Thursday, May 31, 2012

Turkish Travels No. 2

On our second day in Istanbul (Sunday, May 20th), we planned to see some of the more famous landmarks the metropolis has to offer. We woke up early to get in line for the Hagia Sophia before it became outrageous. It helped that Sunday was marked by cloudy skies and occasional showers. The line was mercifully quick.
Outside the Hagia Sophia
On the way, we noticed a strange van parked at the front of the Hagia Sophia selling Museum passes. We didn't buy any, though maybe we should have considering the number of Museum tickets we bought in Istanbul. But selling Museum passes out of the back of a van demonstrates Turkish cultural practice in a key way. It's highly commercialized, but in a different way from the U.S. Everything everywhere is a kiosk; everyone is selling something. It's refreshingly honest and straightforward in its intention. No one seems to pretend the mercantile pursuit is anything other than what it is, or that it's anything less than total in its scope.
Interior of the Hagia Sophia
Anyway, the Hagia Sophia, that fifteen hundred year old Byzantine Cathedral turned Islamic Mosque - what can be said about it, so awesome in dimension, design and detail?
It is, in a way, a physical embodiment of the East meets West cliche of Istanbul: both a church and a mosque, both a tribute to God and a monument to Allah. More importantly, I think it demonstrates how Islam built on and evolved from the other Western monotheistic religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity. When the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453 and renamed it Istanbul, they didn't knock down the Hagia Sophia and build a new mosque in its place. Instead, they build on it by installing minarets, a mihrab and minbar and other Islamic architectural elements. Similarly, Islam does not disregard figures like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, but rather incorporates them into a tradition of prophets leading up to Muhammed.
Minbar of the Hagia Sophia
This preservationist trend in Islam also manifested itself in the Islamic scholars of the early Medieval period who took great care to protect Western knowledge and intellectual traditions in the form of the Greek and Latin texts that were being discarded or forgotten in Christian Europe after the fall of Rome. This is also incidentally why I believe contemporary Jihadism is a perversion - a mutant strain - of Islam rather than a central component of the religion as Islamophobes claim. Throughout most of history, Islamic civilization has been no more destructive - and often more constructive or preservationist - than Christian Civilization. The Hagia Sophia is a living testament to that fact.
Apse and dome of the Hagia Sophia
What else can I say about the Hagia Sophia. It's gorgeous and astounding and you really have to see it - but how helpful, useful or interesting is that? Perhaps I should discuss the mosaics.
The Empress Zoe Mosaics
The cathedral contains many beautiful mosaics usually combining Christian iconography with tributes to the Byzantine monarchs of the period. The Empress Zoe mosaic is a typical example, combining the central figure of the Christ Pantocrator dressed in blue in between Empress Zoe and Constantine IX. Archaeological evidence indicates the face Constantine IX is a replacement of an earlier mosaic depiction. It is believed that Empress Zoe had the mosaic altered to represent each of her three husbands. Constantine IX, her last husband, is the one that has survived.
Virgin and child in between Emperor Justinian I and Emperor Constantine I
One exhibit within the building worth mentioning is the Arabic calligraphy displays. Completing with the magnificent splendor of the cathedral itself is tough to manage, but the calligraphy displays were just about audacious enough to steal our attention for about twenty or so minutes.

From the Calligraphy Exhibit
In this exhibit, I began to notice the central role text plays in Islamic design and decoration. Their calligraphy is truly beautiful, and the primacy of text is really attractive to a logophile like me. I'll return to this topic when I write about our visit to Topkapi Palace.
I am a fan of the Calligraphy Exhibit
All photographs taken by Cecily Gardner. See more of her work here.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

One Less Wonder of the World

Late one night, I obtained a large truck to steal the stones from the Temple of Artemis. With some assistance from hired locals, I loaded the stones into the vehicle and drove off into the darkness.

The next morning, no one seemed to notice.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Turkish Travels No. 1

On Monday, May 25th, our third day in Istanbul, we went to the Spice Bazaar for a second time. It was mobbed to the point of anguish last time, but on Monday it was just fairly busy. After taking the tram to the Eminönü stop near the Galata Bridge that crosses the Golden Horn, we stumbled into the animal and pet quarter of the Spice Bazaar. Large tanks of leeches were scattered about the block. As far as I know, they are used for medicinal purposes.
The rest of the animal quarter seemed to be dedicated to pets. Cages of rabbits, dogs, chickens, peacocks and cats dominated our attention. Cats roam around everywhere in Istanbul. You can find them wiggling on every corner. But I guess buying one from the Spice Bazaar might be a way to avoid bringing fleas home. I also saw kiosks that had large quantities of what appeared to be nuts and legumes, but on closer inspection I realized it was pet food.
From there we explored the bazaar's endless kiosks of spices, nuts, teas, fruit (dried and not), pastries, sweets, lentils and other legumes, backgammon and chess sets, mavi boncuk amulets, along with plenty of other trinkets and tchotskies (though less of that than at the Grand Bazaar it seemed to me). Backgammon and something called 'Viagra Tea' are very popular in Turkey.
They are also practiced in the art of the hard sell. If you so much as glance at a restaurant or the wares of a particular kiosk, a Turk will start to pitch you very aggressively. Actually, once in the vicinity of a pitchman, you will be pitched. At one point, I assured one that I was just looking. "And I'm just selling!" he retorted wryly. I got so used to it that when I was outside the bazaars and the tourist ghettoes, I almost missed the attention heeded to me as part of the hard sell.

I got ripped off when I bought a couple of dürüm kebaps for lunch. Always ask for the price first. Always. Fortunately, all other purchases have gone much better. We bought candied strawberries, two varieties of Turkish Delight and other bric-à-brac. While we ate lunch, we met a Turkish doctor and his wife. The doctor asked us to take a photo of them. We obliged and then spoke to the doctor for a bit. He spoke English very well, having gone to medical school in Buffalo, NY. He told us about living in Istanbul and encouraged us to take a boat ride on the Bosphorus. After lunch, we took his advice and went to the shore looking for a boat to hire.

All photographs taken by Cecily Gardner. See more of her work here.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Catachresis of the Meme: An Ironical Phenomenon of Self-Annihilation

Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" in the 1970s to describe the unit in cultural evolution that corresponds to the "gene" familiar in biological evolution. For Dawkins, a meme referred to both ideas and the physical, behavioral and social manifestations of ideas. Like genes, memes replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures. This happens through various forms of cultural transmission: writing, speech, gesture, music, image - pretty much anything imitable or reproducible.

In recent years, the term "meme" has entered common parlance with a different meaning than that designated by Dawkins and his academic colleagues and acolytes. The new meaning is related yet distinct from that used first in the 1970s. The phrase "internet meme" generally refers to a new breed of inside joke that spreads via the Internet. The most recognizable example is a funny image accompanied by a pithy caption rendered in a bulbous font.

I am going to suggest here that the term "meme" is now much better known as part of the phrase "internet meme" than as the academic concept developed by Richard Dawkins. I have no comprehensive survey to back this assertion. I am making an anecdotal observation and would welcome anyone to disabuse me of the notion if there is significant evidence contradicting this understanding.

Assuming that I am correct, the very phenomena that Dawkins described using the term "meme" is currently working to annihilate (or at least supersede) the meaning of the term "meme." The relationship between replication, mutation, and selective pressures that operates to shape culture in memetic evolution has led to the term "meme" replicating more widely only by mutating to mean something more accessible - an inside joke spread on Facebook.
Hegel would be proud.
This strange vortex of meaning - and the evolution of that meaning - swirling around the term "meme" seems to be a perfect example of the Hegelian Dialectic.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Way to Phantasmagoria

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
1988.  126 minutes. UK. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Watchdate: 4/20/2012.
I love Terry Gilliam's quixotic fantasias, and any story that gives him an excuse (and a production design budget) to let his prodigious imagination run wild creating the baroque, grotesque worlds that are his speciality is okay by me. But the end of the movie is a wonderful and well-earned dramatical demonstration of the power of narrative and make believe to resist the stupid and violent inclinations of established authority, and that elevates it to something grander than just visionary entertainment.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Miskimin's Codex

“It’s more like an evil spirit consciousness that possesses its hosts with lust for absolute power and a manifestation of the primitive reptile brain - power can only be pure if it’s allowed to flow through us without being contaminated with any concept of selves. Therefore, the only true power is the power we have to be more than ourselves by denying any concept of ourselves and letting the power define us.”

- Señor Moosey, a Half-African Freedom Fighter of the Spanish Civil War, ca. 1936


Miskimin’s Codex is either a book or a tree, or possibly equal parts book and tree. (Contrast with it having been either a scroll or a fern). In any case, we are fairly convinced it has many stimulating branches and that these branches are probably not unidirectional.


Miskimin designed the codex (assuming the codex can be said to have been designed) to have two parallel coordinate planes connected in the third dimension at their origins by a z-axis with a slightly hyperbolic curve. If this is true, the x1-axis is labelled ‘metaphorical’ and the y1-axis is labelled ‘literal,’ while the x2-axis is labelled ‘concrete’ and the y2-axis is labelled ‘abstract.’ The z-axis can be labelled either ‘antipodal’ or ‘abstruse.’


Scientists have conclusively proven that Miskimin’s Codex originated in the evolutionary transition between asexual and sexual reproduction. However, this hasn’t stopped extradimensional Puritan travelers from the ethereal plane who have successfully reformed the codex away from ‘the appeal to prurient interests.’ Under this regime, reproduction is strictly regulated by the God-head.


An alliance of pansexual partisans and unsexed library lovers plan to create a new confluence of reproductive freedom for the latest branches of the codex characterized by literotica, book lust, and titillating marginalia. In this way, they will map our geographies of desire onto the future pathways.


With our contemporary world view, it's easy to believe that the extradimensional Puritans were simply worried about the codex taking the place of religion and sex taking the place of God. But Miskimin’s codex is ultimately based on a probabilistic theory. That means it's loose. It's not deterministic. And that enables us to understand how sexual reproduction led to growth of the codex. However, there is a major problem with this framework. The smallest units of action according to this theory are some strange sexual-antipodal symbols, and their behavior is apparently a bit random. They swerve. Their behavior is abstruse in the sense that it’s highly inconsistent. It’s volatile. We can't understand it based on any precedent. They just do whatever they do capriciously, according to this probabilistic framework. The question we must ask is how will that help with reproductive freedom? Should reproductive freedom, and the heredity of all future book and tree branches, be just a matter of probabilities, just some random swerving in a relatively chaotic system? That starts to seem like it's worse than what the Puritans would build for us. I'd rather be a cog in a big deterministic God machine than just some random swerving.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thesis Word Cloud

H/T to Cup of Joe for inspiring this post.