But did you pay the IRON PRICE?

If you’ve read far enough in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire you’ve probably met Theon Greyjoy’s people, the iron islanders. The iron isolanders feature more prominently in A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, if I remember correctly.

Theon’s father, Balon Greyjoy, is obssessed with paying the “iron price” for everything, and the iron price means using your (iron) sword and murdering some guy and taking his stuff.

The iron islanders are basically vikings, so they have to pillage everything they have. The Greyjoy house words are “We do not sow.” As in, they’re not supposed to farm. They just steal everything they need.

Balon insists that you have to pay the iron price for everything you own or have. If you’ve watched the Game of Thrones tv show you’ve seen that scene where Balon mocks Theon for not paying the iron price for that armor he has.

The thing is, the whole idea of “paying the iron price” is obviously totally unfeasible.

What about food or fishing? Why do we see fishermen among the iron islanders? What about trade? How do they survive?

Like, why would anyone else in the seven kingdoms put up with these assholes if, instead of trading, they just murdered people and took their stuff? Repeatedly? [1]

[1] Side note: Okay, everything I’m about to say aside, If you’ve read the series, “why does anyone put up with the iron islanders?” is actually a really good question. They’re generally useless and back stab and rise up in rebellion all the time. But anyway.

The answer, regarding what’s up with the iron price, is that of course it’s not feasible at all, and it’s not supposed to be.

It’s a great example of a really transparent and silly ideology that nonetheless everyone just goes along with, because hey, it greases the wheels and keeps the system working.

This is actually what makes the iron price so great. It makes no sense and stands up to not even the tiniest bit of scrutiny if you take it too literally.

But no one does, because that’s not how it works.

Instead, it’s a nuanced social code that everyone knows how to navigate in order to actually get things done:

Guy 1: “Hey, did you pay the iron price for all this stuff you obviously farmed?”

Guy 2: “Uh, sure. Yeah, technically. One of the shovels I used I took from some guy I murdered.”

Guy 1: “Cool. Well, I need some grain, so I’ll give you these coins that we’ll just assume were probably stolen at some point in the past.”

Guy 2: “Done.”


Guy 1: “Hey, I’m hungry, you got any fish? I stole these coins, you can have ’em. But I need fish.”

Guy 2: “Yeah, I got lotsa fish!”

Guy 1: “Did you pay the iron price for them?”

Guy 2: “Insofar as my fishhooks were made of iron, and I ‘stole’ them from the sea, yes, yes I totally paid the iron price.”

Guy 1: “Cool.”

See? Stuff gets done. Trade happens.

Everyone’s happy.

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“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

I just read "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. You can find it here: Stories of Your Life and Others. The Kindle version is $7.69.

It's really good. It's reminded me (somewhat) of that Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode, "Darmok," where the universal translator doesn't work quite right because the alien language's referential function is kind of on a different wavelength than our own. In order to say, for example, something along the lines of, "Darn, this isn't working," the alien keeps saying, "Shaka, when the walls fell," referring to an historical event. In order to say, "You [Picard] and I [Captain Dathan] should fight together against a common enemy," the alien says, "Darmok and Jalad, at Tanagra!" which is also an actual historical event involving people called, presumably, Darmok and Jalad. The episode resulted in this neat-o t-shirt:

(Credit to SA forums poster "Kirk," I think…?)

"Darmok" is probably one of the best TNG episodes.

Anyways, the Ted Chiang story is even better. (Some spoilers about the scifi and linguistic theory in the story.) "Story of Your Life" deals a whole bunch with semiotics. Like, what would a language be like if it came from a culture that understood the time-space continuum in a manner completely different from our own? I.e., if it came from a culture that experienced all events simultaneously?

Dr. Louise Banks is struck by the fact that, of all the math Earth has tried communicating with the aliens, they seem best able to communicate Fermat's principle of least time, which is, y'know, a pretty weird principle, because it means that light that hits water seems to "know" beforehand at which angle to travel in order to hit the water in just such a way that it travels in the least time. Eventually, Banks realizes that the aliens experience time non-sequentially. So how do they communicate?

Chiang (or the character-narrator, Dr. Louise Banks) posits that communication as such would be performative. Chiang basically lists the standard three examples that J.L. Austin gives of speech-act theory. Of the three, the one that illustrates the idea best is the one that's always given: we go through the ceremony of a wedding, knowing full well that it's going to end with "I do," but we still have to go through the full performance in order to make the ceremony "effective." We go through the motions to make those motions a reality.

This has thematic implications because of the side-plot relating to Dr. Louise Banks' daughter. The story uses the Sapir-Whorf hypthesis, which is the idea that the structure of a language structures thought. Steven Pinker doesn't like it. (The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is different from what I call the Bashir-Worf hypothesis: the idea that learning to speak Klingon without the universal translator make you more attractive to Dax symbiotes.) Would we have children if we knew the future, and that future wasn't always good? If we knew the future, would we perform the motions of events in order to make them a reality? And, in a classic time-travel paradox kind of way, wouldn't [enough] foreknowledge of the future us to act on it?

Chiang's "Story of Your Life" is excellent because it ties together seamlessly the high-concept science fiction with the emotional implications it explores, in a way much more resonant than a lot of sci fi short stories I've read. (I've read a fair share of golden age sci fi, but I haven't read an absolute tonne, and I readily admit that there's a lot of new stuff of which I am ignorant. I mostly read Gardner Dozoi's Year's Best anthologies.) I'll be reading the rest of Chiang's collection (there are seven more stories, I think) and then, probably, I'll try writing a review on Amazon or something. Writing Amazon reviews might be a New Year's resolution. Maybe. I don't know yet.

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Žižek, the Coen Bros., and C.S. Peirce on the semiotic reality of math formulas

How do you represent what can’t be represented? (Painfully inadequate metaphors, duh.)

Then, the Symbolic Real.

It’s simply, for example, scientific discourse, scientific formulas, like quantum physics. Why is this Real? For a simple reason: the minimum definition of the Real, for Lacan, is that which resists symbolization, inclusion into our universe of meaning. And isn’t that precisely which happens for example with quantum physics? What is quantum physics? Formulas which work — experimentally confirmed and so on and so on — but we cannot translate them into our daily experience of ordinary reality. As we all know, this is what is so traumatic about quantum physics. We literally cannot understand it. Not in the sense that we, common people, cannot understand it, only a couple of scientists can — even they cannot. In what sense? In the sense that it just works, but if you tried to build a consistent ontology out of it, again, you get meaningless results. You get time running backwards, you get parallel universes, or whatever. In other words you get things which simply are meaningless with regard to our ordinary notion of reality. So this would be Symbolic Real. Symbolic, obviously it is Symbolic: formulas, pure signifiers. They function, it’s a functioning machine, but, meaningless. We cannot make any sense out of it. We cannot relate it to our experience. Which is why we try so desperately to do it, which is why we try to invent metaphors to imagine quantum universe. But, it cannot be done.

— Slavoj Žižek The Reality of the Virtual (2004) (my transcription)


(awkwardly writing formulas on the board)
Okay. So. This part is exciting. So. Am I right? So, okay. So, if that’s that, then we can do this. And that’s Shrodinger’s paradox, right? Is the cat dead? Or is the cat… not dead?


(Shortly thereafter, in Larry’s office.)

So, uh, what can I do for you?

Uh, Doctor Gopnik. I believe the results of the physic midterm were unjust.

Uh huh. How so?

I received unsatisfactory grade. In fact, ‘F,’ the failing grade.

Uh, yes. You failed the midterm. That’s accurate.

Yes, but that is not just. I was unaware to be examined on the mathematics.

Well, you can’t do physics without mathematics, really, can you?

If I received a failing grade, I lose my scholarship. And I feel shame! I understand the physics! I understand the dead cat!

But y-you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing. The stories I give in class are just illustrative. They’re like fables, say, to help give you a picture. I mean… even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.

Very difficult. Very difficult.

A Serious Man (2009) (my transcription)


Thus, an algebraic formula is an icon [i.e. a type of sign which shares some similar property with its object], rendered such by the rules of commutation, association, and distribution of the symbols. It may seem at first glance that it is an arbitrary classification to call an algebraic expression an icon; that it might as well, or better, be regarded as a compound conventional sign. But it is not so. For a great distinguishing property of the icon is that by the direct observation of it other truths concerning its object can be discovered than those which suffice to determine its construction. [par. 279]


Many diagrams [i.e. the second type of “hypoicon”] resemble their objects not at all in looks; it is only in respect to the relations of their parts that their likeness consists. [par. 282]

— Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers Vol. 2

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New year, new term

New year, new term

Aside from beginning my TA duties today (the onerous task of attending one lecture and picking a tutorial time), today I *really* begin studying for my “Discourse and Text Analysis” field exam. The exam reading list asks you to pick two out of five subcategory reading lists. I picked “Semiotics” and “Narrative.” Other possibilities included “Discourse Analysis,” “The Politics of Discourse,” and “Discourse and Gender.”

This means that all the things I’ve been wanting to read, even if they’re sorta kinda related to the reading list, will be put on hold. This includes a neat book I saw in Chapters or Indigo a few weeks back, when I was there buying Christmas presents: The Exegesis of Philip K Dick. I only flipped through it, but the passage I actually saw was talking about (and attempting to diagram!) the Word or Logos and its relation to other words. I thought that was interesting, especially when one considers the book’s title—we use more and more words (i.e., exegesis) in our attempt to access the Word, and of course that sort of helps, but then again it also doesn’t. That’s probably why Dick’s book clocks in at, like, 900 pages or something. (And the book is really only a selection of Dick’s notes on what he referred to as the “exegesis.”) The book reminded me of a great line from J. Hillis Miller. In a deconstructive reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s The Wreck of the Deutschland, Miller says that what Hopkins discovers in the poem is that “there is no word for the Word.” Instead, all you get are more and more words. Words words words—Exegesis if you’re Dick, and Différance if you’re Derrida, I guess.

Well, now I’m just making myself want to read Dick’s book, and I’m not even that familiar with his work (though Blade Runner is one of my favourite movies—does that count?). It’s just that while browsing through Dick’s book in Indigo/Chapters, I saw Dick’s scribbles and his visual attempts to represent different metaphysical concepts in really ugly scribbles and doodles and I immediately identified with him. And, and, and…

—anyways, if I can get through J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words today, I’ll be pleased. (He said performatively.)

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