Falstaff As Zarathustra

There is much that is admirable in Falstaff. He is funny; he has a flair for verbal pyrotechnics; he is lustful; he enjoys food and drink, he is a good friend; he might commit highway robbery, but it is not clear he would want to hurt anyone in the process. Moreover, one suspects he would only rob those who could afford to be robbed by him. Most admirably, he appears entirely unconcerned by the opinions of others; he is secure in his estimation of himself. We may–like Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part One–mock him endlessly and mercilessly but it is unclear whether our barbs really do sink in, whether they cause more anguish to the reader than they do to Falstaff himself. Falstaff might be fat, out of shape, and a liar, but he seems to be malice and resentment-free; and those are not inconsiderable blessings. He mocks the so-called ‘kingly’ or ‘noble’ values in disdaining the notion of honor; the only time that he will deign to speak in the pompous, affected manner of the landed aristocracy and those who ascend to thrones is when he is role-playing. He understands that those who occupy such stations are engaged in a similar sort of acting and dissembling. He is artful and slippery; when caught in a lie, he quickly extracts himself from the social disaster that has resulted and quickly turns it to his advantage.

This sort of take on Falstaff’s character is not novel; germs of it appear in many assessments of one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. It should be evident though that these descriptions show that Falstaff also embodies many Nietzschean virtues: he does not seek to bring others down to his level but walks along his own chosen path; his qualities and traits might be out of sync with the surrounding normative order of appropriate speech and behavior, but Falstaff cares little for that; he has an acute understanding of his strengths and limitations and knows how to deploy them in a concerto of sorts so that he may ensure for himself the life he wants. Falstaff, in sum, even though appearing to be a ‘low-life’ in some respects is possessed of many ‘noble’ qualities; his character has its own distinctive ‘style‘ and it is his own ‘will to power‘ applied to the particulars of his life that has brought this style about. Falstaff’s presence in the ‘low scenes’ of the Shakespearean plays he appears in serve as an acute counterpoint to the values visible in the ‘high scenes’; thus through his actions and his words does he instantiate a peculiar and particular ‘inversion of values.’

Falstaff could be understood as a prophet heralding the presence of an alternative way of being, which could be ours if only we could shake off the encrusted weight of centuries of slavish obedience to inherited values. But we are bound too tightly to this mast; our socially constructed ambition drives us on. And so, like Hal, we must discard him, and bid him farewell. The time is not yet right for him. Perhaps it never will be.

Richard Ford On ‘Secular Redemption’

In his review of Richard Ford’Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascombe Book (Ecco, 2014) Michael Dirda quotes Ford as saying:

For me what we are charged to do as human beings is to make our lives and the lives of others liveable, as important, as charged as we possibly can. And so what I’d call secular redemption aims to make us, through the agency of affection, intimacy, closeness, complicity, feel like our time spent on earth is not wasted.

The end of a year–another one that rapidly accelerated, nay, hurtled, to its closing–is as good time as any to think about how the creation of value is supposed to make our brief span of existence ‘meaningful’ and thus not ‘wasted.’ (I suspect the sin of ‘wasting time’ was invented after timepieces were, but that reflection is for another, er, time.) The first part of what Ford supposes human beings are ‘charged’ with is familiar: ‘make our lives and the lives of others as liveable[sic], as important, as charged as we possibly can.’ (These values  raise familiar puzzles about their grounding and meaning.) The second part is more interesting.

Here, Ford invokes first, the agencies of ‘affection, intimacy, closeness’ and closes with ‘complicity.’ The first three are explicitly related to the ethics of love that are sometimes derived from the world’s great religious traditions. They suggest that our time on this planet is best spent loving and being loved; from those acts will follow all else. (If we are loved, we will be safe; if we feel safe, we will be not fearful or anxious; we will trust more and be more trustworthy; thus we will be less prone to hatred and distraction, ours, and that of others. And so on.) ‘Complicity’ has a slightly different flavor: we must collaborate. With others like us. On our life’s ‘projects’ and on theirs. Now, ‘complicit’ is usually used to indicate membership in a criminal conspiracy of some sort. What does its use here indicate?

I would venture that very often our life’s projects are ‘illegal’ in some sense or the other. They are not sanctioned; not approved; not permissible–custom, order, procedure, convention, norm, historical precedence must be violated. But we press on; we feel we can do no other. To do so we require collaborators; and the best place to find them is among those for whom we feel and experience and express the ‘affection, intimacy, closeness’ (and presumably trust) that Ford speaks of.

So the notion of secular redemption does two things here: it invokes a unavoidably groundless ethic of love (asking us perhaps to look at our most instinctual reactions of caring and wanting care), and then, in a more existential sense, as it commits us to projects uniquely and particularly of our own making, it also bids us ensure that we remember we cannot accomplish them alone. The only human essence here is one of love; all else remains to be determined. We make ourselves but with others.

Note: I have no idea what Richard Ford thinks ‘secular redemption’ means.

Constraints, Creativity, and Programming

Last year, in a post on Goethe and Nietzsche, which invoked the Freedom program (to cure Internet distraction), and which noted the role constraints played in artistic creation, I had referred obliquely to a chapter in my book Decoding Liberation, in which ‘Scott Dexter and I tried to develop a theory of aesthetics for software, a crucial role in which is played by the presence of technical constraints on programmers’ work.’

Today, I’d like to provide a brief excerpt from Chapter 3, ‘Free Software and the Aesthetics of Code’, pp. 90-91:

Understanding how a particularly ingenious piece of code confronts and subsequently masters constraints is crucial to understanding creativity and beauty in programming. Programmers have a deep sense of how their work is made more creative by the presence of the physical constraints of computing devices. Programmers who worked in the early era of computing struggled, in particular, to write code that would work in the tiny memory banks of the time — the onboard mission computer for the Apollo 11 project had a memory of 72 kilobytes, less than that found in today’s least-sophisticated cell phone. This struggle was reflected in the nature of the appreciation programmers accorded each other’s work. Steven Levy’s ethnography of the early programming culture, Hackers, describes the obsession with  “bumming” instructions from code:

A certain esthetic of programming style had emerged. Because of the limited  memory space of the TX-0 (a handicap that extended to all computers of that era), hackers came to deeply appreciate innovative techniques which allowed programs to do complicated tasks with very few instructions. . . . [S]ometimes when you didn’t need speed or space much, and you weren’t thinking about art and beauty, you’d hack together an ugly program, attacking the problem with “brute force” methods. . . . [O]ne could recognize elegant shortcuts to shave off an instruction or two, or, better yet, rethink the whole problem and devise a new algorithm which would save  a whole block of instructions. . . . [B]y approaching the problem from an off-beat angle that no one had thought of before but that in retrospect, made total sense. There was definitely an artistic impulse residing in those who could use this genius from Mars technique (Levy 1994).

These programmers experienced the relaxation of the constraint of system memory, brought on by advances in manufacturing techniques, as a loss of aesthetic pleasure. The relative abundance of storage and processing power has resulted in a new aesthetic category. One of the most damning aesthetic characterizations of software is “bloated,” that is, using many more instructions, and, hence, storage space, than necessary; laments about modern software often take the shape of complaints about its excessive memory consumption (Wirth 1995; Salkever 2003). Huge executables are disparaged as “bloatware,” not least because of the diminished ingenuity they reflect (Levy 1994). Judgments of elegant code reflect this concern with conciseness: “I worked with some great Forth hackers at the time, and it was truly amazing what could be accomplished with what today would be a laughingly tiny memory footprint” (Warsaw 1999).

The peculiar marriage of constraints, functionality, and aesthetic sensibility in source code highlights a parallel between programming and architecture. An awareness of gravity’s constraints is crucial in our aesthetic assessment of a building, as we assess its ability to master the weight of materials, to make different materials cohere. While striving to make the work visually pleasing, the architect is subject to the constraints of the requirements of the structure’s inhabitants, much as the programmer is subject to the constraints of design specifications, user requirements, and computing power.

Artists in other genres struggle similarly: creative artistic action is often a matter of finding local maxima of aesthetic value, subject to certain constraints (Gaut and Livingston 2003). These constraints may be imposed on the artist, as in censorship laws; they may be voluntarily assumed, as when a composer decides to write a piece in sonata form; or they may be invented by the artists themselves, as in Picasso and Braque’s invention of Cubism. Whatever the origin of the constraints, “creative action is governed by them,” and “artistically relevant goals,” such as the facilitation of   communication between artists and the public, are advanced by them (Elster 2000, 212). The connection between creativity and coping with constraints is explicit in programming: “It is possible to be creative in programming, and that deals with far more ill-defined questions, such as minimizing the amount of intermediate data required, or the amount of program storage, or the amount of execution time, and so on” (Mills 1983)….Thus, the act of programming, in its most creative moments, endeavors to meet constraints imposed by nature through the physicality of computation, by the users of the program and their desires for functionality and usability, and by the programming community through the development of shared standards.