“Pascal’s Sphere” by Jorges Luis Borges

 (Published in multiple collections, including Labyrinths and Other Inquisitions.)

Perhaps universal history is the history of a few metaphors. I should like to sketch one chapter of that history.

Six centuries before the Christian era Xenophanes of Colophon, the rhapsodist, weary of the Homeric verses he recited from city to city, attacked the poets who attributed anthropomorphic traits to the gods; the substitute he proposed to the Greeks was a single God: an eternal sphere. In Plato’s Timaeus we read that the sphere is the most perfect and most uniform shape, because all points on its surface are equidistant from the center. Olof Gigon (Ursprung der griechischen Philosophie, 183) says that Xenophanes shared that belief; the God was spheroid, because that form was the best, or the least bad, to serve as a representation of the divinity. Forty years later, Parmenides of Elea repeated the image (“Being is like the mass of a well-rounded sphere, whose force is constant from the center in any direction”). Calogero and Mondolfo believe that he envisioned an infinite, or infinitely growing sphere, and that those words have a dynamic meaning (Albertelli, Gli Eleati, 148). Parmenides taught in Italy; a few years after he died, the Sicilian Empedocles of Agrigentum plotted a laborious cosmogony, in one section of which the particles of earth, air, fire, and water compose an endless sphere, “the round Sphairos, which rejoices in its circular solitude.”

Universal history followed its course. The too-human gods attacked by Xenophanes were reduced to poetic fictions or to demons, but it was said that one god, Hermes Trismegistus, had dictated a variously estimited number of books (42, according to Clement of Alexandria; 20,000, according to Iamblichus; 36,525, according to the priests of Thoth, who is also Hermes), on whose pages all things were written. [Anomalogue: From what I’ve read, Hermes Trismegistus was not a god; the god Hermes is a different being.] Fragments of that illusory library, compiled or forged since the third century, form the so-called Hermetica. In one part of the Asclepius, which was also attributed to Trismegistus, the twelfth-century French theologian, Alain de Lille — Alanus de Insulis — discovered this formula which future generations would not forget: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The Pre-Socratics spoke of an endless sphere; Albertelli (like Aristotle before him) thinks that such a statement is a contradictio in adjecto, because the subject and predicate negate each other. Possibly so, but the formula of the Hermetic books almost entitles us to envisage that sphere. In the thirteenth century the image it reappeared in the symbolic Roman de la Rose, which attributed it to Plato, and in the Speculum Triplex encyclopedia. In the sixteenth century the last chapter of the last book of Pantagruel referred to “that intellectual sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere, which we call God.” For the medieval mind, the meaning was clear: God is in each one of his creatures, but is not limited by any one of them. “Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee,” said Solomon (I Kings 8:27). The geometrical metaphor of the sphere must have seemed like a gloss of those words.

Dante’s poem has preserved Ptolemaic astronomy, which ruled men’s imaginations for fourteen hundred years. The earth is the center of the universe. It is an immovable sphere, around which nine concentric spheres revolve. The first seven are the planetary heavens (the heavens of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn); the eighth, the Heaven of Fixed Stars; the ninth, the Crystalline Heaven (called the Primum Mobile), surrounded by the Empyrean, which is made of light. That whole laborious array of hollow, transparent, and revolving spheres (one system required fifty-five) had come to be a mental necessity. De hypothesibus motuum coelestium commentariolus was the timid title that Copernicus, the disputer of Aristotle, gave to the manuscript that transformed our vision of the cosmos. For one man, Giordano Bruno, the breaking of the sidereal vaults was a liberation. In La cena de le ceneri he proclaimed that the world was the infinite effect of an infinite cause and that the divinity was near, “because it is in us even more than we ourselves are in us.” He searched for the words that would explain Copernican space to mankind, and on one famous page he wrote: “We can state with certainty that the universe is all center, or that the center of the universe is everywhere and the circumference nowhere” (De la causa, principio e uno, V).

That was written exultantly in 1584, still in the light of the Renaissance; seventy years later not one spark of that fervor remained and men felt lost in time and space. In time, because if the future and the past are infinite, there will not really be a when; in space, because if every being is equidistant from the infinite and the infinitesimal, there will not be a where. No one exists on a certain day, in a certain place; no one knows the size of his face. In the Renaissance humanity thought it had reached adulthood, and it said as much through the mouths of Bruno, Campanella, and Bacon. In the seventeenth century humanity was intimidated by a feeling of old age; to vindicate itself it exhumed the belief of a slow and fatal degeneration of all creatures because of Adam’s sin. (In Genesis 5:27 we read that “all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years”; in 6:4, that “There were giants in the earth in those days.”) The elegy Anatomy of the World, by John Donne, deplored the very brief lives and the slight stature of contemporary men, who could be likened to fairies and dwarfs. According to Johnson’s biography, Milton feared that an epic genre had become impossible on earth. Glanvill thought that Adam, God’s medal, enjoyed a telescopic and microscopic vision. Robert South wrote, in famous words, that an Aristotle was merely the wreckage of Adam, and Athens, the rudiments of Paradise. In that jaded century the absolute space that inspired the hexameters of Lucretius, the absolute space that had been a liberation for Bruno, was a labyrinth and an abyss for Pascal. He hated the universe, and yearned to adore God. But God was less real to him than the hated universe. He was sorry that the firmament could not speak; he compared our lives to those of shipwrecked men on a desert island. He felt the incessant weight of the physical world; he felt confused, afraid, and alone; and he expressed his feelings like this: “It [nature] is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.” That is the text of the Brunschvicg edition, but the critical edition of Tourneur (Paris, 1941), which reproduces the cancellations and the hesitations of the manuscript, reveals that Pascal started to write effroyable: “A frightful sphere, the center of which is everywhere, and the circumference nowhere.”

Perhaps universal history is the history of the diverse intonation of a few metaphors.

– Buenos Aires, 1951

Ambiliberalism report, late 2019

This weekend I hit a political breaking point. While my political position is as liberal as ever, and in better times would be considered left-of-center, Progressivism has become so dominant in left-wing politics and as a whole has drifted so far from liberalism I have realized it no longer makes sense to emphasize my points of agreement with it. I am now entirely and openly opposed to it, not only in its methods and rhetoric, but in the future it wants to create.

Progressivism presents itself as anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-prejudice, but does so by redefining racism, sexism and “bad” prejudice as bad only when deployed from positions of power. This means that if you claim to speak on behalf of a less powerful identity you can indulge your hatred toward (allegedly) more powerful categories of people without the risk of being called a racist, a sexist, or a bigot and whatever hateful language you use or vicious sentiments you express cannot be called hate speech, because you are “punching up” from a position of relative weakness.

And because Progressivists have a monopoly on determining what identities are politically relevant and which are not, Progressivism is protected from being itself understood as an identity — much less an overwhelmingly powerful identity. In many social milieus, including corporate workplaces, Progressivism is by far the most powerful ideology, both capable and eager to “punch down” with crushing force from positions of authority.

Progressivists have a collective habit of scoffing at such claims and carrying on in precisely the ways overwhelmingly powerful groups always do (dismissal, fragility, offense, rage, etc.) do when confronted with their own prejudice, and they lack the self-awareness, irony and emotional self-discipline to submit to self-interrogations outside their own ideological comfort zones.

So, I’m not even sure what the practical consequence this shift will have besides refusing to stress points of agreement when speaking with Progressivists, and not pleading with them to see me as a fellow left-liberal. They’re not liberals, and I’m not all that sure most of them know what left means, either. I’m definitely not going to cooperate with racist, sexist, bigoted and hate-saturated redefinitions of racism, sexism, bigotry and hate speech. They need to be called out, however unpopular they are and however much racists and sexists and bigots resent being told the truth.

I’ve also redrawn my Ambiliberal diagram to situate my own Liberal Pluralism against Progressivist identitarianism and its antithetical twin, the Alt-Right.

Design supremacist rant

If you think about your work output as objective, tangible things, design can look like a wasteful delay to productivity.

But if you think about your work output in terms of improvement to people’s lives, churning out things as fast as possible, without concern for their human impact might be productive — but most of the productivity is production of waste.

This is why, once the world overcomes the industrialist worldview that confuses objectivity with the ruthless disregard for subjectivity (and essentially imposes a sort of institutional asperger’s) and we realize that the world as we know it and care about it (including all our objective knowledge) is intertersubjectivity woven, empathic disciplines will be more fairly compensated. Then we will stop wringing our hands over why so few women are attracted to STEM and begin applauding them for having the good sense to concern themselves with ensuring our efforts are focused on the well-being of humankind. And when this happens, don’t be surprised to see VPs of IT reporting up to Chief Design Officers who gently insist that they hold their horses and think about human impacts before spastically building as much stuff as they can as fast as they can. The world needs people like that, but they need supervision from people who can put all that building in purposeful context.

Civilizational mystery

This passage from Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty offers insights valuable to two of my favorite subjects, 1) design, and 2) postaxial conceptions of religion:

“The Socratic maxim that the recognition of our ignorance is the beginning of wisdom has profound significance for our understanding of society. The first requisite for this is that we become aware of men’s necessary ignorance of much that helps him to achieve his aims. Most of the advantages of social life, especially in its more advanced forms which we call ‘civilization,’ rest on the fact that the individual benefits from more knowledge than he is aware of. It might be said that civilization begins when the individual in the pursuit of his ends can make use of more knowledge than he has himself acquired and when he can transcend the boundaries of his ignorance by profiting from knowledge he does not himself possess.”

If civilization begins and progresses by allowing individuals to benefit from more knowledge than we are aware of, design advances civilization by both harnessing and hiding knowledge (in the form of technologies) beneath carefully crafted interfaces, disencumbering users to advance their own specialized knowledge, which in turn can be harnessed and hidden.

And of course, the mention of “transcending boundaries of ignorance” connects directly with my preferred definition of religion as the praxis of finite beings living in the fullest possible relationship with infinitude. My own religious practice involves awareness of how transcendence-saturated everyday life is, especially toward the peculiarly inaccessible understandings of my fellow humans. But study of Actor-Network Theory and Postphenomenology has increased my awareness of how much non-human mediators and actors shape my life. The world as I experience it is only the smallest, dimmest and frothiest fuzz of being entangled within a dense plurality of worlds which overlap, interact and extend unfathomably beyond the speck of reality which has been entrusted to me. Civilization involves us, but exceeds us, and is far stranger than known.

By the way, I still intend to read Jaspers’s and reread Voegelin’s writings on the Axial/Ecumenic Age to better understand the societal forces which produced the recent and idiosyncratic form of religiosity so many of us mistake for eternal and universal. And I’ll read it from the angle that if it has changed before, it can change again. I think human centered design offers important clues for how it can change.

Propaganda

Propaganda is popular news, in the same sense that romance novels and action films are popular art. By “popular” I mean they function comfortably within the worldview of the masses, and serve to reinforce commonly held beliefs, values, practices, assumptions, blindnesses and taboos.

We don’t realize it yet, but a lot of what today’s smart people think is serious literature is a combination of propaganda and popular art, basically popular fables, complete with a tidy moral at the end.

A great maxim on trade-offs

A few minutes ago I became curious if anyone has written a book on trade-offs.

Over a quarter century of experience working with designers I’ve observed that one of the key abilities designers must develop is making tradeoffs that fit the design problem. Folks who think their standards of excellence or high ideals preclude making trade-offs often make terrible design decisions, keeping their exacting intellectual or moral ideals at the expense of criteria they are unable or unwilling to take as seriously as their users do. In other words, despite themselves they do make trade-offs — just ones they fail to recognize. (And this brings us to another key ability: empathy. The trade-offs we must make in design are those that properly consider how users experience the designed thing, not how those of us on the provider-side experience it.)

The first book I found is Trade-Offs by Harold Winter, and one sentence in the intro is so good I may need to buy this book just for that: “If you are on one side of an issue, you are on the wrong side.”

Expertise & mastery

First draft of an article I’m planning to post on my company’s blog:

When reflecting upon and critiquing performance in situations where key variables are unknown, it is important to analyze it from two perspectives: hindsight and improvisation.

  1. Analysis from the perspective of hindsight asks “Had the unknowns that came to light in the course of events been known ahead of time, what would we have done differently?” The value of hindsight analysis is primarily in developing new forms of expertise — learning to quickly recognize known problems and to respond with established methods.
  2. Analysis from the perspective of improvisation asks “When I find myself in situations with unknown variables in the future, what will I do differently?” The value of improvisational analysis is developing mastery — learning how to respond to novel problems with untried methods, intuitively trying new approaches and adjusting on the fly until favorable results are produced.

In doing these kinds of analysis, it is crucial to stay alert to the fact that unknowns are a permanent feature of practical life, and that no amount of expertise can replace mastery. Internalizing this truth is itself part of mastery.

Expertise and mastery should not be confused or conflated: they are related but distinctly different.

Expertise is about techniques — matters of training in how to do something, following a logical flow. We sharpen technique through repetitive practice. Mastery is improved through the opposite, through exposure to uncomfortable and unfamiliar variety.

Elements of mastery are largely tacit, and involve such fuzzy categories as intuitive depth of understanding of one’s problem space, receptivity to hearing and seeing what people are saying verbally and non-verbally, ability and willingness to shift framings and see things from multiple angles, empathic sensitivity to the interplay of emotion and intellect in individuals and groups, focus on root problems which can change as understanding deepens, emotional self-discipline to stay steady and focused in the face of intense anxiety and chaos, and finally a sense of elevated freedom: knowing and feeling in our bones that we are authorized to do what it takes to solve this problem and liberating ourselves to solve it. It also involves knowing yourself — knowing your own strengths and weaknesses — and knowing others — knowing when other people’s strengths can come to the rescue or where you might be able to come to theirs. If it didn’t have such a ludicrous ring, I’d call these elements “professional wisdom”.

Thought fads

Reading books from the 20th Century, especially from the 60s and 70s, a reader gets the chance to witness how dominated by (and dependent upon) Freudianism many mid-grade intellectuals were. It feels almost desperately reductionistic and and makes writing from that time feel dated. Freudianism is the avocado green and harvest gold of writing. Same with post-structuralist lingo in the 80s and 90s. Pomoisms are the jewel-tone palette of writing.

The writing from now, though, with its comically assclenched identitarian puritanism — that is going to be the laughingstock of the future.

Topics and subjects

I wish I could send Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces back in time to my 33-year-old self. Based on one comment (which I still despise), I’ve had Campbell totally wrong, but this is unsurprising if you remember how etic reading-about/knowing-about is never the same as emic reading/knowing. The former is knowing about a topic, the latter is knowing a subject. Subject here is meant in every sense of the word. Objects are known. Subjects are known-from.

First-person identity

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately, and how identity relates to language, specifically to pronouns.

I think I might have a different perspective on identity than some others. It is fascinating to me that so many people naturally think of themselves as a “he”, or as a “she”, or as something between or outside the culturally-defined gender gamut.

This excessive focus on gender seems to me to be distracting us from a much more problematic issue.

When I reflect on my own thinking about myself, it is clear that I have never thought of myself in gendered terms — nor, for that matter, in third-person terms.

Whenever I think of myself, it is always in the first-person. This fact is consistently reflected in my speech: Whenever I refer to myself, I invariably choose the pronouns “I” or “me” or “my”.

However, people invariably ignore these obvious language cues and without asking, presume they can refer to me with second-person and third-person pronouns.

When they do this the implications are impossible to miss. 1) They are assigning me the status of an object of experience in their world, not the experiencing subject of my own world. 2) They are relegating me to the periphery of their awareness — and possibly other people’s awareness as well! — and denying my centrality within my own awareness. 3) Worst of all they render me interchangeable with any number of he-/she-/ze-/they-objects, and in doing so deny the uniqueness of my own self-same identity and perspective.

Not only are these implicit impositions entirely contrary to my self-understanding, they are profoundly disorienting, alienating and threatening.

For all these reasons I am respectfully asking everyone to honor my pronoun preferences, and in the future to address me as I/me/mine.

I am aware that this language change might feel unfamiliar at first, but I assure you that this discomfort is minor compared to the anguish of constantly being made to live among people who refuse to recognize that I am not just some thing or person, but I.

Thank you in advance for your compliance with my choice.

Joseph Campbell (and some weird rambling)

Joseph Campbell’s most famous quote, “follow your bliss”, might really have been a careless remark of an old man well past his prime. For years I refused to take Campbell seriously, and even posed him against an antithetical motto, “follow your angst.” But reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I do not see any hint of facile hedonism, and substantial evidence of tragic insight. He’s another of those thinkers whose Nietzschean inspiration shows through in every sentence he wrote.

If I’d read this book back in 2004, at the height of my mandala obsession, he would have been one of my heroes, because his theme of the hero’s journey is just looping and relooping the path from West to North to East to South and back again to West (or, alternatively, as discussed in the chapter I’m on currently, “refusing the call” and trying to loop back from West to South and paying the steep price for exalting base things over higher destinies. “One is harassed, both day and night, by the divine being that is the image of the living self within the locked labyrinth of one’s own disoriented psyche. The ways to the gates have all been lost: there is no exit. One can only cling, like Satan, furiously, to one­ self and be in hell; or else break, and be annihilated at last, in God.”)

I don’t think it is any accident that my thoughts are returning to the themes of the early-aughts, because events in my life are feeling like they are rounding a circle and bringing me back to where I was. For one thing, my company has relocated to the same neighborhood where I worked from 2003-2007, and I have returned to cycling the same path to work. Seeing the same scenes has recalled vivid images and I’m accessing memories of thoughts and feelings from that time. Another thing: A generous gift of tea a friend brought home from her travels to the East has inspired me to replace a broken teapot I’d purchased in one of the Chinatowns North of Toronto on a very dark, dry-frozen winter day at the tail-end of 2002. I remember the drive, looking out at myriad identical gray brutalist apartments standing in gray slush under a gray sky against gray air. The gloomy glory of this memory was condensed for me into a yellow, speckled teapot we bought in the tiny tea shop we’d set out that day to find. When the pot was smashed exactly three years later on the way out the door to visit family on Christmas, it had acquired a ruddy glaze from the accumulated layers of tea that had been poured over it in the course of gongfu tea service. The taste of Alishan oolong, and thinking about this legendary lost teapot places me in 2002 and 2003, which was the pivot-point of my life. There are other things, too. Susan has had an awakening of her own, and I am finally having the kind of conversation I’ve desperately needed (begged for, on occasion) for the last sixteen years. Finally — and maybe most crucially — I feel a work-induced crisis nearing. The same weight, the same claustrophobia, the same profound boredom mixed with intense anxiety of the least productive kind, impending soul-balk… I can feel it: there is going to be a summons.

Reading Campbell and John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion, I’m gaining some still inchoate insight into what is common and what differs between my understanding of religion and other attempts at viewing religion from a non-superstitious angle. Campbell is typical of his times in that he wants to explain the force of religious insight in psychological terms. Hick is less obvious at this point, but I’m detecting an opportunity to “replatform” his comparisons and contrasts of varying religious traditions on a material-turn-informed metaphysics, which I find incredibly difficult to doubt, and only slightly challenging as more nourishing ground for religious faith and practice. I’m sure when I’m done I’ll discover that I’ve only rethought Whitehead and reinstaurated Process Theology, but that’s just how the humiliating method of philosophy works.

I’ve said this a zillion times, and they might even be my own words: Philosophy is an exercise in humiliation.

Philosophical insights can only be known firsthand. Whatever symbols are used in an attempt to convey an insight, they remain incomprehensible until the epiphany comes and insight breathes life into the forms. But when epiphany comes — and it comes only when it decides to, perhaps long after words are heard — you are always the original discoverer of the insight, the first to really understand. If you like that feeling, to the degree you are impervious to loneliness, you are perfectly free to bask in singular, solitary genius forever.

That’s what’s on my mind today.

Hyperanemoic realms

Wikipedia: “Distinct from these cardinal points, the ancient Greeks had four winds (Anemoi). The peoples of early Greece reportedly conceived of only two winds – the winds from the north, known as Boreas, and the winds from the south, known as Notos. But two more winds – Eurus from the east and Zephyrus from the west – were added soon enough.”

I’m digging around the internet looking for names of mythical regions anomalogous to Hyperborea. Why shouldn’t there also be a Hypernotos, Hyperzephyrus — and especially a Hypereurus? )O+

“Hearts”

In May 2006 when I wrote the verses below I worked downtown and bike commuted along Edgewood every day. Since my company moved to the same neighborhood, I’ve returned to my old bike route, and pass the location where I witnessed this scene:

The helmeted surgeons
Transplanting the heart of the street
Did not need to return my greeting;
Because I could not see their eyes.
They had the hearts laid out
beside the hole they’d opened
in the sun-softened asphalt;
The old one, chipped and orange,
and the new one, burnished and gray:
Cast-iron conches a man could pick up
and hold in his hands.

 

Reasons to love design research

Some people love design research for purely functional reasons: it helps designers do a much better job. Others just love the process itself, finding the conversations intrinsically pleasant and interesting.

These reasons matter to me, too, to some extent, but they never quite leave the range of liking and cross over into loving.

Here are my three main reasons for loving design research, listed in the order in which I experienced them:

  1. Design research makes business more liberal-democratic. — Instead of asking who has deeper knowledge, superior judgment or more brilliant ingenuity (and therefore is entitled to make the decisions), members of the team propose possibilities and argue on the basis of directly observed empirically-grounded truths, why those possibilities deserve to be taken seriously, then submit the ideas to testing, where they succeed or fail based on their own merit. This change from ad hominem judgment to scientific method judgment means  that everyone looks together at a common problem and collaborates on solving it, and this palpably transforms team culture in the best way. This reminds me of a beautiful quote of Saint-Exuperie: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
  2. Design research reliably produces philosophical problems. — Of all the definitions of philosophy I have seen, my favorite is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.'” When we invite our informants to teach us about their experiences and how they interpret them (which is what generative research ought to be) we are often unprepared for what we learn, and often teams must struggle to make clear, cohesive and shared sense of what we have been taught. The struggle is not just a matter of pouring forth effort, or of following the method extra-rigorously, or of being harmonious and considerate — in fact, all these moves work against resolution of what, in fact, is a philosophical perplexity, where the team must grope for the means to make sense of what was really learned. It is a harrowing process, and teams nearly always experience angst and conflict, but moving through this limbo state and crossing over to a new clarity is transformative for every individual courageous, trusting, flexible and benevolent enough to undertake it. It is a genuine hero’s journey. The opportunity to embark on a hero’s journey multiple times a year is a privilege.
  3. Design research is an act of kindness. — In normal life, “being a good listener” is an act of generosity. If we are honest with ourselves, in our hearts we know that when we force ourselves to listen, the talker is the true beneficiary. But paradoxically, this makes us shitty listeners. We are not listening with urgency, and it is really the urgent interest, the living curiosity, that makes us feel heard. Even when we hire a therapist, it is clear who the real beneficiary is: the one who writes the check for services rendered. But in design research, we give a person significant sums of money to teach us something we desperately want to understand. We hang on their words, and then we pay them. People love it, and it feels amazing to be a part of making someone feel that way. In a Unitarian Church on the edge of Central Park in Manhattan there is a huge mosaic of Jesus washing someone’s feet, and this is the image that comes to mind when I see the face of an informant who needed to be heard. (By the way, if anyone knows how to get a photo of this mosaic, I’ve looked for it for years and have never found it.)