Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — from Raff Pantucci to Shakespeare & Borges — plays within plays, mirrors within mirrors — then back again ]



As you know, I’m in the habit of moving from apocalyptic and / or terrorist specifics to wider considerations, often more philosophical than immediately practical. Here’s the key paragraph from Raff Pantucci’s RUSI Journal report, A Death in Woolwich.

Raff Pantucci:

The problem is in establishing where the line is drawn in legal terms between what constitutes simply extremist ideas and those ideas that lead to terrorist activity. A fundamental question that lies at the heart of the task force’s work, it is unclear that there is any definite response. In a free society, radical ideas must be permitted within the context of free speech, and separating them from those that actively drive people to carry out acts like the murder in Woolwich may be very difficult if not impossible.

Lao Tzu:

the way that can be mapped is not the way to go, the meaning that can be put into words is not the final word.

Now to reflect..


We model our world, twice.

Howard Rheingold describes the first model thus:

We habitually think of the world we see as “out there,” but what we are seeing is really a mental model, a perceptual simulation that exists only in our brains.

— which to my mind corroborates Edward Schafer‘s remark, in Pacing the Void: T’ang Approaches to the Stars:

So, in the end, it was within the bony planetarium of the skull that the divine asterisms are spread — identical, through a kind of supernatural topology, with the constellations we think we see above our heads.

That’s right, that’s right — but it’s not all. We see what our various sensory inputs, passed through our various filters and somehow synthesized, presents itself as the world as it is — but isn’t.

That’s reasonably easy to conceptualize in psych class — but hard to maintain in awareness when, say, you unexpectedly find yourself in the path of an oncoming bus — or bullet. But let me repeat: the bus or bullet you see, if you even have “time” to see either one — is a mental image of a bus or bullet, which may itself exist either in “waking reality” or in a “dream”.


We then make a second model, this one in words — hey, the two models may actually be what the Buddhists term “mutually co-arising”, but let’s take them one at a time — and thus we think our way into a worldview, one that we believe represents the salient distinctions to be made about our mental model of the “world as it is” — be it a dream or otherwise.

We make distinctions, which may or may not extend from our worldview into the world…

the brain and the world from o'toole venus


Furthermore, some of us models our world in words brilliantly: Shakespeare’s invention of theatre assimulation that runs on minds:

Shakespeare’s great innovation was of theatre as a model of the world. The audience member constructs the simulated model in the course of the play, and thereby takes part in the design activity. .. Shakespeare designed plays as simulations of human actions in relation to predicaments, so that the deep structure of selfhood and of the interaction of people who have distinct personalities becomes clearer

Theater, then, is a model of the world — Totus mundus agit histrionem, all the world plays a play — and Shakespeare‘s “plays within a play” are themselves played out on what Plotinus calls “this world stage which men have dotted with stages of their own constructing” — which is itself a model, a mental simulation.


Models of models, however, have their limits, and that is what Lao Tzu points us to in the celebrated opening of the Tao Te Ching. The map is not the territory, neither our thoughts nor our perceptions alone are the world we live in — and “the world we live in” is itself quite literally a synthetic world.

Borges is another who knows this, who explores the comparative topologies of words and the world within them. As the introduction to his great collection Labyrinths puts it:

Novalis: “The greatest of sorcerers would be the one who would cast a spell on himself to the degree of taking his own phantasmagoria for autonomous apparitions. Might that not be our case?” Borges answers that indeed it is our case: it is we who have dreamed the universe. We can see in what it consists, the deliberately constructed interplay of the mirrors and mazes of this thought, difficult but always acute and laden with secrets. In all these stories we find roads that fork, corridors that lead nowhere, except to other corridors, and so on as far as the eye can see. For Borges this is an image of human thought, which endlessly makes its way through concatenations of causes and effects without ever exhausting infinity, and marvels over what is perhaps only inhuman chance. And why wander in these labyrinths? Once more, for aesthetic reasons; because this present infinity, these “vertiginous symmetries,” have their tragic beauty. The form is more important than the content.



When we think we know something, we in a hall of models within models, mirrors within mirrors — and perhaps we arwe that hall, those mirrors we believe we can walk though as though they were a corridor — as though they might lead us somewhere.

And then the next moment arises, the next world, and the next thought — not too doifferent from the last. The vertigo passes, the stars are above us, our feet are on solid ground.

Until the terrorist — who, moments before, was a radical, certainly, perhaps a terrorist, how could we know, “for thou, even thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men” — blows up, leaving the world we live in shaken and dizzying, once again.

How to cope? How to prepare?


Laws are verbal, and in general intended literally, with as much denotative and as little connotative meaning as possible. And words and laws, like scriptures, are capable of a wide, some might say infinite, variety of interpetations.


How to write a law which correctly distinguishes the action prone from the merely radicalized? How to apply it?

That, in my own words, is the question Pantucci’s paper sets before us, and I just have this to say about it:

It is not a verbal problem with a verbal solution, it is a koan. It will require wisdom on the part of our decision-makers — and even more from those individuals called upon to deal with individual cases. And it can bear the full freight and reap the rich benefit of our ongoing meditation.