The weirdness of institutions

Gilbert Ryle famously uses the institution of a university to illustrate a category error, in which a university is confused with its visible parts. The university is the word, according to Ryle, that describes the organisation of those parts, and to see it as a thing in the same way as its parts are things is wrong.

A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks “But where is the University? I have seen where the members of the Colleges live, where the Registrar works, where the scientists experiment and the rest. But I have not yet seen the University in which reside and work the members of your University.” It has then to be explained to him that the University is not another collateral institution, some ulterior counterpart to the colleges, laboratories and offices which he has seen. The University is just the way in which all that he has already seen is organized. When they are seen and when their coordination is understood, the University has been seen.

(Ryle 1949, 17–18)

But Ryle’s university problem also touches on the specific ontological weirdness of any institution. What is an institution? It might be the sum of some parts – but what are those constituent parts? And if it is specifically the organisation of those parts, what is the nature of that organisation?

Is the university constituted from colleges and libraries, or from the people teaching and learning inside them? Ryle gave us some locations that would not have existed when Oxford or Cambridge universities first came into being. Oxford’s claim to being the oldest university in the English-speaking world is not based on the date of construction of its famous buildings, which turned up centuries later, but on records of teaching happening in the late 11th century. The university came about because a bunch of scholars got together to teach and advance knowledge; it continues to exist for that purpose, albeit in a larger form, and it can be physically located in a swathe of material objects – all those famous buildings – that it built for that purpose over time.

I have no idea about the intricacies of how universities are run, or what sort of written constitutions they have, but will continue with Ryle’s example and tweak it in order to carry out some thought-experiments. The fictional University mentioned henceforth is a venerable institution founded, like Oxford, by some monks who intended to disseminate and advance knowledge, and at some point down the line that purpose was set out by a particularly literate monk into a written constitution.

Let’s consider two possible events that might take place. In the first, a zeal for privatisation sweeps the British university sector. The old, rich, well-regarded University is in a strong position to detach itself from any funding from the state and sets up as a private university. Its purpose remains to disseminate ideas, but it can do that and generate more money in order to grow as an institution. It is still the University: it does all the things a university does, employs its fellows and professors and administrative staff, and carries on educating people and advancing knowledge. It just has more money to throw at it now.

At some point down the line, it gets taken over by EliteUniCorp, a vast multinational education company promising to inject additional capital and resources into disseminating and advancing knowledge. There is a handover period of an academic year during which EliteUniCorp legally owns the University but makes no managerial changes, preferring to observe it first to work out how to make some money from it. The University looks like the University still – it has retained its valuable branding despite being subsumed into being part of EliteUniCorp, whose purpose is to make money for its shareholders by selling education and research services. Ryle describes the institution of the University as ‘the way in which what [the visitor] has seen is organised’: a visitor wandering past at this point would see the activities characteristic of a university, because in those famous buildings, students are being taught, and books are being read, and monographs written, and advances in knowledge continue to take place. That activity is what is being organised. EliteUniCorp see it as a nascent business. Is it still the University? Some left-leaning professors do not think so, and express concern on Twitter, citing abandonment of the aims of the University’s constitution in favour of making money for EliteUniCorp as evidence of its demise with the hashtag #deathoftheUniversity. EliteUniCorp responds with a statement that nothing relating to the university activities of advancing and disseminating knowledge has changed, and begins to transfer the University’s profits to its own accounts.

In the years that follow, EliteUniCorp gets greedy, and cuts professors’ salaries while charging ever more outlandish tuition fees that narrow the field of people willing to pay to a handful of oligarch kids who are lazy and not very bright. The professors leave in droves, the reputation of the University suffers and soon EliteUniCorp struggles to recruit both staff and students. Once it finds the University running at a loss, EliteUniCorp shuts down its University operation. No point in educating people and advancing knowledge if it doesn’t pay. The buildings are still there, and busloads of tourists still come to the city to see them and take photos of them, and can even pay to stay in them now that they have been recreated as Brideshead Revisited theme hotels by a Chinese tourism conglomerate, but no teaching or learning is happening any longer.

In a second future world, the Computer Science department proposes to create a digital learning platform that can share the University’s research and teaching with neural networks for mutual benefit. This falls into line with the University’s purpose of teaching and advancing knowledge and the platform goes online; in fact, the neural networks are much, much cleverer than human undergraduates, and soon enough colleges compete to sign them up as student-entities in order to improve their ranking in intercollegiate results tables. Soon, the only human students left are beefcake brought in for rowing teams, and when the Other University’s new genetically modified lab-grown Row-Bots beat the Blues, they no longer have a function either. The University employs technicians to maintain the servers in the Computer Science department, where the Computer Science department executive neural network communicates their daily tasks through an idiot-proof productivity app in order to minimise human error. There are a few human lab technicians left in the departments where robotics have not yet been adequately finessed to take over. The Vice Chancellor neural network has been in place for decades, ever since it was trialled against the erstwhile human Vice-Chancellor and found to be more effective; when the University’s last Chancellor stood down, it was determined that there was no further need for any human to take that ceremonial position, and that ceremonial positions, gowns and fancy dinners no longer have much purpose either. The existence of competing yet collaborating college-nodes turned out to be a highly functional networking structure, so the various colleges still exist, and still compete to produce and disseminate the most information, but the buildings got sold off to that Chinese tourism conglomerate last year and are now hotels. When those tourists go to the Bodleian Wellness Spa or Brideshead Experience, do they pay all that money because they commit the marketing-assisted category error of thinking that they are visiting the University?

An institution isn’t, in these examples, the same thing as its constituent buildings. Is it the same thing as its people? It doesn’t have to be: the AI university seems to be doing perfectly well at the core activities of a university – disseminating and advancing knowledge – activities that those eleventh-century monks wished to get together to promote. The monks might not have considered it possible for the university to educate, or be run by, non-monks; it might be no less strange or heretical to them that its activities be carried out by computational devices and robots than by women and non-Christians.

In that case, where do we draw the line regarding where the institution of the University exists, and where it doesn’t? Does it still exist when it is teaching people and advancing knowledge, but to make a profit rather than for those purposes themselves?

When the University first goes private in the example above, its core purpose remains to disseminate and advance knowledge; the financial systems it employs to do so are not driving its purpose, but supporting it. Once it gets bought up by EliteUniCorp, I’m with the hypothetical dissident professors: it no longer exists as an institution. It becomes part of another institution instead. Its original purpose has been supplanted by the purpose of making a profit by supplying teaching and knowledge advancement services, and while the machinery of teaching and learning is still in place, it no longer operates according to the principles of the Oxford University constitution – to disseminate and advance knowledge – but according to the principles of EliteUniCorp. An institution is an entity made up of other entities organised to carry out a common aim, and once the machinery of the University is carrying out the aims of EliteUniCorp instead, it becomes the machinery of EliteUniCorp. The University is no longer a university, but an arm of an education services company.

In the time when the University goes private before getting bought up, it might have to amend its constitution to allow for its new financial systems. I would argue that it is still the same institution, because it retains its constitution and its aims, but tweaks them slightly. When it decides to move towards disseminating knowledge via AI rather than human brains, it might need to amend its constitution in case there is any pesky out-of-date anthropocentric bigotry holding it back from admitting the intelligent entities purely on merit, just as it once amended its rules to admit women.

The institution is, then, the collection of entities that exist to carry out a common constitution. The constitution does not necessarily have to be formally written down: I might start a book group whose aim is to meet on Tuesday nights in a pub to talk about a book we’ve read in common. At some point, I cannot get a babysitter and stop going, but the others still go, and books still get read and discussed in the pub, and a year later it’s going strong without any of its initial members. It’s an institution, says the pub landlady, grateful for the custom on a quiet night. It might be agreed one Tuesday night that it is, in fact, better to meet on Thursday nights instead, and it continues to exist with that alteration. It could move to another pub a few months later after falling out with the landlady, and continue to exist. She doesn’t own it, and nor does the pub, and nor do I. It is more than its physical location, and the people who turn up to read the books, and the initial rules for when and where it happens. It exists for as long as there are people who agree to carry out its aims, and even when some of the rules for how it happens change, its existence is sustained.

The book group doesn’t have a written constitution. It’s more a loose agreement, a mutual understanding. People who want to read a common book and talk about it in a particular place and at a particular time can come along and do so, and there they will arrange the next meeting. The book group, as an institution, might be the way those common activities are organised into a single event: book, discussion, pub, Tuesday. A regular observer in the corner of the pub would see that pattern from week to week and conclude, if he was not too drunk, that people turning up to talk about a book was not merely a random crossing-paths of bookish folk who happened to have the same book with them, but something organised. If another punter entered the pub and asked the landlady to show him the book group, she would point towards the people in the book group, but it would be hard to make the category error that the university-seeker made: it is visibly a group with books. And yet the book group is not dependent on any of those individual people for its existence, because all the original members have left.

If we are going to pin down what defines an institution, the constitution looks like the best bet. Ryle’s description of the university is ‘the way in which [its constituent parts] have been organised’ could be taken to mean a constitution. There might be formal records of a constitution, as large organisations like universities and nation states tend to have, or there might not, as with the book group. If, as the founder of the book group, I were to insist on agreeing a formal written constitution with the other book group members, they would probably run for the door.

We could look at the constitution in two ways. In the how version, it might be described Ryle-style as ‘the way in which an institution’s constituent parts are organised.’ The how constitution would describe the layout of the university’s knowledge economy, employing professors to acquire new knowledge and disseminate that knowledge to each other and to students. It would provide job descriptions to the people carrying out activities within it, and set out meetings between colleges and faculties. The how of the book group would be a common procedural understanding: its members will read the book chosen by majority agreement at the end of this week and turn up next week in the pub to talk about it.

The why constitution would look more teleological: it would be a set of shared aims that, in turn, drive its various activities. The University exists to advance and disseminate knowledge, and each department and individual within it acts in order to support those aims. I am highly sceptical of mission statements and the people who write them, and indeed the term ‘mission statement’, but it would basically be just that. The Book Group exists to facilitate discussion of books between friends in the pub.

Both of those constitutional descriptions are, in my opinion, useful and interesting. Either way, the point at which the institution ceases to exist must be when it stops carrying out its constitution. Whether or not we take a how or why version of its constitution might align with where we stand on the dissident professors’ claim — that the University ceases to be the University and becomes part of EliteUniCorp as soon as it gets bought*. In the how version, the University would cease to be the University at the point where it undergoes observable procedural changes: you might argue that this happens as soon as its financial systems are updated to send profits to EliteUniCorp, even if at that point the how of the day-to-day organisation of university activities would be identical to any observer. Perhaps it would happen later, when the admissions guidelines are adjusted to accommodate the growing numbers of the rich-but-thick, and a new Student Behaviour Alignment department is put in place, which collaborates with the new Fast Track Gold office to encourage students to pay extra for better grades rather than intimidate their professors.

(*I was going to say that it depends on where we stand on the dissident professors’ claim, but then I realised that I think they are right because I take a why position, rather than taking a why position because I think they are right, and will explain this in the next part of this essay.)

The why version is more clear-cut: once the University no longer carries out its constitutional aims, it stops existing. There, the constitution is the set of aims that drive institutional activity. The activity might look the same, but if it is no longer driven by the aims agreed upon within the constitution, some other entity is doing the activity – in this case, EliteUniCorp.

The why version need not negate the how version, and vice versa. A key difference is that, in the why version, the constitution is more than an observable pattern of organisation constraining and shaping institutional activity. It is a sort of entity in its own right – the category error, so far as Ryle is concerned, of holding the University as a thing. But it doesn’t have to be a formal, written entity; it can be an agreement, or an alignment of aims.

If the why version of the constitution is made of anything, it is made of ideas. And what is the ontological status of those? I can’t see how you can keep going without recourse to either dualism or idealism in some form.

As for the how version, you could argue that there is nothing woo-woo going on and that the constitution is merely an organisational pattern, but the nature of organisational patterns is that they constrain activities so that, for example, people at the book group talk about books rather than watch the football, and people in universities carry out activities relating to knowledge rather than fighting wars, even though it may sometimes seem as though anything is possible. The Army is an institution whose legitimate activity does include fighting wars. In a formal institution with formal rules like the Army, or, less rigidly, the University, individual members would be disciplined if found carrying out activities that contravene its constitution. If a platoon of soldiers were to be found discussing poetry on the battlefield, they would face a disciplinary tribunal, and so would a student found designing bombs in the Biochemistry department. The constraints are not limited to people, or even putative artificial intelligence networks: if the University finance department does not acquire money in grants and fees, and send money to other departments to buy equipment, maintain buildings and pay staff, the University will not last long.

If an institution is the organisation of a set of other entities that carries out some activity, and it can’t organise activity without constraints, what exactly are those constraints?

In the case of the Army, it is easy enough to imagine that the presence of commanding officers with rifles would make you stay on task. Perhaps the presence of men with guns can be predictably seen to impose behavioural patterns on people, especially those who have undergone behavioural training to take orders and carry out particular tasks in a particular way. But those constraints are mostly communicated as rules – in writing, or verbally, or as an observed social pattern. If someone in the book group talks for ten minutes about the football match at the other end of the bar, the frosty reception he gets would probably communicate that he should talk about football somewhere else, and if he kept going for twenty minutes someone would probably pipe up and say that everyone else is there to talk about books. Those rules exist, formally or informally.

What are those rules? You could say the rules aren’t a thing, and to see them as such is a category error, and argue that they simply describe the operational process, or the pattern of organisation. But in most institutions, deviations from operational process both happen and get corrected. Perhaps the word ‘rule’ is a folk-psychological delusion to describe a hardwired group dynamic, but it starts to feel as though we are doing a lot of work to explain away the existence of rules, and the only reason I can think of to do so is that you then face the same ontological problem of what, exactly, rules are. If the rule contravened by the soldiers discussing poetry in the battlefield is ‘in the battlefield, we fight’ or some variation thereof – it might be ‘obey orders’ but the order to their commanding officer is to fight, or it might be that he too is merely obeying orders and the order given by the government at war is for the army to fight – we might reasonably infer that the rule is to fight in that situation, as might a soldier court-martialled a few times for not fighting in a battlefield – if he managed to stay in the army and/or alive for that long.

How different is a rule from an aim, abstraction aside? And then we are back in a similar domain of aims, ideas, etc as we were with the why constitution. You could avoid arguing that rules exist to constrain behaviour to a particular end, and simply state that they constrain behaviour in a particular way, but those constraints still have a specifically informational character that needs to be disseminated among the constituent parts of an institution in order to ensure that the activities it does take place. And I just cannot work out how you get rid of the problem of that information, or idea, or whatever you want to call it. Perhaps you could describe it as a process or a pattern and try not to situate it as an entity aside from the entities in which it operates, but I just used the word ‘operates’ as a way of trying to get around the existence of a noun, and the process or pattern or whatever it is has a particular effect, or, if that sounds too teleological, makes a particular shape. The language-play seems pointless: each time, we end up saying the same thing in a more circumlocutory way: why not just accept that information exists and ideas exist and they make stuff happen? It’s a whole lot neater that way.

If Ryle was so keen to kill the ghost in the machine, that particular example strikes me as a risky way of doing it. Institutions are weird. The things that make them institutions look worryingly immaterial. If you tell people to stop erroneously thinking of them as entities and rename them organisations of other entities instead, the haunting doesn’t magically disappear. An organisation is, after all, organised.

Unprofessional

Years ago, I kept a blog about my PhD research and other, unrelated and unfashionable things like the Archers, which was on fire at the time, and the things that people wear to the school gate. I had two small children and hardly any time to think, and the time I did have was a gift that I appreciated. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed writing as much as I did then. I hadn’t published anything, and because the blog was hosted, badly, by a university, I had no idea how many people read it. It may have reached the tens on a particularly good day – I had a couple of hundred Twitter mutuals at the time.

I wrote because I loved to write, and if one person responded to the piece I had communicated something, and that felt a bit like magic. Then I started to have the beginnings of a career as a writer, and I stopped writing like that: instead, it was about writing what I thought people wanted me to write, and trying to be self-consciously clever. I still enjoyed it for a while, because there was lots of positive feedback, and nobody is immune to that, but when the feedback died and I tried ever harder to perform and ape whatever it was that was the thing that people were doing and wanting now, I stopped loving writing.

It was a burden and a neurosis, a need to prove myself to a world whose interest was not, in truth, much changed from my handful of Twitter mutuals, although I left Twitter because it felt increasingly like failure seeing other, more successful writers being more successful, who previously I would never have even noticed. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words of really, really bad stuff. Occasionally, I wrote weird shit that almost nobody will read that I still love, and the knowledge that it was possible to do that kept me sane.

I’ve just sent off what looks like the final draft of a novel to my agent and haven’t heard back. It is incredibly bad timing to finish a book and hope to publish it. The odd thing is that I really don’t mind about this now. None of it feels important – not compared to what is happening around us in the world, not compared to the health of people I care about. But I realised this morning, texting friends across the country and the world from a child-free lie-in, and remembering how words and ideas can kindle warmth and laughter and connection, that I miss writing – the old, naive, exchange-of-imperfect-thoughts element of writing that I used to do.

I plan to do more of that. If my kids end up at home over the coming months I’m going to make them do it too. Unprofessional words, the emails and texts and phone calls that will keep our minds alive in physical isolation, are more important than the things we read in books.

The Clamour of Being

I wrote this essay for publication in Nicholas Johnson‘s catalogue for his upcoming show, Inns of Molten Blue. It was such a pleasure to collaborate with a visual artist, especially one whose interests and influences correlate so intensely with mine. I am very excited about seeing the catalogue in print; his work is strange and beautiful and it will be a wonderful document in its own right. The title of this piece is from Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition and it pops up later on too, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to namedrop him in the text. 

i

Once upon a time, we would have spent much of our leisure , or what leisure we had, lying beneath a tree, or perhaps sitting with our back imprinted into the base of its trunk, our legs extending out along its roots, looking. Looking or dozing or gazing, in the psychic twilight edgelands of waking, in the thinning of the veil between worlds, for other sorts of things could be seen if you looked long enough.

Other worlds lay beyond this place, but perhaps they were only ever ways of seeing, otherworlds of being in the same place when the mode of its cognition had shifted for a time. All things can become strange given time. Beyond their surface, and the words we use to denote it, all things are very strange indeed.

ii

The Victorian philologist and comparative theologian Max Müller famously described mythology as a ‘disease of language.’ What he meant by this was that language, as it developed into an ever more sophisticated and specific way of naming things, made them less strange, less big, less alive. It made things into things. In the very early language of the Vedas, words made broad fluid brush strokes of meaning, so that the shifting and metaphorical nature of what it is to view the world outside was not excised.

The disease of language was really a disease of things. The problem was that the strangeness and aliveness of things resisted words. They came to life another way, by animating the words themselves into a new and cartoonish pantheon of beings. The words became gods, Eos and ­Chaos; the netherworlds of non-ordinary experience became Faerie, and then fairies. Animism – the belief that all things possess, or are possessed by, a spirit – arose out of a cognitive bias.

The gods, Müller wrote, were ‘nothing but poetical names, which were gradually allowed to assume a divine personality never contemplated by their original inventors.’

Something was afoot. Something in the human mind resisted the dryness of things. It bored through their surface and the names by which they were denoted.

iii

Some things were more resistant to thingness than others. Müller created a taxonomy of tangible, semi-tangible and intangible objects in which the insistent vigour of life sounded louder up the hierarchy.

‘Some objects, such as stones, bones, shells, flowers, berries, branches of wood, can be touched, as it were, all round. We have them before us in their completeness. They cannot evade our grasp. There is nothing in them unknown or unknowable, at least so far as those are concerned who had to deal with them in early days.’

Semi-tangible objects carried a mysticism correlating to their scale: ‘even a tree,’ Müller wrote, ‘at least one of the old giants in a primeval forest, has something overwhelming and overawing. Its deepest roots are beyond our reach, its head towers high above us. We may stand beneath it, touch it, look up to it, but our senses cannot take it in in one glance.’ For ancient people, ‘something went beyond the limits of their sensuous knowledge, something unknown and strange, yet undeniably real; – and this unknown and unknowable, yet undeniable something, became to the more thoughtful among them a constant source of wonderment. They could lay hold of it on one side by their sense, but on the other it escaped from them – “it fell from them, it vanished.”’

The intangible objects – those that could be identified by sight but not touched, like the sky, the sun, the dawn – were those most prone to godliness. Awe correlated to scale. To stand before a mountain was to stand ‘in the real presence of the infinite’, and the infinite was either God, or the noumenon, or both.

The indefinite was the gateway to the infinite: where something evaded meaning, or evaded being pinned down in language or at first sight, provoking further consideration, the magic of being could be found. Enchantment was an indefinite exercise, playing in the margins of perception.

iv

Müller had a lifelong admiration for Kant, which led him to translate an English edition of the Critique of Pure Reason. He maintained, however, that there was one adjustment lacking in Kant’s metaphysics. Between the phenomenal perception of the individual and the noumenal realm of things-in-themselves, which defied human experience, there could be an intermediate mode of apprehension, aistheton.

Aistheton was the human faculty to acknowledge that there was more going on beyond the surface of perception; that beyond the horizon of our detailed vision of a thing lay its indefinite nature, and beyond that the infinite. Müller’s error was to ascribe the ability to glimpse the infinite to a particular scale: the demigods of tree and river, the celestial bodies of sun and moon.

If we cannot find the same strange intimation of life beyond the frames of our understanding when looking at a leaf or berry, so that behind the veins and hue and particular geometries of a leaf was something unknowable and alive in its unknowability, perhaps we are not looking closely enough. Perhaps we have forgotten what it is to gaze without imposing prior judgements, until our frenzied application of things begins to melt away into something more indefinite, and we can start to look, and to actually see, again.

The infinite is always there, all around us, immanent in all the things we could see if only we were able to stop naming them as things. It is the infinite domain of the beyond-us, and it does not need to be brought to life as an unreal god, or gods, and it does not need to be named as the infinite.

v

John Duns Scotus, medieval theologian and Subtle Doctor, described the infinite as ‘a measure of intrinsic excellence that is not finite.’ To ascribe perfection to a finite object was mistaken, for the perfection of the divine was found instead in infinity, which is an intrinsic part of being. The infinite did not exist as some separate ghost-entity beyond material things, but within them.

Concealed in the tangle of the forest beyond the church were moments of infinite perfection to be replicated by the hands of men inside, who adorned them with foliate heads of oak and berried hawthorn and other imagined perfections: fleur-de-lys and waterleaf, and the fruits of otherworldly lilies.

Manuscripts grew tendrils, animated by whole vine-life ecologies of real and imagined plants, beasts, birds. The unruly irrepressible indefinite of life kept creeping into human words, growing beyond its borders into human texts, announcing its own landscape in the human mind.

vi

When we look at small things, something arises in their liveliness. It, whatever it is, for like the small things it is resistant to being fixed down, moves within them, making them indefinite. You can hold the small thing but you cannot suppress the uncontainable truth of its aliveness when it lives, unless you kill it, and to kill it is to enact a violent discomfort about its life. Its aliveness buzzes with intention. Even small things that were once alive – Müller’s shell or berry – is a document, an arche-fossil, of its former self.

If we find the indefinite and unpredictable magic of intention in things, it breaks our sense of thingness and usually results in an accusation of anthropomorphism. To impose consciousness onto other things, like plants or insects or water, is to impose our human frame of being onto something quite unlike ourselves.

It is an odd accusation, underpinned by its own fallacious anthropomorphism, in which consciousness or will or mind or whatever we imperfectly name it must be the same sort of consciousness or will or mind that we possess. There is a lurking tautological maxim in which mind cannot be non-human because mind is human that sits, unexplored, in the darkness of modern assumptions about things.

Things that are not like us do not have a mind. Things that are like us have a mind. God is like us, a named enminded man in the ether, because he has a mind and we have a mind, but things that are not like us are not like God. They are merely arrangements of dust.

Perhaps it is more comfortable not to lie beneath the tree. Perhaps it is more comfortable not to rest in the bizarre and mindbending alienness of plants and fungi and bees, because there is simply too much strangeness in there.

vii

Edwin Abbott Abbott’s novel Flatland is sometimes considered the first piece of science fiction for its multidimensional thought experiments, but it is primarily an allegory: a tale of geometry, of axioms and how to break them, and of the mimetic illusions of the mind.

It tells the story of the Square, a contented member of the regular bourgeoisie in a two-dimensional world ruled by hierophant Circles. One night the Sphere arrives from a third dimension. At first, the Square does not understand what the Sphere is, appearing as it does first as a dot and then as a growing entity whose curvature indicates circularity but of no fixed size. He is discomforted by the apparition. In time, the Sphere communes with him and he with the Sphere, and the Sphere takes him to see Spaceland.

Upon the Square’s return, the frames of his understanding exploded by the possibility of multiple dimensions and driven by a desire to share the knowledge he accrued in his strange experience, he is imprisoned as a madman or a heretic, for they are close cousins.

Whether it is a geometric heresy against the parallel axiom or a theological heresy against certainty, to speculate an otherworld is to engage in a heresy against the world we think we know. In that act of speculation, of imaginative invention, we access new worlds beyond the mind’s old frames. The most terrifying heresy is the possibility that they might be true.

viii

To learn from a tree was to learn from another dimension, and other dimensions were strange and fearsome places whose magic operated on its own principles, and the worlds within them were infinite and unknowable. Sometimes, there were heretics who lived on the far edge of town and took their wisdom from the trees, and they would consume parts of the tree and take it into themselves, so that the tree would become them and they the tree.

Sometimes, the whole town would be complicit in this flirtation with the vegetable otherworld. Sometimes, on May morning, the young girls would go out into the dawn and sip the dew of roses, so that the beauty of the rose might transfer itself onto them for the day of the flowering and the dance.

The flowering boughs of Beltane and northern Midsummers brought the dance from the plants into the human realm, and the insistent life-beat of the plants would drum its way into the human dance, forging new couplings and bringing forth new human lives.

ix

The infinite is remarkably easy to find with a little patience. It has a habit of expressing itself in both expected and unexpected ways. Sometimes, it announces itself by way of the indefinite in resisting description. Sometimes, it reveals itself in strangeness. Sometimes, it reveals itself in patterns.

Patterns have an odd tendency to repeat themselves across scales. We can call them archetypes or tropes or memes, depending on the texture of our cognition. The patterns of Dreamtime paintings and cell biology and the post-war future kitsch of what it would look like to be in space are made of the same shapes. As you circle a city from the air, spiralling closer from space in the approach to landing, it looks by turn like a ragged lichen on the many-scarred dirty surface of its rock, and then cellular, subdivided and peppered with receptors and transmitters and active transport channels. Here are xylem and phloem; veins and arteries; modes of commuting and of commerce.

When we look closely at small things, at tangible objects of little consequence, we find new complexities in them. The same geometric and technological elegance can be found in the architecture of Brunel and organelles, in the double-helix of DNA, in dendriform management structures and in new leaves.

The surface of a fruiting lichen, all emissary launchpads and tentacular factory units, looks up close like some strange futuristic space colony because that is what it is.  A hawthorn tree, new-grown for the coming of the new light at the vernal equinox at which point it plans to eat the sun and create weapons so that it may not in turn be eaten, is up to something wild and warlike on the frontiers of existence. If we saw these things in outer space, their weird intentions might make more sense to us. Outer space is what we call the realm of infinite possibility we have forgotten to see in the microcosms of our own world.

x

Today, though we speak little of the infinite, it sometimes feels as though Max Müller was right: that within us there resides some drive or will to glimpse that which goes beyond ourselves, to see the nature of things beyond their given names, to attune to worlds beyond those we inhabit. Sometimes they call out to us and sometimes we have to seek them.

If a single voice raises the clamour of being, perhaps we do not hear it when the clamour is harmonious. The dissonances provoke us to listen, listen harder for what it is that is happening; to provoke the search for the noise and for its voicing.

‘When we speak of colours or sounds,’ wrote Müller, ‘we seem for all practical purposes to move entirely within the finite. This is red, we say, this is green, this is violet. This is C, this is D, this is E. What can apparently be more finite, more definite? But let us look more closely.’

The dissonances of the inbetween, the both-and-neither, are the sound of difference, large or incremental, differences that endlessly proliferate until they collapse into chromatic sedition, into the indefinite all.

xi

Sometimes there is sameness in difference, things contiguous with the other, repetitions of the same imprints across dimensions and scales. Those shapes, those patterns, tropes or memes or archetypes, forge their way into our aesthetic consciousness as they shape our cognition.

Our minds seek to stamp these cookie-cutter shapes upon the outside world, and sometimes the outside world calls back, teasing us with them, or what we thought they were: the variegated shadows of foliage, hills and rivers, snakes and faces, provoking ancestral emotions from times before and beyond ours.

Here and now and everywhere are quincunx matrices and dendriform fractals, parabolic canopies of growth and decline, configurations perfect and infinite and prone to eventual collapse, for nothing lasts fixed in time forever, but nor does it cease to exist except in form.

xii.

But let us look more closely. Let us look more closely until we find ourselves within the tree’s strangeness, so that the mode of its invention confounds us and it seems as though it exists in its own separate fold of spacetime in which our technologies and tools of measurement do not apply.

We cannot truly know it, for its unknowability extends too far into the otherworlds; we can only imagine what it would be like to know it, or to see it, out there on the threshold of our world, where imagined botanies are more real than the things we thought we knew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Acid Caused Postmodernism (or didn’t)

Here is the talk Eli and I gave at Breaking Convention. After a really difficult year of working hard on lots of things that didn’t work out well, this was a much-needed success, my lousy presentation skills aside. We got to meet loads of fascinating people we had long admired as a result too.

People asked if we were doing podcasts, which seems to me an excellent idea, so watch this space.

 

 

 

 

 

The New Acidheads

One of the most inspiring events of recent years for me was Breaking Convention 2015, a biennial conference and get-together for scientists, thinkers and dabblers in the psychedelic world. It had the full rainbow of utopianism, bonkersness and cold hard science that you would hope for from such an event. There were people with hairstyles that should not have been legal and respectable men in suits. It was the most disparate and welcoming crowd I had seen in a while. I wandered through the sunshine at Greenwich, completely sober, watching London float on a heat haze like a city from the future. It felt like the future there.

And then 2015 ended and 2016 happened.

I was struck by the oddity, in 2016, of Home Secretary Theresa May’s exceptionally illiberal Psychoactive Substances Bill passing into chaotic legislation – perhaps a bellwether of the Brexit mentality to follow – as trials here and in the USA confirmed the benefits of psychedelic experiences for depression, addictions and end-of-life engagement for terminal cancer patients.

These developments are exciting. They are powerful tools for working with struggling minds. The idea that we have to let people slip into misery, addiction or terminal illness to access psychedelics grates. Once you’re in jeopardy, there’s a slim chance that you may one day be granted therapeutic access via a licensed practitioner. Otherwise, you are a criminal.

In 2013, I wrote this:

If a similar liberalisation strategy goes ahead, it will be authoritarian in its own way, in letting medicine and psychiatry mediate experiences that have long been part of human existence. But at least some good may come of it, and the old moral panics about irreversible madness and the bad trip to infinity may eventually die down in the face of empirical evidence.

It looks like the first part of this might happen, and given the political climate we find ourselves in now, it feels like a fantastic tool for psychotherapy. There is more work to do, though.

Imagine a substance that promoted long-term empathy for other people and life, that made people happier and more productive, that saw anger ebb away. Imagine such a thing existing. It feels like something we could all do with more of right now.

Lay psychedelic use overwhelmingly has these outcomes. See James Fadiman’s microdosing studies; read Erowid or Reddit. Read what people have to say about it themselves. Sometimes there are thorny moments, which are overcome and learned from. People go to the jungle to drink ayahuasca precisely for the thorny moments and come back feeling strong.

Find me the acid casualties, the people who went mad after one trip, who had never taken any other substance before, who jumped out of a mythical window and tell me that they outnumber the people who have brought light into their lives. Tell me that they outnumber the deaths caused by drink-driving and booze-fuelled violence, let alone the slow alcoholic decay of mind and body. Find me the acid casualties, full stop.

The thing is, the acid casualty myths put about in the 1960s were just that: nearly all mythological in character, they were put about in order to curb what looked like the beginnings of a dangerous social revolution. You don’t want your future ruling class thinking property is theft, love trumps war, that God is found in the intricate workings of the universe rather than the established Church. There will always be people out there who break themselves via the mechanism of indiscriminately taking loads of drugs, although the reasons for doing so will inevitably be found deep within their personal and social worlds; those broken souls got labelled acid casualties, because acid felt dangerous.

Psychedelics are dangerous. They are dangerous to a world order of anger, violence and greed, whose continuation depends on ignorance and fear. They are dangerous to a social world dominated by alcohol and its capacity to help us bury and forget that this is how things are. The people who take them are dangerous for the best possible reasons, and that is why I am going to write about them this year.

 

Brownsea Island

In the first of the photo albums that line the bottom shelf of my parents’ bookcase is a picture of me, aged about eighteen months, fat-faced and nylon-onesied, next to an ostentatious and substantially larger peacock in a field of heather. I look bemused by the peacock; the peacock’s attentions are to camera. He is used to cameras.

Brownsea Island is inhabited by peacocks, red squirrels, Sika deer and vast numbers of birds. It is also inhabited by vast numbers of visitors and a phalanx of delightful volunteers, as befits a National Trust property. In the daytime, on a sunny day, it is all azure sea and Narnia woods, its filmsettishness eroded only by too many people who slowly erode the paths down to the yellow-pebbled coves along its southern edge.

Our family seems to end up here time and again. There is the office where my grandmother worked for years, the house that her boss lived in, the patch of sea where her and my grandfather’s ashes were scattered when I was newly pregnant with their sixth grandchild. Now I’m in a house my parents are renting on the quay, a house that would normally be booked up for years but for some strange glitch of fate, and a house whose neighbour we stayed in when I was the same age as my son who has gone off somewhere with a stick.

If you draw a map of the layout of places in a dream when fresh in your mind first thing in the morning, the act of map-making often provokes memories of new bits of dream you might otherwise have forgotten. The layout of the dreamed place is often very similar to the layout of a real place, but with the added capability of wormholes and secret passages and paths in the undergrowth that cross-reference it to other dream versions of real places, and something about the many repeated visits and weight of family relations with Brownsea make it exactly like a dream place.

I went running in the rain one night when all the daytrippers had gone home and found the thick patch of wood at the end of the nature reserve with the strange high scaffold that I thought I remembered from early childhood, in a scene etched into the memory of many consecutive dreams. Emptied of people, the museum-like quality of the place ebbs away. I ran past the crumbling village where the soft grey clay that oozes seaward never made a fortune after all, over the beach made entirely of discarded shards of clay pipework, and up back into the woods where the deer ran off, clearing overcleared logpiles on the forest floor and disappearing into thin air as though into another dimension.

I promised the children I’d take them on the same run tonight, in the hope on my part of getting last night free to run alone and indulge the strangeness of memory/dream/reality where they meet and part along the way. I wonder if they’ll have the same relationship with it too one day, here or in some other place.

More on the death of clubland

This piece by Lauren Laverne was great. But seeing clubland’s virtue in terms of economic growth is misguided.

I have millennial friends, five to ten years younger than me, and they all seem to live like monks. They work very hard, drink little and don’t touch illegal drugs. They find the prospect of going to a club abhorrent. Our twentysomething experiences are radically different for a relatively small age gap.

My ex, a 90s clubland stalwart who saw the emergence of the scene out of the M25 raves, always maintained that alcohol was the great enemy of clubs. When Ministry of Sound got a licensed bar, the whole vibe shifted overnight, he said, from something communal and transcendent into a business. Ecstasy posed a huge threat to pub culture and alcohol revenue, and the brewers responded to the wave of new clubs by providing drinks aimed squarely at the club crowds: lurid sugary alcopops and watery import beers.

The impact of this on the atmosphere inside was insidious – they turned back into the meat market discos he had always sought to avoid in the 80s, and women began to stay away. The absence of women in a queue, he said, was a red flag for a bad club. On balance, I think he was right.

I only started clubbing in the late 90s and didn’t take any drugs for the first few years but, without knowing it, for we’d leaf through Time Out and try to intuit which club would be most fun and, critically, finish late so we could jump on the first train out of Charing Cross to Kent in time for Saturday morning school, we seemed to alight on the ones where people didn’t drink and took E instead.

As seventeen-year-old girls this made it possible to go out and be safe in the crowd. Men who drank were leery, sleazy, sexualising the space. Clubs where people took E were light, bright and about the music. You didn’t get hit on, and the only time we got approached was when people mistook our youthful exuberance for chemicals they hoped to acquire. Once the lights came up and it was time to leave, we’d wander through Soho at dawn hoping to avoid the drunks, who on one occasion stalked us all the way to Leicester Square, where we barricaded ourselves in the phone box until a couple of kindly gay men on their way to Heaven offered to walk us to the station.

My ex thought the brewers were slowly winning the battle, bemoaning his twentysomething employees’ proclivity for pubs over clubs. The Psychoactive Substances Act and our bizarre belief that the alcohol industry will magically choose to self-regulate seems to back that notion up. It certainly seems to be the case in London, where my sense of FOMO from the Welsh marches has gradually withered away.

It is hard to have spontaneous, experimental scenes of any sort when physical space to put them in is in short supply – Berlin developed its nightlife by virtue of being underpopulated for many years. Going back after a ten-year hiatus recently, I was struck by how money, a disproportionate tourist population and booze was moving in on Berlin’s clubland. Parasitic entities can last a while before full strangulation occurs, but the soul of it was already fading fast.

That said, I think there might be hope elsewhere in Britain. My best nights out in this country have been in the basement of a Paisley curry house and at Salford’s exceptional Islington Mill. In Paisley I chatted to the German DJs, who expressed surprise that they never seemed to play in London. ‘It’s odd,’ one of them said, ‘it’s a huge city but it’s as though it doesn’t have much of an identifiable techno scene.’

That was a while back, just before the boom in EU migration to London filled its clubs with young people who had grown up in continental cities where they do do techno, but it still seems to be the case that London clubland is driven by the need to run a profit to cover the cost of the space, and the profits come from bars and the music that works for a drinking audience has a different, less upbeat quality.

In Berlin twelve years ago, it was always quite fun watching the middle-class students from posh western German cities like Düsseldorf or Hamburg or Munich in the queue for clubs. They dressed up for the occasion, a massive door policy error, and couldn’t understand that the aura of money worked against them there.

Clubland has always thrived, paradoxically, in the absence of money, and certainly in the absence of big money. When the money moves in, turning land into property, forcing the expansion of bars that can turn a profit on wet margins, it slowly sucks the fun out of the whole affair. Money and its agent, booze, is what’s killing it – and so much emergent culture – in London. It’s time, at least in Britain, that we looked to the North instead.

Lower Thames

My dad was a beat PC along the lower stretches of the Thames. He also rowed for the Met. I asked him for stories about corpses on the river for something I’m writing about  and he sent this. I want the psychogeographic cop memoir to be a thing in 2016, please. 

The freeboard or gunwale of a sporting rowing boat is about twenty centimetres, maybe thirty on a sturdier boat. You sit low in the water and get to know it intimately. The modern oar blade is shaped like a cleaver, for maximum leverage, but we used the old-fashioned Macon spoon blades because they don’t catch the flurries and uncertainties of the tidal water. You can get it clip on an unseen mud bank and not get caught up.

The Met boated from Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club, on the Isle of Dogs and directly opposite Greenwich pier. The best time was either side of low tide as the wash of faster boats dissipated across the mudbanks and the really big boats could not operate at this stage of the tide. In theory the bigger boat gives way to the smaller.

The problem is that once they are going they can’t stop and they can’t move out of the centre channel, so the rower needs to be aware and get out of the way. This is no place for an untrained cox and even more difficult for the lone sculler. You will hear other boatmen call out ‘have a look, sculler’ when the river is busy or there is a problem in sight. There is no aggression intended; it’s just that everyone covers each other on the river.

The Met were paying guests of Poplar and this was sometimes an uneasy relationship. The club had been formed by Thames watermen and dockers. They were tough men who remembered the last dock strikes. They were hugely protective of their river-craft and access to their river. They were mainly old style socialists and many were open to a bit of small scale ‘venture-capital’ if it came their way. Mixing with the Old Bill was a matter for delicate diplomacy, although we all had the same pragmatic and physical approach to life’s problems. And the river bound us together once afloat.

We included members of the River Police in our club. I always felt they were a bit like the French Foreign Legion: there is no career path after the boats and most came to forget. There is little activity other than to pootle up and down, doing nautical stuff and rescuing the occasional body. It follows that this was a haven for eccentrics. We used to row heavy boats with these guys. These were similar to naval whalers, which are clinker built with a rowing crew of five. In the old days the odd man in the bow had to handle the harpoon! These things were dreadful to row as you had to bend from the waist and stand into the oar, however they could handle rough water and were designed for the open sea. The advantage was that our men knew the river and its banks intimately, plus it was their beat, so nobody on the river crossed the Thames Division.

The Thames is tidal to some extent all the way up to Lechlade. This means an upstream current twice a day set against a continuous flow of ground water. At any time one will be stronger than the other. There will also be some point, some region or stage of the river where this action levels out. A point where the two currents are roughly equal, a floating object would move up and down, but generally settle down and stay put.

The lower part of river between Tower Bridge and the Thames barrier, just beyond Greenwich, had this quality. The pool of London extended just up from Tower Bridge where there was the last of the deep water and the lower pool was by Wapping Reach, just below the Tower. This was as far upriver as the big ships could sail, as marked by the HMS Belfast today.

On these waters, you would be in a form of stasis, moving at the cusp of the tide, a watershed. The groundwater is in constant interchange with the tide. There is no sense of winning or losing, just flow. When you physically travel on it, when you row it, you have to work with this flow. It has its own time and its own strength; you have to comply, to work with it. You lost sense of clock time. Perhaps this was its attraction, the way it enforced compliance to the equilibrium of change. All very Zen, really, and well put in a koan attributed to Ikkyu: ‘If you think you really come and go, that is your delusion. Let me show you the path on which there is no coming and no going.’

That koan was about death, as are many deliberations on the river. Although I never considered it as doom-laden as Dickens, or gibbet-strewn as in pirate times, trade and property had to defend their capital and frighten the lower classes, and they defined the lower river as a place of fear.

The peculiar equilibrium of the Lower Thames, with its opposing currents and tidal shifts, meant that strange fates awaited corpses washed up there. The oddities of the way the river worked could be adapted for professional purposes.

If you drop a corpse into this environment there is a three-day rule. When the body goes in it will initially float, and then sink. It might get caught up somewhere, but it usually goes down. Then the gut starts to brew up and the body will return to the surface, generally after three days. Until these gases dissipate, the body will float for a while before settling back down. Usually it will be found and recovered – but not always. This is probably why so many murders and thrillers have the bodies cut up, although this is probably more cliché than common practice.

Nonetheless, anyone who has died on the river was treated with great dignity and respect. There was a small unit at Thames Division, headquartered at Wapping Stairs, who tracked down the identities of those who had committed suicide, or had just been retrieved from the water. You couldn’t deal with this without a grim humour and a pragmatic approach. Suicides were ‘jumpers’ and bodies were ‘stiffs’, although this was rarely an accurate term as rigor mortis held no sway after the body came back up.

It was also said that the body could move around of its own volition when convenient. In the language of the McCarthy trials, I was never and did not know anyone involved in such practices. But if a body did not need to come ashore at any particular time, why hurry it? There was every chance that it might wash up somewhere better prepared instead.

The protocol was that if a body was afloat in the river, Thames Division dealt with it. If it was washed up on the foreshore, the riparian division dealt with the case. If it was a sudden death with no suspicious circumstances it was a uniform job, for the finding officer to deal with. If there were suspicious circumstances the CID were informed and took over.

The site of the body could even become a crime scene – inconvenient with a rising tide. For the humble PC, the first scenario could mean hours with a smelly corpse and a nasty, inconvenient attendance at the autopsy for continuity of evidence. The local D.I. had the authority to declare a ‘special event’; the time immediately after a murder was known as the ‘golden hour’ when memories are fresher and suspects still close. Therefore, the local CID boss had to be able to authorise extra overtime and cancel leave. This meant overtime, lots of overtime. Overtime was the oil that lubricated the machine of investigation.

So, in a spirit of pure speculation, an innocent body might get washed up and stranded at low tide, perhaps only just held there by a snagged strand of clothing on a piece of wire from a drowned shopping trolley. For the night duty PC, this body might be too dangerous to recover, or might even float away from his reach and back into Thames Division’s remit. Or it might quietly go with the flow and onto the next Division’s foreshore. On the other hand, for the cash-starved night duty detective, it could present an honest opportunity. The slightest evidence of foul play would mean a murder enquiry and his or her first claim to be part of the murder squad.

The Lower Thames was a vibrant and feisty place, a place of work, travel and opportunity and even escape. It had an exoticism. When they closed down a warehouse in Shad Thames to demolish and develop what is now Java Wharf, the wooden floors gave off an intense smell of the spices which had been stored there for centuries and had leached into the woodwork and structure of the building, and pervaded the surrounding streets.

The river leaves the tight walls on its banks along this stretch and starts to meander, dropping its mud and detritus on the way. It opens out and breathes a bit, like a commuter leaving the tension of the city and loosening his tie on the train home. The mud contains traces of all the lives and industries of the city, some of them pretty grim: effluent, nitrogen run-off from fields, antibiotics and other drugs from human and agricultural use. Rowing near the River Lea, where there were discharges of dry cleaning fluid, it was understood that if you fell in a quick shower was matter of urgency. All of this stuff is deposited in the mud banks, mostly on the inside of bends, the sorts of places where, if you were unlucky, a body might wash up. The mud of the Lower Thames has seen all sorts of things.