Here is a beginning framework of what it means to follow the monkey.
It is only that. A framework. A beginning. An armature. We still need to work together to solve the remaining mysteries of S. It is my hope that an explanation of this armature helps us do just that.
To orient ourselves, here are a few previous blog posts that help set the stage.
It would also help before we continue to make sure we all understand the basics of cybernetics (from the Greek word kybernetes, which means steersman or governor), along with its most basic concept: the feedback loop. The best summary on this subject I have seen is from a Wired Magazine article that says…
A feedback loop involves four distinct stages. First comes the data: A behavior must be measured, captured, and stored. This is the evidence stage. Second, the information must be relayed to the individual, not in the raw-data form in which it was captured but in a context that makes it emotionally resonant. This is the relevance stage. But even compelling information is useless if we don’t know what to make of it, so we need a third stage: consequence. The information must illuminate one or more paths ahead. And finally, the fourth stage: action. There must be a clear moment when the individual can recalibrate a behavior, make a choice, and act. Then that action is measured, and the feedback loop can run once more, every action stimulating new behaviors that inch us closer to our goals.
In summary, a feedback loop’s four stages explained in a way that are contextualized for S are
- An individual gathers new information.
- The irrelevancies of that data are stripped away and what matters is emotionally conveyed to the individual for rumination.
- Insights – creative leaps (as the author of Godel, Escher, Back would call them) – from the new information drive the individual to continue to write his/her story with the new paths of choice that are illuminated.
- The individual selects one path of illumination, recalibrating his/her behavior accordingly. Then the feedback loop repeats.
Communications between two people always include feedback loops. The act of writing creates a feedback loop between author and reader. What we witness in the marginalia of Eric and Jen’s writing is a concrete example of cybernetics at play: continuous feedback as both Eric and Jen learn more about each other and about themselves with each new message between them.
There is a very special kind of feedback loop, though, that does something more that just illuminate paths that might be taken in the future. Sometimes information introduced to an individual – a new truth – forces what we call an epistemological crisis. An epistemological crisis occurs when new information – a new truth – arrives in the feedback loop that challenges everything we already thought we believed to be true, forcing us to rewrite our former story with a new schema.
Most of us who watched Sixth Sense experienced an epistemological crisis. We watched a story unfold and began forming a framework of understanding that story. And then, at the climax, we were presented with a truth that forced us to completely rewrite our understanding of the story we had just witnessed. All the events of the story were exactly the same, but their meaning changed entirely. It was a true Ship of Theseus moment. We had to ask ourselves, is it the same story, even though I just had to replace most if not all the parts of how I built the story in my head with completely new parts that integrated the new truth?
Probably the first story to every penetrate the modern psyche with the idea of epistemological crisis was Hamlet (which has many references in S), by William Shakespeare. As Alisdair MacIntyre explains in Crisis, Narrative, and Science, Hamlet is searching for a true and intelligible narrative that explains the death of his father, but he is overwhelmed with too many possible schematics that can explain it. He then embarks on a quest for the truth. MacIntyre goes on to explain…
When an epistemological crisis is resolved, it is by the construction of a new narrative which enables the agent to understand both how he or she could intelligibly have held his or her original beliefs and how he or she could have been so drastically misled by them. The narrative in terms of which he or she at first understood and ordered experiences is itself made into the subject of an enlarged narrative. The agent has to come to understand how the criteria of truth and understanding must be reformulated. He has to become epis- temologically self-conscious and at a certain point he may have to come to acknowledge two conclusions: The first is that his new forms of understanding may themselves in turn come to be put in question at any time; the second is that, because in such crises the criteria of truth, intelligibility, and rationality may always themselves be put in question – as they are in Hamlet – we are never in a position to claim that now we possess the truth or now we are fully rational. The most we can claim is that this is the best account which anyone has been able to give so far, and that our beliefs about what the marks of a “best account so far” are will themselves change in what are at present unpredictable ways
With all of this in mind, I believe that to follow the monkey is to embark on a journey as readers to identify the feedback loops that lead to epistemological crisis – to discover the new truths that cause us to rewrite our current understanding of S – until, after multiple iterations, we arrive at the best possible account – a true and intelligible narrative. Our Ship of Theseus is undergoing continual changes, sometimes with complete destruction and reconstruction, as we do our best to form the ship that S sees through the spyglass at the end. This is evident to us as S himself witnesses the ship undergo its changes, construction, and deconstruction. It’s also bared before us as S sits down in The Lady‘s cabin to read The Book of S and struggles to understand why it contains schematics for the ship’s construction along with a catalog of its changes.
The changes S’s ship endures are the changes our understanding of S goes through with each new truth we discover. Our schematics for explaining the story are continually changing.
Below is a catalog of the appearances of our monkey and a likely incomplete ilustration of how feedback loops and epistemological crises are hidden before us in plain sight to keep us following. (Keep in mind, all forms of communication between two people involve feedback loops).
The monkey spots S as he walks by the organ grinder and tone-deaf immigrant (8-9)
- The tone-deaf immigrant and barrel organ owner struggle to communicate through their language barrier.
- The barrel organs are ground – organ grinding – turning loops to make sounds.
- The immigrant hides a truth about the money in the monkey’s pocket that will rewrite his peaceful escape.
- The barrel organ owner hides a truth about which stack of money is more valuable.
- The barrel organ owner suspects the truth about the immigrant holding out on him and that he intends to attack the immigrant later to determine the truth that the immigrant is hiding. All of this leads to S seeing the monkey later as he passes out.
- In Fn2, p8, FXC reveals the truth about the note pinned to the monkey that accepted Straka’s award from Bouchard. This new truth requires rewriting the story of what everyone else thought happened before FXC’s reveal.
- The marginalia reveals Jen and Eric attempting to determine the truth about Bouchard and the S organization. The truths are elusive.
- This first time that we see the monkey, he is in a room full of barrel organs. The last time we see the monkey, he is releasing wine from barrels back to the earth.
S spots the monkey as he is about to pass out after being drugged and says Run, monkey. Run. (24-25)
- S is obducted while attempting to communicate with Sola and arrive at truths that will help him successfully construct the narrative of his life – his identity.
- Two life-long pursuits are born in S: Sola and The Archer’s Tales.
- The Archer’s Tales – an archer uses literal feedback loops (the bull’s-eye target) to readjust his aim with the feedback he receives from the previous shot.
- The drug makes it impossible for S to understand communications.
- In the pocket of the monkey’s tattered red coat is money (truth) that would serve as a feedback loop to the suspicions of the barrel organ owner. The barrel organ owner’s sons are chasing the feedback they need, and S encourages the monkey to keep running. We, the readers, are chasing feedback to help us understand S. But that monkey is running ahead of us, with S’s encouragement, and therein lies the game we are all playing right now.
The monkey is rescued from the ghost ship and come’s aboard the xebec (54-56).
- The feedback loop we long to know – is this the same monkey?
- Maelstrom mentions the monkey. Maelstrom’s name means mill stream. A mill stream is a special diversion of water to drive a waterwheel – loops of water. Maelstrom once says that all I means t’ steer the ship. The word cybernetics means, literally, the one who steers.
- S undergoes a brief epistemological crisis. He thinks the monkey is a baby for a moment, his heart sinking, and then he looks closer and realizes the truth.
- Eric’s pencilled marginalia suggests the monkey is an iteration of S. To iterate is to repeat. A loop.
- The insert in these pages is a telegram from Straka to Karst & Sons with new information – a feedback loop to the publishers. FXC is to take over henceforth as translator. Fn6, p55 references a Spider Prince and the marginalia has a drawn spider web. Spiders create their webs with loops.
The monkey flees the approaching waterspouts and goes down the hatch (62).
- S’s vision of the waterspouts has a mysterious feedback loop (that we don’t yet understand) to Sola in the tavern drinking her drink. In the present, the monkey runs “down the hatch” – is this a deliberate connection?
- The ship is destroyed by the waterspouts, but S survives. Here we have a metaphor for our schema of understanding being destroyed and later reconstructed after we undergo new experiences.
- In the marginalia – Eric’s uncle doesn’t know the truth of why Eric backed out of the trip on the boat.
- Jen writes that she knew something Eric said earlier here wasn’t the whole story. So it needs to be rewritten.
S spots the monkey on the resurrected xebec after his leap from the cave (200-201).
- S undergoes a much larger epistemological crisis the moment he sees the ship: how is the ship all put back together? So soon? But it’s different now, but still the same ship.
- S started in the water after leaving the ship and emerged in B__. Now he leaps from the cave and returns to water, where he once again finds the ship – one large loop.
- The monkey is swinging loops in the halyard.
- The postcard insert here presents us with a feedback loop inducing another important epistemological crisis: Not only is FXC alive – but Eric FOUND HER. FXC will give many new insights (feedback loops) to S to aid him in the story. Her words, her letters, and eventually her personal copy of the alternate ending to “S” that help Eric and Jen rewrite their narrative tha they are piecing together about FXC and Straka, about S and Sola.
S hears the monkey laugh after Maelstrom explains to S that he will willingly return from El H__ after he disembarks (219-220)
- There is a feedback loop and epistemological crisis symbolized in S’s round trip to El H__. Before he leaves, he cannot possibly imagine returning, but Maelstrom explains that he will and you’ll be ‘hap to. It turns out to be true, but only after S experiences what he does in El H__ and sees why.
- In Fn6, p219, a new truth (reinforced by Eric’s notes) explains confusion caused in Straka’s communications.
- Maelstrom takes S’s nail, telling him not to deface the ship. S insists that the truth of the story about the nail and his carving is not defacing.
- S struggles to rewrite the story of what is going on with his life when Maelstrom informs him that Vevoda “cogs yer venin.” This new truth is disturbing to S.
- Jen secures a meeting with Ilsa but is concerned that she won’t understand the truth.
- In the marginalia we witness several discussions of nended truth: what happened in Havana and when MacInnes left S.
The monkey runs circles around the female sailor (266-267)
- S and the woman struggle to communicate.
- The woman and the monkey struggle to communicate.
- The monkey is running around the pouting sailor in loops.
- S seeks Maelstrom: the one who speaks, the one whose name evokes thoughts of looping water, and who steers the ship (cybernetics).
- We have an epistemological crisis in understanding whether or not the pouting sailor is also The Lady of Obsidian Island? And if she is, how?
The monkey is sitting on top of a barrel in the middle of the deck tossing pieces of ship biscuit into the wind. (272)
- A barrel is made up of wooden loops formed by a cooper. Corbeau’s father was a cooper (123).
- The crew is struggling understand Maelstrom’s communications. They pause, waiting to be sure they heard correctly. After the feedback loop is complete, they change their plans and head for Obsidian Island.
- Whistles operate on the principle of feedback loops to create sound.
- Lewis Looper is mentioned in the Fn on p270 as al this happens.
- In the marginalia, we witness the very first mention of Eric/Jen having met in person. A brand new feedback loop is introduced.
- Jen mentions a specific feedback loop that creates one of her own epistemological crises: she runs into her old college roommate and discovers that she was much more like her than she thought, but Jacob distracted her from noticing.
The monkey is sitting on top of the ghost-ship boy as S becomes part o’ the tradition. (297)
- We see a crystal clear feedback loop and epistemological crisis for many. Maelstrom and his crew have one when they find S down in the orlop writing.“‘Ah, hell,’ Maelstrom seems to be saying, ‘it dint ness t’go li’ this.’ But now it does.” New information rewrites the story. S once hated the idea of even thinking of becoming on of the crew, and now he finds himself becoming one. Everything rewritten.
- S’s lips are sewn together with loops of black thread.
- The pouting sailor who was the one in the last monkey sighting with the mop, and may very well be The Lady of Obsidian Island, provides the fishhook with a snarl to Maelstrom, who sews S’s lips.
- In the marginalia we find several small instances of feedback loops.
The monkey shrieks as Vevoda’s planes make the first actual entrance into the apparently hidden world of the ship at sea. (338)
- Now that Vevoda’s planes have penetrated where ships like us were formered safe, the direction of the story must change. S gets his wish to go to The Territory after all.
- Jen finds out her sister and Jacob are the reason Mom and Dad are coming for a visit. This new information enrages her.
On his way to assassinate the governor, S dreams that he is paddling in the stern of a steel canoe. In the bow, with a monkey on her back, is Sola. (341)
- S struggles to communicate with Anca and Waqar.
- S is in the middle of a loop between leaving the ship to find the Governor (cybernetics), realizing who the Governor is, and returning to the ship to find it destroyed.
- Eric circles Nemec and writes discrepancy with original manuscript. This new information changes the story that Straka wrote. FXC changed the original to Nemec to reflect the new truth of who the traitor actually was.
Anca tells S to follow the monkey to find the governor, which turns out to be a symbol carved into a tree that leads him to the path. As S contemplates what it means to follow the monkey, he remarks to himself, Of course there is a monkey. There is always a monkey. Near the end of the path, S hears a howler monkey cry out in the distance. (352-353)
- S, upon hearing birdsong that seems out of place, loops back through the thought of his friends when he catalogs the sounds (a Merlin, an Oystercatcher, a Raven, and a Magpie Tanager).
- The monkey leads S to the biggest epistemological crisis of his life: the governor is Pfeifer. S has gone from the man who would risk his life to save Pfeifer to the man who would choose to end his life. Who S thought he was change in this loop from cave to hilltop. As he runs to escape the rifle of the guard, a magpie dies from a bullet wound. This and the destruction of the ship force S to rewrite his own narrative – he is who he is because of his actions, not because of his past that he does not remember. A man is no more and no less than the story of his passion and deeds (see insert on page 361).
When S is finally with Sola after his solace in the Winter City, he returns to the ship with her. There he finds the monkey, which seems much older now, curled up asleep. It awakens and makes a noise before returning to sleep. (401)
- S completes the loop between the ship’s destruction, his time in the Winter City, and returning with Sola.
- The ship is reconstructed. The monkey still alive. We don’t know yet but Maelstrom’s spyglass is underneath the blanket where S sees him sleep.
- Jen completes the feedback loop with Jacob over his “betrayal” in involving her sister/parents.
- Another Santorini man occurs, changing the story of whether the S is still active and the enemy is still in pursuit.
In the climax, the monkey is darting among the wine barrels, pulling out the bungs and draining the black wine. (452-454)
- The feedback loop of the wine being “recycled” – settled.
- S has a positive epistemological crisis with a feedback loop. After he feels the voices in his head go silent and settled when the wine in the barrels is released back into the earth and recycled, he no longer wishes to destroy his enemy. He rewrites the ending.
- We hear the squeal of feedback from Edvar Vevoda VI’s microphone as he is apparently shot and dies on stage – while presenting truth to the crowd in an unscripted speech. Draw near, gentlemen, draw near, do not miss any of these words for this is Truth and it is a miraculous thing (445).
- This is where FXC takes over with her version of the ending – where she rewrites the narrative based on her perceived truth. Jen says on p455 See. This whole final sequence was hers. From the monkey’s appearance on.
- In the marginalia, there are discussions about the temperature of the apartment in Prague. They mention how cold it is, which hearkens back to page 447 when they talk about the thermostat – one of the most basic cybernetic systems with a feedback loop.
- In the marginalia, we are presented with the unfinished narrative of what happened at the planetarium before Jen and Eric left the country for Prague.
S envisions how he will obtain Maelstrom’s spyglass from its hiding place in the chart room – under the blankets where the monkey sleeps and under the table from where Maelstrom examined his maps for feedback from the red color changes. (455-456)
- The spyglass reveals another ship. The way things can and will be when the full truth is finally clear. Maelstrom often studied the maps, acted on the feedback loop of growing redness, and looking through the spyglass for more feedback.
- Eric/Jen discuss how they now know FXC’s alt version started from the monkey’s appearance on.
- Eric thinks FXC’s ending is ambiguous. Jen disagrees.
- We now have the question of whether or not Jen/Eric are ok. OK is scratched out and we have the copy of their book.
- The monkey uses a raw piece of substance to release the wine from the barrels. The sounds are loud.
- The monkey might as well be one with S.
- The monkey kills Vevoda with the piece of substance.
- The story ends from the perspective of the monkey. It knows Vevoda is dead. It knows S is transparent – and knows that S is unaware of this. It feels like there is something essential about the man that it has failed to understand. We are left with the search for the truth of understanding what essential something will help us rewrite the narrative, discover S’s name, understand Eric and Jen’s story, find out what really happened in Havana, whether Straka lived, etc.
Where do we go from here? We continue to follow the monkey – to search for those hidden truths that help us rewrite our current understanding of the story so that we can create the most true and intelligible narrative that we can.
There are countless other examples of feedback loops, needed truths, and epistemological crises in S that either provide seed for thought in advancing the quest or illustrate the follow the monkey principle. Please leave your feedback in the comments section. Here are a few examples to get us started…
- The first time S finds himself on the ship and wanders around to gain a sense of where – and what – he is, Jen writes in the margins that she has discovered a new truth: that FXC is a woman. Eric writes this changes everything (29).
- In the chapter, The Drifting Twins, S watches in horror as the constellations drift in such a way that the stars no longer have meaning. New meaning must be made. New narratives created.
- When S discovers the truth of the bomb in B, in advance of its detonation, this feedback forces him to abandon his quest to follow Sola and return to his newfound friends and explain the truth. Despite this, the townsfolk believe the newspaper accounts that these very same people who tried to stop the bomb are actually responsible for it. This false narrative, created by Vevoda and given momentum by fear, changes the story and makes our friends fugitives fleeing for their lives.
- What begins at the water shall end there, and what ends there shall once more begin. This is a good way of describing a cybernetic system.
- What else do you see?