Tuesday, 18 January 2011


“Here the chaos sang songs of pure reason and reserve [...]”
(Feersum Endjinn, 260)

A Review-Essay of Lucifer's Dragon, Feersum Endjinn & Use of Weapons

Part 2: Office / Politics

In the last post, I talked a bit about Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Lucifer’s Dragon, how awesome it was, how sexist it was, and how it demonstrated a lack of awareness of chaoplexity at various levels. I finished by talking about how easy it is to help oneself to the language of chaoplexity, without engaging too seriously with its ideas (see note 1). In this post, I’m going to talk about science fiction, chaoplexity and the founding of republics.

Now, it came as a bit of a shock when I was gutted by a katGirl. But not nearly so shocking as when Lucifer’s Dragon suddenly wraps up, zing! – leaving more than a few questions unanswered. Suddenly subtext has to work overtime. You hear it buzz and whirr, trying to achieve cyberpunk’s indigenous sensawunda: that mute jerk of the head towards something sublime yet grungy, something transcendentally overwhelming yet goobery.

I’m thinking, for example, of the mood at the end of William Gibson’s Virtual Light and All Tomorrow’s Parties – expectant, thrilled, melancholy. Cf. Afrosheen on a forum: “Gibson never follows up on crazy shit that happened of the end of the last book. It just happened and has no bearing on the future, even if it has the potential to render the world as we know it completely different.” Decathection in metamorphosis. Specifically:

“Then again, if Paco could be Doge, anyone could be anything.
Though what Paco was these days was anyone’s guess. A god, maybe, except Angeli didn’t believe in gods. Some things made sense, most didn’t. One that did was that Lucifer’s Dragon was more than a game, it was the JCIT deck’s continuous training program. One that didn’t, concerned what the Dragon was to Paco, and Paco to the Dragon But that question the new Doge wouldn’t even begin to answer.” (366-7)
Some things made sense, most didn’t? Hmm. It’s a bit as if Poirot gathers everyone together in the library and says: “Look, she did it. You do the math.” Well, Lara did the math, and in Lucifer’s Dragon, the devil did it. Dut dut dah!

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” the epigraph runs. Other than the epigraph, the title, a few dust devils, and the networked arcade game Lucifer’s Dragon, there is no sign of him. Who is the devil, His Most Royal Lowness, the Anarch Old, in Grimwood’s novel? As I grok it, the devil is the constitution of neoVenice itself. Dut dut dut dut dah daaah! Daa-aah!

Erm, I use the word “constitution” in a pretty broad sense. A constitution is the political essence of a polity, perhaps the socio-political essence as well (see note 2). A constitution can include über-canonical legislative documents such as the US Constitution, but it can also include pretty much anything – statutes, institutions, judicial decisions, practices and principles, conventions, norms, mores, narratives, details.

Could it even include lumps of matter? It all depends who you talk to. If you are slightly anachronistic, and talk to Aristotle (384-322), you’ll certainly find him going on about geographical stuff in chapters devoted to the comparative study of constitutions (although maybe in a “side bar” way). If you talk to Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), he will include geographical factors as he describes how America, despite its lack of traditional intermediary dependent powers, managed to more-or-less synthesise democracy and liberty. So geographical factors are potentially constitutional features; you could look at them that way.

Similarly, if you are very cutting edge and you talk to Sam Walton (1985 CE-the present), she will purr like a velociraptor and hold up her paper, “The Architecture of La Serenissima: Space and Power in The Palazzo Ducale”, which describes how Venice’s constitution incorporated the architecture of its most important state building:
“[...] the openness of the ground and ‘loggia’ floors, which provided access to various administrative offices, is clearly visible [...] Republican values defined politics as a pubic affair, and so the open and accessible space of the Palazzo Ducale permitted interactions between the estates, making legible statements, even to the illiterate populace, about the ordinary citizen’s relationship with their governors [...]” (p. 23). (See note 3).
I think in neoVenice’s case, the constitution/devil definitely includes physical arrangements which are geographical, architectural and technoscientific. The Dragon seems to be its most important ingredient (indeed, within Christian semiotics the Devil and the Dragon are often one and the same). It also incorporates the uploaded intelligence of at least one of neoVenice’s founders, the pity-prozzie Sasumi, who goes a bit Rain Deity. Probably a pinch of Passion di Orchi a.k.a. Santa Passionata in there too. The Doge, a kid more-or-less locked up with the Dragon all day, is obscurely significant – perhaps less in his own right, than as a kind of idiot savant receptacle, a pestle and mortar for everything garnered from neoVenice’s Dragon gamers in their Segasim booths.

Now if I’ve got this right, the constitution/devil bewitches Lieutenant Chang Mao by flashing him a sigil a la Stephenson’s Snow Crash, causing the death of Aurelio, and setting in motion the whole extraordinary series of events, which culminate in a radical transformation of neoVenice’s power structure. The constitution/devil’s “motive,” presumably, is that neoVenice’s corrupt ruling class – at least, a separatist inclination within it – has come to threaten the republic’s stability. (Scenario B, whereby Chang Mao is Count Ryuchi’s instrument, is less appealing to me for reasons I’m not going to get into).

So what we witness throughout the narrative is the almost ethereally efficient action of neoVenice’s constitution in preserving itself. In so doing it exemplifies many resources of the republican tradition.

Republicanism is an extremely difficult idea to pin down. It has nothing, so far as I can see, to do with the modern American GOP. It has something to do with freedom. Definitely freedom from tyrants, also sometimes (cf. Constant and Madison) from the tyranny of the majority.

It also has quite a lot to do with longevity. Venice has a terribly good innings! (See note 4). The elixir which many republican theorists for long-lasting rude health includes a mixed government, an ever-shifting balance of power, and intricate – even secretive – but nevertheless flexible political institutions. Venice certainly had these:
“[...] it was almost impossible to locate the source or centre of power, which was always distributed among overlapping governmental bodies. Was it the doge or the senate? Did it reside in the council of ten or in the great council?” (Ackroyd 2009: 323).
I suspect that longevity is also closely connected with another republican theme, civic virtue (something to do with the way continuity is established more effectively by nebulous cultural and “lifeworld” inheritance, than by laws and institutions handed down like heirlooms. See note 5).

In neoVenice, the devil/constitution is not just secretive and complicated; it is secretive and chaoplexic. The devil is in the details. In the Bible and its orthodox spin-offs the devil always loses. In neoVenice the devil, in his aspect as the Dragon, always beats the arch-angel in the end. The various and perpetually corruptible authority which the arch-angel represents is subjected to the perpetual vigilance of the ultimate bad-assed anti-authoritarian.

Let’s take a step back from Lucifer’s Dragon.

Utopian alternatives to liberal democracy are nowadays disqualified less by contradictions within any specific utopia, than by the dystopias to which it is supposed all utopias will inevitably corrupt. The French Revolution begat the Terror, the October Revolution, the purges. Yadayadayada. Somewhere in Nazism there was a utopian itch. Great job.

Friedrich Hayek offered a compelling formalisation of this kind of corruption in his 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom. Command economies, he argued, lead inevitably to totalitarianism. Fighting their losing battle to allocate resources efficiently, they seek more and more information, and interfere more and more in their citizens’ lives. “It is now often said that democracy will not tolerate ‘capitalism.’ If ‘capitalism’ means here a competitive system based on free disposal over private property, it is far more important to realize that only within this system is democracy possible. When it becomes dominated by a collectivist creed, democracy will inevitably destroy itself” (1944 /1976, pp. 69-70; cf. 1939 / 1997, pp. 205-06).

Winston Churchill’s gibe that democracy is the worst of all possible systems, except all the others, has a similar savour. Like it or not, we’re stuck where we are. This is the comparatively verdant plateau which we have reached and where we must now squat, since the ground under superficially more appealing spots always turns out treacherous, unstable, disintegrating to rockfalls into deep chasms.

Yet in the second half of the twentieth century, as our mathematical and empirical investigations into the natural world have birthed the ensemble of concepts around chaoplexity, this de dicto case against utopia has grown less and less convincing.

Czesław Mesjasz, writing in the context of peace studies, states:
“[...] with the development of systems thinking we are becoming more and more convinced that, in natural and social systems, random, decentralized processes of self-ordering occupy a key position. Also, earlier tendencies of ‘social engineering’ aiming at improving any centralized management of processes in societal systems now seem less feasible. The potential consequences of such conclusions for science, practice and society cannot be underestimated: for the first time ever, ‘hard’ scientific theories stemming from ‘soft’ systems thinking might indeed corroborate, deny, or at least shake a number of economic and political principles.” (“Applications of Systems Modelling in Peace Research” (1998), pp. 323-4).
Could it be that the corruption of utopian projects into devastation and atrocity is not attributable to the forsaking of liberal democracy per se, but to the naive rigidity of the alternatives which have been imposed? Are there potential forms of self-organisation which rank alongside liberal democracy in respect of their flexibility and durability, but which are not contaminated as it is by the danger and unhappiness which we have come to think of as inevitable and necessary?

Check out J. B. Ruhl (and note 1, if you didn’t see it on the way in). Ruhl, discussing the relationship of law and society, writes that “optimal system adaptability occurs in the region called complexity. Too many fixed point and limit cycle attractors drag the system into stasis. Too many strange attractors drag the system into chaos. Just the right blend of attractors keeps the system ‘on the edge’ of chaos, capable of sustaining the surprises produced by chaos, emergence, and catastrophe as well as by the happenstance of forces external to the system.”

Now check out Iain M. Banks’s 1994 novel, Feersum Endjinn. In Feersum Endjinn, as in Lucifer’s Dragon, a cataclysm looms and an ancient technology sets about to deflect it. As in Lucifer’s Dragon, the polity entirely replaces its state apparatus in order to preserve itself. As in Lucifer’s Dragon, there is an emphasis on corruption and chaos, and the chaos is revealed to be nebulously involved with the polity’s self-preservation:
“The big bird shayks its wings impayshintly. The emisary, it sez, is kold an asoora & it is from 1 ov thi few parts ov thi kript whitch haz not bin tutched by thi kaos. It carrys within it thi meens ov our salvashin, but its mishin is in jeperdy; the state oposes it 2 bcoz thi fulfilment ov its mishin wude – conseevibly – meen thi end ov thi presint power structyoor.” (225-6)
As my friend Posie Rider likes to remind me, it is still the 1990s. In books like Lucifer’s Dragon and Feersum Endjinn, science fiction has begun to imagine what I’ll call “the chaoplexic republic” – a polity which hovers transformatively on the edge of chaos. Chaoplexic republics have learning and transformation built into their constitutional designs. Periodic decontamination occurs not on a homeostatic model, as the preservation of equilibrium via negative feedback loops. It happens within a chaoplexic model, as sporadic system-wide transformations in which power is re-scattered into radically new constellations. Indeed, tendencies which threatened the stability of the system may be amplified within the new arrangements.

Corruption exists in two important places in Feersum Endjinn. The Court is one area of corruption. Even the designer monarch, Adijine, is capable of making cause against his polity’s best interests. What we learn of Adijine early on has a kind of simpering, voluptuous, burnished quality. He feels, despite the explicit insistence on his superlative aptness, rather undependable:
“Adijine admired himself for a while longer. He had been bred to be King; not in the ancients’ crude hit-or-miss interpretation of the words but in the literal sense that the crypt had designed him; given him the aspect, bearing and character of a natural ruler before he’d even been born, selecting his physical and mental attributes from a variety of sources to make him handsome, attractive, charming, gracious and wise, balancing wit against gravitas, human understanding against moral scrupulousness and a love of the finer things in life against an urge towards simplicity. He inspired loyalty, was difficult to hate, brought out the best in men and women and had great but not total power which he had the sense and modesty to use sparingly but authoritatively. Not for the first time, he Adijine thought what a damn fine figure of a man he was. / / He looked like an absolute ruler, even though he wasn’t; he shared his power with the twelve representatives of the Consistory. They were his advisers, or better, his board; he was managing director. He controlled the physical realm of the structure through the other clans, the personal loyalty he commanded from the masses, and the Security services (now including the newly formed Army), while the men and women of the Consistory spoke for the crypt itself and the élite body of Cryptographers who formed the interface between the data corpus and humanity. It was a nicely balanced arrangement, as was proven by the fact it had existed for multi-generations of monarchs. Nothing had disturbed the calm face of old Earth for millennia until that Nessian cloak of darkness had started to stain the heavens” (68).
More on this “crypt” shenanishizzle in a minute. The language of the Court, and its Security operatives, tends to be homeostatic rather than chaoplexic, in the sense that it focuses on the detection and neutralisation of glitches:
“‘And you were fighting – let me get this clear – birds?’

‘Chimeric lammergeiers, sir. The sub-species believed responsible for and certainly associated with some of the Cryptospheric anomalies over the last few days. A number of them were successfully eliminated’” (263-4).
The status quo which they safeguard, however, cannot be the setting for future human flourishing, only the final chapter in a long decline:
“All that they and their ancestors had known [thought Oncaterius] throughout the monotonous millennia of the past since the Diaspora had been a kind of elegant death, an automaton’s graceful impersonation of life; the surface without the substance. Well, it was going now. The arc of humanity’s purpose – that is, real humanity, the part that had chosen to stay true to the past and what it meant – was finally drawing itself back into the shade after whole long troubled ages spent in the vexatious light of day” (p. 149).
So Adijine, Oncaterius and other members of the Court pursue an ecologically disastrous war, in the vague expectation they may save their own skins from an even bigger ecological catastrophe (“the Encroachment”). Instruments which might preserve the wider polity are ignored, and of course the people are kept in the dark about it all. The elite act mercilessly and murderously to eliminate challengers and whistleblowers (e.g. Sessine’s opposition, Gadfium’s conspiracy, the Asura), whilst wearing a look of lethargic defeatism (see note 6).

The second area of corruption is the Cryptosphere.
“Security’s quasi-official leak/rumour that any asuras would actually be agents of the crypt’s chaotic levels sent with the purpose of infecting the properly functioning Cryptosphere seemed to be meeting with a mixed reception; however, enough people/entities appeared to believe it for an atmosphere of satisfyingly useful paranoia to have settled over at least some sections of the data corpus” (150).
I must say I got a bit dappy re the difference, if any, between the Cryptosphere, the crypt, the data corpus, and one or two other things. I’ll assume they’re the same thing and just say “the crypt.” The crypt acts basically like your standard cyberpunk Internet. It’s a vast hoard of information, structured like a world, traversed and tinkered with by personalities.

The corruption or “chaos” in the crypt is the premise of the book’s major emissary quest is built. The “asura,” called Asura, is a construct from an uncontaminated subsystem who must physically travel to another uncontaminated subsystem, to set in motion some kind of salvation mechanism.

This chaos, we initially suppose, is a kind of exaggerated analogue of everyday Internet nuisances: viruses, malware, spyware, worms, spam, malicious bots, scraper sites; but just as the crypt is much more than the Internet, so their power and malevolence are expanded in the same ratio. Though it turns out we’re not quite right:
“Asoora sez thi hoal naytchir ov thi kaos may b abowt 2 chainje soon nway, or @ leest thi way we luke @ it mai b abowt 2t chainje, witch wude amownt 2 thi saim thing. Furst we got 2 stop fitein it tho” (277).
In line with the principle of a chaoplexic republic, the chaos turns out to hold the resources for necessary future organisation. “Decontamination” with respect to the crypt, therefore, involves not the elimination of corruption but the reclassification of the impurity, and its empowerment.

Is Feersum Endjinn cyberpunk? I don’t want to be too OCD over genre boundaries, but no, not really. Iain M. Banks and other contemporary space opera singers sometimes get called “post-cyberpunk” because they include stuff like cyborgs, nanotech, AI, and VR. That’s all fine and well, and we’re roughly in space opera territory with Feersum Endjinn, even if it is all more-or-less set on Earth.

There is also a more specific kind of reliance on certain achievements of cyberpunk. One thing which Gibson and others did well was the dramatisation of digitized information. Even if you do quite like observing geeky boys, hacking can make a pretty dull spectator sport. Gibson and others got around this by throwing some VR tech into the mix. In a novel like Feersum Endjinn, you get the feeling that the costumes have taken over the play. If you are literate in science fiction, you are accustomed to the idea that information and its interactions can be represented in many forms, maybe any forms; you are accustomed to the hypothesis that organic intelligence can be digitised (see note 7).

Feersum Endjinn doesn’t hang around trying to convince you of any of this. It skips right to the spectacle. That spectacle is predominantly gothic, or more precisely, it’s predominantly a passionate and ridiculous retro-medievalism. A king, a vast snow-rimed castle, talking beasts, a parliament of crows, a stone circle, monks, ghosts, ravines of conifers and shadows, eschatology. There’s even a princess up a tower, though with shades of Shrek.

This nominal princess, Asura, has the ol’ “incredibly hot and kickass heroine” modality in common with Passion di Orchi, and both characters also put out that goddess-in-the-machine vibe that’s discernible on the final page of William Gibson’s Idoru (and probably presaged by every sexy lady ship’s computer since sexy lady ship’s computers began). But somehow Asura is my kind of gal, Passion not so much. Maybe it’s the way Asura’s kickass-ness is entwined with unexpected behaviour. Here’s someone who’d violate gender norms as a matter of tactical principle.

I’m going to return to Asura briefly but significantly in the next post. For now, it’s enough to note that Asura and Passion have in common the function of the partial personification of those chaoplexic processes by which their respective polities emerge renewed from corruption. “[...] part of what I am was once like these people, and part has travelled the crypt and part has swum within the chaos [...]” (268).

I say “partial” because in each case there are also teasing suggestions of technological synthesis of many minds. It’s definitely around in the world of Feersum Endjinn:
“‘Oh, call me Alan,’ his younger self said. ‘I’m only an abbreviated version of who you are now, though I’ve developed on my own in here.’” (104)

“Another Gadfium awoke, looking out through the eyes of the original. This must be a bit how old Austermise feels, they both thought, and experienced the other’s thoughts as an echo.” (156)
In Lucifer’s Dragon it’s, you know, Passion, Sasumi, Doge, Anne, Timmy.

“For the beginning, because it contains its own principle, is also a god who, as long as he dwells among men, as long as he inspires their deeds, saves everything” (H. Arendt, paraphrasing Plato somewhere). Inasmuch as the chaoplexic republic is personified as a benign spirit, I think we are falling into a ha-ha around the contemporary utopian imagination. We are failing to unlock everything chaoplexity could tell us about utopia.

It is as though the only way to link the trans-epoch agency implicit in constitutional craftsmanship with the counter-intuitive behaviour of a chaoplexic republic is to fuse the two, to make the lawgiver and the spirit of the laws one and the same. The person who sets the polity in motion also benignly and discretely superintends.

The problematisation of such personifications by dodgy poly-mind grafting stuff insinuates that it is a consolation prize. It is a moment of compromise, of re-enchantment, a fanciful daydream, a malfunction of the true imaginative faculty.

In the next post, I’ll be taking that imaginative faculty to pieces, whilst looking at another book by Iain M. Banks. The polities of Lucifer’s Dragon and Feersum Endjinn, though they may be chaoplexic republics, and have their other plus points, are not exactly utopian.

The same cannot be said of the Culture.

Note 1: Another specimen for y’all. J. B. Ruhl, “Complexity Theory as a Paradigm for the Dynamical Law-and-Society System: A Wake-Up Call for Legal Reductionism and the Modern Administrative State.” The centrality of chaotics to Ruhl’s analysis is seldom very convincing: often where he says “emergent” he could easily have said “unexpected, but in retrospect totally obvious” – emergent behaviour is not obvious in retrospect! Ruhl implies as much, of course, in his critique of legal reductionism.

Chaotics-as-garnish is obvious in Ruhl’s discussion of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act: “[CERCLA] initiated a catastrophe shift in the dynamical systems sense, not to mention in the more familiar sense to many people [...] The history of environmental law preceding CERCLA had moved through incremental additions of regulatory pollution control statutes [...] The perception that this line of attack – this trajectory – was not adequately responding to the problem of abandoned waste sites led Congress to take a new approach in CERCLA [...] and environmental law has not been the same since. In one fell swoop, CERCLA introduced principles of strict, retroactive, joint and several, and generally unforgiving liability throughout a vast universe of regulated entities – many of whom, by all reasonable interpretations, had never before been even near the environmental liability target zone” (Ruhl 880). For Ruhl’s chaoplexity analogy to hold, the incremental regulatory additions would have to initiate CERCLA, which would constitute the catastrophe. When he talks instead about CERCLA initiating a catastrophe, this looks like is an outside intervention, not the deterministic unpredictability of a nonlinear system.

Burke and Lindbolm, going to the Incrementalists Prom with their chaotics corsages on. Ooh, look at you. Fancy. Before they go, Ruhl has a few words of advice: “environmental law will forever mark CERCLA as a discontinuity shift in which the whole system moved through some kind of warp field to a completely new location [...] Regardless of what one thinks about CERCLA’s merit and performance, an entirely different question is whether you believe the possibility of another event like CERCLA taking place would be the mark of a desirable law-and-society system” (881).

He soon goes on to discuss chaos manifesting “in environmental law in the many examples in which Congress has provided ostensibly simple rules for exercise of [sic] administrative authorities, and the agencies have produced highly complicated, random-looking results” (881). I expected Ruhl’s point here to be a subtle and disheartening one: that the simplification of an administrative or bureaucratic procedure sometimes counterintuitively produces less intelligible results. Shnipping red tape becomes a bit like shnipping the wire in an IED. Where to shnip? To be fair, he soon says something of that kind: “Congress might have provided a more ‘complicated’ legislative directive that, in a more controlled, simplified administrative setting, could have produced more simple, comprehensible implementation regulations [...] [focused] on simplifying the system dynamics, not necessarily just the system rules” (888-9). But his priority is to trot out a fairly conventional plaint, all about the arcane pronouncement of faceless bureaucrats: “Congress defined solid waste in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to include ‘discarded material,’ [...] but the EPA has taken over two pages of the Code of Federal Regulations, [...] scores of pages of the Federal Register, [...] and hundreds of pages of internal agency guidances [...] to define that simple ‘discarded material’ concept. Few lawyers, even among the most experienced in solid waste law, really understand fully what EPA’s rules mean [...] In EPA’s twenty-five years of existence, it has amassed 12,000 pages in the Code of Federal Regulations.”

With chaotics momentarily forgotten (it was never really that significant anyway), Ruhl really puts himself in some dodgy company. Business as usual has recommenced: vote guns ‘n’ Jesus.

The paper as a whole is a Godsend, BTW, and many of Ruhl’s other remarks (for example the “feedback and feedforward loops” (884) whereby CERCLA may inadvertently have promoted the conversion of “pristine land into commercial uses” (884)) are very sharp, and not I think shaped by any involuntary partisan loyalty.

Note 2: A genealogy of the concept of “constitution” might begin with a glance at Hesiod in Works and Days and Plato in The Republic and The Laws, and then get stuck into Aristotle’s great work of comparative political theory, The Politics. Constitutions are things which Aristotle “gets” by checking out different territories (or getting his skivvies to check them out), comparing, systematising and classifying (according to institutional and economic criteria, and according to whether or not their governance is oriented to the common interest). The Cretan constitution, for example, is abstracted from a number of Cretan city-states. At one point Aristotle says that “the ‘constitution’ of a state is the organisation of the archē [rule, offices], and in particular of the one that is sovereign over all the others. Now in every case the citizen-body of a state is sovereign: the citizen-body is the constitution. Thus in democracies the people are sovereign, in oligarchies the few” (1278b6); he quickly amends his principle of classification so that in democracies the poor are sovereign, in oligarchies the rich (1279b26). Aristotle is sometimes a bit weird: “This much is clear: supposed that there were men whose mere bodily physique showed the same superiority as is shown by the statues of gods, then all would agree that the rest of mankind would deserve to be their slaves” (1254b16). Er . . .

Note 3: Are you here for the tour? In the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, where the Great Council debated and voted, “the official zone was demarcated at either end of the room and was swapped according to the seasons. Gianotti states that for one half of the year it was situated between the two entrances close to the staircases, while during the late summer months when officials were being elected, it was positioned by the entrance to the >Sala del Scrutinio, the formal voting chamber [...] This alteration appeared to extend the official zone to encompass the Sala del Scrutinio on the Piazetta wing side [...] during elections, thereby formalising passage into this area and associating activity within it with the dais and Primi. In both positions, access routes breached the sanctity of the official zone, meaning that attendants passed in close proximity to the stage either when entering or during a vote [...] the belief in equality between patricians was at the heart of the republican myth of Venice, despite the actual pre-eminence of members of large, wealthy and important families, and the political domination of the Primi. The insistence in the electoral equality of all patricians helped manage these conspicuous differences, and correspondingly the design features of the chamber are a testament to Venice’s communal origins and the prodigious standing of the council in the republican model. Council members sat back to back on nine longitudinal benches [...] with a further double row along three walls. Aside from officials on the dais, seating was chosen freely and without hierarchy, with benches arranged to encourage face-to-face involvement throughout the length of the hall. Rather than being conglomerated in a mass (a disenfranchising tactic for Goodsell) nobles were able to move around, form smaller groups and different focal points. Indeed, Finlay describes the lack of formality on the dais when Savi would leave the stage, “wander about the chamber, and perhaps even leave it” during the reading of proposals [...] In the Senate, hierarchy was observed in the order of speakers, [...] while in the Grand Council the doge responded to all manner of interjections. All patricians had the right to mount the stage and speak from the renga, the raised speaking podium to the left of the stage. Short interchanges took place throughout the hall, creating a buzz and hum and meaning that it was difficult for speakers to attract attention, so much so that throughout the 1500s the Consiglio dei Dieci instituted penalties for those changing benches and causing excessive noise [...] These practical drawbacks did not, however, outweigh the symbolic significance of the space and its use. Positioning the dais on the short walls, rather than in a circular chamber on the Greek model, created a dominating presence: added to this, latitudinal rows would have turned the hall into a theatre, creating an invisible line between the activity on stage and the audience, and fixing the political gaze firmly on the doge and the Primi. As it was, gravitas was implied through the formality of the stage, but the centre/periphery divide was counterbalanced by the shifting of focus throughout the hall. The high/low distinction was likewise understated, sacred spaces kept to a minimum and private access routes denied, so that the chamber seemed like “a thing” of the patriciate, a physical symbol of the republican government itself.”

“The disparity between the uses of rooms in these short, divided floors is typical of the kaleidoscopic use of space in the Palazzo Ducale. As well as housing the covert state torture chamber, the public office of the Grand Chancellor is situated here. His office would not be reached by the Bussola entrance, but through a small wooden door concealed behind a closet in the public vestibule at the top of the Scala d’Oro [...] Here the chancellor as the ‘prince of the common people’ [...] would meet with cittadini and hear their concerns. It is fitting, then, that his is the most humble reception space in the palace, with bar wooden walls and unassuming furniture [...] As a representative of the class legally excluded from government, he was not to be seen rising above his station or neglecting his fellow cittadini, despite holding a position in the heart of government which ceremonially equated to that of the doge. The effect of his office is disarming; its compactness is comfortable and welcoming, stressing the humility and unpretentiousness of its inhabitant [...] That a room so concerned with managing the self-image of the chancellor should be accessed through false furniture is a puzzle, as visitors would be assumed to be complicit in whatever took place behind, and thus not taken in by false impressions. However, many visitors to the chancellor’s public office would never see his secret office, also situated in this clandestine mezzanine [...] it is ornate and spacious, its walls lined with cupboards containing confidential state documents. Its decoration alone undermines the modest façade of the public office, while its placement within the building gives a profound insight into the actual authority of the chancellor, counteracting the defining impression as a government purely of the nobility. [...] the chancellor’s public office is a fiction of function, giving partial access to a private world in which the chancellor is ostensibly rooted amongst common men, in order to better obscure his thorough involvement in oligarchic government [...] Internally, the secret Chancery is an exemplar of mutual scrutiny, arguably a [Foucaultian] proto-disciplinary space, involving the spatial technique of ‘partitioning’ [...] At three defined points in the room, guards were positioned to overlook illiterate scribes copying delicate state documents. Illiteracy was essential in order to protect state secrets: they copied letters as if they were patterns, and were dismissed within two months, before they could learn to read. [...] from the position of the guard on the raised end of the room, we can see white walls forming a sort of broad chimney [...] higher up there is a grated window behind which a fourth guard was posted. His single view was of the guard below, whose activities were curtailed by the sense of constant observation. This was no doubt worsened by the oblique positioning of the guard above, who was obscured from view by the severe perspective and darkness of the recess. One guard under surveillance was as good as three; those in the chamber were unable to form a bond, or as group pry into state secrets, knowing that one of their number was under constant supervision” (Walton, 33).

Note 4: “The exiles had decided to settle on a favoured group of islands, midway in the lagoon, known collectively as the Rivoalto or the high bank. This eventually became the Rialto, the pre-eminent market-place and emporium of the city. The islands were interspersed with rivulets and water-courses but there was one larger river, a tributary of the Brenta known as the Rivoaltus; this became in time the Grand Canal. Two more solid hills or islands – their description depends entirely upon how you judge the nature of the territory – faced each other along the course of this river. This is where Venice was created” (Peter Ackroyd, Venice: Pure City (2009), p. 9).

“The great council met on the following day, 1 May, when the doge addressed them. He told them that it was necessary to make peace at any price, and that they must resort to prayer. So matters stayed for the next few days, with Venetian enjoys going to and from the camp of Napoleon. They capitulated on every point. The great council met on 12 May to ratify their proceedings. Those present did not meet the required quorum of six hundred members, but they decided to go ahead anyway. They had just got to the point of debating the measure to accept ‘the proposed provisional representative government’, a French government, when the sound of musketry was heard. It was in fact the parting salute of some sailors leaving the Lido, but the patricians believed it to be the noise of an invading army. They fell into a panic. The doge called out ‘Divide! Divide!’, to conclude the vote. They did so, and promptly left the council hall never to return. Ippolito Nievo recorded that, ‘after sixty years I still see some of those frightened, dejected, alarmed faces. I visualise the deathly pallor of some, the decomposed almost drunken aspect of others, the nervous hurry of the majority, who seemed as though they would gladly have jumped out of the windows to escape this scene of infamy.’ It is reported in the histories of the period that the doge returned to his apartment, and gave his ducal bonnet to his manservant. ‘Take it’, he said. ‘I shall not be needing it again.’ So ended the republic of Venice. The last Carnival before the end was supposed to have been the most magnificant, and the most expensive, in the entire history of the city” (Ackroyd p. 318).

Note 5: See J. G. A. Pocock on the reconceptualisation of virtue and the rise of rights in the Scottish Enlightenment, American Revolution, etc. – “Virtues, Rights and Manners” in Virtue, Commerce and History (1985). He’s good on Venetian virtue too. Venetian elections were notoriously complicated; as a guard against corruption, chappies would vote for chappies to vote, chappies could sort of unvote each other, you never knew which chappies would be voting on something, etc., etc. By a series of physical devices – “the benches on which men took their seats at random, but rose in a fixed order to cast their votes; the containers from which names and numbers were drawn at random, but in which positive and negative votes might be placed in secrecy – the Venetians were held, so to speak, to have mechanized virtù” (J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (1975), p. 284).

Note 6: The Encroachment might be an example of what is referred to in M. Banks’s Culture sequence as an Outside Context Problem.

Note 7: Science fiction’s fascination with identity, survival, and things which come-to-be essences, BTW, are part of the context of this whole thing. The more I develop the “chaoplexic” bit of “chaoplexic republic” the less the “republic” bit resembles anything like a nation state, where political, economic systems are roughly coextensive. When I started dreaming this up, that fascination was going to provide hints as to what the “republic” might look like instead. How do they all fit together – integrity, sense of self, continuity, identity, inheritance, stability, common value, peoples, history, tradition? I feel like I have a lot on though and I don’t know if I’ll really get round to talking more explicitly about it all.

Here, from M. Banks’s Excession (& slightly spoilerish): “Gestra Ishmethit, his mind-state plucked from his dying brain in the evacuated cold of the warship halls in Pittance by the guilt-stricken Attitude Adjuster, appropriated from that craft just before it destroyed itself by the attacking Killing Time and subsequently passed on until it came to rest in the restocked memory vaults of the Sleeper Service, had also been woken up and furnished with a new body by that time; death had neither improved his social skills nor sated his urge for solitude [...]” (p. 450).

Just noticed that “destroyed itself by the attacking Killing Time” BTW, v. interesting! I think what happens in that engagement is that the Attitude Adjuster gets “comped”; the Killing Time sort of wriggles into its brain circuits and sets in motion processes which rip it apart. But it all happens from the perspective of the Attitude Adjuster, and the suicide makes sense from the inside. It’s closer to confabulation than overdetermination – I mean, Poirot would say it was the Killing Time what done it – but there’s a plausible causal story which doesn’t include the Killing Time (or only peripherally). That perhaps alters the pattern of responsibility involved (something I’ll be touching on in the last of these posts).

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