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.