Sirens, Symbols, Serendipity, 2017
Paul Feigenfeld works on media, data politics, artificial intelligence, and future studies. For Phenomenon 2, the theorist presented a lecture (5 July 2017, politistikos) on the origin of the Greek alphabet, Kittler’s audio-archaeological expedition to find the actual Sirens and personal odysseys. He also held a workshop (11 July 2017, new school) on the future of writing in cryptologocentrism.
SYMBOLS, SIRENS, SERENDIPITY. FROM ALPHABET TO THE ANAFIBET
It must have been a place like this, I thought, when I was slowly waking up and had my first coffee down by Klisidi beach after having landed on the island of Anafi in a pitch black night. Where the alphabet was invented, it must have been in a place like this. I hadn‘t met the others yet. We had been symbolized on this island, symballein meaning thrown together, by Iordanis and Piergiorgio, as a finite collection of symbols which – together – would be able to manifest everything. Just like this, with one ship spewing all of us out onto the barren rock and paradise that is Anafi, the alphabet must have been invented. A landing, a salvation, a shipwreck. It didn‘t emerge from the sea like Aphrodite or from history as a slow invention used for trade or something else practical. There is no pragmatism in the appearance of consonants and vowels. It is pure contingency, poetry, legend.
Legend has it that there was one anonymous hero who invented the Greek vowel alphabet for one singular purpose. Legend meaning a few scholars, most eminently Classics professor Barry B. Powell in his <Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (1991) and media philosopher Friedrich A. Kittler in the first volume of his late and unfinished opus magnum Music and Mathematics I/1. Hellas: Aphrodite (2005).The single purpose it was supposedly invented for was to record something that until then happened in another realm: The spoken and infinitely recounted poems of one who could not read, the blind singer Homer. There had been alphabets and writing systems before, but the Greek vowel alphabet made one significant leap by injecting vowels where otherwise consonants reigned. Language, this juxtaposition of the continuous flow of vowels and consonants fragmenting them into orphic morphemes, syllables, words, spoken language could for the first time be really written down, not just approximated. For love, poetry and heroes and so that, as they say, we could be heroes, just for one day.
Kittler, who was my teacher for a long time, set out to prove this. For this, he voyaged to a place that almost sounds like Anafi, the coast of Amalfi. Inspired by a book by a retired Royal Navy first lieutenant named Ernle Bradford, who, after his duty on a destroyer ship during World War II decided to settle in the Mediterranean and explore its nautical histories, Kittler identified two islands where he was convinced proof could be found. Bradford had sailed the Mediterranean for decades on his ship, which he christened the Mischief, until in 1963 he published his book Ulysses Found, which attempted to retrace the Odyssey in all its navigationally idiotic glory. Off the coast of Amalfi, close to Capri, the tiny Li Galli islands can be found. They are also known as the Sirenusai, the Siren Islands, and from above, one of them looks exactly like a dolphin. In 1922, one of the islands had been purchased by Léonide Massine, the principal director of Diaghilev‘s Ballet Russe, who restored the old Aragonese Tower on Gallo Lungo, the larger of the two islands, into a dance studio and open air theatre with accommodations. It was destroyed by a storm. With some design advice from his friend Le Corbusier, Massine constructed a villa on the site of the original Roman structure which he used until his death. In 1988, the island was again bought by Rudolf Nureyev, who spent his final years there.
And finally, in 2004, a maverick crew of ageing German media scholars around Friedrich Kittler – including the likes of Peter Weibel and Anthony Moore – with a hippiesque busload full of sound equipment drove down there to find the sirens. Their sirens. Actually, they brought them with them. The crew also included opera director Christian von Borries and two opera singers, who would be sirens, just for one day. Here is their story:
We all know that Odysseus was the biggest liar and trickster of them all. Homer tells us in the very first sentence of his song, when he demands the muse sing to him of the polytropos man, the man of „many devices“, „twists and turns“, „ingenious“, „well-traveled“… the translations vary, but introduce a man who cons like a pro. Which is precisely what initiated all the ill fates Odysseus and his crew suffered, as well as what saved them, brought them home, and also saved a cheating husband from Penelope‘s wrath. Sweet little lies.
Sure, Circe held him „captive“ after she had turned those of his men who weren‘t already into „swine“ and the messenger god Hermes, this divine drug peddler, had given him something magic called „Moly“ (I cannot prove any correlation to the American street name for MDMA „molly“), so he had no choice but to stay on as a sex slave for a year or so. Of course, Calypso used her magical songs to keep him from leaving her island for another seven years, even though he begged her. I swear, Penelope, it was torture. In between, Odysseus and his men passed the island of the sirens:
“‘Come here,’ they sang, ‘renowned Ulysses, honour to the Achaean name, and listen to our two voices. No one ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of our song- and he who listens will go on his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills that the gods laid upon the Argives and Trojans before Troy, and can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.’
“They sang these words most musically, and as I longed to hear them further I made by frowning to my men that they should set me free; but they quickened their stroke, and Eurylochus and Perimedes bound me with still stronger bonds till we had got out of hearing of the Sirens’ voices. Then my men took the wax from their ears and unbound me.“
Or so the story goes. Kittler and his „many devices“ (sophisticated audio equipment from Humboldt-Universität‘s media lab) set out to demonstrate that from that distance, sailing past, with wind singing and waves crashing, there is no way that Odysseus could have heard the song and correctly understood the words. If anything, you can make out the singsong of the howl of vowels – AEIOU, Aelous, the god of wind – but nothing else. So there he was, white nutty professor hair and Benson-and-Hedges-Gold-stained moustache from incessant chainsmoking, Kittler and his crew adrift on the waves in a safe distance from the sirens, placed on the cliffs of Li Galli, singing their hearts out, calling the old man to „come here, renowned Friedrich“, voicing other sonic experiments, sometimes with, sometimes without actual words. In a video recording of it, we see a Kittler with questionable sea legs yelling and articulating very clearly „LOGOS! WOORRRRTE! (WOOORRRRRDDSSSS!)“, while a famous radio engineer, who was also part of the expedition, extended his microphone abocve and into the the waves and sea like fishermen do with their rods, praying for a catch, methodically, yet with the serendipitious serenity one needs to trust in the depth and its bounty. No words, no logos could be heard. Only the continuous sounds of vowels bounced off the rippled surface of the Mediterranean Sea and into Kittler‘s boat like flying fish. The consonants, necessary to crystallize them into words, silently sank to the bottom of the sea.
What follows? Odysseus lied. He must have landed on the island to be, as the sirens promise, not only charmed but wiser, and then – and that‘s the part I never really understood, but then again we‘re talking about Odysseus and Kittler – engaged in a threesome with the sirens. This, however, means one more thing: The Odyssey isn‘t poetry, it‘s history. The proof is not between the lines, but between the signs and songs of Homer and the Sirens.
Speech, as it were, is like the sea and its islands: vowels waving against rugged consonant coastlines. Thus goes the invention of the alphabet. Odysseus, polytropically searching for Ithaca, eloping his way back to Penelope, psyching the cyclops, a blind singer (in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king), and all the words since. Symbols have since become operative, letters don‘t just hold a phonetic value anymore, but follow form and function in mathematical formulae and code alike. Which is why Google now calls itself Alphabet, or has effectively become the Alpha and the Omega of it all – and we‘re still searching, not charmed, none the wiser, but definitely with even more devices and encyclopedias, yet less cyclopses.
Today, I was informed by one of us symbols on Anafi after I told this story, the islands belong to someone else. We might go again, to see if we can hear anything.
What commences with the invention of poetry is the invention of invention, the creation of creation: poiesis. It‘s what happens today when something fishes itself out of the the deep dark seas of machinic intelligence, afloat on its lysgerically colored deep dream surfaces. Creation creates itself. There never has been a creator, let alone a divine one. The people on Anafi, just as well as off the Amalfi coast, the people, the symbols rearranging themselves with each other are part of an evolution of symbols reading signs, of the artistic recurring on the artificial and vice versa. Just as our stay on Anafi, it is both finite and endless. There are silences and sounds, sirens, absolutely no snakes, flying falcons like Circe, monoliths like in 2001. A Space Odyssey. And there is the real, there are moments when shipwrecked and lost people land on the island, fleeing from and towards something uncertain. It is hard to describe what happened to the I and the land. The Anafibet created itself instantly and slowly. We could experience it starting to whisper, speak and sing, its signs appeared everywhere, its movements danced across the roofs. Its meaning was the strong quiet noise of Meltemi.