Thursday, 26 February 2009

Review - House of Leaves

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote of the book that was also a labyrinth. Decades later Mark Z. Danielewski decided to write it. House of Leaves is ostensibly about a man who slowly goes mad while editing an academic work by a blind man about a film about a haunted house. But by the end, the narrative has taken on a whole new dimension as this book starts to take over the reader’s own thoughts and begins to skew one’s actual perspectives on reality. This may well be the greatest book I’ve ever read and yet such a feeling of relief washed over me once I’d finished it. Because I was finally free of its influence.

The story itself is densely layered and meticulously crafted. At the basic level there is the movie of a family called the Navidsons who discover that their house defies all spatial properties. A hallway appears that leads to a cavernous labyrinth. On a further meta-level there is the story of the writer Zampanò who may or may not have made the story of the Navidson film up: the bulk of the text consists of his academic treatise on the film. House of Leaves has been called a satire of academic criticism and it does this wonderfully: it conjures a large scholarship around this fictional film replete with footnotes, references, pretentious academic sayings. The final meta-level up from this is the story of Johnny Truant, a psychologically damaged young man living in LA who serves as the unreliable narrator for the novel. His back-story is a story unto itself. An appendix features letters from his institutionalised mother which are a pleasure to read and decrypt all on their own. Three levels of narrative layered on top of one another. And they’re all as detailed as each other. The effect is like trying to put together three puzzles at once and leaves the reader flicking through the book and the copious appendices.

It’s this level of density and having to manoeuvre around within the book that creates the sensation of getting lost. As Navidson and his family descend deeper into the labyrinth during the fateful Exploration #4, the reader finds herself getting increasingly lost. As the house begins to pervade more and more into the lives of the characters, the formatting of the novel grows more eccentric. At one point I actually got lost in the winding main text and the footnotes leading to ever-widening corridors. The effect is thoroughly disorienting and strangely intoxicating.

This is a book that is incredibly psychologically affecting. It’s terrifying in and of itself but reading it deeper and getting involved in the story produces the effect of going mad. Subtle connections between disparate parts of the book begin to appear. Little details make one wonder who the characters really are and if the story can be taken for granted at all. Was it Karen or Johnny’s mother who practiced smiling as a child? Didn’t Zampanò use that same phrase a few chapters back? It makes the reader feel as though they’re suffering from apophenia and getting increasingly paranoid.

Perhaps the book was so successful on my reading because it brought together so many themes that fascinate me. Labyrinths, ancient mythology, the insular communities of academic scholarship, descent into madness, motion picture theory, contradictions, excruciating detail, unreality, the styles of Jorge Luis Borges and Edgar Allen Poe, profound quotations, meta-fiction, unreliable narrators, experimental structure, Continental philosophy (phenomenology, existentialism, Derrida, Heidegger and Sartre), spatial anomalies, and a plethora of tertiary material in the appendices. For me it became the epitome of what a novel can be: an intricate labyrinth exploring the depths of human consciousness and the pure poetry of beautifully crafted prose.

House of Leaves is a book that is complex, deeply involving, and one that shows what fiction is capable of; how affected humans can become when reading. By the end one realises that the book itself is the house – a house of pages (leaves). The book was the labyrinth all along and getting out of it without being consumed is such a relief even though you’ll carry something of the darkness you’ve seen within you for evermore.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

"The Sheffer stroke problem."

Wikipedia is wrong.
This recent revelation has come as quite a shock to me. Obviously hundreds of people deride Wikipedia for its bias and its inaccuracies which, when uncorrected, can grow exponentially. But I’ve always relied on Wikipedia nonetheless: it’s my default place to go to for information; I have a search bar that links to it in the corner of my Firefox window; I trusted it.
Yesterday I discovered that it is completely and utterly wrong about the Sheffer stroke. The Sheffer stroke is a piece of logical notation which Blogger won't allow me to show you because it doesn't have the font set (I'll use the forward slash instead: /). It is used in logical formulae such as the kind in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus where, in 5.1311, Wittgenstein claims that all the other logical constants can be defined from it. The Sheffer stroke means ‘neither _ nor _’ which is expressed in computer science as a NOR function. Therefore (p v q)(p or q) can be defined as ((p/q) /(p/q))(Not (not p or q) or (not p or q).
Wikipedia claims that the Sheffer stroke means NAND ie. ‘not _ and _’ where the not operator has scope over the whole formula not the first variable.
Logicians beware: common usage and Wikipedia has transformed the Sheffer stroke into a NAND operator. It is not to be confused with the Pierce arrow. Here is a discussion regarding this widespread logical misuse and here (for those with access to JSTOR) is the original Sheffer article with the catchy title “A Set of Five Independent Postulates for Boolean Algebras, with Application to Logical Constants”. On page 487, he clearly defines his stroke as ‘neither nor’.
Both the NAND and the NOR interpretations are fine as long the notation makes it clear how it is being used: it appears that the language of logic, just like ordinary languages, is constantly fluctuating and evolving based upon the dictates of custom. However the traditionalist NOR interpretation is technically the correct one based on what Sheffer wrote.
Now that I can no longer trust Wikipedia, my knowledge base crumbles. Now, I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

"The Tragedy of Wittgenstein."

“There was once a young man who dreamed of reducing the world to pure logic. Because he was a very clever young man, he actually managed to do it. When he’d finished his work he stood back and admired it. It was beautiful. A world purged of imperfection and indeterminacy. Countless acres of gleaming ice stretching to the horizon. So the clever young man looked around the world he had created and decided to explore it. He took one step forward and fell flat on his back. You see, he’d forgotten about friction. The ice was smooth and level and stainless... but you couldn’t walk there. So the clever young man sat down and wept bitter tears. But as he grew into a wise old man he came to understand that roughness and ambiguity aren’t imperfections: they’re what make the world turn. He wanted to run and dance. And the words and things scattered upon the ground were all battered and tarnished and ambiguous and the wise old man saw that was the way things were. But something in him was still homesick for the ice where everything was radiant and absolute and relentless. Though he had come to like the idea of the rough ground, he couldn’t bring himself to live there. So now he was marooned between the earth and ice; at home in neither. And this was the cause of all his grief.”

From Derek Jarman’s film Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the truly great geniuses of the 20th Century. He only published one philosophical work in his lifetime but has still come to be regarded as one of the greatest minds in all of philosophy. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein set out a minimalistic world that was purely logical. It’s a beautiful accomplishment even if the endeavour was ultimately a failure. He came as close as anyone ever has to making the world into what Quine called a “desert landscape.” Flush with success, Wittgenstein then left Cambridge and lived in self-imposed exile for years. When he finally returned, he was horrified to discover that he was the most famous philosopher in Britain. By then he had changed his mind and realised that the everyday and the ordinary were greater than pure logic. He had discovered that logic was a solution to a problem that no-one was troubled by: that life carried on going even without logic’s elegant intervention. So he wrote what would be published after his death as the Philosophical Investigations: a sprawling, labyrinthine text full of dead ends, pitfalls, and strange anecdotes in stark contrast to the aphoristic simplicity of the Tractatus.

There could never be two more different works. Both are Wittgenstein and both are masterpieces. Wittgenstein was a genius: a mind too intense, too complex, and too brilliant for this world. And so he suffered. He was a man without peers for none could hope to match him. He was a man without a cause because he could see through them all. He was a man without a world because he saw the potential for what the world could be. He was cursed with the blood of a philosopher flowing through him: he later referred to philosophy as a form of therapy for addled minds. He was born with a fortune and chose to give it away. He was an intellectual celebrity and chose to live in exile. He spawned disciples and was disgusted by their work. He was a genius and he lived an exciting but tragic life.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s last words were “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Monday, 16 February 2009

"A stapler..."

This morning I saw an advert for the new Rexel Gazelle stapler and became profoundly depressed. The ad, proudly taking up one full side of a van, boasted of the Gazelle’s “innovative” qualities. The Gazelle comes with its own G-Pod docking station and, perhaps most importantly, has an innovative staple level indicator, allowing office workers to quickly see how many staples are left in their beloved device.

Is this it, humanity? Is this what we’re doing now? Has our mighty civilisation reached a point where it has become too much of a chore to lift the spring-loaded mechanism on a standard stapler to actually look at the amount of staples remaining therein? Are we all in so much of a hurry that not a single second may be wasted in our attaching-papers-together endeavours? Can we no longer afford ourselves five seconds to flip open a stapler? Since we can no longer idly waste time when fixing pieces of paper together, I guess we can no longer waste time strolling through a park or reading a bad novel or talking to a stranger or (dare I suggest it) thinking.

Apparently the Rexel Gazelle ‘Stapler System’ was shortlisted for an Australian International Design Award 2006. An award. For a stapler. An ‘innovative’ stapler.

This is the world we live in.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

"My life in occupied territory."

11 days ago a group of Manchester University students occupied a building on the university campus in protest of Israel's actions towards the Gaza Strip. This movement has become infamous all across the university. They have since refused to move from their single room in the Simon Building until their pro-Palestine demands are met.

During my brief tenure at this institution, I’ve picked up a few facts about student politics. The first fact is that student politics is by and large an exercise in futility and pointlessness. The students involved are the vocal majority; those who don’t know how to form an argument, cannot make a point without rhetoric, and don’t know how the university structure actually works. The second fact is that when things do actually change, they do so incrementally as a result of laborious bureaucracy and the slow steady work of patient students who are willing to act as a raindrop painstakingly eroding through the rock of the faculty.

As a consequence of these two facts, the Manchester Occupation will not and should not succeed. The Occupation arises from a simple category mistake: thinking of the university as a small-scale society rather than a learning institution. When one is embroiled in student lifestyle, it is easy to think of the university as a community. People live, work, eat, drink, and interact there 24/7 – they confuse their lifestyle for reality. In truth, the university is nothing more than a glorified school and – though I may not like it – a business. Fundamentally this means that it is not a political body. There is absolutely no reason why the university should take any stand at all on the Israel/Gaza conflict (which, incidentally, has by and large ended for now). Will it make any difference when Israel hears that Manchester University condemns their expansionist attacks? Will Palestine be so grateful at the support of a university thousands of miles away? No. The Student Union may be involved in politics (or rather the mini-politics of the perceived ‘university society’) but the University itself is not. That is why most of the Occupation’s demands are ill-conceived. The movement is ineffectual primarily because they are not interfering with the running of the university in any way.

As usual, Vice-Chancellor Alan Gilbert is the target of the student’s ire. Within Manchester University, and particularly in the grassroots movements that spring up every so often, Gilbert is presented as a megalomaniacal super-villain who sits in his fortified office rolling around on piles of the student’s money. Most of this reputation stems from his bureaucratic background and his failure to turn the University of Melbourne into a profitable business. I dislike Gilbert’s capitalist philosophy as much as anyone but he has chosen his path and I recognise that he is not a bad guy. On Wednesday, after a series of pro-Palestine amendments were voted through at a meeting of the student body (or rather ‘the vocal majority’ of the student body), I heard a crowd of students marching towards Gilbert’s office chanting “Palestinea, Palestinea”. When Gilbert (unsurprisingly) refused to talk to the 900 students blockading his building, the mob stopped traffic along Oxford Road.

The psychology behind the Occupation’s actions is simple: the students feel the need to make a difference. The government has set unrealistic targets such as getting 50-60% of young people into university. This is foolish because only a small majority of the population are suited to further learning. Many come to university without the insatiable desire for learning and so feel the urge to do something important. The current Occupation lacks the wherewithal and the focus to harass the actual government and so they protest within their ‘university society’. Unfortunately their protest is ineffectual, annoying, and ill-conceived. Some people feel the need to fight and when the fight is just and worthy that’s fine, noble, and good. But this fight is against a straw man and it’s a fight that does not need fighting. Manchester University is less than politically neutral: it’s not even a political entity. Any effort to change its political standing is therefore misguided.

Israel/Palestine is a complex issue. Yes, Israel has been expanding steadily and oppressing Muslims for decades. But Hamas has been firing rockets into Israeli territory. There’s blame on both side – I just happen to believe that there’s more blame on the Israeli side. The loss of life is a tragedy but that does not give justification to any actions committed in its name. The Occupation will fail, whether the students give up the fight and the university takes action. The movement is a futile waste of time for students who value their basic liberal political motivations over the education they are paying for.