Wednesday, January 29, 2014

And then Blake Butler

Blake Butler has a good name. Two B's for alliteration and, folded-in, 2 L's. Two short words poetic, and sayable as hell.

To read Scorch Atlas is to have your brain rattled. Words come and go and mean what meaning's made. Not what you thought. The whole reads like a poem. There is a rhythm. Something distinct, and an inner melody. Words become stoppers, turn inside out, hand on a drum face to stop the beat. Turn up the heat.

There is repetition. Oh, there is repetition. A fanning, like kaleidoscopes or a butterfly of evil. In the background there is Poe. His heart beats through the bloated corpses, and his old eye stares. The bats have left the belltower, and the tower has crumpled to the floor, into its own core.


To read Scorch Atlas and but criticise its constant battering, its doom, its smell of putrefaction and decay is to have choked on it, to have retired senseless. But not all sense at all was lost. In this split this-ness after what appalled, a critique must take a crick into account; a crooked language, now deranged. The disruption and suture of mental viscera.

The words have been inverted, lost forgotten, sense unmembered, misremembered, in dismemberment unrendered. This is the gift of BB's scorching, a cleansing of the palate and a lethal torching. The where of unfound poetry, their seams like shark jaw scars, the rhythm of humanity, at the sun edge of extremity, knit back with bloody char.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Eternal Recurrence : The Case of Influential Writers

To me, influential writers are those I return to again and again. Interestingly, there appear to be two types: those that I return to only in my mind, and those I venture additionally to reread from time to time. These latter ones are those who give me so much pleasure that rereading them only serves to enhance the effect, like listening to a favourite song.

No doubt the particular writers who qualify in my case is largely a personal matter, even though some or indeed many are likely to coincide with the choices of other readers. Nevertheless, what I find interesting is that such a distinction exists. So we can say that there are three categories under discussion: the two above, and then that category of writers whom I have read but who simply did not stick in my mind, for whatever reason, even though I may have enjoyed them at the time. They may even be "important" writers by other people's standards, but somehow they've slipped through my net.

Brief reflection suggests that the category of writers whom I would read again are the best predictors of my overall taste, and influences on my thinking. In other words, there is a compulsive aspect both in action and thought. The list, in my case, is not overly long. The important thing is that a rereading should enhance my pleasure, rather than dull the effect of the work. A good example is Poe, if only I can reflect on and compare most of his output. Stories such as The Masque of the Red Death and The Fall of the House of Usher give repeated pleasure. I know the plots inside out, there are no surprises, certain passages seem known to me even before I read them. But the overall evocation leaves my thrilled. They are favourites. With Poe, I feel I am being treated to archetypal good writing. No single piece really disappoints, because all derive from the same wellspring. Such is my experience, and I don't speak for anyone else.

This being the case, the mood of his stories, the baroque descriptions heavily laden with adjectives and adverbs, the underlying melancholy, the mysterious reality of the stories that appear complete and yet are always suggestive; these are readily available to my mind. Moreover they come in so many forms that there is a whole vocabulary for my soul to work with. And so it influences my thought. Another example is Nietzsche. No work of Nietzsche's is without surprise and delight, insight and inspiration. He is never less than exciting, and I only need to reread him to access that same space in my mind. As if this is not enough, he influences so many other modes of thought too - from scientific method through to philosophy and cinema, psychology and religion. I return to him again and again, and as a traveler drinks from an oasis I feel refreshed.

In slight contrast, the first group includes a writer like George Eliot whose Middlemarch I am unlikely to read again, perhaps on account of its length and that I know the story, but whose description of a social world has left an indelible impression on me. If not for my English degree, would I ever have read it? I can't say for sure, but I am glad I did. The destinies of Dorothea Brooke, Casaubon, Lydgate, Ladislaw, Rosamund (interesting how the women invite to be remembered by their first names, whereas the men's last names seem to suffice ...) are compelling and speak far beyond their era.

Henry James' Portrait of a Lady is perhaps a similar case. I might read it again one day, for the intrigues of Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond, Isabel Archer et al make vast and important cultural statements that seem almost as true today as it must have been a hundred years ago. There is a lineage, and I feel an affection for George Eliot, for Henry James. I feel an admiration for their piercing abilities and vast comprehension, and extraordinary capacity to bring it all alive on the page.

Finally, the third category belongs to writers who did not impress even though they came highly recommended. If to impress means also to leave a lasting influence, then they failed. Their influence may be palpable to others, but are less so to me. Colum McCann was such a case. The eulogies flowed for "Let the Great World Spin", but, with the exception of the rich wife who'd lost her son, I saw mainly cardboard characters who left me unsatisfied and perplexed at what the fuss was about. Works like these, to my critical mind, provide examples of the type of mistakes not to make in my own writing. For instance misplaced earnestness, such as confusing the stereotype of "the prostitute with a heart of gold" with a real character, and thereby perpetuating the stereotype. What they don't do is make me want to return to that work. The compulsion, other than the critical one, is lacking.

As a creative person these influential writers are important to me. After I've read a Poe story, I suddenly sound a little more like Poe when writing. After reading Bret Easton Ellis, I suddenly sound a little more like Ellis. Their influence is palpable, they form accessible threads in my mind. It is with this in mind that the obvious perhaps needs to be said and said again: the most influential writers are those I go back to for repeat visits. They are part of my eternal recurrence.

It is this mental compulsion, more than anything else, that signals the magnitude of their influence. They each have a distinct style, mood, perspective that is so definitive that - like memes - they tend to be self-replicating through the filter of another writer or commentator. Some writers never outgrow their influences, and so do not always become more than second-rate, but at the other end of the spectrum, those who forge their own archetypal style are few and far between.

The process I am talking about on a personal level, happens also at a societal level. The most influential writers in society tend to be those who have produced classics. Of course, not all the classics are to my personal taste, nor are all the classics as accessible as they used to be (Charles Dickens used to be very popular, but is now more famous than read, perhaps on account of the length of his novels). Nevertheless, at one stage each had an important influence, and so secured his or her place in the chain. 

But it is more than a matter of consumption. Repetition of such a pleasure enhances creativity. As John Gardner reminds us, we have to read the highest exemplars to understand what literature is capable of. We also need, in some way, to be able to immitate our favourite great authors in order to master their style before eventually moving beyond them. Like a dancer who must learn the basic dance steps before adding the necessary flair on her way to becoming a great dancer.

To a writer, this mastery does not start with the act of writing. It starts with reading. And our reading is most exemplified by reading those who influence us most. They provide us with a mental compulsion that must eventually be given form, shape and an outlet on the page. They have the power to take us further, as a wave moves a bottle out to sea and to a far shore.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Translation: Voordag by N.P van Wyk Louw

N.P. van Wyk Louw is one of the towering giants of Afrikaans literature. The stark beauty of so many of his poems remain unsurpassed even to this day.

Below is a modest attempt of mine to convey the beauty in one of van Wyk Louw's shorter poems, taken from the collection Die Halwe Kring ("The Half-Circle"). The Afrikaans version is first, and my English translation thereafter. 


O silwre vreugde, kom,
uit hierdie silwer dag:
my hart is oop en dorstig
hier waar ek gaan en wag
- 'n skadu en 'n roering
in ligter skaduwees -
in huiwering en verlange,
swaar vir jou koms bevrees,
maar maatloos in begeerte
na jou en na jou mag,
en bang en altyd banger,
vir iedere dorre dag.


O silvery joy, o come,
out of this silver day:
my open heart is thirsting
here where I go to wait
- a shadow and a stirring
within the lighter shades -
in doubtfulness and yearning,
fearing your appearance,
yet boundless in desire
for you and for your power,
more and always more afraid
of every arid day.

Copyright (c) Maartens Lourens, 2014

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Big Data and Antifragile Data Handlers

The problem:

A key problem of Big Data can be described as follows: In the old days, data was represented through highly structured, well-defined schemas. Nowadays, data come from many sources. Pre-defined schemas increasingly cannot represent meaning or capture value as well as they used to.

The solution:

Let's look at this through the lens of fragile and antifragile systems, in view of the concepts coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A fragile data handler could be described as one that controls data modelling rigidly by dictating how data is received. An antifragile data handler, instead, thrives on the unpredictability of data input and the inherent risks. It assumes that failures to understand data are inevitable, but represent opportunities to make data handling more intelligent over time.

Our antifragile Big Data data handler should be like that. We want it to take advantage of all the free form data out there.

This leads us to the Big Question. What does it mean for data handler design? We have placed a kind of conceptual marker. Now we have to try and see the shape of the thing.

Taleb finds the bona fide antifragile process to be evolution. When we place the data system under stress, the weaker data units and handlers die. Survivors determine the next generation.

Our antifragile data handler accepts feedback loops at high speed and primarily makes sense of learning rather than of data. This is so because data is a static given that cannot be controlled. Learning can be controlled, but data can not.

As with evolution it is diversity that is the key. A single strategy is bound to fail in the long run. Data handlers should not rely on human intervention to decide how to adapt to changing data sources.

We could look at Neural Darwinism and other related fields for inspiration. One thing is for sure, traditional control-freak strategies will be only one of many. Its survival is not assured.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

What is Odradek? : A Badiouan Perspective

One of Franz Kafka's strangest stories is a mere two pages long. It is called "The Worries of a Head of Household" ("Die Sorge des Hausvaters"), or sometimes "The Cares of a Family Man". It concerns an unusual being called Odradek, who appears to be without purpose, and whose very name has no identifiable meaning - at least none that can be readily deciphered.

"There are some who say the word Odradek comes from the Slavic and they look for its etymology there. There are others who say it's a germanic word, merely inflected by the Slavic. The doubt surrounding both versions forces on to conclude that neither is true, especially as neither is any help in finding a meaning for the word." (The Worries of a Head of Household, p. 211)

Nevertheless, we are told in no uncertain terms that the Odradek exists.

"Of course, no one would bother themselves with such questions, were it not that there is a real being called the Odradek." (The Worries of a Head of Household, p. 211)

We are drawn deeper into the mysterious world of Odradek - because despite the primacy of the narrator, the scales seem to tip ever so slightly in favour of the Odradek, making it very much Odradek's world - and we cannot help but begin to wonder: what is Odradek?

The paradox is that the Odradek is described as if it is an object, "a flat, star-shaped reel of thread" from which "a little rod emerges" and so on. We are also told that "the whole thing is able to stand upright as on two feet", which gives Odradek a hypothetical humanoid appearance.

Odradek's object-ness continues to be emphasised with further descriptions, but the mystery deepens when we are told that "the whole thing looks functionless, but after its fashion complete". It is an alien object, without apparent origin or purpose, yet disturbingly familiar. We, as human readers, would conclude that it might have been made by a human, and yet it escapes such an identity. In fact, it is entirely elusive. "There is not much more to be said about it, other than that Odradek is extraordinarily manoeuvrable and impossible to catch".

Odradek's elusiveness is a puzzle, and according to the narrator many have tried to discover the meaning of its name, perhaps hoping that the meaning of its name would thereby also clarify its origin, purpose, indeed its very existence *in reality* as an object-being. This in itself is not a great cause of concern for the narrator, but the plot thickens when the narrator's real concern is revealed: his anxiety that Odradek might outlive him.

"In vain I ask myself, what will happen to him. Can he die? Everything that dies has once had a sort of aim, a sort of activity, which has worn it out; this is not the case of Odradek. Will he therefore one day tumble down the stairs before the feet of my children and my children's children, trailing a line of thread after him? It's clear he does nobody any harm; but the notion that he might even outlive me is almost painful to me." (The Worries of a Head of Household, p. 212)

The question here is existential, and indeed it is about being. This led me to wonder how the strange question of Odradek can be addressed. This question, it appears, has intrigued many thinkers in the past, and various approaches have proved fruitful. Willi Goetschel surveys some of the approaches, and the most convincing, perhaps, is the Marxist approach. In this approach Odradek  represents a commodity made by someone (eg. a factory worker), yet which is nevertheless divorced from the worker. (Marx talks about the alienation of the worker from his work, and the anguish the narrator feels resembles this worker alienation. )

A Freudian approach casts Odradek as the return of a repressed memory in objective form, representing the unwanted memories of things we would like to forget.

Each of these interpretations have strengths, however they also have shortcomings. For instance, on the surface a Capitalist critique suffers from the fact that even though Odradek appears to be a useful object its purpose is in fact unknown. Nevertheless, if we take the appearance of Odradek to be a vision from the period of time beyond the narrator and his children and their children, when Odradek's origins (as a useful object created by a worker) are no longer traceable, then such an interpretation could still be consistent.

The Capitalist critique comes up against a further difficulty when the question of Odradek's being - as opposed to its object-ness - is raised. It is up to (for instance) the Freudian interpretation to explain the psychologising of the object by way of a repressed memory. Odradek thereby has a life force and therefore can attain its being qualities. It remains difficult to see how the Marxist approach can account for it on its own.

A different way of looking at Odradek would be to take a Badiouan perspective. If we begin by noting that Odradek is "impossible to catch" (even though Odradek is presented to us and indeed is available to the narrator for occasional interaction in his own house) we may say that Odradek exists at the level of presentation, but not at the level of the state of the situation. This may appear to be a contradiction, but in fact occurs in the case of what Badiou calls singular multiples.

A full explanation of a singular multiple would involve an understanding of set theory as well as a wider understanding of Badiou's philosophy. The fast track route is via an understanding of Badiou's view of a subject. Not everyone is a subject, and a subject can only emerge as a result of fidelity to an event. In the story the father may be considered a potential subject, because by marrying, having children, etc. and then deciding to be faithful to this event, he would be a subject and emerge as a father. It is this very subject-ness that is at stake in the story of Odradek, called "The Cares of a Father".

Related to the subject is the state of the situation, in this case the narrator's family life and supporting environment. Odradek is not part of the state of the narrator's family life. Nevertheless, he is part of the general background or milieu and therefore must be included in the general situation, which Badiou calls the presentation of the situation. This is what makes Odradek a singular multiple.

We may go one step further and suggest that Odradek appears to be something, or a being, that evokes the dissolution of the subject by potentially surviving the subject. This is the father's great anxiety, that his subject-ness, i.e. his purpose, will dissolve while Odradek "lives" on. Odradek's unravelling thread is a metaphor and mirror reflection of this dissolution. In this respect Odradek has the potential to be an evental site. What is yet lacking is an event and the possibility of fidelity to such an event. Currently, the only event is the father's reflection on Odradek and the resulting anxiety, which is the beginnings of his dissolution as a subject.

What about Badiou's doctrine of the void? Can Odradek be related to it? For Badiou the void is that which makes the being of a presented situation possible (in set theory it is the null set).

"The void is the 'suture' of being to presentation because it is the point through which a situation comes to be ... The void of a situation is simply what is not there, but what is necessary for anything to be there" (Infinite Thought, p. 12)

Yet when we recall Odradek as a being of "no fixed address" and one who is encountered, now here and now there, we find an uncanny similarity to the void:

"It would already be inexact to speak of this nothing as a point because it is neither local nor global, but scattered all over, nowhere and everywhere" (

Yet we know that Odradek cannot be that void because the void "is such that no encounter would authorize it to be held as presentable." We feel a hint of truth when considering that Odradek may be the crack in the fabric of reality that allows the narrator to perceive the nature of things and the limits of his being, even in his children and his children's children. Nevertheless, Odradek is not the void.

Lest we forget, the story emphasises that Odradek is a being, and as a being he has vaguely humanoid life-like qualities, such as the ability to stand, to respond intermittently, to move around, and to laugh, in addition to his more understandable object-like qualities.

It may be easier if we compared Odradek to another being in the story, namely the father. The father, as we have already indicated, is a potential subject and perhaps already a subject. On the other hand, Odradek is the opposite of what Badiou considers a subject, having no fidelity of any kind: no fixed address, no relationship with anyone, no purpose, and frankly no material effect ("he does nobody any harm") except for being there and getting around.

What, in Badiou's scheme of things, would be the opposite of a subject? Is it being, the multiplicity of multiplicities? The fact that Odradek is rather concrete and self-contained rather than the inconsistent multiplicity of being suggests not. Perhaps, then, there is no opposite to the subject, except simply the dissolution of the subject.

We have also already accepted that Odradek is a part of the situation, yet not part of the subject's family fidelity, and therefore Odradek is a potential evental site. We can therefore say that the dissolution of the subject is contained in the situation. Dissolution is inevitable - the father will pass away and so will his children, eventually; the subject will dissolve. Therefore Odradek is an evental site and is likely to survive the narrator.

Dissolution is a meta conception, and it would seem that Odradek is a kind of meta-being that nevertheless exists in the situation. This brings up the question, once more, of whether Odradek is somehow a representation of the void? We know that it is essentially impossible to present the void, and therefore must avoid that conclusion, but Odradek certainly permits the narrator to reflect on the limits of the subject, and is the source of his disquiet.


1. Badiou, Alain. Being and Event, Meditation Four. Ktismatics. 2008.
2. Badiou, Alain. Infinite Thought. Edited and Translated by Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens. London, Continuum. 2005.
3, Goetschel, Willi. Kafka's dis/Enchanted World. (originally from
4. Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Translated by Michael Hofman. New York, Penguin Books. 2008.
5. Wikipedia editor. The Cares of a Family Man. Wikipedia.