Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

On a Few of the Many Varieties of Codes and Deceptive Behaviors in History

Buckminster Fuller writes about the earliest Polynesian navigators, who were wizards who learned to sail East to West against the winds, with secret knowledge that was only shared orally with their sons, or coded in their chants: 

"Knowing all about boats/These navigator priests were the only people/Who knew that the Earth was spherical,/That the Earth is a closed system/With its myriad resources chartable./But being water people,/They kept their charts in their heads/And relayed the information/To their navigator progeny/Exclusively in esoterical,/Legendary, symbolical codings/Embroidered into their chants."- Synergetics, pp.749-751

I see this as an example of a small group who protect their knowledge because it was powerful and probably because it was thrilling for small-group cohesion.
How do we decode writing such as what you're looking at right now? In 11th century Fatimid Egypt, under science-loving Al-Hakim (who had become ruler at age 11, but then disappeared mysteriously during a solitary walk 25 years later), Cairo was the apex of learning in the world: lots of trade with Mediterranean neighbors, a fearsome army recruited from Sudanese, Turks and Berbers, the Polynesian's sailing code long since cracked. Among the brains that drained toward Cairo at this historical moment was al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (Western scholars called him "Alhazen"), from Basra. One project was to explain perception. Al-Haytham had read the recent translations of Aristotle and agreed that things we see enter the eye via the air, but al-Haytham elaborated with more physiological and mathematical suppositions about how perception happens. Furthermore, he said we perceive via a faculty of judgement, after inference. Pure sensation was different from perception, the latter requiring a conscious, voluntary act on our part. Here was a theory of gradations of consciousness, 900 years before Korzybski: there was first pure sensation (whatever we experience before words, analogous to Korzybski's "event level"); then we voluntarily attend to some phenomena (say, paying attention to letters and words and sentences on a page: perception); then we "decipher" the words, and finally: we are reading. Al-Haytham died in 1038. (I mention the 20th century polymath Korzybski; in the first half of the 18th century the Neapolitan polymath Giambattista Vico wrote, "People first feel things without noticing them, then notice them with inner stress and disturbance, and finally reflect on them with a clear mind."- The New Science, #53

                                 al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, b.965
                                 wrote possibly the first great work in 
                                 optics, influenced Roger Bacon and 
                                 Leonardo da Vinci

Roughly 200 years later, under Europe's Catholic mullahs (led by Pope Clement IV), Roger Bacon - one of those guys interested in everything - was interested in optics. He'd read Al-Haytham, but was keeping it on the QT and yet still got persecuted for "unorthodox teaching." There were a lot of Churchmen who insisted rather violently that scientific research was dangerous to Church dogma (They have made some progress since then...). Bacon explained to the Pope how optics/perception/reading probably worked. Bacon and al-Haytham had both realized it's got to be far more complex than they'd suspected. In 11th century Islam, al-Haytham was not persecuted. Roger Bacon, soon after trying to explain to the Pope roughly the same theory, found himself in a cell. 

250 or so years later, Leonardo da Vinci was interested in this same problem of decoding perception and reading. But he was smart enough to know he could get in trouble: he wrote about it in his notebooks in a secret code that could only be read when held up to a mirror. 

It's only in the last 80 years that we've gotten a thick neurobiological account of how reading occurs and there's still interesting problems being worked out at this minute.
When looking into codes and ciphers, codes are one thing, ciphers another; all translation from one language to another is codework; any language you can't read can function as a code to crack; at one time only priests, kings, and scribes/accountants knew how to write and read: for everyone else in the culture "writing" was a code. 

O! So many codes! And right out in the open. If only we could crack/hack/decipher/decode...
Not long ago I yet again re-watched one of those films from the Great Age of Hollywood Paranoia (c.1971-1976): Three Days of the Condor, in which Robert Redford plays a CIA agent whose specialty is reading novels, looking for codes embedded in them. These codes would apparently qualify as steganography. Messages hidden within other messages...and how do you know I'm not doing that right now? (If I'm doing it, please take my word for it: it's all in good, clean fun.)

I remember when I first saw Condor: I thought Redford's job was a fiction-writer's fancy. But apparently it's a real thing, and being taken more and more seriously by...yes, CIA, but all sorts of others working in the (not so) Great Game.

What if some of our best conspiracy writers and novelists of exquisite paranoia were leaving code in their books that hadn't yet been cracked? I mean...it could happen, right? Maybe not, but we never know. Let's not rule it out completely. Which reminds me of a passage in Don DeLillo's haunting, hilarious, deeply paranoid and postmodern White Noise. The main character - who is a professor specializing in "Hitler Studies"? - his ex-wife works for the CIA:

She told me very little about her intelligence work. I knew she reviewed fiction for the CIA, mainly long serious novels with coded structures. The work left her tired and irritable, rarely able to enjoy food, sex or conversation. She spoke Spanish to someone on the telephone, was a hyperactive mother, shining with an eerie stormlight intensity. The long novels kept arriving in the mail. 

It was curious how I kept stumbling into the company of lives in intelligence. Dana worked part-time as a spy. Tweedy came from a distinguished old family that had a long tradition of spying and counterspying and she was now married to a high-level jungle operative. Janet, before retiring to the ashram, was a foreign-currency analyst who did research for a secret group of advanced theorists connected to some controversial think-tank. All she told me is that they never met in the same place twice. (p.213)

Maybe it's just me, but "high-level jungle operative" makes me laff. 

White Noise is one of DeLillo's short novels, but there are some really "long serious novels with coded structures." Hmmmm...
Speaking of postmodernists, Douglas Rushkoff, in his wonderful book Program or Be Programmed, writes that the postmodernists were right to be suspicious of language and "reality," but they didn't go far enough: they hadn't accounted for the hidden biases of code writers whose codes were embedded deep within our digital gadgets. (see pp.83-84, ibid)
Well, the pre-postmodernists, often called simply Modernists? A few of them left works so cryptic (and therefore threatening to dull minds, like J. Edgar Hoover's), that they became suspect. 

Even though James Joyce never set foot on Unistat soil, Hoover saw him as a threat. Joyce had an FBI file. Because someone in Joyce's extended circle was a known communist, Joyce was suspected as one, too. (He was more of an individualist-anarchist of some sort.) From Claire Culleton's Joyce and the G-Men:

Even as early as 1920, Joyce had been plagued by rumors about him and his work, and he was (laughably) reputed to be a spy for the Austrians, the British, and the Italians. He even complained to his brother Stanislaus that Ulysses was believed to be a prearranged German code; Ezra Pound had heard that "British censorship suspected Ulysses of being a code." (p.45, Culleton)

Anyone who's looked at Finnegans Wake for 5 minutes might wonder what the eternally paranoid agents of Control thought Joyce must have been up to. If we go back to the early distinction between codes and ciphers, and al-Haytham's and Roger Bacon's and Leonardo's forays into human perception and reading, well, then surely Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are written in code, only in a different semantic sense than what an asshole like J. Edgar Hoover would sense as "code."

Similarly, Ezra Pound, after being captured by the Allies in Italy, had to answer to the charge that his Cantos were some sort of code. (see one of my earlier posts on codes, HERE, skip down to "Modernist Investigative Poets Are Suspects (By Definition?)"
The great cryptologist David Kahn writes about the enigma of the "emotional bases of cryptology," reminding us that "Freud stated that the motivation for learning, for the acquisition of knowledge, derives ultimately from the child's impulse to see the hidden sexual organs of adults and other children. If curiosity is a sublimation of this, then cryptanalysis may be even more positively a manifestation of voyeurism." (p.755, The Code Breakers) Kahn follows with a long line of later psychoanalysts who basically agreed with Freud, and many who challenged his idea. Nevertheless, I find the idea cosmically funny. I mean: if Freud's right - and I don't think he is, but anyway - then if you've read this far and feel like you acquired some knowledge from the OG, 'tis only 'cuz you're some sort of very well-practiced voyeur! Which reminds me of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

Fairly early in the book, you'll recall, Allied spies have noticed that US Army Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop has sexual conquests all around London, and they're followed by V-2 rocket hit - in the same place he had sex - a couple/few days later. They don't know why, but there are theories. Rockets and hard-ons...Slothrop's penis must have a "code" to crack...it - his dick - was possibly encoded by...who? Does he know? Slothrop seems to not know. How are they going to crack this code? Talk about an Enigma!

                                       psychedelický grafický umělecké dílo Bob Campbell


chas said...

"People first feel things without noticing them, then notice them with inner stress and disturbance, and finally reflect on them with a clear mind."--Nice description of the first 3 "circuits" as explicated by Bob and Tim.

As always, deeply appreciative of your offerings.

Eric Wagner said...

Nice post. I loved "Three Days of the Condor". Your final section made me think of Elgar's Enigma Variations. By the way, I just started David Thomson's new Television: A Biography. It look terrific.

michael said...

@chas- I hadn't thought about Vico's lines in those terms, but I think that's a valid and sound interpretation, so good catch! And thanx for the kinds woids.

@Eric- Did I ever tell you I read Thomson's memoir about growing up during the Blitz? I loved that book.
I'm glad you thought of Elgar. I was going to add a bunch of stuff on Turing and Bletchley Park, but thought I'd already tapped enough semantic levels of "code" for one spew.

Eric Wagner said...

M, glad you enjoyed "Try to Tell the Story". This new book rocks. He looks at the history of TV as the history of how we became a screen dominated culture. I suspect you would love Thomson met-noir novel "Suspects".

The Zodiac Killer had a fascination with codes as well.

hilary chase said...

What a wonderful thought by Vico: "People first feel things without noticing them, then notice them with inner stress and disturbance, and finally reflect on them with a clear mind"; Vico "decoding" and expounding the sociology of knowledge as a circular-causal system (externalization <---> objectivation <----> internalization). Vico's thought associated my thought with Emile Durkheim's thought : "Thinking by concepts, is not merely seeing reality on its most general side, but it is projecting a light upon the sensation which illuminates it, penetrates it and transforms it." (Emile Durkheim, "Elementary Forms of Religious Life" , p. 435 )

michael said...

@Eric- I wonder when I'll be able to get to Thomson's history of TV. Yea, the Zodiac: I've almost spent too much time studying that "case."

@hilary chase - Yeah on the Durkheim! This expounding on the sequence of perception, from the level of obliviousness to abstractions upon abstractions: it's a requirement for intellectuals. Or seems to be. Further examples seem never-ending. As well they should be.

I use the sociology of knowledge's circular-causal system a lot.

Korzybski spent incredible energy in trying to get us to become conscious of the orders of abstraction, because he thought there was a "logical fate" to them: mixing the orders, or beginning with axioms (after the pre-verbal "event level") that were false-to-facts led to a "logical fate." (EX: St. Thomas Aquinas and pals arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.)

Lakoff reverse-engineers the idea very common among hard-core conservatives in Unistat: Poor people deserve their poverty. Why? Because you should have had a very Strict Father figure in your childhood who punished you until you took responsibility for your own well-being and finances. Children are born bad and need to be punished until they "know" right from wrong. Children should be brought up to learn to take care of themselves - and really, ONLY themselves - so that they don't require help from others once they're 18. If you're poor, you failed this: you deserve your poverty. (Can we see the holes in this order of abstractions and logical fate?)

At the same time: playing in the fields of the lofty levels of abstractions seems to lead - if we take the right roads - to wonder.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Ms. Chase.