As a child, O held a deep fascination for me. It was its symmetry, its simplicity. There was a warmth and consistency and a reliability to it. It was full and it felt safe. I remember vividly how I sat on the floor as a child beneath the bridge of a frayed piano stool, my thin legs straight and ankles touching, goalkeeper gloves removed and neatly placed. My elbows barely reached its surface, upon it a scrap of paper and in my hand a pencil, ready to undertake a pressing experiment. I drew in the deepest breath I could, one that filled the hot air balloons of my lungs. Cheeks bullfrogged like Gilespie’s pouches, I quickly checked that the coast was clear and exhaled the word ‘so’ as slowly as I could, elongating the ‘o’ so that it became the body of this centipede of a word, its squat head the ‘s’. As I breathed the word into existence, I noted ‘o’ after ‘o’ after ‘o’ until I ran out of breath. There it was. ‘Sooooooooooooooooooooooooooo’. Proof. There were 28 o’s in ‘so’. It was only in adulthood that I saw the flaw in my experiment; that the number of o’s depended on the length of my exhalation and also the speed of how quickly I could write down multiple o’s in that lung of time.
This predilection for O’s, or perhaps circles in general, bled their way further into my consciousness as I grew. I became fascinated by the architecture of castles and their protective moats. Then it was dogs. How they prowled a space, circling as if pulled down an invisible plughole, before finally lying down. Later in life, I realised that I could not, or rather would not, do linear walks. Walks that involved traipsing to an end point and returning exactly the same way. It was beyond me why anyone would want to do this. On closer retrospection, it appeared that my circular walks had another pattern within them; they were always anti-clockwise. Was this due to my contrarian leanings to go against the grain or was it a car crash in adolescence that meant it was always easier to turn left? Perhaps both. But there was a strange bay of comfort to be found in the counter-clockwise. The clockwise construction of castle stairwells offered protection; where the counter-clockwise curve of descent became shield, hindering foe and empowering defender. Perhaps this is why I did it. That this counter-clockwise motion shielded me from the arrows and attacks of difference.
While there is a protective potency to the circular; from pen to Panopticon, weakness and pliability also lie latent within a solitary circle. Franz Kafka claimed that "The limited circle is pure", and in respect of the 28 of them in my ‘so’ experiment he was probably right. However, there is a cold and tainted insularity to the solitary circle too. Like the banding of a lamb’s tail, it constricts, deadening the synaptic connections between id and ego, individual and community. Copernicus’ Theorem showed that if we exist within a circle we only truly travel in a linear motion; a stunted back and forth. It is this closed circuitry that lies at the heart of man’s hamartia. The linear neck of an ostrich with its head in the sand is an embodiment of the selfish individual who plants a straight and solitary path of individual self-preservation. Its linearity offers no opportunity for the interlocking of communication, community, collaboration and common wealth as a common goal.
Communication requires interaction, a merging of ink blots that create a new colour of understanding at its confluence. In mainland Europe, 50% of Europeans speak a second language while in stark contrast only 25% of those in the UK and 22% of Americans can. Two countries that have espoused the merits of breakaways, the building of walls and travel bans. This reluctance to cross linguistic and cultural boundaries feeds ignorance and fear, narrowing empathetic as well as physical borders. It emboldens the case for the island insularity of the closed circle, the uprooting from a cultural ecosystem to the fallow lands of the familiar.
It is only when disparate elements amalgamate that they can shoulder the weight of rock, the expectations of a nation or choke the hold of tyranny. In the 17th century, sailors, airing their united grievances against their superiors, would sign their petitions in a circle, or round ribbon, in order to protect each other from being identified as individual ringleaders. There is valency in community; a capacity to combine, the ability to share and strengthen to gain stability. To gain order, truth and justice.
There is also a simple convalescence in the covalent, an overlapping between atomic orbitals that conceives the strongest of bonds. A union that can only exist if a symmetry of language is shared. It is the same symmetry of language that overlaps disparate, outraged individuals and bonds them into cohesive, tenacious movements. It is the language of common purpose and cause.
The isolation of ignorance is perhaps the most vaulted of positions, where confidence in one’s own lofty beliefs is safely ring-fenced from any taxing losses to the ego. Albert Einstein once said that “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world”. That compound interest, in respect of consciousness and cognition, comes as a result of withdrawing value from different circles of competence to create one cumulative account of knowledge, experience and understanding. This considered capturing of deep insight can only be gained from the slow return of broad study, where covalent bonds forge links between cultures, eras, thinkers and disciplines. But we live in a time where speed has replaced cash as King; of ‘10x your reading speed’ or ‘Get to God in 10 minutes’ tutorials. Where the slow and deep and meaningful haul from coracles has been replaced by the rapid haul of the shallow driftnet.
With speed comes superficiality, and this desire to gain or rather display an intellectual heft comes from a diet of singular, canape quotes rather than the heavy lifting of connection and reflection. It is an inverse gastric band; a sterile and mechanical procedure to gain the weight of consciousness but without doing the hard yards to get there or the contemplation to make it stick. Bite-sized Instagram philosophy to get a six pack of cerebral lobes for the brain. It is insight gleaned through empty and unconnected acquisition.
The notion of survival of the fittest implies the need to be an unconnected circle. To look after one’s own interests in isolation, cutting loose the anchor that tethers to the slowing burden of community. But, it is the kind, connected and the open who will thrive rather than survive.
Huw, well done! This was so peripatetic to read, and took me so many places. Ha and in a piece about connection, you just kept connecting ends of undone cords - it felt like "click," "click," "click," clicking into place. Also, your talk on panopticons got me thinking about Steve McAffrey's "Panopticon" from 1984 https://bookhugpress.ca/shop/author/steve-mccaffery/panopticon-by-steve-mccaffery/
I really enjoyed this. I don't drive and therefore do a lot of walking around Bristol in linear paths, A to B and back to A again, but when I am back in Herefordshire walking in the countryside it feels unnerving to not walk in a circle.
The pirate fact is really cool. The notions of circles and community got me to thinking about our self-directed education project. Everyday we start and end with a sociocratic meeting in a circle. As they are young people and want to test boundaries sometimes people decide to seat themselves in the middle of the circle. It feels jarring, like they have disturbed the feng shui of the space and it feels wrong on a primal level. I wonder if it may be literally that, or if the knowledge that they know that they are deliberately being contrary has buried itself within and resurfaces carrying with such emotions. Cultural or primal, or maybe a bit of both? Who knows. What I do know about our circles is that whilst we have procedures to keep them "kind, connected and... open", when they grow to be larger than 15 people the connectedness goes. The circle gets too big and the bonding that you write of becomes harder to maintain.
However, when there are conflicts that we have to resolve we sit in a linear line. Not facing each other in a line between, a line that draws us into me up and against you, but a line with aggrieved both facing the same way on either side of the mediator. I view this line as a symbol of the infinitely large circle; it says as we sit by side that we are a potential circle waiting to be closed, just as your conflict is a circle that needs closing before you too can move on. The power of working in the physical space of circles is really something to behold.