Reading at the horizon

June 26, 2007

The perversity inherent in my being currently unable to stomach the vastest majority of novels is not lost on me: the thesis that marks the final barrier to my Master’s degree in English literature is only a few revisions and a formality away from being finished; my bookshelves are filled with novels that I haven’t read. Yet this state of being unable to bear novels has gone on for over six months now and accounts for both the unmistakably hobbled gait with which my thesis has marched toward completion and the bottleneck playing out amongst the rest of my books.

Even so, this situation has not been entirely without its consolations. In an altogether difficult meeting with the professor who might best be called my mentor, I forced myself first to admit that all of the PhD programs I’d applied to had rejected me, then that I had found myself unable to read novels for, at that point, a couple months. “Good,” she said, shocking the hell out of me, “You’ve moved on already. It was a good thing that you got rejected from these English programs: they would have constrained you too much.” It was exactly what I needed to hear.

But in as much as this amounts to a totally involuntary turning away, it’s been a disturbing situation to me and one which I’ve tried to remedy no few times. You might remember when I read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and commented on that book here. Even though I wanted desperately to like it – even if only for the sake of communing with Roland Barthes (who used The Sorrows as a basis for his Lover’s Discourse) – I would put off reading the thin volume, doing who-knows-what to put the better part of a week between my beginning the book and finishing it.

I was not enjoying myself: not getting a buzz of satisfaction, nor a frisson of meaning, nor any other phrase one might use to describe, in terms that do justice to both the dignity of literature and the profoundity of its possible effects, the urge to carry on reading.

This same falling flat has been duplicated in my attempt at reading Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. At first, it seemed the perfect novelistic chaser to the two more theoretical books which I’d read before it: Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and Mark C. Taylor’s The Moment of Complexity. Both were excellent books (though I’ve since learned that the translation of Huizinga which I read may leave a lot to be desired), dealing in two somewhat different ways with an identical space – a space characterized by the presence of rules and the absence of total rigidity. Huizinga’s emphasis on play and the existence of society “through and as play” foreshadows Taylor’s more interdisciplinary tack, occupied as it is with self-organization and emergent properties.

And Hesse’s novel would seem to follow these two books perfectly, striking a middle ground thematically as well as chronologically. For even though Hesse obviously makes use of an element of play in this book, he also seems to be closer to Taylor in focusing more on the parts whose interactions create society than he is to Huizinga’s unexamined faith in the applicability of a theory for society as a whole. (If this is not entirely borne out in Hesse’s rather essentialistic views of East and West, let me suggest that, in The Glass Bead Game as a semi-utopian novel, he has created a world in which those distinctions are easily surpassed, if not totally disregarded.) Add to the felicitous connection of themes with the preceding books Wikipedia’s gathering a fascinating group of attempts at creating a glass bead game and you will perhaps understand why I thought my aversion to novels could be at its end.

Predictable – by the very fact of my having to write this entry – as the outcome of my attempt at reading The Glass Bead Game is, it did join with one as yet undisclosed fact to hint at why I felt such repulsion toward novels. The fact is that, even though my distaste for the genre is not waning but steadily increasing in the face of my attempts at curbing it, one novelist alone requires no rapprochement – that my fondness for him continues almost as if it were never interrupted, and that I was able to pick up a novel of his and scarcely remember that I had ever, in some forgotten but evidently binding moment, abjured his genre so completely. That author is Henry James.

You see, reader, while Hesse labors sweatily over the character of Joseph Knecht, cataloging his great sincerities, his exemplary deeds, and his exemplary failures, James’s narration is a curious if somewhat casual walk through the narrative space. Hesse builds an edifice, piling diagetic stone upon diagetic stone until he is done and asks you, pointing with his now-calloused hands, to behold the perfection of the work; James, though, might tour that same building and, even emphasizing the contrast of interior and exterior by couching his tour in a series of permissions and intimacies, make art out of his observations instead of the thing itself.

In the same meeting with my professor-mentor that I mentioned earlier, she charged me with “seeing what is just over the horizon.” Though I’m sure I’ll find James there too, I can’t help but wonder if the most fruitful part of this incident – my malady, as it were – doesn’t lie somewhere in the basis on which I’ve contrasted these two authors.


I have always thought this

June 25, 2007

Although it’s in the classical aphoristic style to say “I have always…” (cf. Borges – “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” Dorothea Tanning – “I have always been perverse”), it seems to me that it would be a stronger (though not necessarily more aphoristic) statement to say, “I have not always…”

At issue is the question of whether a truth is more striking if it arrests one since birth or if it converts one from other beliefs.

One thousand and one entries

June 23, 2007

No matter how diverse my entries may seem on the surface, there is a quality that all of them perform – a readiness to write and an eagerness to share. When I sit down to write on this blog, it’s because I have something that I want to say in this medium and have calculated a way in which I want to approach it. My entries, that is to say, mark an entrance into a certain mindset; they are all written from within the same walls.

Starting at 2:32 in this interview with Momus, he talks about the kind of storytelling he likes best: “I love the idea of Scheherazade,” he says, “And if there’s one umbrella idea which links all the different things I do – like making pop records, or doing performance art, or writing a column for Wired, or blogging – it’s this idea of someone habitually storytelling.”

“It’s essential that it could go wrong,” he continues. “It has to be this Scheherazade-like structure; it’s the same with blogging – it has to be every day.”

What fascinates me about this is the potential for a great diversity of performances. Instead of always getting a fairly polished, well-composed entry (as I’ll flatter myself to pretend the readers of my Chronofile are used to), the possibility exists for a performance of an entirely different sort; with the pressure to put something down every day, it’s inevitable that some days’ entries become performances of frustration, failure, or resistance. The blog becomes an anti-Feuilleton – enticing the reader some days with its eagerness to share and discuss, then crankily chasing him off the next day.

Another strength of this every day approach to blogging is that it encourages a spirit of play. In the format of the blogging software, in accordance with an idea of what makes a suitable blog entry, the writer is allowed free reign over most aspects of her entry; she has entered a space which is neither too ordered, nor too chaotic.

But the blog writer exists as a single node in the much larger hypertextual community. Her inspirations are subject to come from her a somewhat variable diet of blogs, and so the rules, as it were, of the game change daily or even hourly. Writing every day forces a certain engagement with the larger community.

Keeping in mind that these thoughts are all simply explications of the Momus interview above, it was with a bit of shock that I read this recent entry on his blog. He writes:

As an experiment — and in order to give my quality time to writing The Book of Jokes — I’ve been trying over the last week or so to revive old content from Click Opera. Retro Click has attempted to breathe new life into ephemeral dead content. The results basically just confirm that blogging, whilst it may give you the rush of instant worldwide publication, is the most ephemeral thing in the world. Comments are way down and the consensus is that reviving old blog entries is as dull as digging out yesterday’s newspapers and reading them.

Blogging has been incredibly useful to me as an aide memoire, a way to note the things that interest and excite me, and anchor them in a public place, make them googlable, and increase their power (they’re usually frail, underexposed things) by widening their appeal a tiny bit. (Go buy that Gay Against You album today, people! If we can turn one White Stripes sale into a Gay Against You sale, we have not lived in vain!) What it mustn’t become, though, is either the main thing I do, or the main thing I’m known for. Blogging is — in John Updike’s term for journalism — “hugging the shore”.

If the Momus of the above interview is saying that blogging can help build a more playful everyday, what’s happened in this recent entry? It may be that it’s best read as an inevitable outcome of blogging every day – a cranky shaking of the fist from the anti-Feuilleton.

The urban island

June 18, 2007

My own, hitherto unpublished idea is to give it to the island nation of Tuvalu, which will likely be underwater soon as a result of global warming. Could there possibly be a more fruitful series of interactions than the ones that would occur if we were able to make room for such a radically different nation so close to the (globalized) heart of our own?

Internet pioneers, circling their wagons

June 17, 2007

So far as I can tell, the thought actually did pass through my mind once some time ago of how I might possibly store a two month supply of water and food in my tiny apartment. A rehearsal of the failed attempt at sleep still several minutes away from having that thought had occurred a couple hours earlier, and my determination to be among the few still breathing after disaster had befallen all of those around me was unflagging. All of this anguish was set in the bluish white light of my laptop’s screen.

If I were to say that it started simply or innocently, I might be stifling an eschatological lineage that has puzzled thinkers for centuries; but it started by dipping my toe in that raging, inexplicable torrent – following a link on the internet about the avian flu, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or peak oil. And I conflate them all not because they bear an equally plausible threat to our world, but because I have run the same course with each of them, predictably enough without ever having noticed that very predictability when once I give myself over to the hand wagging they induce. One link, as often as not followed for the pure spectacle of somebody else’s hand wagging, has brought me to this state again and again wherein I abandon any sort of reason and give myself over to manifold layers of survivalistic planning.

One followed link accomplishes all this, though, not because a single website could have such persuasive power, but because tight clusters of links form in these corners of the internet: introverted in as much as they all seem to link to each other and to build off of each other’s panic, links – tokens of these websites’ content – pour into them, recruiting new members and onlookers. Yet looking out is done only tentatively and subjected to the approval of the interpretive community.

Like the best of games, there is an incredible level of absorption in the experience of circulating between these websites, reading their discussions, their diatribes, and their advice. And like a game, a sharp distinction is made between those who play and those who don’t – that is to say, a rule-following community is created as an extension of the eschatological belief. We find, on the accepted basis that how one came to believe in this particular apocalypse is irrelevant, a terrific variety of participants in these forums – rural survivalists or ecologists, urban or suburban dwellers bent on protecting their families, otherwise uncategorizable individuals – all adopting a similar vocabulary and mode of interpretation for the sake of these online forums. (You may be interested to know, for example, that one acronym that stretches between these communities is TSHTF: “the shit hits the fan,” used to describe a situation of rioting, looting, and other desperate human behavior.)

For some, this dalliance with the end of the world leads them to buy rural properties, to start massive gardening projects, or take up shooting; but, in accordance with the theory that those most likely to embrace eschaton are those who would have the least to lose in such an event, the vast majority must content themselves with playing online only.

The agglomeration of identities which the internet allows is vital in understanding this phenomenon, and not only in that it allows the creation of an exclusive interpretive- and play-community based on an easily avowed belief. No, the stakes of this game being what they are, participants can add perspicacity to any list of their qualities. It is as if, invitations to the end of the world having been sent out, we play a game of potlatch with apocalypse itself, hoping that it will keep up its end of the bargain.

From the correspondence chronofile

June 16, 2007

Mr. D——-,

As director of the library at the University of ——,  I do not doubt that your store of reading-related trivia dwarfs my own haphazardly gathered collection. I will, all the same, dare to ask whether you know of Joseph Campbell’s decision to spend five years in a cabin upstate reading nine hours each day in lieu of getting a doctorate degree.

I do not know how he financed this retreat, but I cannot imagine he had time to take even a part-time job. We can look to Karl Marx for an example of a scholar of meager income. So dire were Marx’s living conditions in London that Friedrich Engels had to work in Germany, sending Marx money to survive and continue his studies. And study he did: he is reported to have spent all day in the reading room of the British Museum, absorbed especially with back issues of The Economist.

Sir, like both of these men, I desire more than anything else a period of intense reading and study; yet I have neither an endowment nor a partner willing to support me as I undertake this. Nor am I very fit for the exigencies of the credentialist, entry-level work world which I would be qualified at this point to enter: my tolerance for boredom is practically nil, and I have never been a team player. I am sensitive and striving, yearning deeply for stimulation yet wilting in its absence.

Let me waste no more of your time. Here is what I propose:  that I be allowed to bring a bedroll and toiletries to the library, and that I be given a small stipend for food and other needs. In return, I will be at the service of your fine institution in whatever capacity I am needed. If you require, I would happily do the more menial tasks that the library needs – shelving, dusting, whatever. Or, what I believe may be the greatest service I could render, my taking up residence in your library could be the subject of a press release, written by myself; the effect would be obvious, signifying the passion that your library inspires in scholars.

Though I obviously cannot promise to produce works on the scale of Marx or even Campbell, my residence under the wing of your institution would give me the opportunity to try.


Nathaniel ——-

The confession of the heart / the undressing of the body

June 11, 2007

[W]hat is striking in the social discourse of happiness is the alternation between the confessions of the heart and the baring of the body. Love stories and eroticism no doubt tell of the same movement, but on two different registers. For both, however, an unveiling takes place.

It can be interpreted as a sexual or a sentimental exhibitionism. And often rightly so. But this gesture contains a more fundamental meaning. It seeks to display what is hidden and, thereby, to withdraw what separates. The confession of the heart and, in a more radical but (paradoxically) more symbolic way, the undressing of the body function as the allegory of a quest for pleasure, for communion, or for reality. It is a demystification even if it still retains the form of a myth.

– Michel de Certeau, Culture in the Plural

On communication and risk

June 11, 2007

Though she and I have never been close, there are plenty of reasons – at least superficially – to believe that we could have been. Rather, though, it may be that our different recourses to such a similar stock of qualities condemn us: she seems to view her natural reticence dialectically, pushing through it in ways that make me wince at their potential to destroy the observational power I believe my own reserve grants me. And for all the books that we’ve both read without ever having coordinated, it seems that only I’m capable of letting those books change me – be it in the form of an author’s pet word creeping into my vocabulary, or an idea that obsesses me. I can’t understand her trajectory of reading at all because of this. But her lack of candor in discussing these ideas combines with her obvious intelligence to give me the impression that she’s writing a theory masterpiece in secret, spending her nights in a solitary labor which she’s too humble or dismissive to discuss.

If I have the urge to wonder whether she comes up with theories like that about me, is it in absolution for the ways in which I – both of us, really – have withdrawn from the platonic overtures we used to make to each other?

The fact is this, though: that neither of us can divulge moderately around the other. To the degree that I see that she is preyed upon, that the creative energies she pushes so mercilessly to dispossess herself of are lapped up mindlessly by the herd that clings to her – to that degree, she sees how scared I am by so much of life. It’s enough to wreck the economy of any burgeoning friendship, but especially so between people like her and me, who naturally long for a bit of control over the ways our energies disperse in the world.

Without comment

June 10, 2007

“The Ohio Air Force lab proposed that a bomb be developed that contained a chemical that would cause enemy soldiers to become gay, and to have their units break down because all their soldiers became irresistibly attractive to one another.”

(via Eyeteeth)

The resistance to gesture

June 10, 2007

Behold the pixelization of art:

Though one is made of toast and the other is made of post-its, both create their art on the principle of the pixel. Even one recent music video has gotten in on this trend, using dice to form images complete with shadows and highlights:

What strikes me most about the creation of these pieces is how they eliminate the gesture from their creation and execution. Art that is based on the pixel always refers to a plan – a plan usually created with the assistance of computer-based graphics programs. This is of course no surprise, since pixels on a screen themselves refer to the orders of a control unit. The execution of these pieces on a grid, too, leaves room for impromptu changes only of color or shade: placement is wholly determined, and even those variations of color which are permissible are made only for the greater execution of the plan.

The sole pixel is absolutely meaningless, like the only extant word from an otherwise forgotten language. Instead, it forms a relationship with the other pixels such that it always refers to its surroundings for its meaning, just as it lends meaning to those same surroundings. This is illustrated by the fact that pixels can be placed on their grid in any order. Being able to glean a larger picture from the pixelated form depends on looping constantly between pixels, acknowledging their dependencies and their references.

The gesture, though, operates differently. From the very first, it stifles planning through its dependency on skill and each subsequent mark threatens to undo any success by the prior ones. A careful sequentiality is the closest that one can come to planning when dealing with gestures. And gesture is fundamentally expressive in ways that placement onto a grid simply cannot be.

A pixelation of art might be read, then, as a Platonic protest against responsibility. Image exists, the pixel artist maintains, on the level of order, where each individual cannot see the larger effects he makes; the best thing for one to do is therefore to follow the plan and not waggle about too much. It is a hermit ethics, in awe of chaos, abjuring the material in supplication to metaphysical meaning. Stunning for its command of planning processes, pixelated art fits perfectly our age of simultaneously global and microscopic orchestration.