Saturday, November 21, 2015

After Paris

Privacy, Conspiracy, Surveillance

First, consider the unfettered and total liberty of the individual self when it is engaged in thought. Before we ex-press (formulate, articulate, utter) our ideas, whether they take the form of mathematical proofs, fantasies reduced to allusive verse (or paint, or stone)– whatever their form– they remain completely secret, and entirely within our control. That is what we mean when we speak of bedrock privacy or of the liberty ‘enjoyed’ by a prisoner entombed alone in a dungeon. Such privacy has a value, but the value is pre-political, and social only to the extent that our individual personalities, talents, and predilections are products of the milieu in which our infancy was cultured. 

Next, consider the privileged liberty we cherish in the context of the parental bedroom, and thence extending perhaps to the family dinner-table, and beyond that, in a series of circles that ultimately expands to designate as ‘private’ the utterances of gossips at the village wash-house– and beyond that,  to the public square, the soap-box orator, the march, the mob, the sect, the church, the state.  We constitute the outer spheres of this Ptolemaic system of liberty in sacred documents like the Bill of Rights. The “Rights” we have are chosen powers, to speak our minds with impunity, and with our own chosen risks that trust might be betrayed gratuitously, but not extortionately. The minute we speak our mind, we con-spire, through vocalized signals in a common language or through instruments invented to embody thought in an intelligible communication. Conspiracy is a breathing-together: it presupposes the categories of “insider” and “outsider,” addressees or audience, and absentees.

Hannah Arendt wrote eloquently and persuasively about the public and the private realms that make up the Human Condition. We should revisit her teachings now that we live in a world where the only Arendtian “space” for private conspiracy is encrypted space– and that space is vulnerable to technological advances in the art of eavesdropping. The “eaves”in eavesdropping stand metaphorically for spheres of expected privacy, of confidence and trust that among private interlocutors, the only residue of their discourse will be the several memories of the participants– supplemented (sometimes ) by consent to real-time notes or memoranda. The spoken word dissipates in the air of real historic spaces where speech, public or private, has remained throughout history the primal medium of political and social thought.

Sound is now easily and surreptitiously recordable. Rooms and persons can be bugged. Technology allows in principle for the invasion of every form of private communication. When our privacy is invaded without consent by ‘private’ actors, a tort or crime is committed. When it is compromised by government officials, we are oppressed. Sometimes an intrusion may be allowed or ‘warranted’ by law. Historically, in our legal tradition as exemplified by the Fourth Amendment, this has meant a judicial warrant, limited by published standards for evaluating ‘good cause’. When official intrusion is secretly authorized, through chains of reasoning derived from statutory authority to ensure public safety, warrantless intrusions are at best sacrificial violations of our common spheres of conspiracy. Be it understood that we can and do ‘conspire’ to surprise friends with a birthday party, or to pull a prank, or engage in a thousand other lawful activities, all of them, in the widest but also the deepest sense, conspiratorial.

Now, imagine a quasi-counterfactual:  suppose that all sound, everywhere, is instantly, permanently, and recoverably recorded. The last island of true privacy lies behind the forehead, in the form of the unuttered thought. Utterances are entirely digital, and the limited spectrum of perturbed air where interpersonal audible signals come and go, face-to-face (or mouth to mike to speaker to ear) is reduced to digits. Digits are readily transcribable in microscopically small spaces. They may be cheaply redistributed to assure an enduring archive. We might even fantasize a future physicist who finds a relationship between time’s illusory arrow and dark matter, such that the arrow’s point, signified by now is shown to be a stylus writing upon the dark matter of alternate universes, one of which  we describe in our limited understanding as “the” historic past. The entity referred to as God is a being in a currently undiscovered dimension with a power we call omniscience, to replay the recorded transcription and perhaps (let theologians debate!) to edit it. Everything is bugged, everything is potentially public; God himself is accessible, a DJ at the command of secular and transitory powers that be.

Have we described the ultimate dystopia, or only the tendency of our times? We might find some positive, even redemptive, features in this fantasia. Surely the speculated new physics would put us in touch with more advanced beings elsewhere in the universe by reversing or diverting the space/time line which we inhabit; but even in the real world of today, it is conceivable that the most ephemeral phenomena of light and sound are fossilized at some infinitesimal nano-level. We might some day hear the roaring of dinosaurs, just as we can see the delicate structures of Jurassic leaves in a split stone. 

If such dreams fall within the compass of contemporary imagination, so must we expect that scientific research will one day (in the nearer reaches of realms beyond our conceptual horizon) dissolve Cartesian duality, to reveal the material substrate of consciousness with exquisite particularity. Muteness and a poker face will no longer be prevent revelation of our innermost ‘selves’. Every aspect of our ‘freedom’ will be public.

Will we fill the ancient philosophical prescription to “know thyself” at a species level in this era of genetic engineering? Fill it well enough, at least, to ensure that we can continue to conspire, subvert, conceal, and retain the privacy that enables us to choke the planet with our swarming success? 

Friday, November 6, 2015

Changing Tastes

The Arrow recently undertook a challenging Adult Education course. He enrolled in a MOOC, "Practicum in the Esthetics of Post-Modern Discord".  Our last unit examined music, from Schoenberg to Cage, and beyond. Our assignment at the outset of the next unit, on poetics, required students to read Augustan exemplars from Dryden, Goldsmith, Pope, and Dr. Johnson, and then write some lines that would give those worthies the greatest offense— to their taste and to the sensibilities of their ears. Our instructor (the eminent scholar Priktover Dirks) awarded first prize of charter membership in the exclusive Order of the Damp Squib to the following item:

An ugly old witch from Plymouth
was afflicted by nocturnal dry mouth.
This Pilgrim so pure
effected a cure:
a mixture of drool, phlegm, & Vermouth!

It was reported that Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey required urgent repair of seismic damage shortly after the lines were posted.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Critic and the Philistine

Shepherd Rick guides his flocks
With collies scripted for their task,
Assuring a tick in every box,
Dancing to exacting clocks,
Answering queries before they ask!

Armchair tourists find better fare,
(A far more honest mise en scène)
When Jonathan Meades takes the air
To show us what is really there:
Mendacities! – described with spleen. 

Contrast Meades and his anti-matter counterpart, Rick Steves.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Another verse (worse than the other...)

Some verses are written to satisfy and suffice the writer; others are written to be seen or read, with the futile hope that they may find a reader who can read the writer's mind back into the text. The Arrow is prompted to post the following observation with no other motive than to move it from his desk onto the cryogenic regions of our digital galaxy.

Methuselah’s Deathbed

Supine upon his gurney,  waiting to succumb,
Methuselah’s epiphanies sum up a weary life.
Caressing beads beneath a calloused thumb
He’s glad, at last, to face the surgeon’s knife.

Methuselah’s epiphanies sum up his weary life:
Erotic memories, those little deaths he savors
(He’s glad, at last, to face the surgeon’s knife)
Will make his end epitomize the joy he favors.

Erotic memories, those little deaths he savors
When the mask upon his grizzled face descends
Will make his end epitomize the joy he favors:
Orgastic ecstasy, in an unexpected instant sends

(When the mask upon his grizzled face descends)
Oblivion, relief– the true surcease of sorrow.
Orgastic ecstasy, in an unexpected instant sends
Nowhere, hell, or paradise the clay we borrow.

Oblivion, relief– the true surcease of sorrow–
Impossible emotions for Methuselah to feel,
Having spent his last and worst tomorrow:
Time’s bell shall peal, repeal, repeal, repeal…

But not one moment more is there to steal
Caressing beads beneath his calloused thumb!
He prays the next round brings a better deal
Supine upon his gurney, waiting to succumb.

Monday, July 13, 2015

American Classics

Hagiographers of PBS are always on the lookout for prime time artists they can commemorate. Deceased talents furnish biopix directors with "material" to portray just as roundly and realistically as icons of forgotten Orthodox saints. Empty niches grow apace with the incessant demand for the European eye-candy desserts served up by Rick Steves. Recent sacrifices on PBS's altars to Ste. Philistia include Norman Mailer and J.D. Salinger. 

Parthian was not surprised when a friend sent along a scrap an intern found while carrying rejected scripts to the shredder. He posts this doodle with a caveat, that it is the attitude of cynicism he finds significant, more than the expression itself, however clever it may be

Mailer dealt in salty speech,
But J.D.’s was saliner.
Each treasured an ingenue’s tears
Before demons or domestic fears
Made him drop and then malign her!

Friday, May 8, 2015

One more beast


A Geisha’s coiffure needs a stiffened pillow;
her loneliness, a bedtime toy.
So if you want to give her joy
stuff this misbegotten armadillo,
present it with a serenade– a wild fandango!

Sin thereafter with abandon! Dance a tango
to sounds of Theramin, Mandolin and Koto–
offer eternal sacrifice to Eros, ex voto.

Your fun spells extinction for the Pangolin? 
Anthropocene self-pardoned peccadillo!

At the clamorous insistence of numerous Asiatic kin, Parthian agreed to post this "tribute" to another species facing imminent extinction. He promises to abandon the post of lyrical zookeeper soon, as yet  another round of political nonsense makes its mischief felt.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Another Beast


Chimeric hybrid– an elephant-pig
(thrice as short, half as big)
ever keen for a midnight caper:
Behold Behemoth,  aka, the Tapir!

He neither gawker is, nor gaper
yet he observes his jungly scene
(obscured by steaming vines and vapor)
alert for ways to vent his spleen
upon canoes that may careen
on Orinoco’s perilous isles
where Anacondas swim with Crocodiles.

His eyes are weak,  so he “likesta peer”
(and sniff and snort, instilling fear)–
this randy, roving, ridiculous voyeur
seeks a Tapir maiden, chaste and pure.

Another scrap salvaged from the blizzard of folk-zoology noted in the last post. This comes from a different continent, and the translation from Spanish may be faulty, but it approximates the sense of the original..

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Bestiary update

 The Aoudad

This desert sheep of rocky slopes
evolved a way by which he copes–
grazing always left to right
his uphill legs are shorter, quite
than downhill legs. Thus he hopes
somewhat efficiently to summit: 
one leap then reverses course!

Although untutored, still he learns
to husband well his thorny source
of victuals sparse on torrid hills.

You too may share his daring thrills
when you grow beards on legs and chin,
cavort with glee (while staying thin),
show the world that you are glad!

Emulate this lecher,  thrifty Aoudad!

          –for HCM

While the Arrow flew to a distant but accustomed target, his launching pad received a blizzard of verses contributed by careful observers of local fauna from cultures in every part of our perishing planet.  Most of them were fit only to kindle a campfire,  but a few merit the ephemeral preservation afforded by an unread blog drifting through the ether.  Today’s post is believed to originate in Algeria, as it bears a dedication with the initials “HCM”, indicating the Victorian era Bedouin explorer, Haji Chahid Muhammed.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Polonius Redux

Life's cruxes demand solemnities, rites, rituals. We see this phenomenon in every culture and at the core of every religious tradition. Among the Parthians, custom calls for a boy at the onset of puberty to hunker down at his grandfather's knee (or failing a grandfather, the knee of the wisest village elder) and listen attentively to life's lessons learned. Here is a representative sample:

Tsunami torrent of lust and devotion,
Love, my love– such a chaotic emotion!

Lust’s wave overwhelms you, carries you out,
detaches your childhood’s anchoring roots–
freely you’ll wallow in aimless pursuits,
no handhold– all jetsam, your future in doubt.

The wave will subside along with the sighs
you exhale, unfulfilled, in desperate panic. 
(When raging, your hormones feel oceanic!) 
You’ll cease to seek solace in fantasized thighs,

Thrown with a partner to gasp on the strand–
survivors, miscast in life’s trivial skit,
you’ll wander a while, bicker a bit,
enacting a script that never seems planned.

A precocious Parthian youth of the 21st century returned the favor at a ceremony relegating his ancient mentor to the village nursing hut, as follows:

Thrown with your partner to gasp on the strand–
survivors, awaiting a long-deferred writ
(spotlit positions inexplicably quit)
your narratives lost, no room to expand–

Love’s wave must subside along with the sighs
you exhaled before drowning in panic. 
Flooding confusions become oceanic! 
Genesis 9:7 no longer applies.

Ebb tides suck you under, carry you out,
your footholds crumble,  convictions uproot–
freely you wallow in aimless pursuit
no handholds, just flotsam, survival in doubt.

Tsunami torrent of lust and devotion,
Love, my love– such a chaotic emotion!