On Media and the Medium of Media

I sometimes have a fascination with what might be considered by most modern people to be outdated or obsolete technologies; heck, to this day, one of my favorite online libraries to browse is textfiles.com.  I generally don’t catch on to too many techy fads or get swept up in this or that new platform, and instead like to rely on…well, things with less complexity.  As a software engineer, I can affirm that as a system gets more complex, it gets more complicated, and thus less secure as well as less robust.  It’s one of the reasons why I don’t like an Internet of Things for my house: while the idea of remotely setting my thermostat while I’m in another country does sound quite nice, there’s little to assure me that the server used to connect will be reliable in the short term, the platform used to support the server will be supported in ten years from now, that the app/site I’m using to connect to my thermostat will be available whenever I need it, that the system is secure enough to not have a local prankster set my house to 100°F in high summer because he brute-forced my password or hijacked my wifi, and so forth.  Heck, there’s nothing to even guarantee that you won’t piss off the developers themselves and have them remotely brick your garage doors from opening when you want them to or that some savvy jerk won’t have your smart fridge manipulated to show potentially off-putting porn vids of kinks you don’t like.  (For more examples of why I generally dislike smart technology, check out the Internet of Shit twitterfeed.)

Like most Americans, I have a smartphone, a respectable Android phone that’s only a few years old that serves me well.  To be fair, it took me a while to get anything of the sort; for the longest time, I was using those indestructible Nokia phones that had maybe a camera—if I was lucky!—before I finally upgraded to get a touch-screen feature phone, with enough technology to store more than just a few songs at a time, shortly after college.  It wasn’t until 2012 that I finally succumbed to getting a proper smartphone (Android, of course, because I dig open-source and Linux and I’ve long since divorced myself from Apple in general).  I gotta say, while I did take my dear sweet time getting around to getting a smartphone, it actually has helped, and it is worth it.

Mostly, at least.

By far, probably the most useful feature of a smartphone is that it’s less of a phone and more of a general-purpose computer.  I mean, even the old indestructible Nokia candybar phones had quite a few features that could reduce much of a technological burden for someone, but a proper smartphone nowadays generally has at least the following:

  • Calculator, clock, timer
  • Radio
  • Voice recorder
  • Phone (shocking, I know)
  • SMS
  • Compass, accelerometer
  • Memo
  • Fitness tracker, heartbeat monitor
  • GPS
  • Camera, flashlight
  • Music player
  • Internet browser (and any number of apps that are basically site/DB-specific browsers, not just for WWW,  but for other protocols like email, Twitter, banking, etc.)
  • General extensibility for arbitrary applications, including games
  • &c &c &c.

For myself, I use my own smartphone for the following:

  • checking Facebook, including sending messages (major means of communication)
  • checking Twitter, including sending private messages (also a major means of communication)
  • browsing the internet
  • checking email (eh)
  • alarm clock (regrettably important)
  • GPS (pretty vital)
  • camera (useful!)
  • texting and calling people (…I guess)

Lately, I’ve been wanting to scale back down and get something simpler, something like a Nokia brick again, where the battery lasts for more like eight days instead of eight hours and it does just the bare-bones functionality.  I’d still be able to call people (except that I never really do), and I could definitely rework how I consider communication.  I know Facebook and Twitter are both still text-message-friendly to an extent, though it could be a little obnoxious; I could also just wait until I get home or to my office desk (in either case, to a real computer) to do any real or heavy communication.  I’d still have an alarm clock, but I’d lose the GPS, which would actually hurt.  Plus, most of the old-style brick phones either don’t have cameras or don’t have good ones.  So, in exchange for one general-purpose device, I’d have to break down into getting three separate devices, each with their own costs and upkeep.  Not a great deal, in some aspects, especially when it can be hard to get such an older phone integrated into modern infrastructure.

In many ways, it’s much like the Evolution of the Desk, except, well, yanno…mobile.

As much as I don’t want to admit it, I don’t think I can reasonably go back to a dumbphone again.  I do like only having one device instead of ten separate devices, most of which are pretty complicated things in their own rights.  Rather than fantasizing about, say, an old hand-cranked washing machine from the 1930s, which is both simple to use and easy to maintain from spare parts, a smartphone isn’t really any more technologically complex (or personally maintainable) than a GPS or modern camera; the only way I could get a net simplification out of going to a dumbphone would be to forsake the GPS or camera functionality entirely, the former of which I’m unwilling to (because getting around in my metropolitan area is hell) and the latter of which I’m unable to (due to hobby/profession needs).

While there’s the definite sting of “but I miss having a Nokia”, it was another thing entirely that put me at peace with being too far along to go back to them, and that’s my recurring fascination with toki pona.  Yes, I’ve talked about it before around here, but last time I mentioned it, I suggested that it’s a good thing to keep things simple; with a lexical inventory of only 120-some words, there’s not a lot of nuance; in fact, there’s barely any nuance at all, and most of the time, what’s understood must be understood from context and other cues.  While, in some ways, viewing things at their core in the simplest terms possible using a restricted vocabulary can be useful, simplicity has its cost, and it’s not something I mentioned back in 2015.  I like to use the Chinese expression “10,000 things” to refer to the (literally) myriads of things in the cosmos, from the smallest hair-split concept to the largest possible intergalactic superstructure; for this, and all the shades of variations of differences of types of kinds of sorts of things, sometimes a single word really does work better than a roundabout explanation, and for that, a language of 120 words puts me at an extreme disadvantage.  I cannot envision rewriting Agrippa’s Three Books, for instance, in toki pona; heck, I’d have a hard enough time in English, when I have the option of using Greek or Latin derivatives for their subtly different meanings (pneuma or spirit?), straight-Latin or French-Latin (destruct or destroy?), Greco-Romance or Germanic (apotheosis or godhood?), all of which offer subtly (but importantly) different meanings or reflections of a single topic.

In other words, while I many use toki pona to verbalize a particular instance of existence into simplicity, I cannot operate in toki pona to construct types of thinking when there are necessarily more things that can be conceived of than exist.  toki pona is too simple to think in when it comes to something so nuanced as deeply-explored theurgy, and as such, would be a burden to use compared to another language.  Likewise, it’d be more of a burden to go from my smartphone to a dumbphone, when I’d have to re-add in otherwise redundant or obsolete devices that bring in more complexity to the overall system.  So, while I’d like to use toki pona as an actual conversational language, I’d also like to use a Nokia brick.  They would be nice, but not worth it in the end except as thought experiments or sandboxes to try certain things out in.

This got me to thinking: what about spirituality?  I mean, heavens and hells know that I’m in the middle of a lengthy initiatory process that is, in its own unique ways, strikingly parallel to Hermetic stuff…at least in one mode of Hermeticism, I suppose.  Between ancient Athenian/Anatolian, early classical Alexandrian, late classical Neoplatonic, and a variety of strains from medieval and Renaissance continental western Europe, there’s a lot of development in my theology, and that’s not even including the more recent injections into my mind.  For me, it’s crucial to be nuanced and delicate and excruciatingly specific so as to better track, organize, and discuss my own thoughts for particular ends, and how they play out and map onto the cosmos, both the modeled one I expect to encounter and the experienced one I actually encounter.  Of course, yes, it is possible to split hairs and make meaningless distinctions, but I’ve started to get enough good sense to begin to avoid doing so or to be able to test/model distinctions for usefulness when possible.  On the whole, trying to ELI5 my philosophy or spiritual perspective on things in an elevator speech would probably be more damaging to both myself, the listener, and the dignity of my thoughts themselves; there’s no “explaining things to a barmaid” in this except by means of nuance and measured complexity.

It’s no shame to have a complex worldview, philosophy, religion, or spiritual practice; after all, the world we live in is inherently complex and complicated.  Being able to take the time to take in that complexity and fully grasp its nuances, ramifications, and gestures is one of the guiding aims we should all have in investigating our lives and actions.  Still, it does neither you nor anyone any good to make things more complicated than they are, nor is it helpful to simplify one aspect of your world at the cost of increasing complexity to other aspects.  Don’t try to paper over complexity by handwaving it into mystical oversimplification, but don’t make yourself to appear more profound or mysterious by spewing arcane gobbledegook, either.  The models, grammar, tools, and vocabulary you use to describe and interact with your world should favorably match the level of complexity of your world.  If your world is simple, be and talk and act simple to match it; if your world is complex, be and talk and act complex to match it.  If you want to simplify or complicate your world, work towards it, and modify your modes and methods and means accordingly.

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On Simplicity in Constructed Speech and the Occult

I’ve been interested in linguistics since at least middle school, when I took my first foreign language class.  It was a semester-long course in Japanese in my sixth grade, but unfortunately, the teacher had to leave back for Japan one or two months before the semester was actually over.  To fill out the rest of the semester, the school had another teacher come in and teach us the basics of Latin, for some reason.  For me, it was an awesome twofer!  That one semester started off a lifelong interest in languages, much to the chagrin of my mother, who wanted me to stick with Spanish or French because there’d be more money in that.  (I still do need to learn Spanish, of course, but for entirely different reasons than either of us would expect.)

However, my interest in linguistics didn’t just stop at learning languages and the methods of communication involving grammar and syntax.  I experimented with making a number of experimental constructed languages, also known as “conlangs”, and developed a number of writing systems for each of them.  Some of those writing systems eventually became used as ciphers for English, and one of those I developed back in high school eventually became my personal cursive/shorthand script which I still use to this day.  Creating languages and writing systems for a variety of ends has always been a hobby of mine, and it’s one that’s shared across many people of different streaks and creeds.

Chances are, dear reader, that you’ve encountered at least one conlang in your time.  Klingon as spoken in the Star Trek fandom; Orwell’s Newspeak from 1984; the elvish languages of Quenya or Sindarin, the Black Speech of Mordor, and the dwarvish language of Khuzdul created by Tolkein in his Middle Earth; the script of the Atlanteans from the Disney movie of the same name; the list goes on.  Plus, not all conlangs are meant as artistic projects for fantasy worlds.  There are a number of constructed languages, such as Esperanto and Lojban, which are intended as actual languages to be used by people on a day-to-day basis, often to encourage lofty goals of world peace or better and more logical cognition.  The conlang community has done some pretty interesting experiments when it comes to linguistics, and it’s always held an appeal for me and several of my good friends.

And yes, dear reader, there are conlangs in the occult world, as well.  The number of mystical or magical writing systems is just the start of it.  There’s the obvious Enochian of John Dee, which should be apparent to pretty much everyone, but there’re other constructed languages lesser-known across occulture.

One conlang is one I’ve known of for years and years now: toki pona.  As far as conlangs go, this is a special one marked for its simplicity.  Unlike other languages both natural and constructed, toki pona has only 120 words (when I first learned it, it only had 118).  A single word can have dozens of meanings, all semantically related depending on how it’s used.  For instance, consider the word “moku”.  This word refers to something related to consumption or digestion: to eat , to drink, to swallow, to ingest, to consume, to digest, food, meal, snack, something edible, etc.  In a sense, each word is a semantic category clarified by its use in a sentence, and not a single meaning.  The grammar is likewise very simple with only a handful of possible constructions (though, of course, with endless variations).

Why such a simple language?  The creator of the language, Sonja Lang, designed the language to be an experiment in testing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which can best be summed up as “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”.  Although strong forms of this hypothesis are generally believed now to be false, it’s still being researched to see how much language influences the way we behave and the way we think.  Lang (or, as known in the toki pona community, jan Sonja or “Sonja-person”) designed the language to be as simple as possible, even combining the semantic meanings of “good” and “simple” into the same word, so as to encourage a mindset and worldview focused on simplicity and dressing things down to a basic, simple means of existence.  The canonical example of this is that there is no word for “friend” in toki pona, but the way one communicates this is with the construction “jan pona”, literally “good person”.  A person who is good, especially to you, is known as a friend.  Thus, some constructions become illogical; a “bad friend” would be “jan poka ike”, literally “bad good person”, but a thing can’t really be good and bad at the same time.  Thus, if a person is bad to you, they probably shouldn’t be your friend.

One of the side effects of having such a linguistic structure is that toki pona is heavily dependent on context.  While you can take a paragraph of English text from any particular source, you can be fairly certain in a short time of what that paragraph is talking about and what kind of text it came from, be it chemistry, physics, literature, law codes, instruction manuals, comic books, or so forth.  Because of the generalized nature of toki pona, it’d be much more difficult to do the same, since unspoken (or previously-spoken) context plays such a huge role in toki pona.  Thus, toki pona utterly lacks finesse and nuance in words, and relies completely on context and (sometimes) lengthy constructions in order to describe something completely.  Then again, to describe something completely kinda defeats the purpose of toki pona.  The purpose is to communicate simply and to think simply; this is to speak well, literally “toki pona”.  To introduce more complexity than absolutely needed is unhelpful and makes what would normally be clear absolutely unclear, which is speaking poorly, literally “toki ike”.

Let’s bring this back to my life as a magician, shall we?  Why would a Hermetic magician, immersed in a cosmos full of complexity and correspondences and nuance and detail, at all be curious or appreciative of such a simplistic, simple language?  What good would a language that doesn’t even have a good means of describing numbers above 5 (and was never originally designed to have a words for numbers beyond “one”, “two”, “none”, and “many”) serve a person whose fundamental influences include the great mathematician-philosophers of the Mediterranean?  With an utterly small phonemic gallery of sounds somewhere between that of Japanese and Pirahã, how can I be served by such a language when my own Work requires subtle and exact descriptions of barbarous words of the gods?

It’s simple.  Complexity and nuance often doesn’t serve us all the time, and it helps to see things in a simple way.  toki pona helps to see the forest for the trees and not be overwhelmed by the individual leaves, especially if you’re nowhere close enough to actually enter the forest.  It’s a common-enough problem in occulture that we end up theorizing and extrapolating everything to an ungainly degree, insisting on artificial divisions of particular subsets of styles of magic, based partially on Aristotelian impulses for binning things and partially on the influence of fantasy divisions of magic into the occult.  However, if we end up theorizing and complicating things to the point where we can’t actually do the Work, then we’ve fucked ourselves over and paralyzed ourselves from getting anywhere.  For all the education, training, research, and meditation that goes into a ritual, the rite itself is the simple execution of a series of actions that may or may not have a particular result.  It’s the things we feel, the things we see, the things we experience in its most basic, vulgar form that direct, inform, and destroy our theoretical models.  After testing, the models should always be adapted to fit the data, as the data can only be interpreted in but so many ways to yield but so many models.

toki pona is a philosophical language, but it’s not philosophical in the sense of the great φιλοσοφοι or the rabbis of old.  Those who speak toki pona aren’t much interested in drawing the finest distinctions between abstract concepts, the division of a speck of dust’s width between two things.  We explain what happened in the simplest, barest of terms available to us to get rid of confusion and complexity and just come out with it.  To abstract away, justify, or obfuscate is really the same sort of action, much as how exaggeration and extreme modesty are two sides of the same coin of lying.

So, how would I be using toki pona as an occultist?  I mean, to those who’ve been reading my blog for a bit, I’ve already talked about this all before.  (I actually only remembered that I wrote a post just like the present one over two years ago on the same topic with many of the same points.  Herp derp.)  After giving it some thought, and after having gone through a few more experiences in the time since the prior post, I think my original idea from two years ago is still good: using toki pona for “the description of a desired state or outcome”, how things should be at their core.  I can talk about the planetary influences of the choirs of angels all day long and how they impact the sensations of my individual fingertips at different times of the day until the celestial cows come home, but it doesn’t change the fact that all I’m doing is emitting air and sound, especially when the topic is so theoretical and strained that it’s hard to make sense even in a well-described language like English or Greek.

I find that, as I get older and a bit more experienced (however little experience a few years can make), I get less and less interested in theory.  Sure, I will always keep researching and understanding different models of reality, and I’ll keep learning correspondences and the theory behind magic, but as I keep coming in contact with it, it gets dry and boring without the moist nourishment of action to apply it all.  Besides, it’s only in the application and results of this stuff that I get to see what theory is valuable and what isn’t; by testing these theories, not all of which should have been preserved from the ancients, I get to separate the wheat from the chaff and throw out the useless junk from the useful gems.  Invariably, as I understand the theories better, my rituals get simpler and more powerful, but only because of the work that’s already gone into them.  And, should I deign to go full-steam-ahead with the complexity and decoration and embellishment of a full Solomonic shebang, it’ll be even more powerful, but the need for that is limited at best and nonexistent at worst.

Simplicity works.  That said, simplicity is the highest form of elegance, and it’s working toward that elegance that takes much time and effort.  It’s a poor choice to separate out things at the start, when it should be by proof of demonstration that we come to know what’s necessary and what’s unnecessary, what’s able to be separated out and what’s able to be coupled together, what can be kept and what can be forgotten.  toki pona helps with that in a few ways.  I don’t expect to rewrite Agrippa’s Three Books in toki pona, but it will help in affording me another internal viewpoint to understand some of the things I do.

Simplicity, Language, and Ceremonial Magic

Simply put, never the twain shall meet.

I’ve got a big thing for linguistics, writing systems, and conlangs (constructed languages, like Star Trek’s Klingon, Tolkien’s Quenya, Disney’s Atlantean, etc.), which all have their definite place in ceremonial magic.  The mystical scripts I use to call spirits, the barbarous names of invocation, the seed syllables and chants and mantras, and having to translate works from one language into another are all part of the Work, if for nothing else than to get more information and context on a given topic or act.  As a hobby, though, it’s just plain fun.  When I was really little, I used to think there’d be a little goblin or tiny person in each person’s head, and when someone would speak to them in a foreign language, the tiny person would translate it into English for processing, or out of English into the other language for them to speak.

What?  I was a kid, like I said; it was a phase and I grew out of it.

There’s one conlang in particular I’ve liked for a while: Toki Pona.  It’s a minimal language, with only 120 words to use and an exceedingly simple grammar.  I’ve known about it for a number of years now, and still can translate the grammar in my head though many of the words escape me.  (I need to relearn this language, if only for the fun of it.)  It’s almost reductionist in how to say things: since there’s no word for “friend”, you need to describe what “friend” means (usually, a person who’s good to you).  English, with its huge vocabulary, can say things in one or two words what Toki Pona might take five or more: “enemy combatant” might be reduced to “a fighting person who’s bad towards you/your land”. That said, often enough the simplicity in making these statements and in communicating them makes up for its simplistic vocabulary.  It helps that there’s still a live and active Toki Pona community, too, both in forums and on IRC (though the original attempts at a Toki Pona book appear to have fallen by the wayside years ago).

One idle day, I was thinking about writing a short text about or of magic in Toki Pona, thinking it might be an interesting exercise.  I had to cut it off early on, though, primarily due to time restraints but also because of how daunting a task that would be.  Even though Toki Pona (literally meaning “good talk” or “simple talk”, since “good” and “simple” are the same word and simplicity is seen as good) is such a simple language, magic (or at least the kind of magic I work with) is decidedly not.  Given that it’s hard to describe “humans” as separate from “humanoid”, and how simple religious texts written in Toki Pona are largely unclear, talking about sephiroth and angels, the specifics of calling down elemental forces to charge objects or events, or how the placement of planets can affect the progress of a life or task is pretty much right out.  The size of the text would probably multiply tenfold, and would require dozens of pages just to lay out the first principles to describe what means what.

I mean, can’t we also see this happening anyway even in English texts?  I regularly bust out ancient Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, and Latin words and phrases to describe certain things or call them by their proper names.  Hell, it’s almost a trope that magicians use arcane languages, written and spoken, to achieve their ends, or at least to keep things a trade secret from the profane and vulgar.  When describing these ideas and forms, or Ideas and Forms, you almost have to introduce complexity and specification that defy simplicity; at least in ceremonial and qabbalistic terms, the only thing that can be accurately described as simple is the One, who is divinely simple; at that point, however, it doesn’t make sense to make any distinctions, where everything is One and One is All, and all language can be done away with anyhow.  After the One becomes (at least superficially) Many, already there’s so much complexity that 120 words just won’t cut it.

Toki Pona, as a conlang, has restrictions that normal language users don’t have.  Direct borrowings are very frowned upon, the one exception being proper names of people and places (which themselves have to undergo proper tokiponization to follow the phonetic rules of Toki Pona).  Invention of new words is right out; I recall the commotion when the inventor of the language added two words (from 118 to 120).  Hell, even ASL has a trick to point to an arbitrary space to use as a label for some object or referent, while (to my knowledge) Toki Pona has only one pronoun for such a thing (which can often be confusing even with proper context).  Given all this, I don’t think Toki Pona and ceremonial magic mix particularly well except for one important use: the description of a desired state or outcome.  This conlang is fantastic for describing how things are at their core, with as little subjectivity and as much clarity as possible.  Making sigils written from Toki Pona would be fantastic, as would describing statements of intent or will to be realized and manifested.  I haven’t used Toki Pona for that, but it seems like a very good application for it in magic.

What about you?  Do you know anything about Toki Pona?  Have you used conlangs or ritual languages in your work for specific ends, or do you do it all in your mother tongue?  What about written magic?