Hebetude, and other words I learned this spring

WordListI’ve had some glorious downtime recently and managed to read Combes, Finn, and Ronell.  I looked up all the words I had never seen before, the words I could only make educated guesses about, and the words I wanted to confirm based on context.  It’s what I tell my students to do, but it had been a long time since I’ve done it myself.  Tedious but fruitful. Also, I’m a little gratified that, of the 37 words, spellcheck claimed 12 did not exist.  Here’s my list, which includes the authors’ original sentences.

Anodyne: “Many poems seem to respond to their prompts with the same flat, affectless tone as the Mechanical Turk system itself, offering up anodyne confections of cliché and truism, completing the task of composition in as little as twelve seconds” (Finn 140).

Apeiron: “With this reference to nature, Simondon places himself in a pre-Socratic lineage, which is asserted explicitly in his definition of nature as ‘reality of the possible, in the form of this apeiron from which Anaximander generates all individuated forms.’“ (Combes 46).

Apophenia: “One of the most compelling aspects of games is precisely the seduction of algorithmically ordered universes–spaces where our apophenia can be deeply indulged, where every event and process operates according to a rule set” (Finn 123).

Arbitrage: “These companies are engaged in a form of algorithmic arbitrage, handling the messy details for us and becoming middlemen in every transaction” (Finn 97).

Autopoiesis: “This line of argument evolved into the theory of autopoiesis proposed by philosophers Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in the 1970s, the second wave of cybernetics which adapted the pattern-preservation of homeostasis more fully into the context of biological systems” (Finn 28).

Avuncular: “He leaps over the diegetic boundary of the story to touch us in a way that manages to be both avuncular and calculating” (Finn 107).

Badinage: “Algorithmic platforms now shape effectively all cultural production, from authors engaging in obligatory Twitter badinage to promote their new books to the sophisticated systems recommending new products to us” (Finn 53).

Catachrestic: “The point to be considered here, though, is that God needs the catachrestic maneuver in order to love” (Ronell 54).

Chiaroscuro: “The images show the data points of cars and office lights, buildings and structures, weather and movement patterns in long, unmoving chiaroscuro shots” (Finn 105).

Coelenterate: “Although the example of coelenterates on which Simondon bases his description of the individuation of living beings may appear surprising, or even poorly chosen in light of the difficulty in this case of precisely determining the site of individuality, it does not seem to me that the author made this choice lightly” (Combes 24).

Colloidal: “The clay can eventually be transformed into bricks because it possesses colloidal properties that render it capable of conducting a deforming energy while maintaining the coherence of molecular chains, because it is in a sense ‘already in form’ in the swampy earth” (Combes 6).

Concrescence: “Insofar as any technical individual is a system of elements organized to function together and characterized by its tendency toward concretization, we must distance ourselves from human intentionality and enter into the concrescence of technical systems in order to understand the mode of existence of technical objects” (Combes 58).

Consilient: “The spare utility of the search bar or the interfaces for Gmail, YouTube, and other essential services mask a deep infrastructure designed, ultimately, to construct a consilient model of the informational universe.                (Finn 66).

Diegetic: “Like other elements of the diegetic background of the show, the Enterprise’s talking computer was meant to be unremarkable and efficient” (Finn 67).

Dyad: “To begin with the operation of individuation is to place oneself at the level of the polarization of a preindividual dyad (formed by an energetic condition and a structural seed)” (Combes, 7).

Elide: “Algorithmic systems and computational models elide away crucial aspects of complex systems with various abstracting gestures, and the things they leave behind reside uneasily in limbo, known and unknown, understood and forgotten at the same time” (Finn 51).

Farragoes: “We tell collective jokes and stories using comment threads and hashtags, building shared narratives and farragoes that can evolve into sophisticated techincal beings in their own right as Internet memes as superficial as #lolcats or as potent as #blacklivesmatter” (Finn 193).

Fiat: “The blockchain relies on a computational fiat by rewarding the miners who bring the most computational power to bear on calculating each new block” (Finn 166).

Fungible: “If software is a metaphor for metaphors, the algorithm becomes the mechanism of translation: “the prism or instrument by which the eternally fungible space of effective computability is focalized and instantiated in a particular program, interface, or user experience” (Finn 35).

Hebetude: “Back at his desk from the Orient, Flaubert famously bounces Charles Bovary’s hopeless hebetude against his wife’s destructive jouissance; the life span of the nonstupid, frustrated and shortened, considerably fades, whereas the dumbest, including the calculating pharmacist, survive” (Ronell 38).

Homeostasis: “Central to this upper ascent is the notion of homeostasis, or the way that a system responds to feedback to preserve its core patterns and identity” (Finn 28).

Hylomorphism: “In this respect, the philosophical tradition boils down to two tendencies, both of which are blind to the reality of being before all individuation: atomism and hylomorphism” (Combes 1).

Hypostasis: “Could we not avoid this hypostasis of a ‘sense of becoming’ wherein normativity culminates in the notion of ‘error against becoming’?” (Combes 62).

Imbrication: “Google’s near omni-presence online, its imbrication in countless cultural systems that do not merely enable but effectively define certain cultural fields of play for billions of people, make this more than just a suggestion service or even a sophisticated form of advertising” (Finn 74).

Inchoate: “Thus the animal appears to the observer of individuation as ‘an inchoate plant,’ that is, as a plant that was dilated at the very beginning of its becoming;” (Combes 22).

Isomorphic: “Thus, in super-cooled water” (i.e., water remaining liquid at a temperature below its freezing point), the least impurity with a structure isomorphic to that of ice plays the role of a seed for crystallization and suffices to turn the water to ice” (Combes 3).

Littoral: “Part of the work of the Netflix culture machine is to continually course-correct between that narrow aesthetic littoral and the vast ocean of abstraction behind it” (Finn 108).

Ontogenesis: “As is always the case with Simondon, philosophy will remain a philosophy of individuation, an ontogenesis” (Combes 58).

Parallelepipedic: “Now, the clay matter and the parallelepipedic form of the mold are only endpoints of two technological half-trajectories, of two half-chains that, upon being joined, make for the individuation of the clay brick” (Combes 5).

Predation: “The heroes of Lewis’s story are those trying to eliminate the ‘unfair’ predation of HFT algorightsm and create an equal playing field for the trading of securities as they imagine such things ought to be traded” (Finn 153).

Prenoetic: “The preindividual dyad is prenoetic as well, which is to say, it precedes both thought and individual” (Combes 7).

Propitiating: “Yet these tricks come with a script that Siri must learn–for Siri to deliver each punchline we must carefully set up the joke, propitiating the culture machine with appropriate rituals” (Finn 60).

Puerile: “There is something unquestionably Nietzschean about treating practically everyone as puerile and stupid” (though Nietzsche never did so–he credited them with cleverness and, at most, with acting stupid or like Christians, who introduced a substantially new and improved wave of stupidity, revaluating and honoring the stupid idiot: O sancta simplicitas!)” (Ronell 39).

Reticular: “And while ethics is said to be ‘sense of individuation,’ and there is ethics only ‘to the extent that there is information, that is, signification, ethics is simultaneously apprehended as reticular reality, the capacity to link the preindividual in many acts” (Combes 65).

Scholium: “Scholium: The intimacy of the common (chapter title)” (Combes 51).

Stochastic: “Computational systems are developing new capacities for imaginative thinking that may be fundamentally alien to human cognition, including the creation of inferences from millions of statistical variables and the manipulation of systems in stochastic, rapidly changing circumstances that are temporally behind our ability to effectively comprehend” (Finn 55).

Thanatological: “In sum, what confers separate individuality on a living being is its thanatological character–the fact of detaching from the original colony and, after having reproduced, dying at a distance from it” (Combes 24).


3 is a 0 of multiplicity 2

In a graph, when you touch or cross the x-axis, you can call that point “a zero.”  If whatever you’re drawing crosses the x-axis at “3,” then “3 is a 0.”  And “multiplicity” determines the shape of the thing you’re drawing at that point on the graph: the even numbers are parabolas, odds are dog-legs, and a “one” is a plain old line. “Multiplicity 2” means that at the point your thingy touches the x-axis, it does so in the shape of a parabola.  And although my class hasn’t gotten to this yet, I also know that it’s possible to have imaginary zeros.  I don’t know what you do with imaginary zeros.


Multiplicity has been a favorite word of mine since I was introduced to Bergson and Deleuze.  But I usually use the word in a sloppy way, as in: “we should have a multiplicity of voices represented in the literary canon.”  That’s a terrible thesis.  Bergson (who was a math whiz before he became a philosopher) wrote about both quantitative and qualitative multiplicities in much more precise, interesting ways.

Qualitative multiplicity is found in a singular experience that can’t be juxtaposed against another one.  One of Bergson’s examples is to imagine the stretch and elasticity of an elastic band. “Bergson tells us first to contract the band to a mathematical point, which represents ‘the now’ of our experience. Then, draw it out to make a line growing progressively longer. He warns us not to focus on the line but on the action which traces it”(from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  The duration of the stretch, the inherent tension, the smooth transition from point to line, the experience of it all: these elements contribute to the qualitative value of the multiplicity more than a static image (such as a graph of a trajectory like the one above) can preserve.

20160327_215900So there’s math + philosophy. And also + art: in Findings on Elasticity, editors Hester Aardse and Astrid Alben write, “Elasticity has no inhibitions.  Science has no inhibitions…As science continues to shamelessly stretch knowledge as far as it will go, unburdened by inhibitions, so art, in its limitless ways of expressing human experience, often confronts our inhibitions and suggests where we should put them.”  It’s a wonderful book full of experiments and installations and inventions exploring (it seems to me) the question: How do we authentically record, document, preserve, share, communicate our experience of the qualitative multiplicity of elasticity?

These notions of multiplicity-via-elasticity (math, philosophy, art) relate to the nomadic paths of protest librarians and the (often surprisingly divergent) paths of the libraries’ physical collections of books.  The question is, how do these trajectories represent both quantitative and qualitative multiplicities, and how can they be recorded in a meaningful way.  This is a project to root around in over the summer.

PS: This article about an exhibit called “Design and the Elastic Mind” randomly passed through my Facebook feed just as I posted this entry: Curator Forced to Kill Out-of-Control Bio-Art Exhibit


Confessionals, boy-crazy and otherwise

First:  I did not fail the test.  Nope.  Not a failure.  Not today.  Voice of reason: Although I am happy to have passed, it was a genuine surprise.  So clearly I have no idea how to self-assess my abilities in this course.  File that away as something to think about post-celebration.

Hot X: Algebra Exposed!  By Winnie from Wonder Years.

Second: I made progress on my black-hole tendencies.  I asked two questions in class, and I bought a new book.  Yes, this book.  Yes, the cover pumps a personality quiz and “boy-crazy confessionals.”  But Winnie-from-Wonder-Years’s tone is so much more likeable than my $400 course textbook.  The blurb promises that she “shows you how to ace algebra and soar to the top of your class–in style!”  The pep-talk to us girls (tween or otherwise) about being able to do math is a bonus.

Third: We started graphing things this week.  MY OPTIMISM IS RENEWED.  I love graphing.  I love graph paper.  I love charts and tables.  And grids.  It’s the whole reason I became a girl-scout as a kid: selling cookies meant I had control over the most magnificent, color-coded spreadsheet that a 1980’s 10-year old could hope for.  And when we planted a garden, we went the square-foot gardening route because it required a grid.  And crossword puzzles: a favorite pass-time.  So many tiny little boxes.  I use graph paper all the time, but using graph paper for its intended purpose brings a special kind of joy.

Finally: I’m not funny.  I know it.  Last week, a stranger commented that this blog was interesting but not funny.  Being interesting can be hard, so I’ll take that as a win and continue to forge ahead.  Onward and upward, everyone, mechanical pencils at the ready.  It’s a whole new week.