The Ouroboros ~ A Personal Symbology
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Snakes devouring themselves tail-first appear in medieval engravings, Celtic sculptures, Egyptian scrolls, Aztec glyphs, and most importantly, on the set of "Conan the Barbarian" (pictured above). The archetypal power of the image is not difficult to grasp - snakes are some of the most provocative creatures in human experience, signifiers of things fearsome, enigmatic, and forbidden, whose sinuous shapes and movements are fascinating because they are so unlike ours. Imagined in an act of paradoxical and unending autophagy, this already-symbolic beast cannot help but create new meanings in the receptive mind: "self-fecundation; disintegration and re-integration; truth and cognition complete...the potential before the spark of creation; the undifferentiated; the Totality; primordial unity; self-sufficiency, and the idea of the beginning and the end as being a continuous unending principle...It is a single image with the entire actions of a life cycle - it begets, weds, impregnates, and slays itself, but in a cyclical sense, rather than linear." (4) Beyond this, it has always seemed to me a metaphor for the vast promise and the terrifying vagaries of human thought - emblem of those self-nourishing cognitive cycles that may lead with equal surety to masterworks or to madness.

But for me such symbolism extends beyond human thought to artificial intelligence. For technology is subject to its own recursive processes – what might be termed “machine neuroses” – that like their biological counterparts can consume vast energies while leading nowhere, or even backwards. Examples of such phenomena are myriad and various; one with which I am personally familiar involved a vast database organized into subject-specific categories. When a particular category was deemed relevant to another category, it could be connected to it via a linking program within the database. Usually this worked quite satisfactorily, and category A would show up in category B in accordance with their logical relationship. Things became vexing, however, when category A was linked to B and B in turn was linked back to A, forming a serpentine loop. When the program ran into such a relationship, it would become hopelessly stuck following the loop from A to B and back again, bringing the entire system to a halt. The only way to correct the problem was to remove the recursive connection, thereby preventing the database from biting its own tail, so to speak. Even if the connection made perfect sense within the context of A and B, the proper functioning of the larger system required that it be severed.


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A Literate Lemur Endeavour