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Illusory Illusion: Jarett Kobek’s HOE #999

By Richard Marshall.


HOE #999: Decennial Appreciation and Celebratory Analysis, Jarett Kobek, Book Works 2010

Each part of this novel is ecological but combines in a way that deliberately violates perception of its own nature. Disjecta from early youth is recombined in the imagination but remains, like a combination of horn and horse resulting in a unicorn, a possible contravention rather than the Humean mountain without valleys. All youthful writers growing older hanker to make some use of their youthful dregs. Rimbaud’s devastating question, ‘What is on the other side of despair?’, gets in this writing an answer that shreds the impertinence of art. Kobek combines elements that with one eye closed and from just a single designated perspective he has an illusory illusory object, a double bluff like a 3-D model of a Penrose triangle.

The Belgian mathematician Mathieu Hamaekers creates three dimensional models of impossible triangles which seen from a particular angle create the illusion that an observer is actually seeing the object implied by a two dimensional representation. However it is only from a single perspective that this illusion persists. Walking round such an object reveals it to be an object of strange convoluted curves. Kokichi Sugihara from the Computer Science department at Tokyo University provides PDF documents for making your own D.I.Y. impossible figures here. Diego Uribe in 1986 has analysed an infinite class of impossible figures into jigsaw puzzles of 32 equilateral triangles with special bar elements offers. Software enabling you to build these impossible objects using this analysis is offered free on-line. The point is that they are not actual realisations of impossible figures.

There is a moment in the Christopher Nolan / DiCaprio vehicle Inception when Arthur seems to show Ariadne how to install a Penrose Staircase into a dream. However what is actually installed is an illusory illusion. The Penrose Staircase is a staircase that makes 49 degree turns yet form a continuous loop. On it a person would ascend or descend forever and yet never get any higher or lower.

MC Escher’s Ascending and Descending is probably the most familiar example of the depiction of this impossible object, created not by Lionel and Roger Penrose in fact but by Oscar Reutersvard, although the mass audience of Inception will probably now make the film version as good a source of reference to it as any. Yet Nolan’s version uses a fake Penrose Staircase as a plot device. The implanted staircase is revealed to be merely a 3-D version created by distorting perspective. The viewers of the film see it as an impossible object for most of the time because they are being shown it from the perspective that creates the illusion. This is odd because it would mean that the illusion was only for the audience. None of the characters in the film would have been given the illusion. This is either a mistake on Nolan’s part but is more likely an arresting insight into narrative construction. At one point a character uses the illusion to get behind a guard and then forces himself to disbelieve the illusion by turning it into a 3-D realisation, which gives him an escape. When the impossible object is real everyone, including us, can have the same representation. Once the illusion becomes illusory, and the staircase a fake, then perspective again matters and what is perceived has to be understood as a distortion of perspective.

In Escher’s Ascending and Descending of 1960 the drawing of the visual paradox is incorporated into a lithographic print of a building where a Penrose Staircase is part of the roof. On the staircase are identically dressed monk-like figures endlessly trudging along, perfect emblems of adventurers of an idea in the world in what Sylvie Debevec Henning has dubbed a Menippean satire, that particular philosophical satire that embodies seekers testing ideas. A most famous Menippean satire of literary modernity is Beckett’s Quad, which can look like the Escher, and in his novel Murphy principles of the Abderite Democritus’s philosophical anti-monism are the basis of the investigation.

Monism combines two principles which interestingly find themselves in contradiction when tested by certain impossible objects such as Max Black’s infinity machine. Black’s machine is able to complete an infinite number of tasks in a finite amount of time. It is related to other models of impossible objects such as Thomson’s lamp, which is require to be switched on and off an infinite number of times within a two minute period. We are asked to say whether the light is on or off when the two minutes is up. In Kafka many of his stories have infinite tasks to be completed in a finite period, Borges and Tristam Shandy too, I suppose, and these and all other Zeno based impossibility machines go about testing the limits to the principles of continuity and permanence that inform understanding of the world. At the limit the principles collide.

Continuity requires that there is a precise position for every object. Permanence requires that nothing disappears without leaving a trace. Black’s infinity machine and Thomson’s lamp and all the Zenoic literature seems to conclude that at the limit there is indeterminacy and that therefore the principles are violated. Benacerraf has actually shown that this isn’t the case so long as you don’t accept that the same properties attached to a sequence leading up to its limit have to be attached to its limit state. After all, the quantity 1/3 expressed as a decimal is an infinite sequence 0.3333… which is less than 1/3 but its limit at infinity has to be 1/3. Murphy attempts to repudiate Democritus by assuming the possibility of a new monism and is holed up with all the damned problems of the Zeno.

Samuel Mintz talks about the ‘Geulincxian solution’ proposed by Murphy and which instantiates his Menippean quest. Geulincx calls for a total withdrawal from the world to cultivate just the mind, proposing a possibility that would refute the Abderite with a Monism of the Mind. Democritus, as a prototypical idler, who thought cautious inactivity rather than frantic activity would achieve the desired ‘undismay’ that he thinks a good life requires, would deny, according to Henning, the association of his Idling idea of ‘undismay’ with the pure vegetable life of the Ante-Purgatorial Belacqua suggested by Murphy. And the Schopenhauerian idea of the World as Will also corrupts Murphy’s attempt at the blissed out state of pure contemplation because the mind is too active, is forever becoming rather than settling, forever being at the mercy of the infinite array of small and implacable appetites ‘Celia, ginger and so on.’

In denying Democritus Murphy needs to overcome Schopenhauer’s World as Will and so retreats into an insane asylum and plays a game of chess with Mr Endon. The game, called ‘Endon’s Affence’ or, is chess played to create an experience of nothingness, ‘…the positive peace that comes when the somethings give way, or perhaps simply add up, to the Nothing, … which in the guffaw of the Abderite naught is more real. Time did not cease, that would be asking too much, but the wheel of rounds and pauses did, as Murphy with his head among the armies continued to suck in, through all the posterns of his withered soul, the accidentless One-and-Only, conveniently called Nothing.’ [Murphy, p 246]

The game is the closest a sporting event has got to being an impossible object. It works like the impossible sentence of GE Moore, ‘I went to a Semina reading last Friday but I don’t believe I did.’ The sentence is perfectly meaningful, possibly true and grammatically sound but nevertheless cannot be asserted. It is an impossible object. ‘Endon’s Affence’ is a perfectly played game of chess, violates no rules of the game, and yet might be a case of an impossible object for the same reason that Moore’s sentence is.

Paul Grice thinks that there are implicatures in sentences that place constraints on what we can mean that go beyond the mere semantic meaning of the words used in a sentence. So, for example, the Moorean sentence is an inadmissible sentence for anyone to assert because it implies contradictory belief. However, the implicature lies outside the actual semantics of the sentence. The semantics mean something and so the sentence is actually false. But implicature denies its asertability and so it actually doesn’t exist.

There are pragmatic implicatures as well as semantic. The suggestion here is that Beckett’s ‘Endon’s Affence’ is another example of a perfectly well formed and meaningful representation that has implicatures that constrain it from being real. We can read about it, talk about it, watch it, analyse the moves but it doesn’t actually exist because it can’t. Some find this hard to take but Grelling’s paradoxical word ‘heterological’ is a word that refers to all and only words that don’t refer to themselves. It therefore is a word that is impossible. Heterological is a word that doesn’t exist, and yet here we all are, seemingly reading it, discussing it, defining it. But compare the situation with a unicorn. I can draw a unicorn, write a story about a unicorn, but nevertheless, it doesn’t exist. Words are objects. Some objects don’t exist, and heterological is one of them.

So anyhow, immediately after the game Murphy commits inadvertent suicide as an attempt to fulfill Schopenhauer’s idea of ‘wasting away’. Murphy has a death wish as he thinks that a wish for peace is a wish for death. He waits for someone else to turn on the gas, trying to shrug away all willfulness in his suicide by clutching at the idea of placing his fate in the hands of a random act of someone else, which may or may not even happen. He dies in a fireball and his ashes are scattered by the drunk Cooper on a bar-room floor. But suicide is a willed self-annihilation. As such it is tautological that it cannot be unwilled. If analytic words exist, that is, if there are words that are true just because of their definitions alone, then Murphy didn’t commit inadvertent suicide because such a thing is a self-contradiction and therefore impossible. If analytic words don’t exist, as Quine famously argued, then perhaps he did.

But my focus is on that chess game. I know that some people will deny it is impossible. They will pull out a board and pieces and play it to prove it is possible. But I will be unconvinced. Just as I will deny that anyone asserts the Moore sentence even if they say it, write it and so on. Just as I will deny that Penrose’s staircase is possible, even though Escher drew it and there are 3-D models of it and Chris Nolan made a blockbuster film featuring one.

All this by way of writing about Kobek’s book. Semina as a series is a fascinating collection about writing writings and other necessary obsolescences. Stewart Home‘s Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie was, I have argued elsewhere, an impossible object, taking the form of a Moorean sentence, ‘Art is important but I don’t think it is’, or vice versa. Bridget Penney‘s book is rooted in the very notion of the shifting perspectivism that context both references, denies and creates. It is writing that plays with Kaplan’s twin meaning theory of indexicals, where an indexical word like ‘yesterday’ has both its linguistic meaning but also its content. Penney’s book is one that required a quarter of a century of the writer’s time to write, accumulating in its process the destabilising of reference that indexicality brings, but also reaches back into a dazzling historical creationism.

The cartoon version of the issue is the regret sentence, ‘Tomorrow never comes,’ which helps to direct the intentions of her novel. But it is also a book that moves around the shimmering transformations of meaning that complicate and make mysteries of living as an ‘I’, another pure indexical. ‘I am a female’ spoken by a man and then a woman is a sentence that shares its meaning and yet seems to have different meanings too. Indexicality captures this logic. And Penney then translates this insight into the very idea of an index, which gives the illusion that a list of references can index the multiplicity of possible meanings one might give to anything. The book’s profound sense of retrieval, the idea that ‘yesterday’ is not something that lies in wait, something inert and unchanging, but is rather something that is responsive to the peculiarities of indexical identity and representation, is what worms through this critical text in order to fuse her recognition of the historical figure of Shackleton in the ice with a mediation amongst these ruins of a self identity, one that leaves the reader wondering: is contingency the contingency of this necessary world or does it lie within it – and where then necessity?

Maxi Kim‘s refusal of modernity and post modernity in his Semina work structured its ideas using lists that rooted out, pulverized and gutted the names and their metaphysically fixed meanings. It aimed at being a negative image of what it seemed to portray. In this it was not aiming to achieve the booming ‘Nothing’ of the Heideggerian high priests of po-mo suave, but was going for a literal broke. Non-material objects exist. This was the literary realisation of such an object, something that was an exercise in absence. The possibility of this is known in physics and by children. A hole is something literally made out of nothing. A shadow is too. And silence. One break really does break. It isn’t a metaphor.

If ever titles had them running scared Semina’s have. In the Mr Trippy blog entry of October 24th 2009 the story was of Semina author Mark Waugh alerting Semina editor Stewart Home about problems with Semina book distribution in the USA. I quote Mr Trippy at length here because the incident underlines the need for vigilance about this kind of nonsense. Mr Trippy writes:

Two weeks ago I received an email informing me that an attempt to sell titles in my Semina series at the New York Art Book Fare had descended into farce because the books had been impounded by US customs. Book Works told me they’d flown from Europe to America to sell the novels, but ended up manning an empty table. The publications have now disappeared and may have been destroyed; from New York any unsold copies should have gone on to a distributor in Los Angeles, but there is still no sign of them on either the east or west coast. I was reminded of this a couple of days ago, when the following message from Bubble Entendre author Mark Waugh turned up in my inbox:

‘Hi, could you expand on the rumour that Bubble Entendre has been impounded by US customs? In a week when the Tate flirted with showing Spiritual America, and then withdrew the work, I am curious about a conspiracy to regulate the flow of subversive literature into the homes of bourgeois America? Best wishes, Mark.’

Word on the grapevine is that the Semina books were impounded because a US customs official took a look at Bubble Entendre and decided it was a blue-print for a terrorist attack on the 2012 Olympic Games. The novel does contain a narrative about an entirely fictional kidnap incident during this event; but I’d like to stress that I only accepted the text for publication because it was, in my opinion, critical of terrorism.”

The issue is one of illiteracy, where misreading fiction as fact closes down Amerika to the series. The attempt to ban the Semina series of fictions orchestrated from the viral hive of Stewart Home/Gavin Everall reveals the scope of this series and its relevance for the continuation of writing and reading. The books threaten because they are not there. To be there is to be art. Instead we get here a simple groovy blast that writes. And we read. It’s that straight. Writing a book involves manipulating trillions of atoms. Reading involves trillions more. Books need to be space elevators, teleportation units, invisibility cloaks, or nanosized molecular machines developing out of quantum architecture.

The novel is a laser beam, a microwave, a computer, a DNA production, one where it appears and disappears at random, jumping from one space and time coordinate to another, one that defies the logic of classical physical possibility, one that refutes the ground out of which something and nothing was once thought to dwell all of the time. The preposterousness of the quantum novel is to match the preposterousness of the quantum phenomenon generally. This science occultism refutes the Heideggerian guff that intones ‘We name time when we say: every thing has its time. This means: everything which actually is, every being comes and goes at the right time and remains for a time during the time allotted to it. Every thing has its time.’ I’m yaaawning.

Superconducter novels are miracles. The last great innovation of the classical mode was probably Joyce. He took the classical novel and took it to the very limit. It was the equivalent of the invention of electricity and steel. It hinted at great speed, great technological power, of Ballardian skyscrapers and cars and motorways and planes, even flights to outerspace but also of inner space too, a roaring super-fuelled subjectivism. It is often thought of as the beginning of the quantum novel but it was a dead stop, the apotheosis of the mythic lands. Rather than the beginning, it proved the last great experimental novel. It spawned other experiments, but they were refinements of the same experiment. Cut-ups, cataloguing, stream of consciousness, collage and other refinements essentially took aspects of Joyce and shuffled them around. It all remained the shtick of art.

After more than seventy years, there’s a sense of nothing really happening but junk accumulating around a satellite. Meanwhile, liquid nitrogen costs the price of milk. By cooling it over certain ceramics such as itrium, barium, copper oxide to minus 200 degree centigrade a new state of matter is created, unknown in nature before people learned how to do this about twenty years ago. The new state of superconductivity induces new powerful magnetic fields so that placing a magnet over superconducting ceramic causes it to be suspended in the air above the ceramic. It revolves in the air, held between two magnetic fields without friction, the Meissner effect, which gives the illusion of anti-gravity. It spins without friction. Future roads could be made of this material, enabling cars to move over the surface of these roads without touching it, without using petrol. A belt made out of the stuff would allow a person to fly like Superman. It’s the way they do trains in Japan.

Of course Superman turned out a twisted fascist Ubermensch in Frank Miller’s 1986 mega book The Dark Knight Returns and that isn’t quite what I have in mind! Rather, the elimination of the art, of the highbrow, to get to answer Rimbaud’s question – ‘what is on the other side of despair?’ Rape New York took a torch to that one, like Melville’s Hamlet, a ‘Drummond light raying out from itself on all other things by movement from its sources on all sides’ as Charles Olson puts it.

And now the Kobek script plays with the nature of illusion by creating an illusion of one. A series of jumping flash fires of prose rewritten by essay farmers in Asia at a price. So now we have a text that was written down by a legion for money in the name of a single author in the cause of anti-art and anti-authoring. Yet that author is no longer who he used to be, he being ‘so much older then’, and so we have the idea of a book unwilled, unauthored, displaced by a process that supplants the romantic image of the artist genius with that of the exploitative capitalist and the vast processes both technological and social involved in production.

Kobek sent his youff blog scripts to an Asian essay farm which wrote them out again into the meatworld, sends them back for him to then splice in feedback loops of his own. Collected as HOE #999: Decennial Appreciation and Celebratory Analysis it is a 3-D literary version of an Endon’s Affence chess game, a simulacra of a non-existent piece of writing. The fact that it has autobiographical fingerprints all over it, that it is in part formed by an elaborate process of transcription and transmission, that it is part of the Semina imprint, that Kobek is real, that the books exist physically, all this gives to HOE 99 the illusion that it is an actual instantiated impossible object. But to think that misses the point that the book is not really an illusion but just a representation of one, done in 3-D. The impossible idea ‘I wrote this but I don’t think I did’ is constructed so that in reality we have two different assertions. Just like someone playing the Endon’s Affence’ chess match, or the 3-D version of a Penrose staircase, there seems to be an instantiation of an illusion, but there isn’t.

Home’s book didn’t exist because it actually is an impossible object. Kobek’s book approaches its literary project by building a model version of the dream, a book that recreates a model of its own ‘ontological indecency’ out of his adolescent texts and latterday techno-critical babble to showcase the act of authorless authorship. It exists, it just looks like something that doesn’t. Collected up with the rest of the Semina series, it’s another fierce and necessary read.


Richard Marshall is biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 31st, 2010.