WHAT I DON'T UNDERSTAND IN MY PROFESSION
THE FUTURE OF THE HUMANITIES in Europe and the USA
Group Six. COLLECTIVE IMPROVISATION GAME.
When: July 31, 1997, Thursday, afternoon session, 4:30 p.m. - 6.00 p.m.
Where: Santiago de Compostela University, Escola de Optica, room 4.
Three participants suggested independently the following topics:
Charles Lock: STRING
Tomislav Longinovic: BORDER(s)
Mikhail Epstein: WHAT I DON'T UNDERSTAND IN MY PROFESSION
The participants decided that each of them will write on all 3 topics trying to connect them in some logical or associative order. The process of writing took half an hour, then participants read aloud their improvisations and discussed the perspectives of this genre and improvisational methodology for the future of the school and the humanities.
The duration of writing - 30 minutes. The duration of entire session - 1,5 hour
1. TOMISLAV LONGINOVIC
String/Border/Not understanding about one's profession
Thinking about a border is almost like already crossing it, shifting shapes of intelligible discourses, stringing along those who are not willing to confront the understanding of one's mission in the narrowing arena of the life-world. If power knows no boundaries and can project itself beyond any border, than the limit of such an effort could take the word into its opposite. The silence of death and completed (or Comp. Lit. -ed) understanding will not suffice for that string of language that refuses the limit of the disciplinary border and extends itself into the realm of meaning beyond meaning. If the futurist dream of finding language that speaks in tongues of the stars and trees has been locked in Stalin's , then the accidental stringing of sentences calls for an order beyond reason, a zaum which sleeps in the hollow bark of multiple identities. If begging understanding about myself as a disseminator of a certain kind of knowledge does not help, the strings of a divine cat's cradle will perhaps capture the operation of those minds that never sleep. Burning karma beyond the ability of three brained beings, the imagined other of absolute knowledge dreams the world of our senses. Imperfect and born to forget, subjects of the empire sleepwalk their lives inside the universe of strings beyond comprehension. There must be an answer they say, a secret witheld at birth, a place where border gains an absolute value and crossing it means more than just movement through space and time. If strings can help us bind the body to the symbolic system which rules its tremors and fluids, then understanding can become more then a simple translation of one language into another.
2. CALIN-ANDREI MIHAILESCU
At the limit of this former sound - a string. Its celebration and suicide unto cause hang around the silhouette of simplicity. Strings of all Lichtungen, relax! Let loose your rigid turgescence and waste the chains that border your sinfull applehood, your shadow, and my sister.
It entered my nodebook a sneaky border that had just escaped its borderguard; there I'd like to see it join my other sisters' aeolian harp, the sing-sing of the Ding-Ding an sich-mich.
The movers await, muscles and moustaches in shape, to take the harp away, a bit beyond the edges of my heavy mine. There goes, deprived of bridges on fire and swords, the curly strings that - more then than now - attempted to sound themselves into becoming. My job's the world, sisters, and here you see me, hearing harm/onies of the Big Bangst, when the golden fleece of no/thing started flowing, auratically. The second law of stringency hits whenever your self forge(t)s it.
3. CHARLES LOCK
From: Charles Lock
To: Mikhail N.Epstein
Dear Mikhail, I apologise for the delay. I thought it was just a matter of looking into my folder from Santiago - the plush suede two tone Galician reticule - and there I would find my improvisation, tidy it up and send it to you. Alas, I cannot find it. My improvisation has disappeared without trace, as strings do, of course, for they are themselves in the form of a trace, the patterns left by worms in the sand, traces that disrupt the uniformity of the insignificant, looking like those ficelles which bind into contiguity those which do not fit by other means, internal to themselves, or interfacial, but which require external bonding, binding, ligaments, religion: in the beginning was a string, and all matter was st ir ring and str iv ing for form, the form proper to it that could be reached only with the bond of what is improper, exproper, for the stirring, the striving, the striding high there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing in his ecstasy! then off, off forth in swing, for ecstasy is the place and dynamism, the displace of the string. And the cosmos comes to rest in the archegeometry of the swinging string, the trapeze, the tabula erasa, the altar native to its own epiphanic------
4. MIKHAIL EPSTEIN
A HUMANISTIC APPROACH TO STRING THEORY
String belongs to the basic figures of human imagination and scientific thought. The classic atomic theory is based on quite a different figure--that of indivisible particle of matter--and therefore presents the world as three-dimensional at its foundation. Atom is not only a building block but also a micromodel of the world. This is why I was so puzzled and intrigued to learn (in early 80s) that the brand new physical theory presents the foundational unit of the world as a one-dimensional string. However metaphorical this understanding of the physical term "string" may be, it's indisputable that a great deal of the most important scientific terms (including "field" and "force") are metaphors by origin; thus taking a metaphor literally and trying to rationalize and substantiate its meaning is quite a fair gesture, at least for a humanistic mind.
String theory first frightened me as an indication of the hellish condition in which our material bodies are doomed to exist on the foundational level, since one of the distinctive definitions of the hell is its one-dimensionality. Then it occurred to me that time is one-dimensional and therefore the string-like foundation, or "bottom" of the world may be pure time and transitoriness which would confirm the infernal implications of this physical idea. According to the great Russian 20 c. mystic and writer Daniil Andreev, the author of "The Rose of the World" (1950-58, written in a prison), some of the inferior worlds (in the "descending row" of worlds) are devoid of space and contain only one time dimension, that is, are string-like. String is the longest and the most narrow thing in the world - the combination of the two qualities (duration and narrowness) which a human being tends to find least bearable. This physical proclamation of one-dimensional string as the foundation of everything led me to experience once more the blessed nature of the 3-dimensional space which, contrary to time, grants us a choice of direction, freedom of movement and the possibility of (self)contradiction.
Then, thinking over this physical theory, I suddenly got an impulse for its further metaphorical elaboration: the string invokes the image of trembling. Therefore, an image of suffering and instability, but also of music and harmony still accompanies this infernal hypothesis. Indeed, string theory states that, although the string itself is one-dimensional, its vibration generates 3 large (spatial) and 6 minor (hidden) dimensions. Perhaps, it is precisely this one-dimensional string that, when artfully played on, creates what is traditionally called "the music of spheres" (Pythagorean concept). Thus the newest physical concept ("string") still resonates with the old metaphysical consolation ("music of spheres").
Strings are one-dimensional, as borders are by definition. Two-dimensional border, abstractly speaking, will be a part of some territory stretched beyond the border. Therefore, all borders can be presented, in terms of this physical theory, as strings, or at least can be approached through this type of imagery.
According to the founder of Soviet semiotics Yury Lotman, the basic unit of the semiosphere is the "border" which does not share the dimensions with the spaces it divides, i.e., may be thought as one-dimensional (like borders on a geographic map). The same can be said about the "trace" in a Derridean sense: it vibrates and disappears as soon as we try to present it in substantial terms, as "something" positive. Thus "string theory" in physics finds a striking parallel in humanistic concept of the "border."
HALF AN HOUR HAS PASSED. AT THIS POINT WE HAD TO STOP WRITING.
I would like to outline briefly how I intended to continue.
What is called "vibration" in the physical theory, semioticians call the "plot" which is understood as series of events, or, multiple crossings of semiotic border. For example, the travel from the kingdom of the living to the kingdom of the dead-- an archetypal mythic plot--is a sequence of crossings of the life-death border. Since this border does not belong to any of the two kingdoms and exists only as a mark of difference between them, it may be thought as a foundational "string " in the world of fictional actions and events. Any plot can be presented as a "trembling" of the border, as the "vibration" of the trace which, like a physical string, generates the multiplicity of virtual semiotic events.
3. What I don't understand in my profession.
I don't understand a great deal of technical things, but, most important, I don't understand which method I use in my interpretation of texts, in my thinking in general. Although my specialty is theory of literature and methodology of literary research, I cannot pinpoint my own strategy which seems to be in a permanent state of vibration. Perhaps, thinking is a kind of the "superstring" whose vibrations form ideas and concepts. May it be that some of my colleagues also experience this impossibility to objectify one's own thought in a truly methodical way? What might be called "my method" or "my strategy" appears to me as a one-dimensional string, a border-sign which allows me to differentiate among others' methods and describe them as something substantial... But one's own method is always a border that escapes definition. The vibration of my "thinking string" generates a variety of intellectual events which constitute the plot of my profession and life.
In Gogol's "The Diary of a Madman," there is an image later repeated by Dostoevsky: "a string rings in a fog" ("struna zvenit v tumane"). This is how I could visualize "the elementary unit" of my thinking which escapes my rational understanding.
It's a long time ago, perhaps 15 or 20 years, that I read on string theory, so it may be useful for a reader and for myself to find some basic facts about this theory in the exposition of its founders David Gross and John Schwarz. My immediate source is the Internet page
"The basic idea of string theory is that all the particles, all the carriers of the forces, and, as it turns out, even the carriers of the force of gravity, all are, in a sense, excitations of a string-like object. They appear to us, when we observe them at large distances, as particular modes of vibrations of one fundamental string-like object."
"What we call fundamental changes with time. Atoms were once thought to be fundamental, elementary building blocks of nature; protons were then thought to be fundamental, then quarks. Now we say the string is fundamental. So there still are fundamental building blocks: they are the different modes of the string. One string, in some sense, corresponds to an infinite number of elementary particles, because each string can vibrate in an infinite number of ways. All of the higher harmonics of the string look like more massive excitations of different elementary particles. "
"So, in string theory, what we have done is generalize the idea of point particles to particles that have extensions, namely they are lines, they have no thickness at all, but are one-dimensional curves. In the most promising theories they are loops, to be
precise. So, string theory is a theory in which the elementary particles are loops of one-dimensional elementary objects."
1. SUPERRSTRINGS: A THEORY OF EVERYTHING?, Cambridge University Press. This book includes interviews with major physicists ( for example, Schwarz, Gross and Weinberg) on the meaning and the consequences of the theory of superstrings.
Interviews with Feynman, Michael Green (who worked with Schwarz to define superstrings) Salam and Glashow (who shared the Nobel Prize with Weinberg) are also included, among others.
2. F. David Peat, SUPERSTRINGS AND THE SEARCH FOR THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, MacDonald (hardback); Abacus (paperback)
Perhaps the most comprehensive introduction to Superstrings. It describes,
without the use of mathematics, the major concepts of the string theory. Slightly difficult though.
3. Barry Parker, SEARCH FOR A SUPERTHEORY: FROM ATOMS TO SUPERSTRINGS, Plenum
A history of 20th century physics from quanta to strings. Biographies of major
physicists of the 20th century are included. The intellectual steps which made the discovery possible are, most of the time, well described, although not always with precision.
4. Michio Kaku, HYPERSPACE: A SCIENTIFIC ODYSSEY THROUGH PARALLEL UNIVERSES, TIME WARPS AND THE 10TH DIMENSION Oxford University Press (New York)
An excellent introduction to the possibilities of additional dimensions in the
universe and their consequences. The numerous illustrations are intended for a better understanding of these famous additional dimensions. General relativity and the theory of superstrings are very well described.
5. Paul Davies, SUPERFORCE: THE SEARCH FOR A GRAND UNIFIED THEORY OF NATURE, Penguin.
An account of the quest for a Theory of Everything.
Finally, the book that introduces the theory of semantic borders:
Yuri Lotman. Universe of the Mind. A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990 ISBN 0-253-33608-2
Toward Interdisciplinary Community: Collective Improvisations and the Realm of the Ordinary, by Mikhail Epstein
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