Friday, April 8, 2011

City Lights

Choose your enemies carefully, for they will define you.
Make them interesting, 'cause in some ways they will mind you.
They're not there in the beginning, but when your story ends,
they're gonna last with you longer than your friends.

(U2 - Cedars of Lebanon)

Physics conference standoff seemingly resolved. Los Angeles night: beer and Spinoza. The script Tariq Ali wrote for the theater play "The trials of Spinoza", later turned into a short documentary movie, gives a poignant portrait of a philosopher struggling for a defense of reason in a society crippled by superstition and in the grip of the religious wars that ravaged Europe in his time, and proposing a striking view of "the divine" that denied the supernatural of the personal god of traditional religions in favor of the immanent and natural marvel of an impersonal universe.

Up again at 4 am, heading to San Francisco, the last refuge of the troubled minds. First stop, Anarchist Bookfair, trying to get hold of the elusive small Anarchist publisher to whom I entrusted the manuscript of my first novel, dating back to other standoffs and other enemies ten years back. My recent trip back to the Ivy League environment that originally inspired it made me all the more aware of how good people are, some years down the line, at rewriting history. So I want all the more to have it out, that old crappy science fiction novel of mine, because at least that's a tangible record that history cannot be rewritten, just as my blog posts of these more recent years will prevent others, who are already trying to rewrite everything as if I had never existed, from attempting the same murky game. That old novel is not just a story of a dysfunctional scientific community in a distant but not so unrecognizable future. It is also a reflection on the difficult historic dialog between Communism and Anarchism throughout the tradition of the workers movement struggles, and that's why it ended up in the hands of my Anarchist comrades up in the Bay Area.

The plane flies low for an hour over the Californian coast: Santa Barbara, the islands, Big Sur, Monterey, the Bay: all this tragic beauty of landscape, this breath-taking marvel of mountains and reefs, is just a deep powerful scream of rock emerging from the depths of a moving Earth. Meanwhile, I read Gerald Raunig's "A thousand machines". As all the postmodernist writings, the book wanders around between loosely connected themes, all vaguely linked by the "machine" theme, first traced back to the treatment Marx gives both in the Grundrisse and in Das Kapital, and then jumping around between movies, psychoanalysis and philosophy, ancient texts, modern activism and all that. I generally don't much like this style, but this short book made for a good reading. Three of the themes touched upon seemed to resonate with me at this particular time: bicyles, the theater machines, and what the author calls the "war machines".

Regardless of the author's specific viewpoint and examples, bicycles are a statement of resistance: resistance to the imposition of motorization, a statement of personal courage and the strength to face up to coercion, the courage to say "No" to the car bullies and to a society that tries to silence dissent. The theater machines of ancient Greece, from which the word "machine" itself derives, the "deus ex machina" of the Latins, was the trick Euripides used to get his tragedies to some kind of resolution after a complete impasse had been reached in an impossibly complicated situation. From the theater machines of antiquity, the author moves on to those of modernity, especially to the Soviet avant-garde theater of the years immediately following the Russian Revolution, with its fragmentation of the bourgeois theater, its use of the Dadaist and Constructivist elements, the body-machines, the "Theater of Illusions". The "war machine" the author refers to is not, as one may at first think, the big apparatus of war maneuvered by the Nation States in their aggression tactics, but rather the small and spontaneous arising of strategies of anarchist resistance based on the micro-political, artistic-activist practices of intervention. In the words of the author, "the martial dimension of the war machine consists of the power of invention, in the capacity for change, in the creation of other worlds". The modest and unassuming nature of these assaults perpetually operated on a line of flight, nonetheless allow it to become an effective weapon that can carry out a siege of the seemingly impenetrable walls of power. In the words of the anonymous author who treated the war tactics of the barbarians challenging the suffocating rule of Rome, "machina multa minax minitatur maxima muris". My whole scientific work in the past three years has been a "war machine" in this specific sense.

San Francisco: N-Judah rolls its metal wheels and cranks its music of steel up the hills and down again towards the ocean. Off at Golden Gate Park, and there they are, black clothes, bicycles only (the Revolution will not be motorized), vegan food, and book stands, lots of them, on the floor outside and on the tables indoors, the whole archipelago of the radical anarchist publishing scene. I get hold of my publisher: yes, of course, my science fiction is not science fiction, that much I knew. It wasn't meant to be, otherwise I would have given it to a different kind of publisher. Alright, things seem to be moving forward anyway, in some direction, in the way you expect it to happen in the anarchist world: the spontaneous emergence of ordered structures and complexity from chaotic dynamical systems. That's the way Anarchy works.

Second stop, inevitably, City Lights Bookstore, the publisher of Howl and cradle of the Beat Generation. Two years ago, during my Berkeley months, when I was just beginning to understand how tragically misplaced my trust and friendship had been for so many years, I often ended up here, this side of the Bay, down in the basement of City Lights, where more than half a century ago Ginsberg gave his first public reading of Howl. Now things are different: I am no longer at the stage where I still have to recognize and accept what is happening. I am no longer shocked at anything, I am only fighting an endless and meaningless war of survival. So I can now come here again, with eyes that have become accustomed to looking upon the ugliness of personality cults and sickening ego complexes disfiguring the face of science. I can now finally sit on the stairs leading to the attic of City Lights, where the largest collection of the Beat literature is housed, and read slowly from Ginsberg's "Plutonian Ode".

Radioactive Nemesis were you there at the beginning
black Dumb tongueless unsmelling blast of Disillusion?
I chant your absolute Vanity. Yeah monster of Anger
birthed in fear O most
Ignorant matter ever created unnatural to Earth! Delusion
of metal empires!
Destroyers of lying Scientists! Devourer of covetous
Generals, Incinerator of Armies & Melter of Wars!
I dare your Reality, I challenge your very being! I
publish your cause and effect!
I turn the Wheel of Mind on your three hundred tons!
Your name enters mankind's ear! I embody your
ultimate powers!
My oratory advances on your vaunted Mystery! This
breath dispels your braggart fears! I sing your
form at last

(Allen Ginsberg - Plutonian Ode)

Berkeley in the afternoon: the small street market down Telegraph Avenue, selling psychedelic accessories, the sweet smell of pot in the air. I am here to deliver another general audience lecture on my scientific work at Revolution Books, the small alternative bookstore run by the Revolutionary Communist Party of America. I slowly go through my slides presentation on mathematics and cosmology. The audience asks very intelligent questions: for a non-scientifically trained public, this is the best you could hope for in terms of an audience that really cares about every word you say. I go out with the Party members for drinks after the talk, and some conversation. Lots of questions still about my talk, nice intelligent questions: people who care about learning science in every way they can. Then more talking, political. The historic seeds of distrust between Communists and Anarchists are all too painfully evident even today, even in this stronghold of the radical Left that is the Bay Area. "So, your novel is with the Anarchists? Oh, it's in good hands: they haven't lost it yet?" Come on, comrades, we did this mistake many times before. If Communists and Anarchists hadn't started fighting each other out in Barcelona, instead of putting their energies into fighting the Fascists, maybe we wouldn't have lost the Spanish Civil War, as Orwell so sharply and convincingly documents in his "Homage to Catalonia".

As usual in my life, I am caught in between two worlds, sharing too much of both to be partial to either. Communism is, down to its crude essence, about believing in the future - the Radiant Future. One thing you can count on with communists is that they will be ready to defend science with their lives, which is a rare quality in the increasingly obscurantist world of today. I would not have become a scientist, had it not been for the Communist Party back home, and the effort it made to help us get the good science books, pumping up the enthusiasm, helping the young generation see in science the key to a better future for humankind. Now, when I give these simple lectures here, for the restricted audience of the Berkeley Communists, just blocks away from the shiny big science of UC Berkeley, I see again the same enthusiasm, the same uncontaminated trust in the beauty and the revolutionary mission of science. I bask in the shining light of their untarnished optimism.

My optimism was murdered, leaving behind a dark phantasm. This is why, by now, I tend to consort more easily with the complex darkness of Anarchy than with the radiant sun of Socialism. The dialog on science with the anarchists is considerably more complex, for one thing, because a good number of them actually do have a science background. Many of the movers and shakers behind the Californian anarchist scene are trained in science and technology and belong to that vast area of cyberculture that emerged directly from the counterculture. They are the super-hackers, who live by day as software developers in the sunny silicon valley glamour of advanced technology and construct by night a network of resistance and insurgency. Some of them have turned viscerally anti-scientific, advocating various forms of green-anarchist neo-primitivism, not because they do not have enough knowledge of science, but because they have seen too much of the inner workings of the scientific community. That's what makes the discussion so complicated: I know what they know that I know about the structures of power enmeshed within the apparent beauty and purity of science. There is no optimism to appeal to there, no radiant future left to build, just an endless struggle of resistance: the war machine. They speak directly to what I have become.

Love wears down to bare truth
My heart hurt me much in youth
Now I hear my real heart beat
Strong and hollow thump of meat

(Allen Ginsberg - Lack love)

As in Tariq Ali's Spinoza script, I have learned what it is like to be excommunicated by the vanity of the official orthodoxy of this dusty corner of scientific paradigm, and yet I still long for that old socialist vision, for its untarnished optimism, for the absolute trust in the beauty of science. That's why I came, on my knees, to knock at the door of the Revolutionary Communist Party, asking them to allow me to talk to them once more about science, asking them for a share of their optimism, of the brightness of their radiant sun. Despite all the pain and disillusionment, I still believe that there is beauty in truth and truth in beauty and that science is the last remaining form of poetry in which we can still sing an ode to the universe.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Mixing memory and desire

April is the cruellest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.

(T.S.Eliot, The waste land)

Roman Polanski - Macbeth (Banquo's ghost)

Yes, it is conference season once again, that cruel season when the dead are being dug up from their shallow and restless graves. This year the choice is between the conferences I should have been invited to and was not because the Lord and Lady Macbeth do not like their banquets disturbed by bleeding ghosts, and those I was forced to turn down myself, because, after some time, even a ghost runs out of blood to smear more banquets with. So far I had kept only one last conference in the list, a small physics conference I had erroneously thought would be a safe space for me to go to, until I realized that even that last corner of existence is denied. I'll let that go as well: I am tired of this endless war, this endless bleeding out. Tired of perennially fighting back, with the last hope gone of a moment in a future history of the universe, a remote corner of space and time, where I may finally be at peace.

Roman Polanski - Macbeth (Banquo's ghost)

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
you cannot say, or guess, for you know only
a heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
and the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
and the dry stone no sound of water.

(T.S.Eliot, The waste land)

Where is the Birnam wood? Why comes it not? Or have the witches now deceiving words for us, the dead, as well as for the living? We, ghosts, will keep on fighting, will keep returning to haunt the Thane of Cawdor, because there is nothing else that keeps us afloat between this world and the night. When all is done and said, when all my blood is drained and all your talks are given, and the curtain falls once more upon this darkness, there will be left but a barren landscape of desolation, a scanty meal for the worms, and the same unspoken question: "What for?" Were your insatiable ambitions, your unrelenting egos, worth the destruction of friendship, trust, intellectual affinities, and ultimately human lives?

Roman Polanski - Macbeth (Birnam wood)

When fight is to life what ghosts are to shadows, when the swamps of memory harbor a decaying hostage conscience and desire, and blind windows stare upon a petrified world of nightmares -the burnt out desert that you casually and carelessly left behind you- all that survives is a long and meaningless wait for improbable signs of walking forests.

Roman Polanski - Macbeth (Banquo's ghost)

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the dog far hence, that's friend to men,
or with his nails he'll dig it up again!
You! hypocrite lecteur! - mon semblable, - mon frère!

(T.S.Eliot, The waste land)