Re: Universal ethics

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Thu Oct 28 2004 - 20:09:22 MDT

At 06:23 PM 10/28/2004 -0600, David Clark wrote:

>I am talking about strategies for arriving at objectives given a set
>of constraints. (This short desciption defines what a model can do.) This
>is why I believe that the inside, the base of AI will be in modeling.
>Modeling can bring together any useful input and depending on the model, you
>can see the intermediate results. This cannot be said for neural nets,
>agent systems, formal logic, expert systems etc.

Interestingly, and FWIW, this formed the basis of what sf writer Samuel R.
Delany called a `modular calculus' in a number of his deeply informed and
playful fictions. Here is an extract on the topic (using Delany's sf and
fantasy as the test bed, but that's not crucial) from my book READING BY
STARLIGHT (Chapter 10), for anyone who cares:


Beyond the play of unusual signifiers which index the virtual presence, and
so construct or constitute the actual presence, of new signifieds
articulated within new or renewed syntagms, Delany has recently focused on
the cultural schemata or scripts which underlie or imbricate those
inscribed discourses we `read' through our competency in cultural coding.
Delany's own fictive discourse has increasingly involved a paradoxical
search for rich (`valid') heuristic models of this kind which are
immediately subjected to ceaseless revision, inversion and deconstruction.

A Mirror for Observers

The isomorphic or homological image of `the real' within the frame of a
mirror, and the metaphorical `mirroring' of self in other, via projective
empathy and identification, has been the traditional figure for any
nearly-adequate model of one phenomenon by another. A mirror image, of
course, is never fully adequate, being always at least bilaterally
reversed. Yet this very figuration has been thoroughly assailed in recent
theory. Delany's most substantial fiction, four genre-shattering volumes of
poststructuralist `sword & sorcery', contains an epigraph from Rodolphe
Gasché's The Tain of the Mirror,[i] a formidable study that hangs its
critique of Derrida's philosophical novelties precisely on the image of the
mirror. The first book in the 1285-page sequence devotes many pages to an
exposition, by a Neolithic wise-woman named Venn, of the logical and
economic hazards of modular theory, using mirrors as the basis for her
reflections. The entire Nevčr˙on tetralogy (to date) is a generous,
self-subverting machine for modelling practically everything mundane and
contentious in our contemporary epistemic and social order, including AIDS,
semiotics, paraliteratures emphasising the object and, reflexively,
Delany's own struggles to perfect such a craft.
           The shorthand figure for this program, introduced by Delany in
his 1976 sf novel Triton and continued through other texts in a sort of
serious running gag, is `the modular calculus'. Modular here is simply the
adjective from model.
           Kathleen L. Spencer, in an exceptionally deft preliminary survey
of this beguiling notion, lays out the philosophical questions which
precede its invention:

           how do we construct models? Especially, how does language
function in the modelling process? How do the models adopted by individuals
or cultures shape their perceptions and responses? How can we determine the
relative coherence, accuracy, or appropriateness of competing models? To
what extent can a model actually succeed in mastering the thing it models?
All of these questions Delany has, as a writer of SF novels, raised in the
context of yet another: in what ways can fiction model the real world?[ii]

           One principal way, for Delany, is by refusing to respect
conventional limits between fiction and reflections on fiction. The modular
calculus - literally, a rigorous technique of modelling or simulation - is
advanced, exemplified, explored and undermined in a series of fictions,
parodies and theoretical ruminations, `Some Informal Remarks toward the
Modular Calculus'.[iii] It is itself a model of what the mechanism of
science fiction might be if sf were truly the bridge between science and
literature, a notional gadget for postulating the hidden works of a black
box which might hide the fundamental physical laws of the universe, or the
obscure heart of a suffering human being.

    Black Box and Finagle Factor

`Modular calculus': the very sound, bearing connotations of `modal
calculus' and other mysterious arcana, captures the cartoon-strip
pretentiousness of sf, where giving a crazy idea a fancy name is equivalent
to lending it reality. Scuffing his toe, Delany confesses as much:

           [It] began as a science fictional notion that turns out to be
somewhat related to the famous Finagle Factor (that illusory constant
sought by all researchers, by which the wrong answer is adjusted to get the
right one).[iv]

           Such wry candour does not last long. At once, Delany is
expounding Quine's `fitting' and `guiding' grammars, systems of (emic, or
empathetic) description and (etic, or detached) explanation respectively.

           The modular calculus is an [imaginary] algorithm or set of
algorithms... that can be applied to any fitting grammar to adjust it into
a guiding grammar.... In short, the problem of the modular calculus is: How
do we know when we have a model of a situation; and how do we know what
kind of model it is? (pp. 376-7)

           Rich descriptions, Delany states, approach functional or
explanatory force. In fact, many do not. One thinks of alchemy versus
chemistry in respect of their empirical and theoretical competence to
operate on the external world, outside of a closed textual system. One
thinks of psychoanalysis: compellingly ornate in its accounting procedures,
arguably irrelevant at any interesting explanatory level to the actual
`black box' it seeks to model and manipulate.[v] Delany knows how
implausible his `modular calculus' is, admitting that probably `such an
algorithm is a total fantasy' p. 376). Even so, in terms of sf at least, he
insists on this question:

           Might there be an [algorithmic procedure] that would tell us how
close or how far a given description is from explanation, or that would
tell us, from a given description, what kind of explanation may eventually
be possible from it , or where the description might be further enriched to
achieve explanation. For a limited set of situations, such algorithms might
be developed and generalized. (p. 377)

           What is the Nevčr˙on sequence a model of, with its playful,
blatantly fake-historical `reconstructions' of Neolithic city life, sexual
fetishism, revolt against slavery, ceaseless invention? Delany's answer
would not offend a Jameson in search of historicism:

           a model of late twentieth-century (mostly urban) America....
           What sort of relation does it bear to the thing modeled?
           Rich, eristic, and contestatory (as well as documentary), I
hope. (Idem)[vi]

           The sequence is an archive, then, which places itself under
scrutiny. By the nature of the problem it can hardly expect to escape its
epistemic bonds, but it may challenge them to the hilt (to conscript a
figure apt to sword & sorcery), using as its cutting instrument the conceit
of the modular calculus. A search of the greater archive which is Delany's
oeuvre to date reveals, interestingly, that he has not always viewed the
notion so blithely. In a somewhat rambling assemblage of journal notes
published in 1974/5, he declares with almost embarrassing fervour:

           The mistake at Tractatus 2.261 is heartrending:

                    There must be something identical in a picture and what
it depicts to enable the one to be a picture of the other at all.

           If for must be and identical he had substituted is obviously and
similar - and then taken up the monumental task of running these down to
their propositional atomization - he would have solved the problem of the
modular calculus (i.e., the critical problem).[vii]

           Wittgenstein's error, in short, was to search for essential
identity rather than reception-determined homology between `sets of
internal relations' (p. 52) in systems which were marked solely, on
Delany's proto-Saussurean structuralist understanding, by patterns of
difference. But these structural similarities are chosen from an indefinite
number of features by the observer. A model's validity is tested
pragmatically not ontologically, by `the use you are putting it to - the
context you are putting it into'. Its validity within a context may depend
on the model's internal structure, but whether it functions at all `has to
do with the structure of the context' (p. 57).

The Rudder of Language

A useful consequence of Delany's interdisciplinary interests, common to
most sf writers and many sf readers though far less common, perhaps, in
`literary' circles, is his early realisation that cognitive science had
already answered certain traditional philosophical puzzles. Empirical
evidence points

           to a revitalization of the concept of mental occurrences as
brain processes. [...I]t seems as silly to say that the brain contains no
model of what the eye sees... as it is to say that the circuitry of a TV
camera... contains no model of what is in front of the image orthicon tube.
... We can not only locate [`mental events'], we can measure them, map
them,... cut them out, and put them in backwards! (p. 49)[viii]
           Such models might be in the head, and stabilised, as Delany
would come to stress, by language,[ix] but they must be objective to be
useful: they must be self-critiquing (`Shadows', p. 68). When models are
constructed in a marketplace context of story-telling, especially the
science fictional variety, that set of contextual or reception constraints
tends, despite writer's and reader's best efforts, to stabilise aspects of
the text which each might wish to criticise. If sf is a kind of
rough-and-ready approximation to a modular calculus (of the object,
perhaps, rather than of the subject or, better, of the subject
interactively constituted with the object), must the story it tells us
about the hidden innards and workings of the black box (whatever it is)
inevitably `reinforce commonly accepted prejudices'? No, says Delany, but this

           is certainly an inherent tendency of the medium. To fight it,
and triumph over it, I must specifically go into the world I have set up
far more thoroughly..., and treat it autonomously rather than as merely a
model of a prejudiciary situation. I must explore it as an extensive,
coherent reality - not as an intensive reflection of the real world where
the most conservative ideas will drain all life out of the invention. (p. 41)

           So Delany's search is for an order of formal representation
which is neither wholly arbitrary in its coding, like the digital pits
burned into the surface of a compact disc that are related to acoustic
analog signals only via a complex transduction, nor `transparently'
isomorphic. In the words of his imaginary metalogician Ashima Slade,
Mars-born and repeatedly sex-changed inventor of the modular calculus,

           A modular description allows us reference routes back to the
elements in the situation which is being modeled. A nonmodular description
is nonmodular precisely because, complete or incomplete as it may be, it
destroys those reference routes: it is, in effect, a cipher.
           The problem that still remains... is the generation of formal
algorithms for distinguishing incoherent modular descriptive systems from
coherent [versions]. (Triton, p. 369)

     Writing in Phase Space

More than a decade later, Delany's ludic stipulations had a somewhat
different goal: a hyperspace or phase space of signification matrices
capable of modelling and permitting transcoding between all conceivable
subject positions and interactions. (This is my figure, not Delany's,
introduced in chapter 2, above.) Frye's and Todorov's generic ambitions
pale. Delany does not initially challenge the cultural parameters he
attempts to graph, because he asserts that some version of this grid
sustains `[a]ll novelistic narrative' (Flight From Nevčr˙on, p. 378). The

           must eventually specify every possible racial/ social/ age/
gender/ sexual type, all of which become ideally equal through their ideal
accessibility.... Like the novel itself, this chart has nothing to do with
the statistical prevalence of any one group in our society.... Next, we
must consider a set of novelistic relations: Friendship; sexual love;
enmity; economic antagonism; religious approval; etc.... Given any two
characters, in any relation, that relation must be seen as having the
potential to change into any other. (pp. 378-9)[x]

           Placed against this vast virtual combinatoire, any given fiction
reveals what it excludes. A random sampling of any culture's texts will
provide a telling display in phase space of its ideological contours. But
Delany proposes this thought-experiment under a more generous impulse than
doctrinal self-criticism:

           This grid is what allows us to ask of any fiction: precisely
what does it have to say in excess of its ideological reduction... and the
subsequent revelation of vast and overdetermined elements? The
deconstructionists have led off this set of new readings most energetically
by asking of certain texts: "What do they have to say that specifically
undermines and subverts their own ideological array?"[xi]

           Wryly, Delany adds that `we must remember that there are still
going to be many texts for which we can expect the answer: "Not much".' In
his `K. Leslie Steiner' persona, Delany defines deconstruction thus: `an
analysis of possible (as opposed to impossible) meanings that subvert any
illusions we have of becoming true masters over a given text',[xii] a not
wholly disseminative definition that attempts to sidestep well-founded
strictures against deconstruction. Of course, possible/ impossible, in this
context, is itself a binary opposition which deconstructors would find a
suitable case for treatment. `Steiner' identifies a necessary
auto-deconstruction of Delany's regnant narrative voice in the Return To
Nevčr˙on sequence - `benevolent, oppressive, insistent' (p. 304)[xiii] -
between the Master's (Marxist) claim that history `is intellectually
negotiable' and can be changed for the better, and his contrary (Hegelian)
`lie' that history is fixed and normative. `Steiner' comments:

           Because it always bears that double message, that voice has
value only in a dialectical, if not dialogic, process.... But if we cannot
silence the lie completely - for it is too intimately bound up with
experience, language, and desire - at least the writer can worry over how
to articulate the truth of that voice; and can try to write up the lie for
what it is.
           The recourse here is always to form. (Idem)

           One of Delany's self-interrogative devices, used increasingly
through Return To Nevčr˙on, is the delightful if fey running exchange
between K. L. Steiner, a mathematician specialising in `Naming, Listing,
and Counting Theory'[xiv] (a version, it seems, of the modular calculus),
and the gay but conservative archaeologist S. L. Kermit; like the initials
of their names, their positions mirror each other in reverse. Putting
forward every objection likely to occur to the sceptic, Kermit complains:
`even in terms of his own allegory, just look at what he's done.
[...S]lowly and inexorably the Discourse of the Master displaces everyone
else's... for all his marginal numbers, his Benjaminesque montage, or his
Bakhtinian polylogue, or whatever, there's not a new - much less radical -
thing in it.... "Allegoresis", my ass!'[xv] Steiner's defence is that `It's
just fun - to sort of play with in your mind', and that perhaps Delany's
allegory is of a feeling rather than of a political situation in this long
AIDS-echoing `Tale of Plagues and Carnivals' (pp. 330, 333). Ultimately the
burden is placed back with the reader, where Delany would claim it has
always rested:

           And as far as the allegory, well... you have to read the textual
shape as just the kind of conservative reification you do, but at the same
time opposing it with a vigorous deconstruction.... (p. 328)

           This is also the task Delany charges his new readers with when
they turn back to his early books. If these texts retain interest two
decades on, he tells them,

           it is where, in terms of the old stories, they fight with
themselves, where they come up against the contradictions, where they stall
at some moment of metaphor or within some narrative aporia or allegorical
ambiguity - where, as science fiction, the world of the story organizes
itself in some way in which the fictive subject becomes, momentarily,
elusively objective.[xvi]

           And it is in precisely this self-reflexive distancing, I would
argue, that at last we are sure how appropriate it is to read Delany's
fictions as allegories of their own production and consumption.

Conceptual Breakthrough

This may be extended to all sf texts, even that huge majority `in a
commercially fixed form the writers themselves would be the first to admit
was dead from the outset'.[xvii] It is a strategy which in turn allegorises
the historically specific experience of industrial/postindustrial epistemic
crisis. That experience - however clouded, resisted, impalpable to the
`common-sense' of a majority of subjects - is the defining characteristic
of our century. At the expressly cognitive level, it is a function of what
Peter Nicholls terms `conceptual breakthrough', the very hallmark of sf:

           The quest for knowledge remains sf's central vision.... Of all
the forms [it] takes in modern sf, by far the most important, in terms of
both the quality and the quantity of the work that dramatizes it, is
conceptual breakthrough. [Samuel Johnson's Rasselas] - which recognises
that even though the new world-picture may be uglier than the old we need
to know about it - captures exactly the accepting tone which was to
permeate so much sf [...which] is pre-eminently the literature of the
intellectually dissatisfied, the discontented, those who need to feel there
must be more to life than this, and therein lies its maturity, which by a
paradox can be seen as a perpetual adolescent yearning.[xviii]

           Like the Elizabethans, we are notoriously in the centre of a
change from one episteme to another, or so it is argued by observers as
various as Foucault, Jameson and Prigogine. If this much is granted,
nonetheless its details are hidden from us, by the very nature of the
crisis. It is an affliction of our cognitive (I do not exclude ideological
and affective) strategies. Delany draws a similar comparison with the
native reception of Shakespeare's Tempest:

           [C]ontemporary play-goers who did not `believe' in the roundness
of the Earth... and had no feeling for the new distinctions between
fantasy/ magic/ reality/ science that were then being etched on the modern
English-speaking consciousness [...would be] totally at sea. They would
simply not be able to make the storm-tossed landing on that tropical
island, nor read properly the emblems of what is real and what is not and
the dialogue between them which are the structure, significance, and charm
of the play. It is not that they would miss the surface plot: they would
miss the sub-text which gives the surface plot its reason for being what it

           Without denying the real, the referent which kicks back, one can
agree with Delany that fiction within today's played-out but persistent
episteme `begins as a response to an industrial phenomenon.' Mechanical and
electronic reduplication, as semioticians have told us for decades,
drenches the world in signs. Even for the classic bourgeois novelist

           to describe an object was to generate a web of commentary... on
the politics, economics, and religion of both the material and the fictive
           The entire visible surface of every urban landscape..., as well
as ninety-nine per cent of the visible surface of every human being in it,
is constituted of signs of specifically human actions [and histories],
ordered in informative, syntactic relations.... Nature, or the study of
nature, as soon as we turn to a book to help us pursue it, is absorbed in
the implied discourse of human technology. (pp. 21-2)

           Delany's complaint with modern canonical literature is its
epistemic inertia. While the complaint is largely justified, of course this
does not, by some automatic corollary, validate science fiction as the
alternative of choice:

           What makes modern fiction so uninteresting is that the causality
and analysis implied... is demonstrably not the matrix... the writers
themselves could possibly believe in. We are at a point in history where
the basic models proposed by the objective discourse of sociology and
psychology - even in their most vulgarized, cocktail party version - are
more accurate and interesting than the basic models that underlie the most
`serious' novels. (p. 34)[xx]

           That modular calculus instantiated in `literature', in short, is
giving inadequate answers. The fictive models it yields fail to project
`rich' or `oppositional' shadows[xxi] over the signification spaces we
inhabit like half-formed ghosts from Lobey's world of The Einstein
Intersection, trapped in an epistemic labyrinth which lends our path shape
even as it restricts, labels and even brutalises our possibilities. The
question remains whether science fiction does offer more plenteous
options,[xxii] or whether it is finally locked into the most miserable role
available to any writing practice: narcotising the dissatisfied. Positioned
somewhere between contested genre formulae and the postmodern, novels such
as Triton, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand and the Return To
Nevčr˙on sequence suggest that, however despicable by properly literary
standards sf's tropes and concerns are bound to remain, it escapes the twin
temptations, so rarely refused, of current `serious' fiction: sensitive
benediction of the quotidian, hieratic bliss of intertextual self-approval.

[i].Samuel R. Delany, `The Tale of Rumor and Desire', in The Bridge of Lost
Desire, Arbor House, 1987, p. 138.
[ii].Kathleen L. Spencer, `Deconstructing Tales of Nevčr˙on: Delany,
Derrida, and the "Modular Calculus, Parts I-IV"', typescript, Department of
English, UCLA, no date (but pre-1985), p. 2. Notably, Spencer offers an
account of Delany's late work as allegory of reading drawn explicitly from
de Man.
[iii].These comprise: as Part One, the entire novel Triton, Bantam, 1976,
and Part Two, its Appendix, p. 344; Part Three is the playful Appendix to
Tales of Nevčr˙on, Bantam, 1979, p. 247; Part Four is the entire novel
Neveryóna, or the Tale of Signs and Cities, Bantam, 1983, though not its
Appendices; Part Four is `Appendix A: The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals' (a
complex meditation on the AIDS plague and how to write about it), pp.
173-353 of Flight from Nevčr˙on, Bantam, 1985. It does not include the
`Appendix: Return... A Preface', by `K. Leslie Steiner', a Delany
alter-ego, which concludes the latest (last?) volume, The Bridge of Lost
Desire, Arbor House, 1987, p. 297; this offers some useful if immodest
hints on how to read `Delany's mega-fantasy, ... a fascinating fiction of
ideas, a narrative hall of mirrors, an intricate argument about power,
sexuality, and narration itself' (Ibid., p. 302). Certain other Appendices
in these books, as Delany remarks in Appendix B of the third volume (p.
381-2) are, suitably, of undecidable status (like those very remarks).
[iv].Flight from Nevčr˙on, p. 375.
[v].Delany disagrees: `The Nevčr˙on series takes place at the edge of the
shadow of the late French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan', though he objects to
an essentialising tendency in Freud. In `vulgar Freudianism', he notes,
`metonymies are interpreted as metaphors for their originary terms and
situations. The valid Freudian enterprise is rather to discern the several
social and psychological systems (clearly distinguishing which is which) by
which metonymies exfoliate. [...I]t is precisely within social
sedimentation that these battles must be fought' (Ibid. pp. 359, 361, 365).
[vi].I doubt that Delany really sees his work as `eristic' - that is, aimed
at rhetorical victory rather than truth - although that is a fashionable
way to construe the relativist ascendancy in his favoured theories.
[vii].Section 25, `Shadows', in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, pp. 51-2.
[viii].Delany cites his own observation of Vikki Sperling's mapping of a
salamander retina image from its visual tectum; personal encounter with the
scientifically-mediated real had changed Delany's philosophical signifieds
in a drastic fashion.
[ix].Flight From Nevčr˙on, p. 362: `Language is first and foremost a
stabilizer of behavior, thought, and feeling, of human responses and
reactions .... Its aid in intellectual analysis and communication are (one)
secondary and (two) wholly entailed .... When the world is projected
through the hierarchical oppositions available to the sensory and sensual
body ... it produces a spectacularly unstable text ....'
[x].This notional chart brings to mind the useful questions which underlie
a complex fiction, as Delany understood when he was only 17: how does each
character react alone or in a group by reference to such crucial
commonplaces as food, sleep, money and social status (see `Characters', in
The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, p. 158. His own sf is notable for dramatising
character within a full matrix of social factors.
[xi].This and the following citation from ibid., p. 380.
[xii].The Bridge of Lost Desire, p. 302.
[xiii].John Clute, as noted previously, is less kind to late Delany's
typical narrative presence, while Patrick Neilsen Hayden, in Gunn's New
Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, calls the auctorial voice `authoritative,
good-humored (even fey), and ornate' (p. 124).
[xiv].Described (somewhat hazily) in the Appendix to Tales of Nevčr˙on, pp.
256-8: its `third level order', nicknamed `language', is `a non-commutative
substitution matrix', which is a set of rules `that allows unidirectional
substitutions of listable subsets of a collection of names'; `these rules
will sometimes make complete loops of substitution. Such a loop will be
called, by N/L/C/ theoreticians, a "discourse"' (p. 257). Applying it to
the uninterpretable `Missolonghi Codex', `Steiner has been able to offer a
number of highly probable (and in some cases highly imaginative) revisions
of existing translations based on the theoretical mechanics of various
discursive loopings' (p. 258). This sounds like an unholy cross between
information theory decipherment and `nothing outside the text' deconstruction.
[xv].Flight From Nevčr˙on, pp. 326, 327, 333.
[xvi].Samuel R. Delany, `Forward to an Afterword', The Complete Nebula
Award-Winning Fiction, Bantam Spectra, 1986, pp. 406-7.
[xvii].Samuel R. Delany, `Of Sex, Objects, Signs, Systems, Sales, SF, and
Other Things', Australian Science Fiction Review, Second Series, Vol. 2,
No. 2, March, 1987, p. 11. This long, pivotal meditation was written in
1975 for a fanzine which failed before publication. It remains
extraordinarily interesting, especially its abstemious remarks toward a
reading of Dhalgren.
[xviii].Peter Nicholls, `Conceptual Breakthrough', in Nicholls et. al, pp.
[xix].`Of Sex, Objects, Signs [etc]', pp. 17-8.
[xx].His examples are Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates.
[xxi].I play here on Delany's dictum: `Science fiction is a way of casting
a language shadow over coherent areas of imaginative space that would
otherwise be largely inaccessible' (`Shadows', p. 118).
[xxii].Stars in My Pocket, as we shall see, is above all a rigorous (and
wistful) review, on thematic, dramatistic and linguistic-textual levels, of
the cultural and individual need for, and the endlessly inevitable failure
to find, just such a calculus.

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