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.