Palindromes, Feedback Loops, and Mimetic Desire

Roy Sorensen, in his Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities, refers to J.A. Lindon’s “Bikini Palindrome”:

Girl, bathing on Bikini, eyeing boy, finds boy eyeing bikini on bathing girl.

Sorensen uses this palindrome to illustrate the mimetic nature of desire. Although that makes me think of René Girard, Sorensen’s reference point is Thomas Nagel’s “Sexual Perversion”. Sorensen writes:

Picture Romeo and Juliet at a pick-up bar. The walls are lined with mirrors. Juliet notices that Romeo is eyeing her. She is aroused by his interest. Romeo notices her meta-arousal. He is aroused by the fact that his arousal arouses Juliet. Juliet notices this. Meta-arousal sets up meta-meta-arousal and so on.

Romeo and Juliet embed each other’s perspectives. They resemble facing mirrors, endlessly reflecting back each other’s reflections. The pair sweep back and forth across Lindon’s palindrome, adding layer upon layer of desire.

I’m not sure the Bikini Palindrome captures the right structure. The reflexivity is there, but not the positive feedback aspect. Boy seems blissfully unaware of Girl’s awareness, so the feedback loop is not closed.

Here’s my attempt at a palindrome that represents a positive feedback loop:

Again, it echoes. He, yet shriller, echoes it back. When back it echoes, shriller yet, he echoes it again.

Now you can “sweep back and forth across the palindrome, adding layer upon layer” — of shrillness. If you can come up with a palindrome that conveys a self-reinforcing structure of desire, let me know.

Nagel thinks that ‘sexual perversion’ occurs when this feedback system isn’t in full action — the desire isn’t properly reciprocated and amplified. Narcissism, not to mention sexual desire for children or inanimate objects, are ‘perverse’ for this reason. So says Nagel, but my advice is not to trust philosophers on the topic of perversion. Much better to trust experts, like Colonel Bat Guano. I won’t say any more about it.

I will say that psychological feedback loops ought to make us nervous. There’s no obvious limit to the iteration, so the desire in a self-reinforcing feedback loop can amplify past the capacity of any power to control it, except perhaps that of another affect caught in a similar loop.

This is what happens in the actual story of Romeo and Juliet. The spiralling, self-reinforcing desire that draws the lovers together grows without limit. But then so does the hatred that pulls them apart. It too is caught in a self-reinforcing loop. Montagues hate Capulets; Capulets hate them back; perceiving this returned hatred drives the Montagues to hate the Capulets more; the same goes for the Capulets; etc. The principle of iteration works its black magic and the affects grow towards infinity, dwarfing everything else in the psyche. The pair of families and the pair of ‘star-crossed’ lovers are in both cases like twin stars, caught in each other’s gravitational field and accelerating violently towards their common barycentre. “I defy you stars”, cries Romeo, not realising his place in the system.

Although Nagel sees narcissism as a form of sexual perversion — a broken loop — it seems to me that Narcissus’s problem is that the loop is closed. Had the watery depths reflected back only his admirable self, Narcissus might have just winked smugly at his reflection and walked away a free man. But the pool reflected back his admiration as well, amplifying his passion with indefinite iterations and driving out everything else from his mind. With his perspective paradoxically embedded into itself, he admired himself for admiring himself, and then admired himself more again for this admiration of his admiration, and so on ad inf.

But mutually embedding perspectives, giving rise to infinite structures of iteration, don’t always have to be a cause for concern. J.M.E. McTaggart believed that the highest human good was to be in a relationship of mutual love and understanding, which he called by the unromantic name Determining Correspondence. When A is in Determining Correspondence with B, A perceives B (McTaggart notates this: A!B). But A also perceives herself, reflected in the perception of B (A!B!A). And in this reflection of herself she finds reflected her perception of B (A!B!A!B), and so on to infinity. She also perceives herself (A!A) and herself perceiving herself (A!A!A) and herself perceiving B (A!A!B), and so on for any other meta-perception notated by (A!x!y!…), replacing the “x, y, …” with whatever sequence of As and Bs you like, of whatever length.

There is both indefinite iteration and combinatorial explosion here. But the infernal mathematical beast has been tamed. Each additional branch and each added iteration merely deepens the understanding between A and B. Nor is there any threat of violence or instability, since determining correspondence is achieved, in McTaggart’s system, only by souls inhabiting a changeless realm outside of time. The infinite iterations don’t build up towards an unstable apex: they’re all there to begin with. We don’t experience this in our lifetime, but some of us get hints of it: McTaggart, anyway, believed that he did. That was the basis of the strange religion he offered as a substitute for Christianity, which he thought had run its course.

Lecturer in Philosophy, University of St. Andrews — personal website: