I recently stumbled across the work of Victorian philologist/theologian Max Müller. The existence of philologist/theologian as a descriptor is delightful enough as it is, but I was particularly drawn by the way in which the study of language, and in particular the limitations of language, influenced Müller’s theological interests.

Müller saw religion as a defect of language. He argued that there was a perceptual faculty, aistheton, that was able to contemplate the existence of the infinite, so that rather than being restricted to the phenomenal realm of sense-data we could intuitively get that there was something bigger extending beyond it.

Müller held that very early language, like the early Sanskrit of the Vedas, had a greater depth and flexibility of meaning, largely because the language was more simplistic and there was less of it so it had to do more and express more.

It therefore got used with broader brush-strokes and more poetic licence. It was more metaphorical. Central to this metaphorical form of representation was the description of bits of the physical world – mountains, rivers, the sky etc – as being active rather than just sterile stuff.

Müller called these sorts of big things semi-tangible objects: you could see and grasp bits of them but underpinning that was the knowledge that there was more of it that you could not see. The vastness and not-quite-perceptibility of the natural world was therefore embedded in this sense of aistheton, of a bigger infinite thing beyond the things we see.

For Müller, the development of language that was more tightly focused on picking out nouns – bits of stuff – in what it was describing and concomitantly less metaphorical in those descriptions left a gap where the infinite had previously lurked.

Once you just called a mountain a mountain and a river a river and the dawn the dawn and it was just a thing, you needed to find another way of making it rich with meaning again. The next phase of this was animism, where you take the noun Eos, the Dawn, and make it into a name, so that the Dawn is a person imbued with a mixture of anthropomorphic and dawn-like properties. You have yourself a god.

Müller thought this was a pretty simplistic approach to religion: you lost the sense of wonder and gained a soap opera with a cast of embodied nouns. How was this a conceptual improvement on the magic of metaphorical language, which was poetic and broad rather than denotational, and capable of glimpsing the infinite?

To generate a noun called God and fit all of those attributes into a thing is just as crude as turning Dawn into a character – you end up thinking you understand it, that it is possible to hold and define. Müller lionised the apophatic approach of Buddhism, or certain Buddhist traditions: you can only describe what you are describing by setting out what it isn’t. Müller was a dude.

Anyway, I started thinking more about aistheton. I like it as an idea. I started to wonder if that might be what we’re after when we climb a mountain or wade along the edges of a river or perceive a dawn: the idea that the richness and vitality of something beyond the immediate frame of our perception is present.

Our contemporary disorder of language is guilty of the same drive to object-making that Müller identified over a century ago. We went further and ditched the god-noun, which is probably no bad thing. Our perceptual frames have shrunk back even further, though: the ready supply of synthetic novelty on screens, online, in the weird leisure scenarios of late capitalism have withered away our capacity to dig for richness beneath surface appearance.

Maybe aistheton, now, is simply to be present in a moment unfed by technology and to peer beyond it, and remember that there is a world beyond it whose unfolding detail is vast and limitless, like a river or some other semi-tangible object; maybe it is the ability to hold the world, or anything in it, as something that can not quite be held.

At Frieze

In the queue for the lift at Regent’s Park station I could hear a series of pops, which I now realised were tiny explosions of air extruded from chewing gum in the mouth of the head behind mine. It belonged to a student whose face was perfectly expressionless and flat apart from the rhythmic mandibular manipulation of gum, as though the bottom of her skull had different wiring. I was swept across the Marylebone Road in the wake of a vast French exchange, and into the perimeter of the park where the white-and-black hoardings of the art fair had set themselves up.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. It would be a lie to say that I went there naively hoping to see some art. I had a sort of idea that there might be some interesting insights into material things that, upon closer inspection, are not quite what they seem, that being the mainstay of uncanniness. I had a sort of idea that that was what most contemporary art was about, the manipulation of the appearance of things so that the reality exposed behind it had unexpected qualities.

I queued in a long corridor to ditch N’s old UN rucksack, which was so vast and obviously not handbaglike that there was no way it was coming in. An affable security man remonstrated with people holding, or claiming to hold, VIP tickets; another security woman worked the queue, sniffing out people who didn’t need to be there, terrierlike; people who had all thought a great deal about what to wear walked past in the strange stiff uniformity of movement that besets the self-conscious.

It was like a slick conception of an airport, one of those glassy, glossy airports that Tyler Brûlé would get exercised about. Through security, on the other side, artside, the gates were marked out with big-brand gallery names in which objects noisily jostled for attention alongside all the people.

Eventually I got through and could see the objects. They weren’t as interesting to look at as the man dressed in maps and a lampshade, although perhaps he had set out to be an object anyway. There were huge geometric trompe l’oeil patterns, smarter that the neon throws at a psytrance rave but essentially the same sort of idea, blurry tits and lips and cunts, possible attempts at encapsulating the cosmic and any number of inverted or perverted things – an upside-down drum, banging itself, a head-shaped vase bearing a cactus. You take a thing and put it out of context and then it becomes weird, or at least edgy.

The problem with edginess is that it operates on a basis of sense, which is the slipperiest sort of basis for anything at all: as soon as you chase it successfully and fix it, it has ceased to be edgy and is merely kitsch, which is where edgy goes to die. Perhaps what you have to do in order to avoid this paradox is avoid adopting what seems to be edgy now and, instead, speculate what might become edgy in the future, so that with a bit of semiotic investment your social capital, in reading the trend-led cues around you, sublimates into the cultural capital of canny curation, which you can then sell on. If my theory was correct, its outcome here was a vast inflatable cartoon cat juxtaposed with a photographic close-up of a man, or men, seemingly masturbating in football shorts.

I soon tired of the art and looked at the passing figures instead. The people, insofar that they were people, for some of them had a ghostly presence, moving through the space or at least appearing to do so without actually being present in it, all had strange faces. There were men with caricature eyebrows and noses, like clownish Groucho Marxes, in crazy glasses, loud glasses, dark glasses; women balancing heads on improbably pointed bodies with too-tight cheekbones and eroded facial musculature, as though they all had the same surgeon who speciality was the uncanny valley, the nearly-but-not-quite mimicry of human form and movement that forms the sweet-spot of unheimlich.

I sat by the tables outside where tree-trunks emerged from the floating floorboards and everyone spoke either earnestly in German, or ostentatiously in English, like the American man with a faketanned plasticine face who leaned into me leerily as he passed and said “Nice chapeau,” the foreignness of the noun italicised to impress. I drank sugarless green juice, which, though expensive, was remarkably effective at clearing my hangover, and watched them.

It was as though the extremes of social stratification peculiar to the concentrations of wealth in cities like London had evolved their own posthuman species. Perhaps some new Lamarckian process would see lines of straw-boatered prep school children wander the streets behind the park, gender dimorphised into overdrawn features for the boys and beatific facial paralysis for the girls, children whose newly divergent metabolisms would now run entirely on capital, liquid capital, so that the indignity of eating need not trouble them.

It was not yet clear what would happen to the restaurants in this eventuality, when the need for food abstracted from food finally reached the point of nonfruition where it ceased to be food altogether, and became instead a holographic representation of the memory of food or something like it. That would need work. Perhaps the new congregations would all take place in the consumption of art, at endless private views, where new tweaks to the Krebs cycle would see capital transformed enzymatically, deep in the mitochondria of wealth, into social and cultural analogues ready for transfer and exchange.


I had a free twenty-four hours and a hangover. I hadn’t slept well in a while. I needed to be in the North on Sunday morning and ended up in Manchester, largely because I could, and because I knew nobody in the city.

Mist was beginning to pool in the road when we drove home from a party the night before, and the morning was shrouded in it. Inclement weather carries a broader variety of affects than I had noticed before: low cloud and low pressure is flattening, a downer, while strong wind and heavy rain beat refrains of the nested comforts of home. Mist is mysterious, as though the two are etymologically linked, and a sense of adventure creeps out of it. I got fernweh.

It rolled like half-formed hay bales across the fields on the way to Hereford station. I was certain of the rightness of leaving home now; I had a sense that something was up, that the train ride would sort me out. I had a deal with myself that I work on trains, and it is a deal I never break. The hills of Shropshire rose and fell, and I wrote, half-heartedly at first, peering over the laptop at the Long Mynd, and by the time the train passed the plump suburbs of Cheshire the sun was out and I had made sense of it all and the trip felt vindicated.

And the deal, then, was that I got to do fun stuff. I wandered through cafes and tried on too much lipstick and went dancing, alone, which is the best way to do it. I wandered through the city, half lost. The lostness was a key bit of the attraction, for the city was a stranger in that way that cities, like people, can be handsome or ugly, friendly or menacing, and vary in their knowability.

The not-knowing, the way that streets and buildings carried no embedded meaning for me, and simply presented themselves as paths and vistas, made it possible to see the shapes and patterns that make cities beautiful when they are. I took terrible blurry pictures of their geometries on my phone, and thought about the nature of geometry, or tried to. The tiredness made my mind soft, and it softened the shapes around me too so that streetlights had an aura and cars left a trail.

The natural world has its own geometries, some of them obvious: a pinecone’s perfect spiral in Fibonacci sequence, the six-pronged star of a snowflake. And then there are the subtler ones, the fractal repetitions of shapes that you get upon magnification, the patterning of the secondary structure of proteins where the chain of amino acids forms bonds at regular intervals to create a helix or sheet.

Proteins are manufactured in the endoplasmic reticulum and packaged in the Golgi apparatus – the industrial organelles, the Manchesters of the cell, built out of long factory production lines. I fear at this point that the overextended metaphor will be taken for anthropomorphism, which is on balance fine: production, like geometry, replicates itself across all scales of existence, and if you want to tag it as mistakenly human-centred the human part of that assumption is all yours. Back to geometry.

There was a whole row about geometry that happened in the nineteenth century, at the same time that much of Manchester’s architecture came into being. Old-school Euclidean geometry was being ditched and dismissed as “planimetry” – a system that worked only self-referentially in the unreal confines of the flat plane. The new geometers were getting their teeth into new forms with new methods that better described the complexities of spacetime, or so the story went.

The new geometers thought that Euclidean geometry with its neat forms created a conceptual trap in which the world was thought to correspond to geometry, and when the world, or at least spacetime, appeared to correspond to any of the new geometries that better described its curvatures and folds the assumption that the world must be shaped like a geometry somehow persisted. It would simply be too strange to see the geometries as shapes that only ever existed in the human imagination, and from which we sought out mirrors in external data, or created external things in their image.

But what fantastic objects we created from them. The repetitions of shadowed railings on steps, so that the lines of the railings fell diagonally across them; the diminishing lines of steel struts beneath a bridge, backlit from the road; an alleyway between the hooped part-moons of railway arches and the striplit planes of a multi-storey carpark, bridged by a vertical fence that opened precisely halfway along.

And, strangest of all, in the last cheap hotel in town, which looked like it might have been repurposed out of student halls that gave the kids strange dreams, a vast pendulum hung and swung in perpetuity in an octagonal space in the lobby. Maybe the human capacity for folly sets us aside from the rest of nature; I’m not at all sure about that, though.

Idealism, stupid

A strange thing happened yesterday. I was at a conference full of scientists and none of them thought materialism worked.

This strange phenomenon might seem a little less strange in the context of the conference being a conference about psychedelics, but still. People were talking about DMT, its mechanisms, its applications to our understanding of how consciousness works and how best to analyse the peculiar visual and perceptual trends common to people using it, regardless of their cultural background or setting.

One of the common threads of discussion was whether it made more sense to take these visions and perceptions (all of which tend to invoke elves, in much the same fashion as the old northern European shamanic traditions) at face value – the elves are real entities out there in the world and DMT offers a way into seeing them – or as a sort of mental construct.

Conventional materialism would fall into a bit of a hole here, because if you agree that stuff in consensus reality, like the table and chair in front of you, are actual real things, it troubles the question of how real the real things are. Problem is, the elves have all the same apparently real qualities as the real things. If the real things are real, you are in danger of finding yourself believing in elves: not a respectable materialist position to hold.

At the end, I asked the speakers which metaphysical position was best fit to make sense of the elf story.

Idealism, said Andrew Gallimore, as though it were obvious. Which, to anyone who has taken psychedelics, I suppose it is. And to people who have chipped away at the thorny issues of establishing mathematical and philosophical fixity, and concluded that it doesn’t really work unless you keep on changing the script in an attempt to account for the unaccountable, too. The philosophy festival I work for finds more of these people each year. And, perhaps more significantly, idealism is a position that sits with increasing ease for the mostly lay audience. We might have got over God, but there is an inchoate folk metaphysics out there that thinks naive realism is a bit silly upon inspection.

I gave a paper last week on The Hunting of the Snark and Flatland which wasn’t really about either book but the backdrop of developments in Victorian metaphysics. Both, I argued, alluded to the story of an attempt to project what seemed (as it always does, for philosophers love nothing better than to reinvent the wheel) like the New Speculative Realism out of new mathematical techniques, and its ultimate collapse. The unhuntable Snark turns out to be the ineffable Boojum; the Zen master of a non-man, the Baker, who succeeds in meeting with it is sublimated into thin air in something like an encounter with the Absolute; the proliferation of additional possible dimensions in Flatland, which then starts to sound a bit like a DMT trip, results in the impossibility of any particular perceptual account of the world being mind-independently true.

What I would now like to know is which particular flavour of idealism Gallimore was on about. Even if we’re agreed that the notion of a fixable mind-independent reality is a bit silly, there are different ways of understanding that too. Where are we headed? Later speakers alluded to holism or monism, in the guise of spiritual practitioners like Gurdjieff and Steiner whose followers, in my admittedly limited experience, tend claim special insight by virtue of their guru having uncovered it, as though the entire histories of Eastern and Western philosophy alike weren’t a thing. Do we see mind-dependent reality as a big, interconnected cosmic mind, or do we take a more austere line?

I also got excited about how it might be possible to take an idealist position and create a consciousness-as-GUI metaphor in which different modalities of consciousness take hold, like layered operating systems, when different phenethylamine or tryptamine-based neural networks are fired up. More on that soon.

Nature, naturalists and naturalism

Observing the Great Nature Schism, as it is unlikely to be called in the future, I found myself thinking about naturalism too, in both its philosophical sense as the empirical study of the material world and its literary sense as the supply of detail to create a staged impression of the material world.

It seems as though the sort of writing the avengers of the correct, pure type of nature writing are advocating, at least on the surface of it, is mimetic writing. It is as though we need more writing that seeks to identify the fine detail of things – in this case living things that are not human – and to pin them down in the collector’s case of Nature Writing. If you muddy the pursuit of mimetic detail with things that are less pindownable, like allusions or ideas or, heaven forfend, sub-plots, the illusion of the text providing an image of reality falls apart a bit.

It’s not just the professional naturalists who seem to like naturalism. Most readers do. We like something concrete that feels authentic and real. It reflects a more general literary trend over the last hundred years or so, which is the relentless pursuit of naturalism in fiction and non-fiction alike.

Erich Auerbach famously saw this as a good thing – that it was somehow more honest and demotic to create pretend detail to furnish the reader’s perception of a scene. But Mimesis was written in the 1940s, when the full impact of the new technologies of television and film, among other things, had not yet been fully realised.

One of the outcomes of access to instantaneous and granular televisual detail is that it makes reading feel a bit like hard work. And if reading is hard work, reading that necessitates a bit of imaginative stretching is bloody hard work. When I read the early chapters of Mimesis, I feel mournful not for our ancestors’ lack of literary technique but for our desiccated imaginations. I recently considered adapting the Satyricon into a contemporary setting and was struck, among other things, by the lack of narrative detail in it. Once upon a time, the act of reading involved a fair amount of furnishing too.

I’m not going to get stuck into Mimesis, tempting as it is, because Terry Eagleton did a much better job of it twelve years ago and I therefore wouldn’t dare. But I do think that Auerbach’s pursuit of the really real struck a chord in a post-war world that was increasingly industrialised – and thus nostalgic for an imagined idea of authenticity, like the pure, big-N Nature – and also a bit intellectually lazy thanks to the more passive pleasures of watching telly.

[Auerbach sees a progressive political project in the fall of high art, which, given the Wagnerian fasco-epic predilections of his immediate cultural predicament seems fair enough, but the flipside of it is ideological in its own way. Perhaps we could note, in counter-example, that the apparent realism of the novel lends itself, in a similar fashion to film, to an efficacious provocation of emotive responses. It makes it easy to construct an apparently convincing moral framework and to sell it. This can work for good and for bad.]

The rise and rise of the exhaustive biography is, perhaps, the literary apotheosis of this search for the Real. Somehow, the mimetic detail of a novel doesn’t quite cut it. We need a mimesis-upgrade to historical fiction, so that rooting it to a Real Time and a Real Place makes it more comfortingly real to read. But the fictive element of fiction then becomes disconcerting. Let’s cut to the chase and go for biography instead.

I think something analogous, if not similar, is going on with nature writing. Rather than looking inward to the imagination for the constant supply of detail that readers increasingly appear to need, or outward to the realm of ideas, it is naturalistic detail that is the only valid sort for the nature police. It requires a particular exhaustive specialist knowledge honed by years of love and attention to detail that the rest of us might never even know was there.

The nature of looking closely at anything is that you unpack new bits of detail with every close-up: it has a fractal quality. There is also a magic to the worlds you can find within it, and a further magic to the notion that I am certain must occur to most readers of these sorts of books that somebody was able to develop the love and attention to detail in order to write it in the first place.

But there is something else going on. There is a pursuit of fixity and a desire to tell, journalistically, the truth in a precarious world in which a new wave of extinction promises to render the diversity of non-human species more precarious than ever. We tend to place value on scarcity, and the existential threat we pose to the non-human natural world makes it seem all the more precious by virtue of its precarity. When trees, hedgerows or wildflower meadows appear not only exceptional but finite it seems like an important political statement to try one’s best to capture them as they are now. We need to create a representation of their material reality because it is a reality that looks as though it might slip away terrifyingly soon.

And I get all of that. It all seems sound. But it isn’t what art should necessarily be about. And it also isn’t the case that a thing exhaustively created to provide a full, round picture of something that feels real is really real. It is only ever a mimicry of the great outdoors, framed by human aims.