… It is true that you can become a mediocre pool player by mastering the geometry of the game …
… something in us instinctively recoils — literally and symbolically — from a linearly deterministic world in which our ongoing participation has no part.
This is the second of two posts today from Between Science and Literature: An Introduction to Autopoetics by Ira Livingston (2006). This particular essay is “How Bad Facts Make Good Theories”:
It is a truism that a “higher truth” than the merely factual is evoked in literature. What this usually means is that by not getting bogged down in the facts (understood as particular historical details), a work of fiction or poetry is better able to paint a “big picture” of how the world works and what kind of world it is; it misses the trees in order to see the forest.
… To the hierarchizing function of such metaphysical “higher truth” claims we can oppose a related but more horizontal claim focused on kinds of knowledge rather than degrees: that literature has been privileged to think through the self-referentiality banished from science and that science fiction ‘s hybrid and marginal location gives it a special privilege to rethink epistemological questions even as this privilege seems to come with the apparently high price of a loss of legitimacy. [the subject of the essay that precedes this one and from which, in today’s other post, I have only quoted the brief Burroughs extract]. Ideologies function to push out onto their subordinates the contradictions that would otherwise compromise them (that is, so as to seem themselves seamless and internally consistent). To bear these contradictions is not automatically to know them, and knowing them is not the same as reactivating them, which may be a question not of throwing them off but of learning how to use them to push back. This kind of partial leverage is what we try to gain by reading science fiction (in the past section), tabloid journalism, and even madness (in this section).
The example of “partial leverage” that Livingston uses here is “Richard Kopperdahl’s account (‘Crazy in New York’) of how a curious obsession developed into madness.”:
… When shooting pool, Kopperdahl became obsessed with what is called body English, where after taking a shot, a player will jerk and twist his body as if magically to communicate some motion to the ball, to make it spin more in the desired direction. Reasoning generously that people would not so commonly expend so much energy on body English unless it had some real usefulness, Kopperdahl asked himself whether there might not be some context in which body English would really work. This question generated the “eureka” moment that was to be Kopperdahl’s decisive step toward madness: body English would work underwater, where a twisting motion would generate eddies that could really affect objects just out of reach. Humans must have lived for eons as aquatic creatures — during the time of the biblical Flood — and body English must be a behavioral remnant of what was once an effective practice. From here, Kopperdahl somehow decided that he could still breathe underwater. This led to some dangerous experiments and, soon after, to the locked ward at Bellevue.
There is an elegant and compelling logic to Kopperdahl’s obsession. Pool and billiards have been — since their rise to popularity among European elites in the rationalist eighteenth century — the classic examples of linear, mechanistic cause and effect (object A strikes object B, which in turn strikes object C, and so on). One’s ability to influence the course of events is limited to a single stroke, a momentary touch of the cue stick on the cue ball; after that, one can only stand back and watch the result, which is supposed to follow in a mechanical and completely deterministic way from the single touch that set the ball in motion. In this model, the player resembles an absentee god who sets a clockwork universe in motion and then withdraws, a narrative that opposes older accounts of a world in which God or gods participate continuously and remain accessible to human interaction.
… It is true that you can become a mediocre pool player by mastering the geometry of the game, which accounts for a lot of what happens. But the effects of friction — the continuous feedback loop between the ball and its environment (table surface, rails, other balls) — are what push the game into the realm of physics and nonlinearity, and English takes advantage of this. Topspin causes the cue ball to follow the object ball after striking it; bottom English (“draw”) will cause the cue to stop dead or recoil after striking the object ball; left and right English spin the cue ball off its otherwise straight course. The effect of spin can also be changed by adjusting the speed of the ball or by hitting it off a rail; in some cases spin can also be effectively transferred from the cue ball to the object ball. The further from the original stroke, the more nonlinearitites are amplified: as anyone who has played pool knows, shots in which A hits B, B hits C, and C hits D are monstrously difficult because the margin for error gets smaller and smaller, rapidly exceeding human visual acuity, computational ability, and hand-eye coordination — and reaching the point where even perfect accuracy in these could not override the effects of tiny irregularities in the playing surface, cue tip, and more. The more balls involved, the more difficult or impossible it becomes to predict where each will end up: this is why even the best players cannot with any consistency hit a particular ball into a particular pocket on the break shot, which involves all fifteen balls. It is easy to see that the linear, determinist model of the game had to have been developed from billiards, played with only two object balls, rather than pool, with fifteen.
Aha! ‘Straight’ photographers think there are only two balls.
The use of English pushes the game more into the realm of nonlinearity, but it is also a big part of what distinguishes a good player from a mediocre one — or as another writer put it, in a game between a Newtonian and a non-Newtonian player, “The only deterministic, Newtonian event observable would be the arithmetic reduction in the thickness of [the Newtonian’s] wallet.”
… Remarkably, Kopperdahl’s crazy scenario of human evolution very precisely reproduces the anthropologist’s story: once upon a time, humans participated mystically in the world; we seemed to be connected in some subtle way with the things of the world (as the player who uses body English seems to identify with the ball) and to be able to influence them, ritually, through this connection.
… If body English is efficacious insofar as it preserves at least the memory of what the determinist account has not been able to eradicate, it is also counterproductive in allowing nonlinearity to be reduced to a convulsive afterthought. If the player could reintegrate nonlinearity into his model of the game, if his strokes were fully informed in the first place by such a model and not the impoverished linear one, perhaps he would forego the ritual tic of body English.
Or, even better if, after the fact, we had Photoshop…. Oh, wait, we do have Photoshop. Sorry Ira, I’m digressing. Please continue:
But this scenario seems too optimistic given that it is not only the model of the game but the game itself that has worked systematically to exclude nonlinearity. We can at least say that something in us instinctively recoils — literally and symbolically — from a linearly deterministic world in which our ongoing participation has no part.
My most recent previous post (before today’s) from Livingston’s book is here.