NONFICTION | Clever Eternity and the Filthy Plans He Makes
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In the late 18th century, a political philosopher and social theorist named Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon. Inspired by tales from his younger brother of Russian facilities used to monitor the training of unskilled labor, Bentham adapted the form to create the perfect prison.
The Panopticon’s design is most easily visualized as a circular ambulatory of cells, with a solid exterior wall, and glass interior walls facing a courtyard, with a tall tower in the middle. The cells are divided by thick walls which isolate the prisoners from any interaction with each other. A walkway runs around the exterior wall for the guards to occupy, and provide food to the prisoners through a slot, which isolates the guards from the prisoners. The center tower consists of a single room, occupied at all times of day by a single warden. The room is wrapped in highly reflective glass, enabling the warden to see out, but keeping prisoners from being able to see in. Additionally, a series of pipes are instated as a one-way communication system from warden to prisoner. Functionally, this creates the paranoia of constant surveillance. There is a chance that at any given moment the prisoner could be being observed, but in reality, the warden could be inattentive, sleeping, or even entirely not there. Today, a very similar phenomenon occurs in malls and grocery stores with cameras and CCTV. More often than not, the cameras are nonfunctioning, or unobserved, but the fear is enough to curb unwanted behavior.
The crux of the design is, however, the relationship that the form implies, between prisoners and warden. Bentham conjectured that this would give the warden unheard of power over the mind of the prisoners but he was, in fact, wrong. The truth is much more insidious. The power lies in the architecture. The warden is in fact just as confined by the Panopticon as the prisoners are. He is reliant upon the prisoners to authenticate his power. His illusion of power. Because of the physical separation – and indeed complete isolation – that the warden in his tower experiences, he has no actual disciplinary power over the prisoners. A prisoner could, at any given time, realize this and gain back his psychological freedom. And this would, of course, demand immediate action from the warden, which, in turn, means that warden must be vigilant at all times. The warden is thus just as trapped and isolated as the prisoners he watches.
“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”
A famous Latin phrase meaning, “Who watches the watchmen?” The Panopticon offers a terrifying response:
“Within me there are no watchmen; only victims," it says.
An ouroboros, simply put, is a dragon or serpent eating its own tail. While the word is Greek, representations have been seen in Indian, Egyptian, South American, and even Norse mythology and religion. The underlying concept of the ouroboros is not only seated in literature and myth, but also in the natural world. Traces of what the ouroboros represents can be found in Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, and even Computer Science. Of course, the ouroboros is just an artistic manifestation of an actual concept called recursion.
Recursion refers to something that nests inside itself, or which cannot be defined without itself as a part of the definer. A basic example would be an acronym like GNU, which stands for GNU’s Not Unix. So what does the GNU in GNU’s Not Unix stand for? It stands for GNU’s Not Unix of course. And this turtles down and down for infinity.
Another way to understand recursion is to simply Google search recursion, at which point you get two very good examples. The first being, Google asks, “Did you mean: Recursion?” and the next being the definition it provides,
“The repeated application of a recursive procedure or definition.”
Recursion is often used humorously or ironically in art, when artists will – within some piece – nest a smaller version of that same piece in itself. The artist M.C. Escher made an entire career from his etchings and drawings that explore recursion as a visual phenomenon.
Though the concept is ancient, it has come to relatively recent prominence with the invention of set theory in 1874 by mathematician George Cantor. Cantor attempted to describe all numbers as a series of sets, but he quickly encountered an interesting paradox: the set of all sets would necessarily contain itself (being also a set). Recursion at its finest. Not only is this troubling from a mathematical standpoint; it also has interesting philosophic implications. In fact, it could be said that recursion is a problem of philosophy. And religion, for that matter.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? What (or who) invented life, the universe, and everything? And what invented that thing? How do you define a cat? What is the price of a chocolate bar at the market and why? Can we better ourselves? Will tomorrow be the same as yesterday? All these questions eventually end at the same conclusion: they become recursive, never-ending, inescapable.
Though it seems counter-intuitive, zero has not always existed. There are two distinct capacities in which the number zero serves – one being invented much earlier than the other.
The use of zero as a placeholder (that is, to distinguish the number 10 from 1, or 8059 from 859 for example) wasn’t thought of until quite late in human history. The Romans never thought to use a placeholder, because under their system, one was not needed. Each of their numerals (I, V, X, C, M, etc…) were graphically distinct. The Babylonians, however, did use a place-value system, and yet for centuries they still didn’t think to use a place-holding symbol: they relied instead on the context of the situation to tell numbers like 8059 from 859. I’m sure that on more than one occasion things became rather confusing. It wasn’t until around 400 B.C. (1500 years after the invention of the first standardized numbering system – cuneiform) that a scholar thought to implement a place-holding symbol, which he did by using two marks similar to ^^. Not quite our idea of zero, but the function was similar enough.
One would think that, for a given system in which elements start to blend and mix to create ambiguities, something would naturally arise as a distinguisher. Modern philosophers have talked at great lengths about the idea of nothing defining and giving authenticity to the something around it: that meaning is often provided by the absence around it. But it seems that this key juxtapositional relationship is not as instinctive as one would think.
The second, much more nuanced function that zero serves is most simply stated as a balancer. Nearly 900 years later, in 628 A.D., an Indian mathematician wrote the groundbreaking equation 1-1= 0. Before him, no record has been found of this concept. He also recognized that 1 + (-1) also equals 0. Though this has countless mathematical implications and opened the door for huge bounds in the field, the most important ramification lies somewhere outside of number theory: the reality of ideal balance lies in a void. Nothing about zero states that it actually exists, as either a number or anything else. It can only represent and place-hold. It stands completely distinct from every other number in existence; not because of the things that it does do, but because of the things that it does not. In many ways, both within mathematics and without, once we discovered zero, there was no way to go back from it. It insists on itself in its non-existence and from it no matter the avenue or determination, there is no escape.
Babel and the Curious Dichotomy of Utopia
The following is an excerpt from the New International version of the Bible:
1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” 5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” 8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Many artists and architects have, over the years, attempted to recreate the Tower of Babel through drawings and models, but they uniformly fail. This is not the fault of the artists' or architects' ability (many recreations have been aesthetically and technically beautiful); rather, they fail because the spirit of Babel lies outside the materiality of stone and bricks. In stark contrast to the power of the Panopticon, the form is not what so threatened god, but the idea of unity. The act of construction and collaboration that Babel represented is what the lord feared. Power dictated through the act.
The word “Utopia” means an imaginary, ideal state. It is by definition unattainable. Though the word itself is of Greek origin, and man’s earliest exposure to its conception as a distinct idea is arguably in Plato’s writing, its popularization can be credited to a 16th-century Englishman named Thomas Moore. In his book also titled Utopia, Moore describes his fictional, ideal-island state; including both political and physical structure. Though what Moore claims to be ideal can be argued either for or against, depending on one’s inclinations, and any number of similarities may be drawn to contemporary political systems, the interest of Utopia lies not in Moore’s absolutist claims: even though Moore lays out this paradise in detail that borders on masturbatory, the fact remains that he named it Utopia – literally “No-Place”. Moore realizes from the outset that his fiction is merely that. Of course, this calls into question the purpose of the entire exercise. Many scholars believe that the discourse of Utopia was meant to serve as a criticism of the current power system, couched cleverly in innocuous fiction. Some others give Moore slightly more artistic credit, claiming that he truly was a political (and architectural) visionary – that something so revolutionary could never be as pedestrian as cynical satire. Perhaps he was just bored.
It is possible that I will be accused of depression. I think of it less as a depression and more as a mire. I feel encased. I think that rather than living without clarity or direction, I see things far too clearly. My existence stands sharply against a backdrop of everything: of cracked, grey concrete; cheap vinyl-covered tables; CDs; cigarettes; a 24-hour news cycle of partisan-politics and bloody tragedies both near and far; condoms; glass mason jars of old tea; neon signs; dirt between a cashier's fingernails; litter of full page, glossy magazine ads. And none of these things touch me.
I can see their effect on the things around me, but I’m like an animation that stands out far too obviously against the static, painted background. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Neither matter much to me.
There are times when I feel sick for no reason. My nausea comes upon me at all times of day, with no consistent way to anticipate or counter it.
Once, for example, I was walking along a path on the edge of some woods. It was a warm afternoon, and an older man was slowly jogging – hobbling, really – along a path that ran parallel, and converged several hundred yards ahead, with mine. In spite of the fact that he was some distance away, I could hear his gasping and occasional violent cough. I deemed him far too old to be running and straining himself like that. He sweated profusely even though he barely moved faster than my brisk walking pace. I found myself becoming angry with him, that he would put himself in a situation like this. “You are far too old and frail for this.” I found myself thinking. I imagined him falling to the ground. Blood pool around him. Every dry twig he stepped on was a brittle bone snapping; every leaf became his skin cracking and peeling at the strain he was placing on himself. I wanted to grab him and yell at him that he was killing himself – to shake him until he understood. But then I became convinced that if I touched him, his weakness would infect me. I felt my legs become lead, my face sag; my fingers ached with arthritis; my spine twisted into itself. I absolutely knew that if we happened to come into contact, or even if contact were suggested by proximity, then I would become him. I doubted the solidity of my identity, and that doubt became an affliction. I sat down on the path until he passed.
Once in a great while, when I feel my sickness coming on, I feel giddy; I seize the opportunity. I take a roll of trace-paper and try to sketch the things that ail me. I try to represent my pain as a physical totem or structure: something that I can put aside and later study, when it passes. More often then not, I draw the same wall of amorphous, black bricks, which extends to the edge of the paper no matter the size. I always hope to find some crevice in the immutably dark shape, but I never do.
At nights I don’t sleep well. I feel that to do so would be an admission of complicity, of putting my principles in hazard.
And though I am sharply aware of all my actions, and how small I am in comparison to the events around me, I still find myself publishing lists of wants that run on to the point of excess.
I want to build a house out of the collected works of every author who talked about death as a certainty, and write 'SCREW YOU' on each and every dedication page.
I want to take every piece of paper generated by and on account of me, stack them up to see if we're in the same weight class, and then have a fistfight, but I'll bring a knife.
I want to taste expensive wine and coffee and complain about both.
I want to petition the Good Lord to remove suicide from the list of sins. If heaven is real, why stay in such a shit-hole? What a tease.
I want to go on a run that only ends when I figure out why the ABOUT ME on every Facebook page includes a quote section, and why I use it.
I want to write an album dedicated to every person who uses "I could care less" when they actually mean "I couldn't care less" and then write a scathing review of it on Pitchfork.
I want to map every great city based on the population density of lonely people, and then create a government-subsidized social program dedicated to teaching them the words to "Eleanor Rigby."
I want someone to invent an app to stroke your own ego so I can spend less time on Buzzfeed quizzes.
and yet I find strange comfort and hope in seeing them written out and knowing that they are nothing if not original, and I pray that that lends me at least some authenticity.
Scale, then, becomes the most important factor when I become especially unsteady in my existential footing. It is easy for me to find worth all living things; ranging from bacteria to rapist. If I concentrate I can feel the beauty that all life radiates, and for a short while, it fills me. Likewise, I can take immense satisfaction in our planet as an unfeeling, harsh system that extends back for billions of years and forward for an untold more, and I am comforted that I have the pleasure of participation. I also grasp our human insignificance when the reality of our place in our solar system; our galaxy; and our universe comes into mind. It humbles me. The problem arises when all factors are considered simultaneously.
I want to believe that you and I are intensely important, and that the things we achieve are meaningful, or that even the act itself creates meaning, but my knowledge always points to one thing: we are an accidental zero-sum game, imprisoned by an infinite number of choices. It is an unconquerable dialectic. And always when this realization inevitably breaks me from my fleeting comfort, wherever it was initially found, I am left as a cenotaph.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Though the author has done his best to make a comprehensive analysis, and an exhaustive confession, ultimately he has learned nothing from it. No new information has been gained; only the same information retread. This has meant nothing.
Alex Bow is a recent graduate from the University of Idaho in Architecture and Philosophy. He is interested in non-fiction displaying themes of permanence, space, and meaning. He now lives in Tacoma, working as an architectural engineer for the U.S. Air Force. He continues to write in his free time.