1st June 2020

 

regressus in infinitum – you can’t get to “100” without first passing “50”; you can’t get to “50” without first passing “25”. Und so weiter. This infinite regress is vicious, of course, because ‘you’re required to complete an infinite number of actions before attaining your goal, which – since the whole point of ‘infinite’ is that there’s no end to the number of these actions – renders the goal logically impossible’ (Wallace, Everything and More, pp. 48-9). Nothing changes. I know nothing of the Sisyphean hell, an eternity, a temporal ∞, of pain now smouldering in American cities. But I can see the infantry viciousness – ignorance sharp as knives and quick as a whip. Think critically, down on the street level. Analysis pending. Analyse. Limiting processes, the summation of infinite series, infinite processes, indefinitely continued without ever coming to an end. Such a series may be convergent, in which case it has a finite value or limit to which it approaches, or divergent, in which case it has no such limit. It was Weierstrass who proved that the infinite of Zeno’s Dichotomy is actually not an infinite regress requiring endlessly proliferating subtasks, but rather one task of traversing the distance from one side to its limit (the other side) – a convergent infinite series, whose limit we’ve been approaching for centuries. Or, perhaps, we instead find ourselves at a function’s exceptional point of singularity – undefined.

25th May 2020

 

On the 18th of November 2016, Sarah Kendzior implored her fellow Americans to “write about who you are, what you have experienced, and what you have endured”. What follows is a condensed, public-friendly version of my continuing attempts to honour the imperatives.

 

Write down what you value; what standards you hold for yourself and for others:

I value fairness, vision, and vitality. I try to be kind, curious, tolerant, and honest, and I try to empower others be the same.

 

Write about your dreams for the future and your hopes for your children:

I dream for a courageous future, where the braindead megaphones have long since fallen silent, and the birds don’t have to scream to be heard.

 

Write about the struggle of your ancestors and how the hardship they overcame shaped the person you are today:

My ancestors suffered and inflicted colonial atrocities. With little more than their words and their hands some acquiesced and some resisted. Their stories teach me that nothing is determinate, that there are always choices, that education can help you make the right ones – whether for the good of the self or the good of others. Even both.

 

 

Write a list of things you would never do. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will do them:

I will never underestimate greed. I will never consider a human being as anything less (or more). I will not stop calling out lies.

 

Write a list of things you would never believe. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will either believe them or be forced to say you believe them:

I will not believe in (false) equivalence, that there are always two equal sides – some things people say are just incorrect; some things they do are just plain wrong.

18th May 2020

 

It’s been a fairly productive week. I’ve kept on top of marking, organized upcoming Summer projects (some of which even pay!) and, most importantly, have completed a draft of my chapter for a forthcoming book on David Foster Wallace. Getting back into critical reading was a vital step, but it was still a very strange experience to be writing at this level, on a topic very close to my PhD research (but just different enough to require significant effort to reframe, especially on a very restricted wordcount). Getting these words on the page again is sparking all kinds of creative connections in my head. I’m feeling a bit manic about it all, simultaneously struggling to keep up with my thoughts and completely exhausted, what with all the global crises erupting all around. Thus, I’m loath to set any other deadlines, or even to really start something new. I don’t think I can handle simultaneous projects right now – going to try to get better at completing things sequentially for a change.

11th May 2020

 

The whispers of change themselves can bring about such change. “Stay home” will be dropped and, without the rumour being addressed, it effectively was. For days it was allowed to hang in the air. And VE was used as an excuse to selfishly indulge in empty-calorie gratification with jingoistic pomp. Then, our baited breath was released when we were given “Stay Alert” …to what? Milhouse saw the whole thing happen. But the kicker, for me, was that wonderful example of Fashionable Nonsense was used to demonstrate how the “Alert Level” (which is either 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5) :

BadCovidFormula

While some have tried to argue that this is straightforward and intuitive, if you regard the relationship described as that in a complex plane, it is quite clear that a) this would need to be defined (which it isn’t); b) this would not be useful for a public-awareness infographic; and c) the formula was used to try to impress rather than inform. Yet, even considering popular interpretation, the relationship described by “+” is pretty analogically descriptive of the response to crisis so far: make irrelevant additions to turn incoherence into novelty.

Nevertheless, it has spurred me to start collecting, with greater energy, other examples of such mathematical representations of the current pandemic that abound in the media. Should we be fortunate to have the time and space to culturally analyse them, it would, I’m sure, make interesting reading.

4th May 2020

 

It is May and I have got round to some critical readings, (hooray!) albeit not the most immediately relevant. I’ve begun Stephon Alexander’s 2016 The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music And The Structure of the Universe, which opens with that famous gloss by Einstein on his theory of relativity, “It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception”. Flicking through, I’m most interested in the diagram that John Coltrane gave to Yusef Lateef as a birthday present in 1961 – that modified circle of fifths mandala.

 

coltrane-circle-new

That’s about as far as I got. Thinking and writing clearly about music and mathematics is one of my favourite things to do – the clarity is something really special. But it feels a long way off, right now. Exhausted, and other marking and contractual uncertainties keeping me unproductive. And so, I’m done. Does this count as a post? A micro-post?

27th April 2020

 

I think I’m beginning to overcome a real funk and funky ennui that has made it very difficult indeed to work this past week. It may have been the sunshine – unseasonably hot, and in Glasgow of all places, especially in our little south-facing suntrap – which slowed everything way down, but it was also a shiftlessness. Kafka, 28th July 1914 : “I am more and more unable to think, to observe, to determine the truth of things, to remember, to speak, to share an experience; I am turning to stone, this is the truth”.  Although not nearly as bad as Kafka’s “Despairing first impression of the barrenness, the miserable house, the bad food with neither fruit nor vegetables” – we’ve got fresh veg delivered from the local grocer – 45 days in the same limited square footage has certainly turned me towards the stonelike. I’ve tried reflecting on my teaching practice and taken heart in returning to marking essays in order to reinvigorate through dialogue with students about texts I love and care about. I seem to be able to read fiction, albeit in very short bursts, but there has been a block in reading criticism. However, easy does it, that can be my small goal to achieve by the week’s end.

20th April 2020

 

I’ve been stunned beyond adequate reflection by the Orwellian propaganda drama coming out of the White House – meltdowns; cancelling funding to the WHO in the middle of a pandemic. This as the (unsurprising) news of UK leadership failures has finally been published, by The Sunday Times, no less! I managed to tear my eyes away from the news long enough to finally get round to watching Craig Mazin’s Chernobyl – incredible storytelling and way too resonant for today’s crises for comfort.

 

Despite the melancholic distractions, I calmed myself down from all this terror with another junction of maths and literature – a choral arrangement for a famous Biblical story (unnamed so I don’t get sued). Exploring the polyphonic arithmetic required to move from sombre Gregorian Chant to ecstatic four-part harmony with just four tenor voices, and manipulating the simple note arrangements on the staves is pretty soothing.

 

The past few days have also permitted some beautiful reading in the sun. I finished Saunders’s extraordinary Lincoln in the Bardo, and was particularly moved by the melancholy between worlds and unfinished business, note “A Heavy Bough Hung Down” – a song that evokes both Abel Meeropol’s ‘Strange Fruit’ (“Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”) and Joseph Beaumont’s Psyche or Love’s Misery, Canto II (Lust Conquered), 162:

Now those pageant beauties which of late

Had there trim’d up a Temple for Delight,

Were all unmask’d ; and Melancholy sate

Shrouding her hideous self in mid-day night.

The heavy nodding Trees all languished.

And ev’ry sleepy bough hung down its head.

 

This otherwordly delight has kicked me into getting through stacks of pleasure reading beyond some online-exam-prep work: returning to Morrison’s Beloved and Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is liberating and devastating all over again, and is also helping reorient my own critical writing. While I’ve been picking away at a chapter on Wallace and Infinity, I should (cloudy weather permitting) be able to complete a draft, from the overwhelming notes, by next week.

13th April 2020

 

On this wonderfully sunny day, there is a moment of calm. Birds call out in song. Neighbours greet each other from a distance on their permitted daily walks. There is a chance to regroup. Many friends reaching out with projects to undertake – how to plan and carry out tutorials, guides, hang outs, pub quizzes and concerts. These events give us something both more and less. Relative deprivation, relative gratification.

 

Right now, in the taps-aff, vitamin-D-rich sunlight, I’m reading Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, and Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. There are lots of really interesting approaches to (moving through) space in these narratives that might benefit from a less alphanumerical mathematical framework. Something more intuitively topological, object-oriented, arrangements of (and in) fields and codes.

 

At some point, I’ll need to also get round to my lockdown reading list. But, with the library shut I’m going to have some trouble getting a hold of Arka Chattopadhyay’s Becket, Lacan and the Mathematical Writing of the Real (2019), Hanjo Berressem’s Eigenvalue and Michael Tonder’s The Physics of Possibility: Victorian Fiction, Science, and Gender (2018). Baylee Brits’s Literary Infinities: Number and Narrative in Modern Fiction (2018) would also have been really useful to have around right now as I try to maintain focus on writing my chapter on Wallace and Mathematical Infinity for Cambridge University Press. This alongside the book proposal and other CPD activities – HE fellowship applications, virtual learning, social-media networking. Of course, I feel that I have everything I need to work productively on all my writing and training: time, space, distractionless quiet…

 

And then I remember why that is and spiral: vacillating between emergency-supply shopping and side-hustles (to not starve or get evicted), brain-rot tv, and other mindless and necessary procrastinations (to not burnout and meltdown). Deprived and gratified – relatively speaking.

6th April 2020

 

As the lockdown and isolation continues beyond what must be the longest March I’ve ever experienced, virtual connection is proving to be the new norm. Which has its benefits. The David Foster Wallace Research Group is branching out and doing a group read of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport. Really interesting experience – reminding me a lot of my time as an undergraduate on a James Joyce course. Now, of course, I’m blessed/cursed to be more attuned to the mathematical references. So, in response to her son’s maths homework, ‘the fact that as soon as I [the narrator] see[s] numbers in parentheses I kind of freeze up’, opens up this really interesting approach to mathematical (il)literacy and the emotional, affective responses it generates. There’s also much navigation/orientation around and between the narrator’s home and mind with numerical temporal markers – an important, rational inscription yet one constantly challenged (or in dialogue with) memory and other thought-trains.

I’m thinking too of Bergson’s ‘mathematical’ time, and of Tim Morton’s description of Husserlian transcendental reason as a ‘mathematiz[ing]’ force, inseparable from phenomenological experience.

Right now, I’m probably most interested in pursuing this in relation to music. Timbre and frequency. What Jason Robert Brown calls his ‘mathematical’ approach to structure and composition. The fact that all composers have the same limitations – how to arrange the same finite elements in each bar – and how these literally rational tools are how the musical problem is posed and how it is solved. At the same time, there is the rather more pedestrian understanding (a deceptive one) of those everyday mathematical applications: a cooking recipe; a calendar; a ‘personal best’ on a distance run or weight-lift. In short, lots of ideas brewing, and – now most of the marking is done and we’re still on lockdown – plenty of time to be reading. That said, some days are hard and, as is constantly pointed out, now is the time to become unshackled from frameworks of ‘productivity’. Nevertheless, I’m pleased that the PhD hasn’t completely obliterated my curiosity – after a little fallow period, new buds emerge.

30th March 2020

By yonde Betany, as Y yew telle,
Joachym wt schepardys dyd dwelle
Forty days and fowrty nyhyte,
Vnto he sey an angel brhyte.
By yonde ys a wyldernys of quarentyne
Wher Cryst wyth fastyng hys body dyd pyne,
In that holy place, as we rede.
The deuyl wold had of stonys bred

– William Wey, “Holy placis to Flum Jordan”, Itineraries, ([1470] 1857) p.14

Well, as a country we’re in almost-full lockdown now. “You should only leave the house for 1 of 4 reasons”:

  • shopping for basic necessities, for example food and medicine, which must be as infrequent as possible
  • one form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household
  • any medical need, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
  • travelling to and from work, but only where this absolutely cannot be done from home

These 4 reasons are exceptions – even when doing these activities, you should be minimising time spent outside of the home and ensuring you are 2 metres apart from anyone outside of your household.

From the back window, we can see those on their “one form of exercise”, passing each other on metre-wide paths, or those undertaking that emergency shopping trip – where they’d have to comply with distancing enforcement and queues to limit congestion: black-and-yellow-tape squares taking the art of queuing to new levels of orderly everyday fetish. We also see the police patrols exercising new wide-ranging powers of surveillance, command, and detention.

In this climate, it is very hard to get any kind of work done. I have two book chapter deadlines approaching, as well as a book proposal to redraft. And yet, the shear apocalyptic weight of it all makes it hard to think straight. I begin thoughts that trail off into stasis, walk into rooms and forget why; these suspensions broken by breaking news or innocuous memes that can send me spiraling. I can’t put my finger on it.

The earlier lockdown of university campuses embarked us on a frantic journey to online learning. This has meant continued disruption and anxiety for students and staff. Instead of a live performance, my lecture on Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth – some tentative probing of immediate thoughts, critical reading, and early research – is now exposed to all kinds of scrutiny and dissemination that normally would have been reserved for its published form. Meetings are now carried out through grainy portholes into homes that feature houseplants and housepets prominently. Emails with scary capitalisations – URGENT EMERGENCY CORONAVIRUS UPDATE – pour forth endlessly.

Off-campus, at the frontlines, trenches are dug and already bleak. Emotional and reasoned calls for medical volunteers jar with demands to keep each human ecology isolated. Loved ones in the fight at the hospital; loved ones in hospital, fighting. Shut the door; the draft will come.

And it is Spring. There is blue sky and sunshine.