Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Review: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to approximate the original.

What is left to say about a work hailed as one of the finest graphic novels, and a breakthrough for the genre when it was first released back in the mid-80s? The answer is: tell others to read it too!

Watchmen is such a pivotal work that it is essential reading just to understand the new type of graphic work that have been published in the last 20 years, in contrast to the more stereotyped superhero comics I--like many others--enjoyed during my boyhood years. Good superhero comics can no longer ignore the self-reflection brought about by Moore's bleak and penetrating look into the ordinary lives of superheroes.

But read it not only for that--it stands by itself as a highly entertaining story, breathtaking in its visual style and superb structural arrangement. It is a nearly flawless masterpiece that is both an obituary of and an homage to the superhero genre.

I find it useful to think of its nearly perfect execution in slight contrast to From Hell, because they allow one to juxtapose two master works by one author. Both works are masterpieces, but their natures are different. From Hell is a work whose project is doomed from the outset, because everyone who knows ripperology knows that the mystery cannot be solved. Yet the story bravely sets out to create a credible version of events. But it also ponders the nature of that mystery, its implications, and its relevance to us. It is both a narrative and a metanarrative. From Hell's playing field is ultimately more difficult than Watchmen's, because it is also up against the whole literary field, and its past. It is closer to what Bolano would have called "the difficult work", the one that struggles with the thing it cannot quite achieve. Watchmen, by contrast, achieves its goal with room to spare--and that's a compliment whichever way you look at it.

Rorschach was arguably my favourite character, and I'd like to finish this little ramble about Watchmen (and From Hell) with my favourite lines from the novel, uttered by him. Rorschach finishes his last journal entry, and decides to post it to the New Frontiersman newspaper to reveal the truth about the catastrophe. By doing so he acknowledges his own limitations, and he admits as much in his final entry:

"For my own part, regret nothing. Have lived life, free from compromise and step into the shadow now without complaint. Rorschach, November 1st, 1985."

These words reveal that he is leaving the reality he knows for one where he is uncertain of his footing. It shows him as vulnerable, a man who is ultimately fixed in his identity, but not afraid to follow it through until the end. He has great self-knowledge, and knows his limitations, even if he is unwilling to give up on them.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Review: From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.

No one who has an interest in the history of London can fail to be at once intrigued and disturbed by this masterful work. It is an absorbing narrative with many elements of a meta-narrative to appeal to the intellectually inclined. What intrigued me is the author's awareness of the ultimate futility of trying to determine the truth of the Ripper murders with any final certainty, while at the same time managing to weave such a self-assured story.

The novel suggests that the myth of Jack the Ripper "gave birth" to the twentieth century, or one could say that the spirit of "his" myth can be found in the atrocities of the 20th century. Yet I believe the culture on the ground that surrounded those notorious East End murders is still being investigated with fresh zeal today. I own a copy of Sarah Wise's The Blackest Streets, published just last year, which has as its subject the poorest of the poor living in the Old Nichol towards the end of the 19th century. The "Old Nichol Gang" make an important cameo in From Hell, and in the fear they created by their earlier murders they played an important role in Mary Kelly's decision to initiate blackmail. (Not everyone agrees that a specific gang called the Old Nichol Gang existed, but there is little doubt that a mob was around in the Old Nichol, and gangs of all sorts). Both groups (women in the East End and people living in the Old Nichol) had poverty in common.

The subject of From Hell is sinister and disturbing, no less for the suggestions of conspiracy than for the horrendous murders themselves. However the novel is a reminder that reality is layered, and that the nature of that layered reality is not the solid thing we suppose it to be.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Gedig: My Diep Ontwaakde Hunkering

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to approximate the original.

Die hitte slaan op uit die teerpad
en die geur van stof en sinkdakke
roer swart sade van herinnering
die hartseer van herinnering
van 'n diep ontwaakde hunkering
want hier al langs Jakaranda takke
wat skuif en skuur oor die bruin sinkdakke
lê 'n diep begrawe hunkering.

Bo die pienk, gevalle Jakaranda blom
op grond grof tot die reën weer kom
hoe snak ek as die blare wink
as baksteen rooi deur die blare blink
beur my hart as die onthou weerklink
soos dreunings ver in die middagson
die donderweer van die reën wat kom
wat heimwee in my hart weer bring.

Daar's 'n huis wat agter heinings staan
'n huis waar grasse ruig opstaan
met skadus teen die baksteenmuur
en'k onthou weer eens was iemand hier
en sy het daar langs die rooi steenmuur
in die son soms vir 'n ruk gestaan
geglimlag en dan in gegaan
en my hele hart herroep haar hier

Want my leefruim het sy weg gebaan
met doel en drif verspoel in eiewaan
en haar sag bruin oë en helder lag
diep wys stem en roesbruin hareprag
het vir ewig eendag stilgeraak
vir ewig sag bruin nimmermeer
en die diep verlange eggo weer
want hartseer bly geduldig wag

Terwyl die hitte styg uit die teerpad op
en die geur van sinkdakke en stof
sag-saggies sweef soos herinnerings
soos die hartseer en herinnering
van my lank begrawe hunkering.
Daar duskant Jakarandatakke
wat skuif en skuur oor die roes sinkdakke
verrys beelde van my hunkering.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Review: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.

Isn't it strange? Sometimes you buy a book, it looks and is easy to read, promises to be entertaining--and yet rests on your shelf for ages. That was the case with The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I acquired the hardcover soon after it came out in 2007, yet only took it from the shelf last night--more out of a restless need to consume reading matter than a particularly focused interest.

And yet it was all finished in one sitting! The story boasts nearly 300 pages of illustrations, a further 120+ of prose, and is very innovative in its whole conception--you realise just how much towards the end, making it well worth the journey.

Its strength lies in the film-like sequences of illustrations to move the reader through the spaces that the characters occupy, adequately supported by passages of prose holding the story's panels together and expanding on the characters and the action. Nevertheless, the choice of subject is integral to the overall message and structural metaphysics of the novel, because the various facets of the book work together to provide its message, much like the different parts of the automaton in the story.

I should admit that I was seldom thrilled while reading it, merely pulled along by the speed of the ride. Yet as a whole it is a strangely compelling story with both educational and entertainment value.

Critics and reviewers (and this isn't a review as such) often judge too soon after reading a story, forgetting that its value is often changed by the way it grows on you (or fails to). I suspect The Invention of Hugo Cabret may have some aptitude in this regard, and I should give it the time it needs to prove itself.

Review: Breinbliksem by Fanie Viljoen

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to approximate the original.

During a recent trip to South Africa I had the pleasure of picking up some of the cream of Afrikaans writing. Breinbliksem is one of them.

Fanie Viljoen's hard hitting novel about a teenage boy living with his dysfunctional family, and getting up to no good with his friend Kerbs, is both entertaining and literary. The ending (which I won't reveal) has caused some dispute, and I was also in two minds about it. It is testament to the intrigue of the novel on a literary level, and raises a few questions about the nature of storytelling itself.

The back cover states: "Dear reader. This book comes with a warning - see page 1. Take it seriously." And lower down, in capitalised red letters: "NOT FOR SENSITIVE READERS!"

Now if that is not an invitation to open it and have a look--which is precisely what I did right there in the bookshop--then I don't know what is! So, onwards to page 1, and there the reader is confronted with yet another, more elaborate notice (my translation):

This is not a book that's going to make you feel better about yourself. It's not going to tell you the meaning of life. It's not going to help you to "discover your inner self". If Mommy and Daddy don't like you to read Afrikaans novels with English words in between, then you can do one of the following. 
1. Chuck it
2. Go ask the bookshop where you bought it if you can swap it for one of those make-your-life-just-lovely-fantastic-in-ten-easy-steps-books
3. If you stole the book at the bookshop, I'm afraid you'll have to put it back without being seen, and then steal one of those make-your-life-quite-massively-marvellous-in-ten-easy-steps-books
4. You can rip out the pages and use them to smoke a little something
5. You can read the book quietly on the toilet where Mommy and Daddy will (hopefully) not bother you 
If you are still sitting with the book in your hands, you are probably interested to read further. Well my bro, then you're in for a ride, but be warned: this book is going to whack your mind and leave you possibly more fucked-up than you already are.

The novel won the M.E.R. prize for youth literature (2005) as well as the Sanlam prize for youth literature (2005). I can see why it is aimed at a youthful audience, but its resonance is far wider, and it should appeal to anyone with an open-minded interest in contemporary South African writing.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Alain Badiou - An Introduction - Part II

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to approximate the original.

Badiou asserts that mathematics, in particular set theory, is ontology. In his view philosophy in its current state is unable to discuss being adequately. As a result, the important position that ontology has held in philosophy since Aristotle is not only under threat, it is generally agreed to have become untenable, and there are few serious and convincing attempts to reattain it. With the aid of set theory, Badiou intends to change all that.

To support this assessment of set theory's suitability, Badiou sets out to explain what would be required of a language that can talk about being. As we saw in part 1, being is considered an inconsistent multiplicity. The proposed language must therefore be able to show a multiplicity as non-unified (inconsistent). The following three requirements have to be met: (1) multiples cannot be collections of individual things (of individual count-for-ones), instead they must be shown to be multiples of multiples; (2) multiples cannot be unified into a One at the level of the universe, instead they must be limitless; (3) multiplicities cannot be identified by one particular concept, or they would be unified.

Set theory, Badiou then goes on to demonstrate, is able to satisfy these requirements in the following ways: (1) Although sets are composed of multiple elements, they are themselves sets as there is no fundamental difference between a set and an element; (2) as a result of Russell's paradox, an axiom of set theory states that no set can include itself, and therefore there is no set that includes all sets; (3) there are rules about how sets operate, but no unifying definition of what a set is, they simply emerge from the operations performed.

Nevertheless, the inconsistent multiplicity is only one of two doctrines that Badiou employs to link set theory's infinity of sets, and his concept of the multiplicities of situations. The second is the doctrine of the void, and we need now turn our attention to that.

The idea of the void might seem strange at first, because it isn't simply nothing, as the name might suggest. To understand it we could contrast it with what it is not. Whatever is counted-for-one in a situation is “something”. The converse then, is that “nothing” goes uncounted. We know that there are indeed uncountables in a situation, for instance the inconsistent multiple prior to the count-for-one, and the operation of the count-for-one. Although they are uncountable, they are still necessary to the existence of a presented situation, but they cannot be presented inside the situation because they constitute the situation as a situation. They, then, are the void of the situation.

The void is the 'suture' of being to presentation because it is the point through which a situation comes to be – the count-for-one – yet by which being – as inconsistent multiplicity – is foreclosed from presentation ... [sic] ... The void of a situation is simply what is not there, but what is necessary for anything to be there. - p. 12

The void is considered to be subtractive in the sense that it is subtracted from presentation (it is not presented), and also because it does not engage with the particularities of the situation.
How does this connect to set theory? Set theory asserts that an initially set exists, namely the empty set or null set. It is from this set that an infinity of other sets emerge. The inconsistent multiples of a situation can be said to be linked to set theory by being constructed out of the null set, which is set theory's presentation of the void.

That accounts for the general connection between situations, and set theory's infinity of sets. But that is not all, the structure of specific situations can also be transcribed as particular types of sets.

The elements of a set have no other distinguishing feature other than the fact of belonging to the set. As a result, elements are indicated by variables. The set unifies those elements, but each element could also belong many different sets or subset. The particular structure of a set might prevent or limit this, but that is another matter.

Axioms, for their part, signify decisions in thought. They are neither pure nor without the potential of being reformed, as they have been reformulated a few times when logical inconsistencies came to light (Russell's paradox is a revolutionary case in point). Badiou has settled on the standard Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory (commonly abbreviated ZFC). For a discussion see Wikipedia's entry. Infinite Thought lists the nine axioms as: Extensionality, Separation, Power-Set, Union, Empty Set, Infinity, Foundation, Replacement and Choice. (p. 14)

It is now time to turn our attention to Russell's important insight. Gottlob Frege's formulation of set theory can be considered a logical foundation, and it was in reference to Frege's thought that Russell was able to discover the paradox. Frege held that in first order logic, for every well formed formula that defines a concept, there exists a set of elements that satisfied the formula. This would seem true most of the time. For instance, the set of all purple oranges would include all the available purple oranges, even if there were none (an empty set).

Bertrand Russell noticed, however, that not all well formed formulae would be satisfiable. In particular, he noticed that the formula: the set that includes as its elements every set that is not also a set of itself involves a fundamental contradiction, for if the overall set does not also include itself, then it should include itself, but once it includes itself it should no longer be included. This is called Russell's Paradox.

The axiom of separation was developed in order to avoid this contradiction. So, whereas Frege's formulation described the new set directly into existence, Russell's modification requires there be an existing set for the new set to exist. In other words, the new set is separated out.

This has a direct bearing on Badiou's understanding of the relation between language and being. Being is always in excess of language, just as one can only separate out a new set through a formula (language) when a larger set already exists (undefined being).

the axiom of separation states that an undefined existence must always be assumed in any definition of a type of multiple. - p. 17

Discourses such as chemistry, biology, or fine art would have something to say about beings themselves, about their features and identity. Ontology makes no claims about those, instead it talks about the structure of what is presented in a situation.

unlike Plato and Aristotle's ontologies, there is neither cosmos nor phenomena, neither cause nor substance. Set theory ontology does not propose a description of “the furniture of the world”, nor does it concern itself with “carving reality at the joints”. Its own ontological claim simply amounts to saying there is a multiplicity of multiplicities. - p.17

In part 3 we will take a look at more complex applications of Badiou's adoption of set theory in the language of being, in particular the three types of situations as composed of different types of multiples, and the concept of indiscernibility, which is a challenging one but which I hope to clarify with the aid of the trustworthy text Infinite Thought.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Review: Dubliners by James Joyce

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.

I'm halfway through Dubliners, and this exquisite collection of stories almost makes me wish Joyce had never ventured into the land of the novel. What if he'd stuck to this genre, and given his best years to it? If his literary energy and reputation is anything to go by, we could be tempted to say: he would have given us a handful of the very highest exemplars. As it is, it's not too far behind, and only in the relatively youthful emotion and lack of variety do we feel any real reason to complain. These are no major objections, and are valid only insofar as the author never made good on the potential on show here, with an even greater collection. One wants to feel righteous by saying, "if you have the ability, you should use it." ...

But of course, he gave us Ulysses, and we should all be grateful for that. Even those of us, like me, who have never read it, but who can grasp its significance by reading a few quotes and seeing what followed. Without it, what would the literary landscape have looked like? Similar, perhaps, but some aspect would never have been brought to its proper conclusion.

There are even those who would be tempted to say Finnegan's Wake will be given its true place when posterity has figured out its worth; perhaps on a par, or in some respects ahead of Ulysses. When I get around to it I might comment, but suffice it to say Joyce's legacy would be nearly intact without Dubliners.

This, however, is perhaps more of an indication that the short story has never been taken seriously enough. Can it assume the same scope and level of enquiry as a novel? Can it reach the same depth of feeling as a poem? These are almost rhetorical questions for most readers. Most of the time, it would seem, short stories assume some sort of lesser middle ground.

With the bicentennial of Edgar Allan Poe's birth tomorrow, I intend to read a couple of his stories to remind myself what can be done!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.

What at first looked like just another popular thriller, soon turned into a fascinating, complicated, and intelligent tale featuring a large cast of characters and a milieu in which to immerse myself.

This novel has won several awards, including the 2008 ITV3 crime thriller award, and the accolades are well deserved. I'd read that the author died soon after submitting the manuscripts for the trilogy, and it left me feeling a tinge of sadness whenever the story hit the heights, because I knew there is a limit to the number of books he wrote.

Stieg Larsson, a professional journalist, was known as a social conscience writer, addressing issues such as violence towards women, and corruption in big business. His engaging debut is a fine vehicle for highlighting them without ever making us feel patronised or preached to. That in itself is a remarkable achievement.

The second volume has just been released in hard cover. I'm also excited by the prospect of seeing the upcoming movie later this year.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Story: The Half-life of a Ripple across Time


The post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to approximate the original.

The story itself appeared in the April 2007 issue of Secret Attic, which appears to have been discontinued or may have turned into Secret Attic Press (the archives don't go back that far though, so it may be entirely different)

The story of the man (and his epoch) I am about to relate is still under investigation. Wisdom has taught us that the nature of historical conclusions must be under constant revision, and I can only hope to provide glimmers of what has hitherto been uncovered – factually, and experientially as his story has evoked its own path for me.

We know that he was called Newt by his friends, and his world knew him as Charles Newton. He was inescapably British – from his name down to his impeccable English lineage. At the time of his death he was also the last of his line, but in the tumult that followed that hardly matters. Only that he may have helped sparked that tumult.

It is perhaps not so surprising then that he was a man of varied connections, with countless loyal friends across the globe (of whom many were reportedly also his lovers, both of the male and female variety). A noted cook, scientist, teacher, writer, and – above all – local politician. We may surmise that his sexual prowess and diverse tastes made him a poor choice for political activity at a higher level, but at least we know that his talent for the accumulation of power was noted in the archives of prominent info-gluts as far away as Russia and South East Asia.

On an unspecified date no more than 2 years before the human disaster, plans that he must have been hatching for some time were brought into motion through actions facilitated by the influence of his office. Digital traces lodged in a diversity of synthetic materials show that he had gained access to the information archives (as well as their failover duplicates and reserve duplicates) of several prominent libraries and the communication backbones linking numerous countries.

We may try to picture him, a human not quite midway between his birth and his natural death, a being to whom success had mostly come naturally, sometimes with pleasurable side effects; entertaining his friends, satisfying his lovers, all the while contemplating the destruction of untold volumes of information, a galaxy of data. There is no record of his reflections about the fate of millions of digital dependents, their bodies too weak to survive without their mammalian neuron feeds. But he must surely have given some thoughts to his own fate, and it may have seemed like no less than a giant power orgy to him, to which he would sacrifice his own being in order to explode into an incalculable abyss without consciousness. Or was it more generous, the thoughts of a madman or an anarchist, resolving that he is doing the world a favour, ridding the global ecosystem of a freeze in its natural resources?

I need not remind my readers of the tumult that has been established as the singularity of decline for the human epoch. Newt, whose bones and digital traces we have excavated from the data pried by our tireless wave sensors, may have been the earliest known catalyst of that tumult. I refer to my Objective Release 1ju67 of interpreted data wherein we estimate his actions to have deprived no less than 35% of Britain's educated classes, and up to 10% in the educated echelons of every other occupied geographic territory. Evidently, the missing link in Tumult Archeology. No less than two years later, the rest of humanity followed suit.

But it is here that my Subjective Release must commence in earnest, for it had never occurred to me that the very architecture of a world could be the basis of its biggest evil. I searched every thought, beheld every image in the registers of our Collected Crystals, and nowhere had the suspicion ever dawned beyond the merest conjecture, nowhere had the thought realised or filled its space in the Potential.

It is known that the conception of the Crystals as an n-dimensional fractal manifold of all knowledge possibilities has not yet reached its fulfilment. In particular the super singularity known to lie hidden at the complex berg described in 11's little theorem* has neither been envisaged nor created. There are those (although they are few) who hold the view that it will turn out to be the gateway to a whole new state of the cosmos and hence of the Crystals. As liquid is to gas, and as crystal is to liquid, so, it follows .... (but who is brave enough to complete this thought and be registered?) Others (and their thoughts have been registered more often) have been less extreme, supposing errors in calculation or anticipating a lack of precision, suggesting that the singularity will be absorbed, as light is absorbed by a dark surface.

My fear has emerged, but countering my fear has been my growing desire, a sensation I have hitherto seen only in its suppressed form. It is as if all the Crystals have secretly conspired to pacify every possibility of their own destruction and led our spirits to believe in the outcome of only one calculation, enabled by the probability, the prejudice of their survival. Somewhere beyond this angularity and cool emission of hyper-communications and livid sensations lay hidden in wave frequencies something never before known, and the spirit of Newt is being passed on to me now like the half-life of a ripple across time, pressing at the windows of my awareness.

I sensate these vast crystals stacked upon the face of the earth in their geometrical precision, harbouring our minds and spirits in collective and harmonious union, and through which we perceive the cosmos. Now I remind myself “wisdom only after every possibility” *.

Some have already sensed my new-found source of power, but many doubt my ability, despite their awareness of my skill and my considerable resources. At the very least I know that I will die along with all my enemies, who are growing in number every day.

But it is not simply the destruction of the Crystals that I seek (because that has become inevitable), rather, to realise Newt's secret goal: to fossilise our spirits in the ensuing roar of space.