Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Yellow Claw: Intimations of the Kindgom in Sax Rohmer

Fig 1:"Sax Rohmer"

"What do you know of animal magnetism?" snapped Smith.
The question seemed so wildly irrelevant that I stared at him in silence for some moments. Then—
"Certain powers sometimes grouped under that head are recognized in every hospital to-day," I answered shortly.
Sax Rohmer, The Hand of Fu-Manchu,
Chapter 28: The Mandarin Ki-Ming

In a (more or less) recent post, Twinglebrook-Hastings deepened our understanding of the genealogy of the kind of narrative we have been calling "symbology" by deftly drawing attention to the proto-symbological character of H.P. Lovecraft's work.  I want to add a little, in what I hope to make a rather concise post, to this evolving cladogram by introducing to this forum the work of Lovecraft's near-exact if slightly longer-lived contemporary, Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward, (1883-1959) better known by the nom de guerre "Sax Rohmer."

Fig 2: The Book of Fu-Manchu
This absurdly prolific author flourished in the early years of the last century, and enjoys the twin distinctions of having created Doctor Fu Manchu (who, despite the fact that his name is now virtually solely used in association with a type of moustache, is completely hairless in the locus classicus) and of having bequeathed to the English-speaking world the phrase "Yellow Peril."  Felicitously, many of his works recounting the nefarious exploits of the insidious doctor in his implacable attempt to overthrow "the entire White race" and open the Western world to the "Yellow Tide" are available from Librivox.

Fig 3: Dr. Fu-Manchu
Rohmer, like Lovecraft, was an inveterate racist who understood all humans not originating in the Home Counties to exist somewhere on a continuum of degenerate savagery terminating in the near-animal Hottentots and Tierra del Fuegans.  While Lovecraft was obssessed with the slippage of civilized humanity down the scale through individual degeneracy and miscegenating intercourse with extra-dimensional monsters, Rohmer entertained, at enormous length, the fear that European Civilization would be violently overthrown and subjugated by a disciplined Chinese conspiracy whose tendrils ramified through all the organs of civil society, and whose infamous agent he describes in this justly famous passage:
Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government--which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the Yellow Peril incarnate in one man.
Rohmer is definitely pre-symbological, although there is no question he participates in what I have labelled in the diagram below "ürsymbologie," viz. 19th century discourses of pyramidology and the occult.  His first published work was entitled The Mysterious Mummy, and the protagonist and chronicler of the Fu-Manchu novels is named after Sir William Flinders Petrie.  His clearest modern symbological (or quasi-symbological) descendant is definitely Matthew Reilly, since (when not engaged in really stunning Orientalist pyrotechnics,) the narrative mainly evolves through the cacognostic agon like that I have previously described in that Australian charlatan's "work."

Fig 4. Insignia of the Great White Brotherhood
However, Rohmer's work is interesting beyond its position as a branching point in the genealogy of symbology, since it the discovery of his work further illuminates the most enigmatic member of hte symbological canon, Kingdom.  Dr. Twinglebrook-Hastings (Ibid.), has already delineated the significance of H.P. Lovecraft's work as a precursor to Tom Martin's latest (and final?) offering; now it seems clear that (among other things,) Martin was undertaking a re-unification of the symbological tradition through rehabilitating Rohmer as a source.  While it is animated by a Lovecraftian epistemology, the political mechanics of the pan-Asiatic occultist conspiracy described in Kingdom are plainly derived from Rohmer's "Si-Fan," (the organization of which Fu-Manchu is merely one tentacle.)  In fact, we may have the Book of Dzyann to thank for Rohmer himself: according to an internet biographer, "There's a story, that he consulted with his wife a ouija board as to how he could best make a living. The answer was 'C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N'."

Fig 5. Badger-Baiting
Interestingly, I am not the first person to intuit Rohmer's connection to this genealogy, nor even specifically to Lovecraft.  The bizarrely prescient and enigmatic John Darnielle included songs inspired by (and named after) both Rohmer and Lovecraft on a recent album, Heretic Pride, which presumably indicates some awareness of their mutual status as proto-symbologists.  On a more tangential level, during my research into Rohmer I discovered a spoken word piece by William S. Burroughs from the album Dead City Radio which relates Rohmer directly to the Western (and particularly English) horror of mustelidae in general and Meles meles in particular, a theme which has been regrettably absent from this forum for a while but on which I hope this piece will revive some enthusiasm for comment.

I set out to keep this brief, and as usual it hasn't worked - so I will finish rather abruptly with a provisional cladogram illustrating the genealogy of symbology as I am coming to understand it (which I hope will be subject to extensive revision), and in anticipation that further elucidation of this important and offensive proto-symbological author will be forthcoming.
Figure 6: Provisional Genealogy of the Symbological Novel

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


In collaboration with our resident chair of Latinologiatry, Professor Arthur Sticklebackton-Niddley, I humbly propose the device figured below as emblematic of our shared pursuits.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Acheronta non movebo: the neurosymbology of dreams

Christopher Nolan's Inception admittedly does not fit neatly into the frameworks we have established so far for the discussion of contemporary symbological and quasi-symbological cultural products. Indeed, the subject positions available within the film's diegesis are nearly all ultimately reducible to what I have called in my discussion of Avatar "vulgar economic determinism," which we might generously understand as a kind of degraded version of cacognosis (or conversely, and this is a matter that should be explored in greater depth on another occasion, we might understand cacognosis as a mythification of the calculating literalism-materialism imputed to the homo economicus of modern capitalist societies). The protagonists' ventures into the intricately manufactured and utterly undreamlike dreamscapes of Nolan's film, after all, are all prompted by the banal business interests of Japanese energy executive Saito. It should be added that despite the film's underdetermined use of a Japanese character, apparently mainly as an excuse for some decorative scenes of sumptuous luxury, as well as decorative riot scene in what seems to be someone's dream-image of a chaotic Oriental city, and a long and largely pointless and irrelevant chase scene in Mombasa, which leads the protagonists to Yusuf, the "chemist" who will be responsible for inducing the dream state in which the film's main action takes place, the film ultimately does not bother to engage in any particularly extensive Orientalism, even of the most standard Hollywood sort. I take this avoidance as symptomatic of its equally significant lack of interest in orthognosis, even as a structuring absence - that is, it shows no interest in positing a subject who knows completely and intuitively (cf. the function of the Na'vi in Avatar). Meanwhile, we might posit a sort of degree zero of cacognosis in the de-instrumentalized use of the technologies of dream exploration by protagonist Cobb and his wife Mal, whose mistake is to have taken all too literally the epistemological implications of their adventures in inner space (by way of which implications, by the way, the film offers us little more than the dumbed-down version of Cartesian doubt familiar from The Matrix and elsewhere), and to detach these implications from the utility of the technologies as a means to achieve more effectively the quotidian goals allegedly guiding waking life, like maintaining corporate hegemony. However, this connection is tenuous, in part because the film is so insistent in returning us to a world in which subjects' only conceivable motivations belong either to the realm of the economic (Saito's desire not to have his energy empire taken over by Fischer) or to that of the sentimental (Cobb's desire to get back to his kids), Mal's suicide is consigned to the realm of the irrational and the nonsensical, which is of course concomitant with the fact that it was brought about inadvertently by Cobb's use of "inception" (understood as "getting people to do things for reasons they are not aware of").
The latter definition of the term also used as the film's title, incidentally, points us towards what Twinglebrook-Hastings (private correspondence) has described as the radically anti-Freudian core of the film: Nolan presents unconscious motivation as the improbable and hard-to-achieve (for Cobb and his colleagues) exception to the generally complete self-awareness of the human subject, who at all times has intuitive consciousness of the real of his (pedestrian and mechanical) desire. In spite of all the caveats just adduced, and particularly in light of Prandleforth's scintillating recent discussion of Avatar, which helpfully codifies the shared assumptions and procedures of symbological and neurosymbological discourse, I would like to propose that Inception gives us, in nuce, an emblematic explication of the (neuro)symbological model of the mind and thereby allows us to formulate, expanding upon Twinglebrook-Hastings' observations, a new and perhaps not entirely obvious hypothesis: symbology is that discourse for which there can be no unconscious, properly understood. Such a hypothesis, if its validity stands, may allow us to to find points of encounter between the project of critical symbology and such apparently disparate enterprises as Lacan's critique of ego psychology.
Reigning neurosymbologist-in-chief Jonah Lehrer has helpfully provided us with a starting point for our considerations. In a recent installment of his Frontal Cortex blog, Lehrer offers a reading of the film as a resounding confirmation of certain neurosymbological pseudo-insights, proceeding from the assertion that "from the perspective of your brain, dreaming and movie-watching are strangely parallel experiences" to posit baldly that "Inception tries to collapse the already thin distinction between dreaming and movie-watching." The last time I looked, asserting that there is a parallel between x and y does not imply that there is only a thin distinction between x and y, but such objections are of course moot in the face of the correlations enabled by the wondrous fMRI machine: predictably enough, the evidence that allows Lehrer to make this leap comes in the form of a series of brain scans carried out by researchers at Hebrew University on subjects during a screening of Clint Eastwood's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." From this study, we learn that "people showed a remarkable level of similarity when it came to the activation of areas including the visual cortex (no surprise there), fusiform gyrus (it was turned on when the camera zoomed in on a face), areas related to the processing of touch (they were activated during scenes involving physical contact) and so on," and that in the course of viewing a film, just as when we dream "self-awareness is strangely diminished" with the partial shutting down of the prefrontal cortex while there is "an increase in activation of the so-called 'limbic' areas, those chunks of the cortex associated with the production of emotion." When, we dream, Lehrer notes, "[i]t's as if our cortex is entertaining us with surreal cinema." In his enthusiasm, Lehrer has evidently forgotten that one of the main goals of surrealism, the movement which both coined the term "surreal" and brought it into general parlance, was to attempt to bring art closer to the logic of dreams - the simile is therefore about as illuminating as stating that "it's as if that bear was wrapped in an extremely convincing imitation bearskin rug!"
Recalling Prandleforth's recent definition of neurosymbology, therefore, as "discourse about the mind which demands that phenomenological expeirence subsist in, and be sufficiently accountable for by, anatomo-physiological mechanisms in the brain and that, to continue the parallel, hermeneutic discrimination privilege indexically correlative relations (i.e. those observed in functional brain imaging studies), univalence, (how can mechanism be polyvalent?) and antiquity," we may quickly conclude that Lehrer's Inception review is a veritable classic of the genre. Dreams and cinema are not simply parallel but rather indistinguishable in this account insofar as they activate and deactivate the same regions of the brain; whatever glaring differences might exist between them in broad terms, or between individual films and individual dreams, belong to the realm of the epiphenomenal. Likewise, the criterion of univalence is satisfied by the study's claims about the "remarkable similarities" between different subjects' experiences of the film as measured their "virtually universal" patterns of brain activity when viewing the same film (as an aside, I am unclear as to how this observation does anything more than confirm the obvious point, for which we need no fMRI machine, that different subjects tend to receive and process the same sensory stimuli in the same way). Although it does not appear here, an evolutionary psychological supplement would no doubt be easy to supply (for instance, one can imagine the claim that periodic exercise of the visual cortex in the absence of frontal cortex-induced self-awareness carried an adaptive advantage for our ancestors by helping them to engage more fully in the hunt, or perhaps by allowing them to respond uninhibitedly to the visual enticements placed before them by potential mates, or both).
A further conclusion to be drawn from Lehrer's account of the Hebrew University study is that we are all, qua dreamers/moviegoers, hard-wired to be symb-pologists (A), that is, to recall own definition of this class, to espouse by default the following proposition: "'[Insert name of symbological work] may be stupid and pointless in the end, but who cares? It was a good read/fun/beautiful/riveting.' Which we might translate: 'Insert name of symbological work] was an effective formal exercise, so why worry about the particular content that was plugged into it?'" By universalizing symb-pology (A) as the default stance of what we might call the "subject of fun," Lehrer accounts for the viewer's ostensible lack of concern about the glaring internal incoherence of Nolan's storyline ("most of the major plot points are simultaneously nonsensical and strangely compelling") while also providing the film with a minimal second-order explanation of its own representation of dreamlife as a kind of inner multiplex. It should be clear by now how this explanation of dreamlife, and therefore of the unconscious, turns out to be rather a refusal to offer an explanation, and more importantly a categorical denial of the existence of anything recognizable as the unconscious. For Lehrer as for Nolan, movies and dreams are essentially the same thing in that they mobilize a kind of pure sensory experience in which both "self-awareness" and its concomitant critical faculties recede and allow us to enjoy in precisely the manner symb-pology (A) instructs us to. There is no part of our mind which is inaccessible per se to conscious introspection, there are simply realms of experience in which introspection tends to be temporarily shut off, and in which, evidently, our ability to control the content of our consciousness is partially disabled (the appearances of Mal, for instance, do not represent anything more than Cobb's consciously avowed feelings of guilt about his role in her death). The model possesses notable parallels with symbological hermeneutics, in that the contents of the mind are something to be literally physically extracted, much as Robert Langdon might extract encoded documents from a cryptex: after all, the entire task of "extractors" like DiCaprio's Cobb is to obtain information like safe combinations and Swiss bank account numbers from the subjects whose dreams they invade. But just as the bones of Mary Magdalene turn out to be a pretext for the vigorous reassertion of mind-numbingly familiar cultural obviousnesses, Cobb's allegedly intrepid probings of the mind merely lead him back to the banality of his desire to "get back to his kids," the latter functioning throughout the film as nothing more than a pure formal vehicle of recontainment.
(Neuro-)symbological desire, we may conclude from Nolan's and Lehrer's mappings of the mind, is that desire whose real is always already known to us, completely consistent as it is at all moments with its conscious articulation; both the unfolding and the enjoyment of narrative depend upon a temporary amnesia vis-à-vis its humdrum kernel. To conclude, I would like to suggest that an identically structured desire is operative, by definition, in all symbological fiction worthy of the name, where what we seek in the pursuit of the code turns out to simply be what we always sought and knew we sought anyway.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hic Blemmyae Sunt: "Avatar" and Neurosymbology

Bremselhacker, in his recent analysis of James Cameron's Avatar, has drawn our attention to the "extensive series of resemblances and correspondences" between the situation of the Na'vi and that of the "the deracinated, 'wired' subject of late technoscientific capitalism."  He argues persuasively that Cameron's twelve foot tall blue pseudo-feline aliens represent the Orthognostic Other of the "subject of vulgar economic determinism," because they represent "global technoscientific capitalism's spectral image of itself (...) without the conflicts it generates."  I hope to expand a little on Bremselhacker's perceptive treatment of Cameron's text and to make explicit some of the analytic apparatus which has been evolved by members of this forum for the analysis of what we have been calling "neurosymbology."

I. What is Neurosymbology?
We have become accustomed to an articulate critique of symbology rooted in the Generative Grammer which makes extensive and effective reference to the "subject positions" generated by this simple grid (i.e. orthognosis, cacognosis, mythognosis, and the unspoken central antagonist, "Judith Butler").  Bremselhacker is correct that it is difficult to find these in (most) of the male protagonists of Avatar, whom, as he notes, are "not even cacognostic," but rather "subjects of vulgar economic determinism."  While I agree that a mechanically symbological reading of Avatar is tenuous at best, I continue to believe that when confronted with any serious difficulty in symbological analysis our rallying cry must be, to paraphrase Lacan, "Back to Brown!"

The earliest characterization of Brownian symbology, which has remained the foundation of all subsequent criticism, was that it is driven by an anti-Saussurean epistemology.  That is to say, the arbitrary nature of the relation between the signifier and the signified is anathema to symbology.  In fact, symbology might be simply defined as discourse which demands of signifying relations, as a condition of their validity, that they be non-arbitrarily motivated; and further, that in hermeneutic discrimination univalence, indexicality, and antiquity be the fundamental evaluative criteria.  The Generative Grammar and all the descriptions it produces are posterior to these postulates, which constitute symbology's conditions of possibility.

Neurosymbology is a recently identified and related discourse which is primarily embodied in popular representations of neuroscience, and is can be considered a derivative of general symbology in that its conditions of possibility are simply refinements of those stated above.  Neurosymbology, therefore, is discourse about the mind which demands that phenomenological expeirence subsist in, and be sufficiently accountable for by, anatomo-physiological mechanisms in the brain and that, to continue the parallel, hermeneutic discrimination privilege indexically correlative relations (i.e. those observed in functional brain imaging studies) univalence, (how can mechanism be polyvalent?) and antiquity.  The final evaluative criterion refers not, of course, to the correlation of modern neuroscience with ancient notions about the brain (although certainly this is a salient feature of certain ancillary streams of commentary, e.g. the work of Fritjof Capra, and of recent iterations of classical symbology, e.g. The Lost Symbol,), but rather to the obsessive correlation of neuroscientific claims with speculative visions of primordial phenomenology which are derived either from pure speculation (e.g. by Leonard Shlain) or evolutionary psychology (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Pascal Boyer et al.)  Thus, neurosymbological explanations are judged according to their indexical coherence with modalities like fMRI and their putative explanatory power with reference to (pre-existing) narratives about the evolution of human consciousness (which are generally as tendentious as, say, Brown's precis of Western European history).

Similar derivative correspondences are obvious in the functional ramifications of symbology and neurosymbology, as well.  It is now well established that symbological narrative exhibits a circumspect ideological functionality, generally referred to as "ideological recontainment," which can be summarized as follows: the reader is asked to identify with a protagonist or group of protagonists who come to realize that an impending revelation will challenge the very foundations of their bourgeouis subjectivity. The body of the narrative is then concerned with the solution of the Code which conceals the ostensibly incendiary revelation, which proceeds through the discovery of a series of highly motivated and typically antique relations of signification.  In the denoument (AKA the "flagrant cop-out,") however, the threatening revelation turns out to be an illusion, and is resolved as a general statement of one or more of the basic precepts of the ideology which initially appeared to be under threat.  Bourgeois subjectivity is threatened, only to be re-constituted as the only possible mode of being.  The subject of ideology is thereby "recontained." "It is nothing, it is a symbol."
Neurosymbology exhibits a precisely analogous recontaining function.  In the neurosymbological text (typically a newspaper or popular magazine article,) an apparently counter-intuitive or alarming neurological finding is revealed by, say, an fMRI study or a behavioral study.  Tension is defused, however, by the neurosymbological explanation, which re-situates the finding as immanent in a precise neuroanatomical location and attributes to it a series of attributes and relations which comfortingly cohere with bourgeois ideology, particularly the subset thereof known as "evolutionary psychology."  The possiblity that the relationship of phenomenology to neuroanatomy may be irreducibly complex, only partial, radically different across time and culture, etc. is thereby foreclosed, and cultural chauvanism and local ideology are re-presented as equivalent to natural order.

To summarize, then, neurosymbology is discourse about the mind which shares the fundamental epistemological commitments already identified in symbology proper, and which produces similar functional results.

II. Neurosymbology in Avatar
Bremselhacker has also noted (ibid.) that,
The extensive human installation in technological prostheses is similarly parallel to the Na'vi's relationship to their animal prostheses, horse and pteradactyl-like beings into which they plug a tendril-like supernumerary limb in order to control their movements. The total integration of mind and nature always already achieved in the Na'vi's orthognostic inertia is also the explicit goal of both Augustine's research and the military technologies used by the Colonel to bring Pandora under the more effective control of corporate power.
What I wish to draw attention to is the persistence of this symmetry when the situations of the humans and the Na'vi in Avatar when viewed as neurosymbological positions, and their correspondence to the Orthognostic Other: Subject of Vulgar Economic Determinism dialectic as Bremselhacker has described it. 

Both groups are characterized by their realization of the dreams of neurosymbology, although they achieve them in dialectically opposed ways.  The humans, as we are led repeatedly to infer from their frequent use of three-dimensional functional brain imaging, possess a perfected neurosymbological technology which, qua perfect simulacrum, is capable of projecting individual phenomenal experience into other bodies.  The brain is clearly figured here as nothing more than a vehicle for neurosymbological representation.  This utopian vision re-figures the recurring Western nightmare of the necromantic automaton (whose avatars, so to speak, range from Frankenstein's monster to the Terminator,) as the perfect expression and logical conclusion of technoscience, neurosymbologically construed.

The Na'vi achieve exactly the same result; they too are capable not only of accessorizing their consciousness with various prostheses, but actually effecting the transmigration through neurosymbological representation of whole minds between different bodies.  However, they do so through organic (i.e. orthognostic) means, mediated by the world-spirit of Pandora (who's famous box is, of course, the eternal metaphor for the dangers of technoscience).  Correspondingly, the dominant metaphor for Na'vi neurosymbology is not necromancy but sexuality, (as is inescapably conveyed by their moist, pink polyphallic appendages), or, as suggested by the highly disturbing scene of pterodactyl domestication, rape. 

It should be obvious that the neurosymbological dialectics of Avatar are homologous to those already described by Bremselhacker, in that they "remind us of the necessity of our assuming this position by allowing us to forget that we are assuming it;" the Na'vi's neurosymbological utopia is exactly that of the humans,
"minus the contradictions it generates."  However, I think the neurosymbological turn allows us to appreciate a larger, environing circumstance of both.

If the series [Na'vi : Nature : Sexuality :: Necromancy : Technology : Human] presents a dialectic in which the subject must imagine itself as one half in order to be the other, both sides have, as a fundamental condition of their possibility, the exclusion of the possiblity of any substantive intersubjective or intercultural difference.  Bremselhacker notes early on that,
Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that one could set the same storyline in, say, the Amazon, Indonesia, or the Congo, with few significant alterations, and you would have a relatively realistic, if schematic and manichean, representation of the very real and very contemporary catastrophic impact of the extraction of raw materials on small-scale subsistence communities. 

It seems to me that this is precisely the point.  Despite the lip-service paid to anthropology and to field study, both halves of Avatar's dialectic deny the possibity of any substantive difference between humans and the distillate of National Geographic cliches that is the Na'vi.  In fact, the film's anthropologists seem to be comprehensively incapacitated by their presupposition that intense linguistic, historical and cultural study might be necessary to understanding Pandora's inhabitants.  It is, after all, the untutored, foul-mouthed, gung-ho Marine who turns out to be the only one capable of achieving a hermeneutic fusion of horizons with them, confirming that, as the saying went, "inside every gook there's an American waiting to get out."
In keeping with the hierarchy of subtlety in Avatar, this point is made more crudely but perhaps more evocatively by the mercenary subjects of vulgar economic determinism.  The favored prostheses of the future's warriors are, unmistakeably, robotic acephali, AKA Blemmyae:

The same technology of neurosymbology which establishes the equivalence of Jake Sully and the Na'vi produce the equally significant equation of corporate mercenaries with one of the more evocative and durable symbols of radical cultural difference ever produced.

Avatar can thus be read as a neurosymbological refutation of the possibility that significant problems of intersubjective understanding may exist, and an affirmation that, in fact, the situation of the mercenary American subject of late capitalism is coeval with subjectivity generally.  Clearly this has ramifications for a variety of American xenophobic discourses, particularly those treating the "Clash of Civilizations" ostended to underly the "War on Terror."  These must be explored elsewhere, but I think the forgoing suggests that they will turn out to be less than innocent.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

From Greenwich to Giza: An Excursion to Pyramidiocy

The symbologist's destiny lies in the Orient. The Orient is where the Facile Wisdom of the Ancients lies, that virtus dormativa that will confirm the status quo and contain any threats to the symbologist's spontaneous understanding of himself and the world. Tom Martin's Pyramid provides in beautiful miniature an example of what gets our symbologists from Oxford to Giza and back. Consider the following passage where Catherine and Rutherford with Bezumov the secret and subversive world maps passed on to them from Professor Kent that provide proof of an advanced ancient civilization.

        Rutherford and Catherine leaned over to better see what was causing Bezumov’s excitement. It appeared to be a normal map of the world but in its top right corner it bore the legend ‘Implied Prime Meridian of Piri Reis Map – Property of US Air Force’. The map’s line of zero longitude, instead of running through the Greenwich Observatory in London, ran through the desert, just adjacent to Cairo.
Bezumov was salivating with joy, running his hands up and down the edge of the map.
        ‘Giza! Why didn’t I trust my instincts?’
        Catherine and Rutherford looked at each other in bewilderment.
        Catherine was the first to speak: ‘What does it mean?’
        With a wolf-like smile the Russian turned to her.
        ‘It means, my dear girl, that some kind soul in the American military has gone to the trouble of calculating where the original creators of the Piri Reis map located their degree zero, their equivalent of Greenwich Observatory, and it was Giza...’ (Pyramid p. 193)

This passage contains the crucial discovery that propels our symbologists toward the Great Pyramid. The only problem with Bezumov's discovery and the US Air Force's "calculations" is that it makes absolutely no sense of any kind.

Fig. 1 Piri Reis Map (1513)
Fig. 2 Prime Meridian 
The Piri Reis map (fig. 1) cannot have an "Implied Prime Meridian" because it is not constructed along meridian lines at all. Meridians are imaginary, arbitrary lines of longitude stretching from the North Pole to the South pole and intersecting lines of latitude to give each point on the Earth's surface a distinct numeric coordinate. The equator is the natural place to locate 0° latitude because it is equidistant from the Earth's poles, but the location longitude's 0°, the "Prime Meridian", is completely arbitrary. There has been significant debate about where to locate it, but today by convention the Prime Meridian passes through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, UK (fig. 2). The lines that criss-cross the Piri Reis map connecting its compass roses do not correspond to lines of longitude and latitude, although three of the compass roses are placed roughly at the latitudes of the equator and the two tropics. Even if meridian lines were drawn on the Piri Reis map forming the familiar grid, unless those were notated with numbers indicating where the map makers were counting from, there simply would be no prime meridian. The location of a prime meridian uniformly transforms the figures of navigational charts, but it does not effect the appearance of a map projection. It simply does not even make sense here to talk of the existence of a prime meridian on the Piri Reis map, let alone its calculation. It would be as though one sketched a picture of a friends face in a notebook, then compared it to a photograph, drew a cross over their face and then claimed that the cross indicated the point of origin on a Cartesian coordinate system as calculated from the sketch.  Bezumov's relationship to the USAF map is analogous to this faux-coordinatized face.

Fig 3. Azimuthal equidistant
centered at Giza
As is always the case in Martin, what is immediately striking is the incongruous ignorance of the protagonists. While the reader cannot be expected to have seen the Piri Reis map or know what a meridian is, Catherine is an astronomer and has the Piri Reis map in front of her. Despite being the Youngest Ever Professor of Very Hard Sums at All Souls, she is apparently completely ignorant of all but the most superficial features of her own discipline. My colleague Dr. Sturgeron von Prandleforth has elsewhere developed the apophatic consequences of Rutherford and Catherine's radical and total ignorance of their own fields in connection with their programmatic recapitulation of 19th c. colonial British uses of antiquarianism, meridian astronomy and historical speculation that amounts to the existence officially endorsed Imperial Symbologists in the pay of the British East India Company. I enthusiastically refer the reader to his majestic synthesis of the critique of symbology with Simon Schaffer's indispensable work on the mutual support, condition and cause astronomy and colonial enterprise provided for each other in the 19th c. Here I wish only to point out the majestic elegance with which Tom Martin manages not to make sense on a number of levels at once. He rejects as his content the only conjecture about the Piri Reis map which, even though false, is at least visually convincing, viz. the not that it is a partial representation of an azimuthal projection with its center at  Giza. See The Mysteries of the Piri Reis Map for a more comprehensive treatment of this subject. My aim is not, however, to critique the conspiracy theorists but to point out that Tom Martin isn't even trying.

Fig. 4 Greenwich Observatory, Center
of the British Empire
But if none of the cartography makes sense, what does?

Giza... the pyramids. This was the apex of the old civilization. And in four days’ time, on Monday, at sunrise, it will be the spring equinox. I must be there! He who controls Giza controls the world...’ (194)
The military in the symbological universe is invariably a pure force of cacognosis, a power-hungry gang of soldier of fortune mythognostic symbologists fighting their way through South American jungles and Arabian deserts in search of lost artifacts that will convey fabulous temporal power (Prandleforth 2009c). In other words, they are the institutional versions of Bezumov, the cacognostic villain of Pyramid. The cacognostic believes that the code is literal. If the Great Pyramid at Giza is the heart of a global network of lay lines commanded by an ancient civilization, then the literalist cartographer would have to put Giza at its actual, visual center, no matter how useless this projection would be for navigation outside of north Africa. Bezumov's equation of Giza with Greenwich is absolutely correct: He who controls Giza controls the world. We use a prime meridian that passes through Greenwich because in the 18th and 19th centuries a cabal of worldly, covetous, power-hungry men based a sophisticated world civilization around the astronomical observatory there. This militant pack capitalists and soliders armed with the erudition of mythognostic symbologists was known colloquially as "the British" and  even though their star is no longer ascendent they have had a lasting impact on our maps. Bezumov is correct, he should have "trusted his instincts," but he cannot. "Instinct" is the masculine version of feminine "intuition" perverted by discursive reason.

All Bezumov can do is reverse the process of imperial cartography and misinterpret the code as referring to the literal center of ancient power rather than to the incongruous power of the ancients facile wisdom, an ideological power destined reinforce the hegemony of the present global empire whose riches Catherine and Rutherford enjoy from the confines of their universities. It is because Bezumov can only conceive of material correlates to the code that he has got hold of the wrong end of the symbological stick. It is as though a brilliant but insane 19th c. Scotish scientist and adventurer got hold of some maps and a copy of Newton's Principia Mathematic from which he concluded that he could take control of the British empire by annexing Greenwich and entering and occupying the Royal Observatory.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Tom Martin, or, The Whale

 He was a man who believed that everything happened according to the will of God, but in this case, given everything else he knew, he wasn't sure what exactly God was trying to say.
Julia Navarro, The Bible of Clay
All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

 Tom Martin's Kingdom has received surprisingly little direct attention in this forum, despite frequent refgerences, and its centrality to much of the discussion which has inforrmed the analyses published here.  A notable exception is, of course, Twinglebrook-Hastings' work on Lovecraft, but nonetheless I think it is appropriate here to rehearse what I take to be some important  dimensions of Martin's latest book, since I think they are essential to reading Julia Navarro's The Bible of Clay.

Immediately prior to its publication, a central question which occupied the community of symbological critics was what, exactly, an ideal subject of symbolognosis would look like.  This question arose from the realization (which ultimately resulted in Bremselhacker's formulation of the Generative Grammar,) that it is emphatically not the symbologist.  Close readings of Pyramid, The Gaudi Key, and The Da Vinci Code had revealed that the male symbologist (Rutherford, Miguel, and Langdon, respectively) is in fact a liminal figure whose oscillation between mythognosis and cacognosis represents the motive tension of the narrative (in much the same way that, say, apparent threats to the bourgeouis sexual economy of Georgian England motivate Pride and Predjudice), which is ultimately resolved in his ascension to orthognosis via the "flagrant cop-out."  However, this resolution is ultimately unstable since, as Brown has shown us, the symbologist always reverts to mythognosis.  (Twinglebrook Hastings has pointed out elsewhere that this should mean that any given symbologist gets even more dense with every subsequent iteration, a prediction which is roundly confirmed in Brown's oeuvre.)  This observation lead to the realization that it is in fact the feminine subject of symbolognosis, (paradigmatically embodied in Catherine Donovan,) who is the model, since she is apparently invulnerable to the lure of mythognosis because of her radical ignorance of the particulars of the Code, and equally to cacognosis because of her complete inability to grasp their significance.  She begins and ends the narrative in a state of indifferance to the  reality and the significance of the Code's referent, and is therefore always already orthognostic.  However, her orthognosis is clearly different from that ultimately achieved by the symbologist, since it is inassailable, and this fact led to the distinction of the feminine subject's orthognosis by the somewhat cumbersome but nonetheless essential term "orthognosis(f)," or, more concisely, O(f).  In these respects, O(f) has important homologies with the orthognosis of the Oriental Other (i.e. Poimandres), or O(oo), which is similarly autochthonous and immutable. 

This led immediately to some excited speculation about the possibility of an experimental symbological novel in which the only protagonist was O(f) and the play of positions encompassed in the Generative Grammar was eliminated entirely.  Then, in January 2009, the "unknown but reasoning thing" put forth its features and Kingdom was published.

It is difficult to read Kindom as anything other than a programmatic exploration of the ideal subject of symbolognosis, viz. O(f).  Nancy Kelly, the novel's only important protagonist, is, if anything, a more perfect orthognostic than Catherine Donovan.  She is radically ignorant of everything which could conceivably be important to her mission of discovery, she is only capable of generating knowledge through flashes of intuition occasioned by contact with antique artifacts, and at the novel's end she is completely unfazed by the inescapable and devastating conclusions to which her journey brings her, and returns to her ordinary life.   But Martin's exploration also reveals an unanticipated feature of O(f): its derivation from the patriarchal orthognosis of the figure denoted in Towards a Metasymbology (Prandleforth and Bremselhacker, 2009) as the Father, e.g. Professor Kent in Pyramid, Jacques Saunière in The Da Vinci Code, and Anton Herzog in Kingdom.  Martin uses Kingdom to answer the vital question posed by the O(f), which is what could possibly motivate it to undertake a journey of symbological discovery in the first place.  His unambiguious answer is: the pursuit of the Father.  While the mythognostic symbologist may be distracted by cacognostic jouissance in the play of symbols, the orthognostic(f) subject is drawn through the Code to the Father.

Julia Navarro's The Bible of Clay (2008) is a complex offering which clearly bespeaks a thorough conversance with the classics of symbology and peri-symbology, in which Navarro takes up Martin's themes in order to mount a much more aggressive and fundamental critique of O(f) than that elaborated in Kingdom.  I will attempt to briefly summarize the plot before describing her critique in detail.   

The Bible of Clay opens, immediately prior to the second Gulf War, with a man confessing to a priest that he intends to murder someone.  The penitent immediately flees, and the priest emerges to find a newspaper lying on the ground announcing an archaeological conference in Rome, with the name of a participant circled in red: Tannenberg.  We quickly discover that the would-be murderer is Carlo Cipriani, eminent Italian physician, and that he and three friends, Mercedes, Bruno, and Hans are looking for one Alfred Tannenberg, a vicious ex-Nazi who brutalized them in ways which are frankly Reillyan in their hyperbolic sadism when they were all interned as children at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, and that their entire adult lives have been dedicated to hunting him down and killing him.

The conference participant, unfortunately, turns out to be Clara Tannenberg, a previously unknown archaeologist of Mesopotamia.  Clara is of Iraqi/German parentage and lives in Bagdhad.  In Navarro's first unambiguous Martinian allusion, Clara attends the conference with her Iraqi husband Ahmed Husseini, director of the Iraq's Bureau of Archaeological Investigations and a member of Saddam Hussein's "inner circle."  At the conference, in a scene which is shockingly reminiscent of the opening meeting in Revelation ("Why is there an alchemist among us?") Clara solicits the solidly mythognostic archaological community for help excavating what she calls "The Bible of Clay," which she believes is buried in Haran, Iraq, at a site recently partially exposed by an American bomb.  In an obvious reference to The Book of Abraham, (already treated at some length in this forum,) she reveals that she is in possession of two tablets unearthed by her grandfather (under poorly defined circumstances) which record the intention by a previously unknown Mesopotamian scribe named Shamas to transcribe the story of creation directly from the lips of the Jewish patriarch Abram, as dictated immediately prior to his departure for Canaan.  She and her husband are ridiculed by the assembled archaeological establishment, and she leaves in tears.

This development is upsetting to the sponsors of the conference, Ronald Brown and Ralph Barry of the Mundo Antiguo Foundation, who in turn are revealed to be the creatures of a triumvirate of octogenarian Germans who jointly run global network specializing in the illicit sale of stolen antiquities, for which the MAF is something of a fence.  It is ultimately revealed that they are all escaped Nazis, and for years have been working in partnership with Alfred Tannenberg.  Their latest scheme is to exploit the outbreak of war in Iraq to systematically loot the nation's museums and sell their contents to the world's (apparently insatiable) collectors of black-market antiquities, an undertaking in which they have the full cooperation of Clara's husband Ahmed and various other key Iraqis.  The group has split, however, over the "Bible of Clay."  Alfred is, in fact, in possession of the two initial tablets, which he did not discover but rather stole from two Jewish archaeologists whom he murdered sometime in the late thirties, and all have agreed to finance an expedition to recover the remainder.  However, Alfred wants his daughter to discover them in the public domain, and thereby gain the "respectability" he fears will be denied her after he dies and his sordid dealings come to light; the other senile Germans want to include the tablets in their museum haul, conceal their existence, and sell them for profit.  [Readers of Matthew Reilly may notice, at this point, that Navarro appears to have adopted both his insistence on Nazis as the ultimate antagonist and his practice of introducing a new, generally irrelevant character every five pages or so.]

Thus, there are two groups interested in Clara's archaological mission to Haran: the Senile German Triumvirate, and the Geriatric Assassination Society.  Neither are aware of one another in the slightest, nor are either particularly interested in the content of the Bible of Clay; the SGT wants only to sell it to the highest bidder, and the GAS wants only to kill Alfred and Clara Tannenberg (their murderous oath extends to Tannenberg's offspring as well).  It is at this point that Navarro makes clear that she is a meta-symbologist, and alerts us that close reading will be rewarded.  In the following passage Carlo Cypriani is consulting his friend Luca Marini, a Sicilian ex-Mafia hunter, for information on hiring a hit man to infiltrate Clara's expedition and kill Tannenberg:
"Luca, I want you to put me in touch with one of those agencies, that's all(...)"
"There are a couple of companies made up of former members of the SAS.  The Brits are very professional; I prefer them to the Yankees.  In my opinion, the best of the m is Global Group. Here," he said, handing Carlo a business card, "this is their address adn telephone number.  Their headquarters is in London.  You can ask for Tom Martin..."
Carlo does, in fact, consult Tom Martin despite Marini's warning (which we might all do well to heed):
"...And trust nobody."
 "Not even your friend Tom Martin?"
"Nobody, Carlo, nobody."
and Martin sends one of his more resourceful assassins, Lion Doyle (another allusion to Reilly).  Simultaneously, the SGT are approach their own preferred mercenary organization, Planet Security, looking for a man who can infiltrate Clara's mission in order to steal the tablets.  For no reason justified by the plot, the CEO of Planet Security, Paul Dukais, consults his friend Tom Martin for a recommendation, and ultimately it is another of Martin's proteges who infiltrates the mission on behalf of the Nazis.  Thus, none of the actors are aware of the agendas or even the existence of the others, with the single exception of Tom Martin, the spider at the center of the web.

Work on the dig proceeds slowly, overseen by Clara and her monstrous grandfather Alfred, who appears with his personal physician and hospital tent, clearly on the point of death from metastatic cancer, in order to witness the final excavation of his personal obssession. Clara is joined by several other largely superfluous characters, but a significant addition is Father Gian Maria, the priest who heard the confession which opened the book.  He makes his way to Iraq in order to prevent her murder personally, although he does not divulge his agenda to anybody because it would violate the sanctity of the confessional; fortunately, he happens to be an expert in ancient Near-Eastern languages, and therefore has a justifiable cover for participating in the investigation.  Clara's archaeological expertise, by contrast, subsists solely in picking up random fragments of tablets strewn around the site which then engender long intuitive flashbacks to Shamas' interactions with Abram and his transcription of Genesis.  Finally, after a series of superfluous developments, Tannenberg is assassinated by Doyle and the Clara discovers the remaining tablets through pure intuition, after the conventional archaeological experts have all abandoned the project in fear of the impending commencement of American bombing.  The tablets, as presaged by her flashbacks, turn out to contain, simply, the Book of Genesis as it appears in the King James Bible, with no apparent alterations whatever.  Despite the best efforts of the SGT and the GAS, she and Gian Maria succeed in fleeing with the tablets to Europe, where she finally is assassinated and the tablets are stolen (by the GAS and the SGT respectively, who remain unaware of one another throughout) at the gala opening of the exhibit which will display the expedition's findings. 

An initial objection to any attempt to connect The Bible of Clay with Kingdom might be that there is a serious problem of temporal plausibility, since Kingdom was published in 2009 and The Bible of Clay appeared in English as early as 2007.  However, I do not think we need be deterred by this, since the circumstantial evidence of dialogue with the author of Pyramid is overwhelming: Navarro uses a character named "Tom Martin" as the only link between The Bible of Clay's various sub-plots, she introduces another character (not detailed above because of his utter pointlessness) named "Senator Miller," and there are various other homages to Martinian prose (for instance her description of Cairo drivers on page 563).  Navarro may not have had access to Kingdom, but it seems plausible that she had access to the manuscript or, perhaps, the author.

In any case, it is not even necessary to the claim that Navarro is mounting a critique of O(f) to prove that she should have had either; as reviewed above, the questions which preoccupy Kingdom and The Bible of Clay were "in the air" in the late '00s, to the extent that they were explicitly and independently raised by contributors to this forum before either book was discovered.

Whatever the case, it seems clear that Navarro's work proceeds from the same foundations as Kingdom.  In The Bible of Clay, the only consistently significant protagonist is Clara Tannenberg, whose orthognostic credentials equal those of Nancy Kelly.  Despite ostensibly being trained in archaeology she apparently knows nothing except what she has learned from her father about the possible existence of the Bible of Clay.  Like Nancy Kelly, her chief access to it prior to its actual discovery consists in intuitive dream-narratives which are generally occasioned by contact either with the tablets or stones from the site, and she stands in precisely the same relation to the Father (in this case, her grand-father) as do all other notable symbological heroines.  

However, if Martin set out to isolate the perfect subject of symbolognosis, Navarro's project appears to be to remove another layer in order to reveal the conditions of its possibility, or, phrased differently, to exaggerate the elements of the O(f):Father relationship in order to make its fundamental operations visible.  She does this by several means.

Her constitution of the O(f) mirrors Martin's and Browns to begin with, in that Tannenberg is essentially ignorant and incapable of grasping the relevance of her findings, being solely interested in pursuing the Father (or, in this case, the object of the Father's interest); but she then exacerbates the character of Clara in two important ways.  

Firstly, by making the object of her search (both as revealed to her in intuitive visions and as it ultimately appears after excavation,) exactly the same as the object it would ostensibly problematize or replace; in Hurley's translation, the text of the Bible of Clay is exactly identical to the text of the King James Bible.  This reveals the sole derivation of O(f) from the Father, since the text holds no real interest otherwise.  Indeed, Gian Maria (the priest who flies to Iraq to protect her from assassination and the closest thing in the novel to a mythognostic) explicitly says when she talks to him about the significance of the Bible of Clay that "the Bible tells us of the existence of the Patriarch Abraham.  Naturally, I believe that he did exist, that he was a real person.  I myself have no need for archaeological proof" (416).  This is is analogous to a Da Vinci Code in which the secret kept by the Priory of Sion turned out to be that Jesus was crucified and after three days rose from the dead, which is perhaps what Navarro was thinking when she said, in response to a question about her work's relation to Dan Brown's, that "they have nothing to do with one another. I believe that the differences are totally obvious." (Incidentally, this remark came during the same interview in which she cited Umberto Eco as a favorite author.)

The second exacerbation to which Navarro subjects Clara is her incessant and implausible orientalization.  Despite being the obedient subject of her wildly racist and vehemently Nazi grandfather and having only ever lived either under his direct supervision or in California, she is persistently described as "Iraqi," which, in true Martinian fashion, is co-opted as part of the Orient:
"As [Clara and Ahmed] exited the plane onto the boarding steps, they felt the slap of heat  in their face and inhaled air thick with the smell of spices.  They were home again, home in the East....She'd loved California.  San Francisco was where she'd grown into a woman, but she'd always known she wouldn't stay and live there.  She missed the middle East - its smells, its tastes, its sense of time - and she missed speaking Arabic.  She thought in Arabic, felt in Arabic.  That was why she'd fallen in love with Ahmed.  American boys seemed dull, flat to her, even though they'd taught her all the things that were forbidden to her, as a woman, in the East."
in combining feminine orthognosis (O(f)) with the orthognosis of the Oriental Other (O(oo)), Navarro creates a subject who represents all potentially stable versions of symbolognosis, which we might designate O(oo-f) for convenience, and it is in the relations and operations of this subject that her critique is implicit.

Clara's sole means of generating and receiving knowledge, qua subject of symbolognosis, reside in her relation to her grandfather the unrepentant Nazi (whom she comes more and more to resemble as he nears his own death), and the visions she she receives via her intuitive scrying; that is to say, her whole epistemological potential is comprehended by allusion to two of the most thoroughly discredited and reviled cultural products of the twentieth century: National Socialism and the Book of Abraham.  The effect is further heightened by the strong irrelevance of the Bible of Clay, which not only turns out (as mentioned above) to be exactly identical to the King James Version, but is also stolen at the end of the book, presumably destined for the private collection of some ethically plastic billionaire. 

Navarro's point, then, seems to be that all versions of orthognosis and therefore all stable configurations of symbological knowledge simply represent the operation of ideology, mystified either by Orientalism in the case of the O(oo) or misogyny in the case of the O(f).  Navarro is following (or anticipating) Martin in leaving aside the elaboration of male subjects of symbolognosis which proceeds from the Generative Grammar in order to systematically characterize and critique orthognosis, but she goes beyond Kingdom in suggesting (in agreement with conclusions we had arrived at regarding the other subject-positions,) that the symbological novel should be understood as a concrete instance of how ideology forms, contains, and re-contains subjects.

This interpretation is further (although admittedly circumstantially) supported by Clara's actual assassination.  After the critique of orthognosis described above has been comprehensively elaborated, Clara and Gian Maria escape to Spain with the tablets.  A grand exhibit is set up, at which Clara will unveil the tablets and finally achieve the "respectability" her Father had desired for her.  Lion Doyle, (AKA Matthew Reilly) is still under orders to kill her, and is planning to do so immediately after the opening of the exhibit.  Mercedes Barrera is the only other consistently important female character in the novel, and is clearly to some extent modeled on Navarro.  She is the youngest of the GAS, and the most determined to see Tannenberg and his descendants wiped out.  Despite Tom Martin's assurances that his man will do the job when an auspicious moment arises, Barerra attends the exhibit opening.  In a scene which I can only take as being emblematic of the entire project of Bible of Clay, Mercedes/Navarro, pretending to stumble into Clara, stabs her through the heart with an awl. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A World Leader in Her Own Chosen Field: Aporetics of Knowledge and Indifferance in Pyramid

Map of the Necropolis at Giza


The Great nonetheless able to explain its grand, even Messianic mission, almost unmistakeably.  Not, indeed, by use of any written language, whether hieroglyphic or vulgar, but by aid of the mathematical and physical science of modern times applied to show the significance residing in the exact amount of its ancient length, breadth and angles; a means most efficacious both for preventing the parable being read too soon in the history of an, at first, unlearned world; but for insuring its being correctly read, and by all nations, whien the fulness of prophetic time, in a science age, has at last arrived.
Charles Piazzi Smyth, Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid  (1880)

The Great Pyramid was built to preserve the old knowledge for ever so that, even if the civilization that built it should one day perish, future generations would still be able to learn the truth. The ratios of its dimensions contain all the mathematical formulae which govern the universe. It is a scientific "glyph" which, when meditated upon by an initiate, reveals the secrets of life itself. The layout of the heavens is indicated by the positioning of its blocks. It is a message designed to be read by us in the future.

Tom Martin, Pyramid  (2007)

Simon Schaffer, in his Tarner Lectures of this year collectively entitled "When The Stars Threw Down Their Spears: Histories of Astronomy and Empire," has (probably unwittingly) cast a new and intriguing light on Martinian studies.

In his second lecture, "An Antique Land," Schaffer draws our attention to certain facts which have revolutionary significance for our understanding of Pyramid as a text, and alarming implications for our conceptions of its author.  Schaffer argues with characteristic erudition that astronomy and antiquarianism were indispensible and intertwined prostheses of late Victorian imperialism, and that collaboration between them produced "disorienting" chronologies, i.e. chronological narratives which calibrated other cultures based on their past and present "progress" in astronomy, the "pattern science."  These narratives justified imperial domination as an arrogation of patrimony by describing colonized civilizations as declensions of a primal culture of perfected science, of whom the British where the only worthy descendants.  Quoting Kidd, Schaffer emphasizes that early Victorian antiquarian-astronomers sought "not to establish Indian otherness, but its degenerate affiliation with the British within the universal noarchic family of nations.  Alien dominance could thus be represented as a form of the colonized culture's original condition."

Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) was one of these Victorian antiquarian-astronomers.  Although generally known for his work in infrared astronomy and wet collodion photography, he is also occasionally remembered for his ambitious and fanatically meticulous surveys of the Great Pyramid.  Piazzi Smyth evolved a comprehensive metrology of space and time from the dimensions of the Pyramid which encompasses, (among other things,) the Pyramid as an index of various astronomical distances and periods and as a monument to a series of weights and measures which approximate those of the Imperial system, including Pyramid inches, Pyramid cubits, and even Pyramid pints.  He imagined these standards existing in a relation of perpetual antagonism to profane, "Cainite" units of measure.  Pyramid metrics were those of the Israelites, not the pagan Egyptians, and therefore had intrinsic religious and moral significance for the British Empire, both as proof that the hand of Providence guided its destiny, and as a justification for cultural chauvanism vis-a-vis, among other things, the recently developed metric system. This is demonstrated rather nicely in his critique of a lecture delivered to the British Association for Science in Bradford in 1873, from Chapter XVI of Our Heritage in the Great Pyramid, entitled "The Sacred Cubit, of the Bible, Opposes the Cainite," which is worth quoting at length.

...the lecturer there, who might have done either thing - elected to hold up to the admiration of his audience, and as the best possible example of a long-lived, well-cared-for...loved and respected, ancient standard of linear measure, not the sacred 25-inch cubit of Seth (and, as we shall show more positively in Chapter XVIII, equally of Noah, Moses, and Solomon), with its lasting monument, the Great Pyramid, central to all the inhabited land-surface of the earth, - but the profane 20.68-inch cubit of both the once idolatrous and now divinely curshed, Egyptians; and of Babylonians, whose boastful city and impious nation have altogether disappeared.  Yet much did the lecturer enlarge on the most exemplary care, far exceeding anything known until very lately among Christian communities, with which metrical commissioners from Egypt, Babylon, Nineveh, and other such idolatrous empires in primeval time, must have travelled about from country to country, with examples of that horrible Cainite cubit for instruction, comparison, and regulation; keeping every one of those heathen kings, governments, and peoples, - whether worshippers of Isis, or Astarte or the Phoenician Fishgod or any other, - true to their ancestral, but anti-Israel's God, covenant in metrology; binding them moreover, for secret and unhallowed reasons, to respect that 20.68 inch cubit and no other....But shall our British people, under the plea of being taught science, in grandly adorned halls where fashion and wealth do congregate, - be exposed to the tempation, the danger of unknowingly admiring, following, and patronising the profane, instead of the sacred, example in metrology?  (355)

While Piazzi Smyth was not the only European proponent of Pyramidal metrology (he had English predecessors and French contemporaries,) he was the most thorough, journeying "on scanty means" with his wife to undertake "four months residence on the Great Pyramid hill" during which he conducted the most precise surveys which had hitherto been made, and took the first photographs of the Pyramid's interior.  In the preface to Our Heritage in the Great Pyramid, he casts himself as the intellectual heir of John Taylor, the Nottingham publisher and amateur pyramidologist who had suggested in The Great Pyramid that the structure propaedeutically incorporated divine ratios and that its builders' system of measure was the progenitor of the Imperial system.  Taylor, in turn, had gotten his data from John Greaves, a seventeenth century professor of geometry who had actually made measurements at Giza.  Greaves was the first to suggest a relationship between Ancient Egyptian and British units of measure, and also influenced Isaac Newton in his composition of that underrated classic, A Dissertation upon the Sacred Cubit of the Jews and the Cubits of several Nations.

Piazzi Smyth's explanation of his intellectual lineage in Egyptological metrology has generally been accepted prima facie.  Schaffer, however, makes the intriguing claim that it was in fact a translation of earlier Pyramid surveys by the Egyptian astronomer Mahmud ("al-Falaki") Ahmad Hamdi which drew Smyth to Egypt.  Al-Falaki ("The Astronomer") was an expert surveyor and astronomer in his own right, educated in Paris and published in European journals.  He had also concluded, based on his own surveys (which were conducted prior to Piazzi Smyth's but considerably after Greaves'), that the Great Pyramid was a metrological monument and that its faces were precisely oriented with respect to the star Sirius, and wrote that "they recall for us the language of our first masters in the sciences."  He may also have been the first to calculate the date of the Pyramid's construction through archeoastronomy (i.e., calculation of the date in the past at which a particular alignment with a star would have existed).   His work was used by Egyptian nationalists like Ali Mubarak in support of a nativist rhetoric about the immemorial greatness of the Egyptian nation and its autochthonous mastery of astronomy and engineering.  Schaffer further claims that Piazzi Smyth performed an "astonishing political reversal" in agreeing that the Pyramid must be a metrological monument but insisting that "the meter, the measure that it embodied, was, of course, British."

While Piazzi Smyth's work has diffuse modern emanations outside of professional archaeology, his metrological theories were officially demolished by the son of one of his close friends, a man generally considered the father of modern (i.e., orthodox) Egyptology, Sir William Flinders Petrie.  Here is Petrie describing the origins of his interest in the pyramids:
A new stir arose when one day I brought back from Smith's bookstall, in 1866, a volume by Piazzi Smyth, Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid. The views, in conjunction with his old friendship for the author, strongly attracted my father, and for some years I was urged on in what seemed so enticing a field of coincidence. I little thought how, fifteen years later, I should reach the "ugly little fact which killed the beautiful theory"; but it was this interest which led my father to encourage me to go out and do the survey of the Great Pyramid. (Petrie, Seventy Years in Archaeology,1932)

Petrie's own survey work demonstrated that Smyth had fudged a number of his figures to make them cohere with his theories about the Messianic significance of the Pyramid, and he helped establish Egyptian archaeology on a systematically materialist foundation.  Petrie is also generally credited with having coined the term "pyramidiot" to refer to people like his old family friend.

Now, with the background established, I will try to illustrate how Schaffer's reflections on the entanglement of astronomy, antiquarianism and empire, and his claim that Piazzi Smyth was attracted to Egypt by the work of el-Falaki, bear on our reading of "Tom Martin's" text. (In the absence of an alternative I have no choice but to propagate the pseudonym.)

Aziz gestured for them to sit, settled himself behind his desk, and began to speak; he had a definite Egyptian accent, but his English was fluent.  His tone was indulgent and, Catherine thought, slightly sleazy.  
Tom Martin,  Pyramid
When I chose the scholarly route, I came to understand identities as discursive effects, and therefore opted not to publish anything about the subject in order not to contribute to the problem by inciting more discourse about it.
Joseph A Massad, Desiring Arabs

It is temptingly easy to read Pyramid as an emanation of a discredited and largely forgotten nineteenth-century debate about the moral importance and historical pedigree of standards in measurement, (in both astronomy and surveying,) dressed in a threadbare cloak of modern "pyramidiocy" largely derived from the work of Robert Bauval, Graham Hancock, and other widely acknowledged charlatans.  Such a reading would seem to encompass many of Pyramid's more bizarre moments.  Consider, for instance, Rutherford's revelation in front of the granite coffer:
They walked over to the box and peered in.  Rutherford, consulting his guidebook, muttered its dimensions out loud.  Then suddenly he exclaimed, 'My God!  The imperial measures we still use today in England and America, the inches and feet, are related to the measuring system used in the construction of the pyramid and the coffer!' (329)
Once one realizes that a lively debate existed in the nineteenth century regarding the metrological significance of the Great Pyramid vis a vis the Imperial standards of weight and measure, that is to say, once one realizes that Rutherford's "guidebook" is apparently by Charles Piazzi Smyth, it starts to seem unavoidable to read Pyramid as an unconscious pastiche of revenant imperialist mystifications - especially after the further revelation that the Pyramid is, among other things, a sort of giant transit intstrument. (331)

Similarly, consider Catherine's response to what she reads in her guidebook about the Nazca lines:
'The spider is of particular interest because astronomers have calculated that its postion and the postion of the straight lines adjacent to it serve as a model of the Orion constellation and surrounding stars.' 
Catherine closed the book.  As an astronomer that settled it for her.

'James, whoever made these designs one thing is for sure - they were definitely from a high civilization.  To understand the heavens and to map the Orion constellation like this requires an enormous amount of sophistication' (122)
Superficially, this passage also seems consistent with the theory that one ought to read Pyramid as a myopic recapitulation of a nineteenth-century political astronomy, since Catherine's reasoning represents exactly the strategy of cultural evaluation through chronological calibration which, as Schaffer has demonstrated, was employed by European colonial powers in India, China, and, of course, Egypt. 

However, this interpretation only leads to a series of inescapable contradictions, and when applied in depth generates more questions than it resolves.

Catherine, for instance, is an astronomer.  This makes sense, according to the logic by which, Schaffer has taught us, meridian astronomy was valorized by the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries; indeed, she makes many statements, such as the one quoted above, which appear to programatically express the agenda of colonial astronomy.  But the reading becomes problematic in proportion to the depth of our scrutiny.  It turns out, in fact, that Catherine knows virtually nothing about astronomy.  The only positive knowledge she is able to reproduce is a rather threadbare explanation of longitude; granted, she adduces precession as an explanation of the global catastrophe, but Rutherford, intriguingly, already knows exactly what it is and gives a nearly mathematical description of it:
'What do you know about astronomy and the movement of our planet?
"Not a whole lot.  I know the earth rotates on its own axis once every twenty-four hours.  I know it completes a full orbit of the sun roughly every three hundred and sixty-five days and I also know it is tilted away from the plane of the ecliptic and that the tilt varies - it wobbles back and forth between twenty-one and twenty-four degrees - a complete wobble takes forty one thousand years." (253)
Not only is she generally ignorant, but she catastrophically misunderstands Hapgood's theory of earth-crust displacement.  (Hapgood's theory suggests that it is the accumulation of irregularly distributed ice at the earth's poles that causes evolving eccentricity in the rotation of the lithosphere; not their disappearance.  If Hapgood were right, the logical conclusion would be that, in order to save the world, global warming should be accelerated.)  Beyond her technical incompetence, Catherine is completely ignorant of the lineage of the "data" which she and Rutherford "uncover" concerning the Pyramid, specificially of the fact that it all originates with nineteenth century astronomers, and the majority of it comes from Piazzi Smyth.  Thus, while Catherine's status as an astronomer initially seems to fit into a coherent narrative framework (i.e. one refracted, badly, from Victorian "pyramidiocy,") in fact it only generates an irresolvable tension between her professional identification, and her praxis of ignorance (i.e. orthognosis(f)).

Likewise, Rutherford is ostensibly an antiquarian who has previously visited Egypt and, he claims, "I know the orthodox thinking about Ancient Egypt, at least," (300).  It would fit the interpretation sketched above well if he were actually familiar with the tradition of materialist, empiricist archaeology of which Flinders Petrie is the urvater; he might then enact a reversal of what the grand old Egyptologist did to the legacy of Piazzi Smyth and John Taylor by progressing from orthodoxy to mythognosis.  However, like Catherine, he instead exhibits a dual incompetence; first, he does not, in fact, know much about Egypt, as evidenced by his frequent reference to guidebooks.  Second, the knowledge he is able to produce is the kind that orthodox Egyptology supplanted, for which Flinders Petrie coined his felicitous epithet.  Like Catherine, Rutherford's vocation seems consistent with a reading of Pyramid as cultural regurgitation; but when we examine the text closely we find that he fails to make precisely the kinds of claims and invocations which would make such an interpretation work.

In both these examinations, we are also confronted with a deferral of orthodoxy. The animating narrative of the novel is presented as flying in the face of conventional astronomical and antiquarian discourse; but when this orthodoxy is in fact examined in the text (mainly in citations from guidebooks,) it invariably turns out to agree precisely with Catherine and Rutherford's (supposedly increasingly unorthodox) theories.  Thus, Catherine's Peruvian guidebook tells her, in so many words, that thousands of years ago miraculous white civilizers brought agriculture and precise astronomical and surveying techniques to Peru; Rutherford's tells him that the Pyramid preserves a divine metrology which is commensurate with the Imperial system.  Even the academics they consult, e.g. von Dechend, despite their "absolute scholarly caution," cannot even parrot orthodoxy, but plunge immediately into amplifications of the ostensibly "unorthodox."

So where is the orthodox astronomy and archaeology from which the heterodox findings of Catherine and Rutherford are to be distinguished?  Allegedly in the person of Ahmed Aziz, the Director of Egyptian Antiquities, who, (like Sir William Flinders Petrie,) is "an undisputed expert on certain areas of Ancient Egyptian pottery" (322).  But here, finally, we seem to reach an aporetic climax; for, it turns out, Aziz clearly knows nothing at all about Egyptology, or if he does he refuses to make use of it.  Senator Kurtz, prior to his interview with Catherine and Rutherford, commands Aziz,

"Tell them their theories are quite wrong.  Tell them their ideas are not new, they have all been discussed in the public domain and that, interesting as they may be, they have no foundation in reality.   They will try to get you to discuss their points in a rational manner.  You must not engage with them. (323)"
Aziz displays his fidelity by depending solely (and rather incongruously) on force of rhetoric; but why he should do this, or why the Senator should command him to, is radically unclear, since of course it is factually true that "[their theories] have all been discussed in the public domain and...they have no foundation in reality."  The discussion has been going on, (with incrementally diminishing volume,) for well over a hundred years, providing an enormous sourcebook of refutations which are ready-made for theories like those of Catherine and Rutherford, and are available to anybody with minimal research facilities.  Aziz, then, is the sole locus of orthodoxy in the novel, but on examination he turns out to be completely jejune.

These aporetics are too consistent to be accidental.  There is a structure to their inconsistency, a systematicity which, once intuited, cannot be ignored.  What this systematicity betrays, I want to argue, is Martin's intimate familiarity with the discourse of 19th century Orientalist metrology, and the deliberate nature of its nihilistic reconfiguration in Pyramid.  Once we appreciate the aporetics of Catherine, Rutherford, and Ahmed Aziz in light of the Victorian complex of archaeology and astronomy (in its capacity as adjuvant to the colonial project,) we must also appreciate that Martin has succeeded in raising the cop-out to a hitherto unanticipated level of immanence, with alarming results.


All I know is what you've told me about Osiris and what little I can remember from school.

Tom Martin, Pyramid

Another example of obedience is the monk Mark, who while copying a manuscript was suddenly called by his abba; so immediate was his response that he did not even complete the circle of the letter O that he was writing. On another occasion, as they walked together, his abba saw a small pig; testing Mark, he said, "Do you see that buffalo, my child?" "Yes, father," replied Mark. "And you see how elegant its horns are?" "Yes, father," he answered once more without demur.

Told of Abba Sylvanus, Apophthegmata Patrum (Alphabetical Collection)

In the symbological novel, the primary function of the cop-out is ideological re-containment.  This function is executed by the revelation that what had previously been perceived the object of the code, pursued by the subjects of symbology, is in fact already constituent of their subjectivity; that what seemed to be a heterogeneity is in fact an identity.  Through this process, the destabilizing potential for its pursuers' epistemology which the mystery appeared to contain, embodied in the "feeling of mild dread" which prompts Catherine's internal lament, "Oh no, not more dismantling of received history," (80) is defused, and moreover is transmuted into substantiation of ideological platitudes with which they began: the planet should be cared for; women should be respected; "it is nothing, it is a symbol."

The series of aporetics Martin has developed in Pyramid, and the deferral of orthodoxy which they accomplish, constitute an immanent, totipotent cop-out.  Its ultimate effect is to exclude the destablizing potential of the alterity in history by subjecting the existence of any alternative account to that developed by Catherine and Rutherford to the same process to which the code is subjected in the more familiar, narrative cop-out.

Catherine and Rutherford's evolving theory is constantly presented as being in frank opposition to a putative orthodoxy.  However, all the sources they draw on (von Dechend, guidebooks, ageing Peruvians,) always already agree with them.  The only actual representative of orthodoxy in the novel is Ahmed Aziz.   As an Egyptian public official concerned with antiquities, he evokes Mahmud al-Falaki, and as an archaeologist of Ancient Egypt he evokes Sir William Flinders Petrie.  Aziz therefore represents the theoretical alternatives to the Smythian moral metrology, which are, 1) indigenous arrogation of the Bringers of Light as ancestors or 2) rejection of the system's premise in favor of a materialist empiricism; these are also the two interpretations of the pyramid which bracket Piazzi Smyth chronologicallyBut, crucially, when they ask him to critique their arguments, he has nothing to offer but vitriol.  As instructed, he does not engage in any way with their argument.  He is neither al-Falaki, nor Flinders Petrie.  He is nothing; he is a symbol; a symbol of the possibility that alternate accounts, whether corroborative (like al-Falaki's) or antagonistic (like Flinders Petrie's) are recoverable with precision from history, and that they have literal relevance to the account being given by the protagonists.  But like the Benben stone, he dissolves into metaphor, leaving Catherine and Rutherford unchallenged in their subjection to ideology.  He thus colludes with von Dechend, with their innumerable guidebooks, and with every other element of the plot to cement their insulation from any alternative to their vapid recapitulation of Piazzi Smyth's discredited metrology.

This meta-cop-out is far more disturbing than the more familiar one.  In Poimandres' insipid environmentalism, we see an operation of ideological re-containment directed at the reader.  But in Ahmed Aziz, we see an operation which attempts to annihilate the epistemological possibility of all alternative accounts.  The perpetual deferral of orthodoxy results in a pervasive indifferánce with respect to everything but the insipid substance of Catherine and Rutherford's theory, which is itself the subject of the narrative cop-out and therefore strongly irrelevant.  This is symbological totalitarianism, and I hope I have shown convincingly that it is deliberate.

Heretofore, Kingdom has been generally considered an experimental symbological novel, while Pyramid has been cast as a programmatic genre-piece.  This division should be revised in light of the interpretation proposed above.  Far from being simply a programmatic articulation of the conventions of the symbological novel, Pyramid attempts to push those conventions to what Martin clearly thinks are their logical conclusions.  And, as has already been noted, these conclusions are disturbing in the extreme.