Norman Ball Essays
All Atwitter: Parroting the Machine
Given the easy utility of the invading ether, frenetic self-magnification becomes the game as narcissism
attempts oceanic proportions with shallow-pond endowments. The effect is
tragic-comic. One only has to read the many breathless accounts of what our
various Facebook friends had for breakfast. With our neighbor’s diary turned inside-out we discover a rash of
verisimilitudes couched in a shocking lack of reticence. How do we politely
return people to their quiet desperation? The danger is that we will not survive
our rising contempt for one another’s ordinariness. Some untrammeled inner space
must be withheld. Terminal romantic, I refer to this space as
soul and differentiate it from machine.
A sense of disappointment is warranted. We spent decades bemoaning television’s vast wasteland, blaming its
hub-spoke topology for an epidemic of voyeurism. But of course we had something
more interesting to impart than the two-dimensional caricatures on
Knot’s Landing. Just wait until
interactivity unleashed our personal creativity. In David Foster Wallace’s
landmark television exposé (1993’s E Unibus Pluram), boob-tube gazing was still the stupefaction
du jour. As Wallace reported at the time, “we love to watch people but hate to be watched.” Now we regale people
with tales of talking out the trash. Oh for the golden era of recumbent couch
Today, each of us is a freshly minted actor working against daily Facebook and Twitter deadlines. Frankly with
our new “cybernetically post-postmodern” duties (Wallace’s term), who’s got time
for voyeurism? I am here and I had Rice Krispies for breakfast. Our social networks are alive with the beating of
breakfasts into thoroughfares until the thinnest gruel stares back up from the
limpid mush. Nothing escapes the matrix, poor bloody matrix.
As the shelves get stripped bare, natural forbearance is sacrificed on the altar of compulsive sharing. The
polis becomes a bricolage of tossed-off personality-bits, less a social
reservoir than an etch-a-sketch of vanity billboards. Just as no one makes a
U-turn to revisit a billboard, who feels compelled to read an archived Facebook
entry? Trundling out McLuhan yet again, the encounter
is the content. Blink and you might miss it. The machine is the soul
of this soft parade; humans are its flotsam, mere
Our picture is being taken too many times. Familiarity breeds contempt. Like some finite, precious fuel, souls
are being expended (by fame-seekers great and small) on the bonfire of casual
public inspection. Celebrities, nihilism’s depreciated vanguard, can be quite
charismatic because everything severable from their interiority is relinquished
to the furnace. They are literally burning before our eyes at huge personal
cost. Souls burn with an incandescent—and unreprisable—splendor. A home’s
shutters, pipes and copper wire can be sold only once for a sudden windfall.
After that the occupant is homeless. The same can be said for the social network
habitué. There is not enough soul-content in the world to feed the endless
Ten years ago in consulting circles we spoke reverently of the five-hundred-channel universe. The thought
bristled with techno-nerd naiveté. A wellspring of compelling content would
spill forth into nascent tributaries. Technology would unleash a
content-renaissance as myriad pipes opened their throats to our pent-up
epiphanies. The top-down, command structure of Hollywood was doomed.
But like a nation of Tantalus' armed with camcorders, we bent to retrieve pearls of wisdom only to return with
fools' gold. Baudrillard had us nailed dead to dispirited rights in
Pataphysics: "We are nothing more than
a state of virtual fart." Sick of basement tapes, the earnest burps of our
fellow everyman, we surprise ourselves with a renewed appreciation for Hollywood
production values. Noted one savvy media consultant recently, “free is dead”—call it the revenge of the turnstiles. So much for commandeering Hollywood’s
For a brief time, reality held
a certain prurient appeal, especially as we watched celebrities brush their
teeth while fighting to maintain their doomed celebrity-hood. Pedestrian hearts
shone through. Drugs, booze, porn—the reflected demons of a greater angst—are
feeble outreach programs tasked with simulating a variety that isn't native to
the project. The void is the mother of the vice. The pie’s on all our faces.
Tales from the grass-roots, even on well-manicured L.A. lawns, have all the
appeal of watching grass grow.
As one wag noted recently, HDTV captures every line on every face. Soon we will be able to scrutinize Meg
Ryan’s lip implants in the next girl-next-door caper. This is not a fresh nadir
so much as it is the parsing of ever-present sameness with pixilated
granularity. There is nothing new in the world. Technology is a magnifying glass
trained on a longstanding impoverishment. Every Homer can be marked against
billions of yeomen. Immortality is hard-won. Precious few find life after death.
Twitter, a switchboard study in ordinariness, will not alter this equation. It
confirms why, if most of us died in our sleep tonight, the best that can be said
is that dozens of garden-fresh eggs would be spared in the morning. Social
networks are Grand Dispiriters, mirrors held up to bus-stops. Though we often
deride the personal of today, it shares more than it has lost with the personal
of yesterday; eating sleeping fucking dying, the occasional prayer.
There is however a certain rage-in-the-recursive that threatens to lay further siege to the pedestrian
mainstay. Given an increasing amount of time spent comparing our journeyman
antics, a tipping point is reached where the telling crowds-out the living. Soon
Twitter will convey only Twitter. A penny then for Twitter's private thoughts—when will it (or whatever ghost traverses its machine) intuit our superfluity
to the Twitter experience? Are we not marginalizing ourselves in a
group-neurosis of sharing, laying ourselves out for the full-contempt of the
We are relinquishing sacred ground, the grist of authentic story. Human narrative borne of harrowing life
experience is all that prevents us from melting into a cog on the assembly line
or becoming a subset in the trans-human amalgam. Steadily the baton passes from
the story to the machine. We are the compulsive facilitators of our own demise,
readily yielding flesh to cyber.
This brings us to the Heideggerian intimation that technology is nihilism's ultimate instrumentality.
Wallace’s “institutionalized” underpinnings “irony, narcissism, nihilism,
stasis” are no less valid in cyberspace than in the television landscape he
described. The perfect, eclipsing machine is an ongoing project tasked with revealing our emptiness with ruthless,
grinding day-in, day-out precision.
Pornography encapsulates this frantic attempt at communication, albeit in a traditionally sordid genre. There
is nothing edgy about pornography anymore. It’s like wallpaper with a bare-assed
motif. A stylized attempt at making us naked again, pornography succeeds only in
promulgating a commodity-draped nakedness: here’s my cog, here’s your wheel. We
find ourselves bedecked in a fresh regime, Nechvatal’s machine language. As for
Eve’s old-school, analog transgression, God would not interrogate Adam today. He
would read his latest Facebook entry. Pornography is a machine plot aimed at
curtailing human procreation, sex-by-proxy. If the machine can sow sufficient
disinterest between man and woman, a machine-victory has been achieved. The
frenetic sharing of our innermost innermost-ness hollows out the soul. Our
attire—or lack thereof—becomes incidental to what is inherently a pornographic
process. Jenna Jameson wears flesh to work. We blog in a parka. These are
wardrobe malfunctions—a loose button here, a zipperless fuck there. Who really
The irony is rich. Just as the capability evolves to eavesdrop on every conversation in America, Big Brother
forfeits his desire to listen in, concluding it is all mindless chatter anyway.
We talk over the garden wall about nothing in particular—and at bewildering
speeds—in an anti-climactic marvel of technology, unaware that
soul-destruction was probably technology’s agenda all along. The difference
between human language and machine-noise is qualitative and hardly sacrosanct.
Errant chatter plays to the machine’s agenda. We twitter at our peril.
Poetry and the Big Bang
"For the end has found the beginning, there is no stopping it, the power and
the falsehood are shattered." — Jakob Boehme1
Poetry is a fog unless probed at the quantum level. Though its scope of inquiry can be macrocosmic in theme,
it unfolds in the realm of the subatomic. Indeed its frequent ode-like
appeals to the heavenly bodies may echo the scientific longing to forge a
rapprochement between Quantum and General Relativity theories. It’s striking how
today’s quantum cosmologists are indistinguishable from theologians. Never has
it been more obvious that everyone is struggling up the same mountain as
convergence comes of age.
Poetry may be a work-horse for that most mysterious—and withheld—of nature’s four fundamental forces,
gravity. As the physicists tell us, gravity isweak only insofar as its full
force is distributed across a vast array of mathematically-demonstrated—though
empirically unavailable—dimensions and/or multi-verses. Physics also tells us
there are eleven dimensions which gravity could well traverse with impunity.
Thus gravity's defining attribute from our Archimedean vantage is one of
strident forbearance; it leaks so that we might live. Conversely its unaccountability is
the most compelling argument for the presence of somewhere-other-than-where-we-are. Poets refer
to this otherworld as the sublime.
The poet navigates this gravity-starved milieu with a resurrective agenda. For whatever reason, poets
can operate with greater facility within Keats' parallel universe of negative
capability "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries and doubts"2.
It cannot be stressed how oppositional the poetic mode is to the expository
approach. The latter is characterized by 'ordering ones thoughts' with outlines
and storyboards. Such stratagems are rooted in a causality-based (i.e.
three-dimensional + time) universe.
But what we can see—or influence—in Newton's world of pulleys and levers constitutes an estrangement
in the poet's playground, a tyranny of linearity. After all, linearity implies a
path traversed. A line segment has a starting point, A and an end point, B.
However as Margaret Wertheim points out, “In the quantum world, subatomic
particles lurch about, suddenly disappearing from their starting points and
reappearing as if by magic somewhere else...In many cases you cannot watch a
subatomic particle move from A to B; you can only observe it at point A, and,
sometime later, observe it again at point B. Just how it got there is a
mystery.”3 Echoing this magical mystery tour, Robert Pinsky referred
to poetry recently as “an inherited and inexhaustible mystery.”4
Poets evoke this inexhaustible journey with the metaphor of the circle or closed-loop. For example Coleridge
uses the archetypal structure of the uroboros to repeal the beginning and end
points: “The common end of all...Poems is to assume to our Understanding a
circular motion—the snake with its Tail in its Mouth.”5 In
Burnt Norton, T.S. Eliot argues for a
still-point circularity, “What might have been and what has been/Point to one
end, which is always present”6. Emerson’s
Uriel rejects the linear universe thusly: "Line in nature is not
found/Unit and universe are round."7 If one accepts this recurring
poetic circle as an attempt to evoke the simultaneity of multi-dimensional
space-time, then poets have been wrestling with quantum logic since at least the
uroboros of Plato’s Timaeus.
Beyond structure, the internal logic of poetry suggests an alternate, parallel world. After all what is
metaphor but non-linear association? When inPreludes, Eliot announces “The worlds
revolve like ancient women/Gathering fuel in vacant lots”,8 we grasp
the poetic meaning even as we concede the image’s irreproducibility in a
Newtonian reality—fuel-laden women from an earlier epoch spinning like worlds
in vacant lots? One realm’s nonsense is another’s bread and butter.
Coining ‘the logic of metaphor’, Hart Crane acknowledges the counter-intuitive arrangement of poetical
imagery: “[the logic of metaphor’s] paradox, of course, is that its apparent
illogic operates so logically in conjunction with its context in the poem as to
establish its claim to another logic, quite independent of the original
definition of the word or phrase or image thus employed.”9 Within
this train of thought, Crane carefully graduates an ‘apparent illogic’ to
‘another logic’ altogether. Confirming this logical duosphere, quantum pioneer
Werner Heisenberg said, “direct “actuality” of the world around us, cannot be
extrapolated into the atomic range…”11 Indeed both men are giving
form and function to the quantum realm.
Frost was even blunter: “poetry is metaphor”10. Metaphor surfaces
far-flung, non-linear associations between two things. It maps the quantum
brane, tearing back our four-dimensional fabric to reveal interrelatedness—pre-existing connections—between two things whose interrelatedness, without
the poet, would otherwise escape detection. When a fresh connection is made,
both poet and reader achieve a Joycean epiphany.
In this sense, the poet is water-carrier, the Orphic straddler of two realms. Poems that remain in
the linear realm and that don't make 'the crossing' are prosaic renditions made
only to look like poems (the formal accoutrements of stanzas, line-breaks, etc.)
If the essential action of a poem can be paraphrased in prose then that is the
best evidence it isn't a poem at all. Similarly if the Orphic aspirant is not so
utterly spellbound with the sights and sounds he encounters in the otherworld
that he fails to forget himself (confessionalism in its more solipsistic forms),
the journey was a wasted effort anyway. Perhaps this person is a daydreamer and
not a sojourner after all.
The poet is a subterranean who breaks to the surface where the rest of us dutifully break our bread. What a
troubling annoyance. But imagine his task, wrestling quantum reality to a series
of written lines on a two-dimensional page. The problem lies with those more
‘stable’ types who have yet to grasp the flux; that matter at the sub-atomic
level is a probabilistic soup of wave-particles. The poet appears decidedly less
flaky when we disabuse ourselves of the flaky notion of terra firma. Quantum physics tells us
that there is no there there. Suddenly the poet, that purveyor of paradox, looks like the portrait of rectitude. Poetry
is the voice of pre-reflective human consciousness, a phenomenon which almost
certainly springs from a quantum-derived reality. One day the poet’s excursions
may earn more recognition within the regime of science.
The sense of déjà vu one feels when reading an authentic poem (in fairness, the majority are falsely rendered)
stems from the "repatriation effect" when gravitons reacquaint with companion
gravitons that perhaps have not congregated around the same table for 14 billion
years (i.e. the time-zero of gravity and self-alienation otherwise known as the
Big Bang or singularity). An alchemical victory is logged when the poet traffics
from the visible realm to the unseen. Certainly the poet intersects, albeit
crudely, a parallel brane, though why he and not others manages this parallelism
is an Orphic mystery. Some may simply be more adept at perceiving the fallacy of
solid objects. For this, they are often castigated as mere dreamers. Paradox
Physicists characterize the graviton as a closed circular structure (an uroboros?) Unlike other open-ended
strings lashed to our dimensional brane, the graviton is unaffixed and thus free
to partake of other dimensions. It should also be noted that the prototypical
poet, Orpheus, was a singularly gifted lyre-player, whose adeptness rendering
sound waves gained him entry to other worlds. Matter, we are learning, is more
wave than particle.
To employ an anthropomorphism, gravity (10-36 'weaker' than electromagnetism in our space-time)
fulfills, like God, the path of greatest compassion by diminishing itself within
our universe. This absencing allows the variegation of matter to occur (e.g.
stars, quasars, planets, dark matter, humans, etc.) In a flight of metaphysical
fancy, one might say that gravity's leakage to other dimensions is a
manifestation of God’s love. To be sure, He sacrificed his only-begotten son so
that we might live conveys a certain parochialism, that is, 'universal'
only to our universe. But what if gravity begets many 'sons' (demi-urges) across
a multitude of dimensions and universes? This is what the M Theory of physics
strongly suggests, albeit in the language of mathematics. All sons are of Him,
chips off the Prime Mover as it were.
Only the universe in its non-variegated singularity can co-exist with an undiluted God/gravity which is
to say our existence hinges on His dilution. Alas the singularity-state (mass at
its most undifferentiated denseness) precludes the universe's splendid variety.
Radical monotheism takes its cue from this cornerstone of cosmological physics,
a singularity, it should be added, where the laws of physics collapse. These
laws are not immutable across the multi-verse, but are peculiar to any given
universe. Or, as Stephen Hawking elects to characterize this cart and horse
paradigm, our universe exists because the laws of physics require it. Of course
once the creation/creature demarcation is allowed, God must relinquish His
unity, or at least distribute His immense power across a spectrum of universes,
i.e. the multi-verse. No sentient universe is possible without God's recourse to
a multi-verse. God needs other places to go, or rather we need God to be
elsewhere. Omnipresence would be unbearable not just in the oppressive sense of
some Big Guy telling us what to do all the time—but for reasons of sheer
physics. We’d be crushed into oblivion by the equivalent of 100 trillion bear
hugs. Love hurts.
Of course this absencing has the perilous effect of leaving us to ourselves. Think of Mom and Dad dropping
you off at the front of the college dormitory, tennis racket in hand, an odd mix
of anxiety and expectancy. What is the poet’s role within this larger firmament?
He is that poor devil shot through with contrariness, an anti-agent promoting
backwardation, Keatsian negation, perhaps a verdant field of fast-collapsing
mini-black holes and milling strangelets. He is a subversive, an enemy of men,
abetting a return against the logic of his being to a resumed singularity. It is
the nature of any force to seek the abrogation of its own ‘leakiness’, the
primordial will to power.
In between throws of the dice, even God gets the blues.
Yahweh's wrath flares up episodically as He contemplates the evil that flourishes in His absence. During
these moments He pines, sentimentally it seems (though that is an
anthropomorphic misprision), for His own prior singularity—ah the good old
days! Gnostic mythos contrasts the Pleroma (I might say undifferentiated
gravity) with the jealous, selfish demi-urge that masquerades as the Almighty.
Suffice to say all is not always well in Heaven as the Pleroma must suffer a
plenitude of insufferable demi-urges.
Echoing the mystic visions of his precursor Jakob Boehme, Jung intuited that man is the eye through which God
sees. In a similar vein, Job instructs God on the moral ambivalence of his
boundlessness. This will strike some ears as sacrilege, but man must shepherd
God's eclipsed being through our rendition of reality. From this, God derives
what we might call “pleasure” from the variegated splendor of His manifold
creation. We play parent to God the Father through the invitation His absence
implies. But He must be absent—or near-absent—for this process to unfold. (For all we know, God may consent to
His own absence for the sheer pleasure of it, though it is conceivable He
derives some manner of ‘pain’ from beholding the entropy that thrives in His
With every duality there is a flaring tension, a desire to return to an unconflicted whole. Word by word (the
unitary expression of logos), the poet answers this plaintive yearning of God/gravity for (re)composed unity. The poet
is the archetypal subset of man in this restorative capacity. Without irony or
condescension, Heidegger suggests that the poet is the most essential man. Poets
like to hurry this reunification process by dying with alacrity. They are famous
purveyors of self-erasure.
One of the age-old philosophical questions is, if God (gravity) is so strong, why does He/It allow
evil to flourish? If God was to manifest His full presence in our universe, mass
would be obliterated right back to its singularity. Evil is thus a by-product of
a leaking-out God. Not so much existential as conditional, it is the vacated
space where free will is permitted to germinate—for good or ill. From this
absence, atomic bombs and atom smashers emerge.
The CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in its search for the so-called 'god particle' promises to harness the
re-constitutive power of a million poets. If gravitons can be shown to depart
our dimensionality, their 'evacuating presence' would signify the quantum
process of Love, Wallace Steven's lightning in a jar.
The Collider goes operational later this year. Let us hope it doesn't bring the
universe down about our ears, because there is a hubristic element even in the
most earnest science. Quite reasonably, some trepidation has been expressed at a
machine that seeks no less than to recreate the Big Bang. Might this be a
cataclysmic uroboric return, Coleridge’s serpent’s tail reaching final terminus
in the gaping maw of oblivion? Will the circle be unbroken, by and by Lord, by
One abiding counter-theory is that the small black holes created by the collider
might not decay with the expected rapidity, the so-called Hawking radiation
effect. I am way over my head here, but hasn’t Hawking revised his ideas on
black holes quite radically in the past? Otto E. Rossler, a theoretical biochemist, calculates that Earth
accretion by a micro black hole could take as little as fifty months.12 For some interpreters
of the Mayan calendar, December 21, 2012 marks the end of the world, or for those less doom-bound, the cessation
of a Great Something, maybe even of time itself.
We disregard the nihilistic complexion of the current era at our peril. No human endeavor is beyond
suspicion. Nietzsche prophesied that nihilism would pre-occupy modern man in the
coming centuries as he grappled with the void left by the deceased white-bearded
god of Michelangelo fame. Indeed nihilism, often cloaked in religious
fanaticism, end-time prophesy and suicide-bombing, is on the ascendance—if it
was ever in remission. Nihilism derives from the creation recoiling from its own
agency and consenting to a renewed singularity, a return to a creatureless void,
the blessed extinguishment of all those voices in one’s head, our bedeviling
A non-scientist, I am unequipped to evaluate the risks associated with the collider experiments.
However I’m even more reluctant to throw in with the crackpot metaphysicians and
new-agers whose sustenance derives from anxiety and ignorance. My guess is the
risks are probably de minimus. How else to explain the overwhelmingly positive support for the collider within the
scientific community? Surely no one roots—consciously—for the cessation of
Earth? The shadowy form of nihilism lurks in our willingness to court even the
tiniest prospect for self-annihilation.
The late Jungian Edward Edinger argued that the archetype of the apocalypse is in the ascendance. The
sheer psychic weight, born across myriad belief systems, which roots
collectively for an apocalypse is so overwhelming as to make an apocalyptic
event all but assured. Science, no stranger to the self-destructive impulse,
could well deliver us to the abyss. Indeed a certain poetic logic would be
fulfilled if the world ended not with a Big Bang but with
The Hollow Men’s whimper—in a 17-mile uroboros of our own devise.
Arthur Kroker has suggested that the will to technology is a lab-coat refinement of the will to power which
in itself is a camouflaged nihilism. From Frankenstein to the Manhattan Project,
we have learned that science can be the incarnation of nihilism. Now CERN bids to grapple with the very origins of
the universe, duplicating a universe under laboratory conditions without
displacing or obliterating the observer-universe. No less an informed authority
as noted astronomer and President of The Royal Society, Dr. Martin Rees, has
conceded of the collider, “as in all explorations of uncharted domains, there
may be a risk.”13 Apparently science has decided the risk is worth
taking. Let’s also not forget that in quantum theory anything, by definition, is
possible. Nothing is off the table—if there even is a table.
Perhaps on this momentous occasion, science has shed itself of the mad scientist shadow-form. Poets,
meanwhile, may get their comeuppance when the utopia of merging with the
unconscious infinite makes their efforts no longer necessary. Black holes stalking the earth, the Mayan calendar, the exhaustion of
Nihilism—too many confluences are pointing towards an ontological Armageddon.
It's enough to give an eschatologist the shivers.
1.Boehme, Jakob, Mysterium Pansophicum VI; 1620.
2.Keats, John; from letter to George and Thomas Keats dated Sunday 22 December 1817.
3.Wertheim, Margaret; Pythagoras’ Trousers: God, Physics and the Gender Wars, p.202; W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.
4.Edelstein, Wendy; “Poetry’s Inherited and Inexhaustible Mystery”; UCBerkeleyNews, February 8, 2007.
5.Coleridge, Samuel; Letter to Joseph Cottle, 1815.
6.Eliot, Thomas Stearns; Four Quartets, Quartet One, Burnt
Norton, p. 13; Copyright 1943, T.S. Eliot.
7.Emerson, Ralph Waldo; “Uriel” from Early Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson; New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, 1899.
8.Eliot, Thomas Stearns; “Preludes”; 1917.
9.Crane, Hart; A Letter to Harriet Moore (as re-printed in Poetry, 1926)
From O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane,
ed. Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997), pp. 278-79.
10.Frost, Robert, The Poems of Robert Frost: With an Introductory Essay, "The Constant Symbol,"
by the Author; Modern Library 242, New York, Allen & Unwin, 1946.
11.Heisenberg, Werner; Physics and Philosophy; (New York: Harper and Row, 1962); p. 145.
12.Prof. Dr. Otto E. Rössler talks with GOLEM.DE over the dangers of the LHC
at the CERN”; GOLEM.DE
13.Overbye, Dennis; “Gauging a Collider’s Odds of Creating a Black Hole”;
New York Times; April 15, 2008.