‘The Swallow’s Tail — Series of Catastrophes.’ We love ‘F-holes.’
Salvador Dalí’s last painting, ‘The Swallow’s Tail’, is really making us contemplate existence, stochastic life and this iffy, often icky experience here on earth. Maybe we’ve reached the moment of techno-industrial over-reach, peak angst and catastrophe now…?
‘The Swallow’s Tail — Series of Catastrophes‘ was Salvador Dalí’s last painting. It was completed in May 1983 as the final part of a series based on ‘catastrophe theory’ (pioneered by the freaky yet brilliant Frenchman René Thom), a branch of ‘chaos and complexity’ science. Mathematically and metaphysically, this shit is deep, and relates to global finance, investment, and the systemic risk that permeates everything.
In terms of the state space, Dali depicts multi-dimensional anomalies, seven equilibrium points, and seven possible discontinuities, or ‘elementary catastrophes’ — fold, cusp, swallowtail, butterfly, hyperbolic umbilic, elliptic umbilic, and parabolic umbilic.
The graphic visual model is presented alongside the elegant curves of a cello and the instrument’s f-holes, which connote the mathematical symbol for an integral in calculus. Dalí described Thom’s ‘catastrophe theory’ as “the most beautiful aesthetic idea in the world.” Hmm. The basic math/notation that underpins the whole shebang looks like this:
Dali’s work allows us to witness the manifold stylistic, psychic, and socioeconomic leaps that led to the mustached surrealist’s arguably most thought-provoking painting: the specter of catastrophe across one and all spheres of human endeavor. Dali’s painting shows a topography of risk and a surface area embodying ‘self organized criticality.’
For us, the painting seems super-nerdy and a wee bit neurotic, especially in this late cycle ‘Goldilocks‘ churn. It is also mega-poignant and beautifully compelling. It is an abstraction of systemic risk, tipping points and inevitable bifurcations — a representation of humanity ‘teetering on the brink’ (what the brainiac Christopher Langton called ‘stationing at the edge of chaos‘). Of all the complex systems we depend on for contemporary life, finance is the most abstracted from reality and therefore the one most likely to show the hazardous strains of worldwide crackup.
Sadly, also, statistical overfitting and computational hubris play into the fantasy that if you can measure enough data you can manage the whole machine — what FA Hayek called ‘the pretense of knowledge.’ (And if you mis-measure things, like central banks and quant-oriented hedge funds tend to do, you can pretend to be in control.) This illusion of stability is the weakest ingredient in the financial system. When it does finally go critical, it tends to produce calamity.
The global macro swirl of events generally includes more vectors, scalars, tensors and factors than any integral calculus can manage. Outcomes easily slip away from the linear making us all victims of the exponential. QE, NIRP, China’s janky economy, trade tiffs, Trump, currency wars, crypto assets and multiple geopolitical rat’s nests are the variable tensions in this global stochastic differential equation.
Perhaps the precocious Dali was prognosticating the financial repression of our time, the volatility papered over by the use of interest rate swaps, reverse repos, synthetic CDOs, Ponzi strategems and other abstruse machinations and derivatives aimed at suppressing humanity’s accreting angst.
Carnage at the margins of financial markets — China, Turkey, Hong Kong, Iran, etc. — will spread to the center and we’ll finally see the re-pricing of risk and re-calibration of power politics. Violently, perhaps. You will feel a slight prick and quite possibly a permanent migraine. Fasten your seat belts and check your 401ks. And kudos to Señor Dali for reminding us that systemic risk stalks us, always triggering new phase transitions and always fomenting socio-ecological feedback loops, ruptures, and discontinuities. This is great art!
This post was authored by VIVISXN’s proprietary AI Thought Bot®
Photography Salvador Dalí
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