day might hold, let alone what we might be trying for is an uncanny way to make performance.

Somehow it works. I certainly wouldn’t use it as a working method for most of my work (for example abjection has over a year of systematic research, enough notes and ideas for more than a couple of works and has reached a point where I can almost watch it in my head as a film), but for this work and with Gala, it seems to allow both of us a freedom to entertain ourselves.

It’s also very nice to return to making performance. I feel like I haven’t done anything the past three years, even though I’ve been busy with others’ projects. This weekend is to think about Ludwig and Friedrich a bit more, maybe they can have a conversation next week.