drinking at the artificial wormhole
This creative-critical piece explores relationships between mathematics, the sea, and sound, to test out listening as a receptive and generative methodology that may hold together disparate topics. I first encountered Fernando Zalamea, a synthetic philosopher of alternative logics, at Arika in Glasgow (2019) and was rapt hearing him speak about and enact a mathematics of gesture, romance, and epistemological possibility. In a series of conversations and performances with boychild, Laura Harris, Nathaniel Mackey, and Fred Moten, Zalamea returned time and time again to Moby Dick and a line in Moten’s all that beauty (2019): ‘We’re all whales.’ Moten read that line at the launch of Gravitational Feel, his collaboration with Wu Tsang, as Ahmad Jamal Trio’s ‘But Not For Me’ played on a loop. Running with these loops, tying knots haphazardly, diving benightedly, I find myself on a seabed, steps away from a drop-off that is really an artificial wormhole. Unable to see or to hear, I try to tune myself in to speculative frequencies – jelly, telepathy, entropy’s music – and to listen oceanically (hydrophones help!). Such a listening practice enables a move away from institutional pressures and sacrificial logics, at least, that’s the dream. We do it together for the sake of sticking together, bound by monkey-rope, submarine cables, and vibes. I don’t know where we’ll end up, if we’ll be sent or assimilated, but one way or another this piece will venture a response.
On Thursday 21st November 2019, I attended a study session in Glasgow led by Columbian mathematician, philosopher, and critic
Fernando Zalamea. The session was part of political arts organisation Arika’s Episode 10: A Means Without End, a programme of public events featuring a fabulous line up of artists, poets, and philosophers, a few of whom I’ll mention below. I found the entire programme to be emotionally, aesthetically, intellectually, and politically mind-altering, as I’ve written about elsewhere, but here I want to focus on Fernando, the synthesist to whom I lost my corazón (co-reason/co-heart). Before introducing Fernando properly, I’d like to mention that when I first encountered his work, I hadn’t studied maths since my Highers, thinking very little about it in the 15 years since leaving school. But something about Fernando’s work makes me want to study anew, to think about mathematics, to dwell in its structures and activities, to set aside worries about not understanding in order to come closer to what he terms mathematics’ ‘wild heart’. It’s difficult to speak about something that one doesn’t know about without propagating anti-intellectualism or quackery, yet it also feels important to throw oneself into the unknown, to try to articulate the experience, to share those hazards and flops. I’ll come back to the limits of poetic licence in a bit, but for now, visionary-poet Will Alexander provides a helpful way through these complex junctures of knowledge, language, and poetry that is not a way out:
Of course, one reads and ventures into all manner of things across duration on this Earth. In this sense, the poet is not a vacant species, the poet is endemic with life itself. I guess the overused word passion applies here. For me, passion creates technique, not some external knowledge superimposed upon a deserted psychic land. In other words, what moves you? What allows your imagination to vibrate? My experience gives me understanding that the alphabet blazes, that its accents stir not unlike recorded dusts on Mars. Bud Powell, the jazz pianist, in his constant desperation to play, seemed consumed by an experience not unlike the one that now consumes me. If I go more than a few days without writing I feel as if ostracized from myself and so, like a camel or a cheetah, I speed to the nearest watering hole of my imagination so as to continue to survive in the flux that continues to guide the quotidian kingdom.
We won’t evade the problem of not-knowing, instead, we’ll try not-knowing as an approach to and beyond the surface; lapping at the watering hole, casting a hydrophone, descending that lifeline to access other elementals.
Fernando led and participated in a number of sessions on epistemological entanglements, gestural maths and dance, mathopoetics, and Moby Dick. He repeated the same questions at the beginning of each session, riffing on Denise Ferreira da Silva’s work on race and social justice: how can we understand difference without separation; how can we fight against separation and reduction to entangle and expand our understandings of the world; how can we move on in the world, within the world’s complexities? These are questions for mathematics as much as for philosophy, poetry, and politics, he maintained, and maths should not be segregated from culture and thought. By way of several mathematicians – predominantly Bernhard Riemann (1826-1866), Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), and Alexander Grothendieck (1928-2014) – Fernando offered us many dialectical theories to prove the inadequacy of the singular point of view and to present models for considering entanglement. In order to bring together and to think together polarities like One and Many, Infinite and Finite, Structure and Deformation, Beauty and Truth, Fernando explained the mathematical sheaf, which is central to his book Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporary Mathematics (2019). He writes:
The pragmaticist maxim thus serves as a sophisticated ‘sheaf of filters’ for the decantation of reality. The crucial role of the sheaf secures an amplified multiplicity of perspectives which, for that matter, filters information in more ways than one, thus establishing from the outset a certain plausibility for the claim that knowledge may be sufficiently rich and multivalent. (118-119)
The sheaf glues together multiple, diverse perspectives, enabling an expanded knowledge to counter the violence of dogma. This is a non-universalizing universalization, taking us through the looking glass from completeness to incompleteness, from the known world to the unknowable world, inversion’s prerogative.
As well as talking and using the whiteboard, Fernando gestured and gesticulated, using his hands and arms to condense the mathematical techniques, to show us that we could do maths too, embody complexity, hold abstraction in our historical specificity. He explained how these concepts manifest in poetry, in cinema, in the figure of the whale, in the felt and projected experiences of our lives. He demonstrated a pedagogy of kindness and generosity, offering us highly specialised ways into the shared wonders of knowing and not-knowing our world, pausing frequently to take questions. Can you explain ramification? Do Riemann surfaces hold pronominal possibilities for exploding gendered subjectivity? What do you mean by logic, beauty, neighbourhood? Does maths go beyond language? How does this theorem help us in our quotidian lives? Why do the layers signify whale-song? One attendee said: I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but when you said continuous, I burst into tears. A pair of origami whales made by Arika’s co-founder Barry Esson appeared on the table. I told my friends that I’d fallen in love. Fernando referenced Fred Moten’s all that beauty, this poem in particular:
Blackness is swimming,
can’t quite let the water go or be,
we harp on the water.
The blackness of the whole thing
is that our flesh lights up the world,
the ringing, the bubbles,
the particles appear
in suspense. What else
might happen to us folds us
in. Not, but amniotic wail.
We hate the world. We love
the word whorl, our whirlpool
pianism, our pullen, our
pullin’, our practice,
saturated name. (64)
This poem came up time and time again; Jackie Wang heard in its music the music of Alice Coltrane; Fred read it at the opening of Gravitational Feel, a ‘kinetic sculptural performance’ made in collaboration with Wu Tsang. Shimmering ropes fell from rotaries above – gold, indigo, turtle dove, aquamarine – notated with small and big knots, filling the space with friendship’s weave. We sat cross-legged under stichomythic showers, those heavenly wigs, as Fred and Wu read poetry over Ahmad Jamal Trio’s ‘But Not For Me’ on loop, playing hide and seek like Old Bollywood lovers in a banyan, like clown fish.
In a discussion with Fernando about Moby Dick, Laura Harris likened Gravitational Feel to the monkey rope, in which Ishmael, bound to the harpooner standing on the dead whale as he himself stands on the ship, ponders:
For better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake. […] Queequeg was my own inseparable twin brother; nor could I any way get rid of the dangerous liabilities which the hempen bond entailed.
[…] I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die. True, you may say that, by exceeding caution, you may possibly escape these and the multitudinous other evil chances of life. But handle Queequeg’s monkey-rope heedfully as I would, sometimes he jerked it so, that I came very near sliding overboard. Nor could I possibly forget that, do what I would, I only had the management of one end of it.
Ishmael describes this bond in terms of a sacrificial logic – a rope with two ends, two knots; one destroyed so the other can be saved, or, one destroyed because the other is; the surrender that devotion entails – a logic that Fernando and Gravitational Feel confound in their differential entanglement, weaves of demonstrations to disqualify extreme perspectives. A pamphlet of emails, research, and drawings by Fred and Wu was on sale at the bookstall; I bought a copy for my friend James, my friend Laurel bought a copy for me. A week later, my partner Rob made a mini-Gravitational Feel for my birthday, using a wooden mobile and a pack of multicoloured cords. A handicraft box jellyfish, it hung from the ceiling in our bedroom until the cats pulled it down, only to realise that it’s much less fun grounded.
This mini-sculptural performance made by Rob, Worf, and Ticklepenny Prawnmobile reminds me of an offset from the mother-sculptural performance made by Fred and Wu, a polyp, a pup. It’s a citational practice that’s a devotional practice, running circles around the loved one to get their attention, abrading a path in your context that overlaps other paths and other contexts, bringing up clouds of referential sediment that obscure before settling and forming little heaps of thought, maybe as a musical phrase or a poetic tactic or a socialised tic. Sometimes I feel like a barnacle attaching myself to influential writers and texts, clinging on for dear life because everything depends on them, from a single poem to the futures we’re conjuring; once attached, we might radiate. Sometimes I drop a quotation into a poem to watch my words and obstructions change colour, scatter, get drunk. Fernando shares some of Grothendieck’s metaphors to depict immersion’s aid:
For Grothendieck, a problem can be imagined as a sort of ‘nut’, whose hard shell has to be penetrated in order to get to its ‘soft flesh’. In Grothendieck’s conception, there are two essentially distinct strategies for opening the shell: hitting it with a hammer and chisel – sometimes slipping and sometimes smashing the inside to pieces along with the shell – and immersing it in a liquid (‘the tide’) in such a way that, after weeks or months, its exterior softens and opens up ‘with a squeeze of the hands […] like a ripe avocado’. The first strategy (yang) aims to resolve the problem; the second strategy (yin) aims to dissolve it. Through an adequate immersion in a natural, ambient medium, the solution should emerge within a generic landscape that outstrips the particular irregularities of the shell. (148-149)
I love the scalar incongruity of immersing a nut in the sea, rather than a dish or even a bathtub (and hear those echoes of Ishmael’s cooperative bliss!); Fernando’s own metaphors carry us further out. In Peirce’s Logic of Continuity (2012), he opens with the fluid interconnections between maths and myth, embodied by an ever-changing figure: ‘Like Proteus, the sea god which changed his appearance at will, the continuum moves between the physical world and abstract ideals’ [n. p.]. These figures are difficult to represent, but not utterly beyond representation; rather, they require multiple, mutable attempts in language, diagrams, and performance.
In another transit, or discordant translation, the author of a book about cephalopod consciousness describes the body of the octopus as a topology: ‘there are facts about which parts are connected to which, but the distances between parts and the angles are all adjustable’ (220), which also suggests a methodology for reading and writing poetry. I am making intuitive, somewhat erratic leaps between things, eliding the distances between contexts; this is not proper scholarship, says my internalised examiner, and maybe poetry shouldn’t be caricatured as logic’s subterfuge, the metaphor ejecting a bloom of ink in the face of history. But Fernando offers a way to think about these movements, which means that we’re almost ready to jump. At Arika, he talked about Moby Dick’s oscillating images of the whiteness of the whale and abstract blackness, knowledge and non-knowledge, what’s part of us and what’s beyond, mappable space and subterranean currents. To illustrate the back-and-forth transits of topology, Fernando described seeing a painting by ‘Glasgow Boy’ Arthur Melville in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and finding interconnections between the artist and the novelist: in their surname; in the painting’s depiction of Spanish mountains and the mountain in Massachusetts that inspired the enormity of the whale; and in the curator’s descriptions of colour and shade. Fernando explained the kind of knowledge that the gluing and transits of sheaves can engender: ‘this abstraction in the co-razón is the one who is projected in the particulars of our razón below.’ Plasticity is not carelessness, and there might be ways to tune in to speculative frequencies to access other knowledges, other gestures, other inscriptions even as they disperse. We’re at the deep-sea drop-off; Fernando offers a final boost:
In fact, it is not even a question of a ‘reading’ in Grothendieck, but rather a listening. An articulation between images, intuition and ear, as opposed to other merely formal manipulations of language, seems to be fundamental for him. In addition to the metaphor of the nut and the rising tide, another of Grothendieck’s central metaphors is, in fact, the image of the creative mathematician attending to ‘the voice of things’. (151)
shhh – – – intermedial
song – a little little light to none
to none “donate voice”
go down – shhh “to voice
dunked poet’s lullaby
like sugar in watercolour
the descent pockmarked with caves, caves papered
closed to feel “interaction
of energy lines”
wetly amass to taste without touching:
ballum rancum ooh-ooh-ooze
“spirit estate is the space”
pliés & splats of microtubes
“spirit estate is the space”
radioledance across latitudes
“spirit estate is the space”
who says it’s me! down the line and hears it’s you
who says “call me tantra” – hears write this bridge
this bridge called roseability
pecking coral to build
“vibratory fields of webcams”
to grit in unison
multidimensional sirens sound
from the past”
how to redo
DO! to dissolve the keys
ask not faint rays of sun
on what is predicated
your sunken eyes
your “promised land”
ask athwart of flatness
“sound being given, thing evolved”
a glimpse of what we’ve left behind:
submerge papers in
pseudokin “rubs out”
following haemolink elimination, tree
brought down, Mulder
& Skully uncover
the fungous catacombs
of life’s birth
l i d l e s s
l e s s n e s s
n e s s l i d
some ears are
a glimpse of what will be:
housecats on the windowsill
“quack”ing at parakeets
in the silver fir parrotfish
knit intestinal rainbows
“consciousness without memory”: the perpetual mantra
hrīṁ strīṁ huṁ phaṭ ||
wildfire shuttering up and down
your sevenfold spine: now! now! now! now! now! now! now! &c.
some ears are ears of the “world prison”
some hear membraneously
to fly through these jammy clouds of pan-studying
we fly “building in improvisatory asides”
to admit the artifice of foresight
buoyant skull escape pod
the particular correlates with all other
particulars in the universe, a scallop’s
bubble-the sonospheric foam, a clack-
“the straight edge of the cloud” unless
if name and form fuse, signs
proving things for things,
stirring them into sensibility
as one can’t lie to a telepath
how precisely we’d sound
how sound would consummate
sound says: “the lesson that sticks” is the easiest to forget
let each souvenir retune you in a flash, let each flash pale
[Read ‘a group exhibition of atoms, interim, stars’.]
 Nisha Ramayya, ‘Notes on A Means Without End’, Poetry Review, ed. by Mary Jean Chan and Will Harris Vol. 110, No. 1 (Spring 2020), pp. 35-45.
 Will Alexander, ‘Language Seems to Stoke Itself: A Conversation with Sylvia Legris’, Music & Literature, No. 9 (24 April 2019). <https://www.musicandliterature.org/features/2019/4/21/language-seems-to-stoke-itself-a-conversation-with-sylvia-legris>
 Fernando Zalamea, Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporary Mathematics, translated by Zachary Luke Fraser (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2019).
 Fred Moten, all that beauty (Seattle: Letter Machine Editions, 2019).
 Herman Melville, ‘The Monkey-Rope’, Moby Dick; or, The Whale (London: Richard Bently, 1851). <https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2701/2701-h/2701-h.htm#link2HCH0072>
 Fernando Zalamea, Peirce’s Logic of Continuity (Boston: Docent Press, 2012).
 Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (London: William Collins, 2018).