Sunday, 27 April 2014

Popularity IS Authority

I seem to have developed the need to talk about professionals. Today I’ll have to give in to the temptation once again, hoping that this odd attraction will let me be once I’ve left it in the open.

To put it bluntly (the way critics put it every time, with that grin on their faces), everyone’s a specialist these days. Their words matter, their opinions are posted and pasted everywhere, they get cult-like followings, they shine in their own resplendent light. In other words, the ‘new professionals’ show serious signs of having become authoritative. And with this statement – on we go.

Between the good and the many

You know how the argument goes: in order to be an authority in a given field, you need to have what they call substance. In other words, you need to have something to say that is worthy of other people’s attention. But here’s exactly where things get really blurry. Because I Can Has Cheezburger, with their lolcats and things, are gathering more attention than a hardwired Harvard professor of Astrophysics. And man, what a difference I can see between a cat and a star!

Source: DeviantART
“But don’t forget: the really good ones are often hidden away from the eyes of simple mortals,” the devil’s advocate is yelling into my ear.

What I understand from this is that a person of authority must be a person of distinction. But, alas, distinction is all about singularity; and a singular thing is any of the following: outstanding, outrageous, irreverent, odd, bizarre, out-of-the-way, atypical, abnormal. In other words, the odder a person, the higher their chances of acquiring distinction, since the likelier it is for them to have no match. What we call authorities, then, are the oddest people we can think of. So odd, we can’t possibly identify with them, because (remember?) they have no match. And that puts an end (for me) to the old habit of voting for a person endowed with the thing formerly known as authority, since authority is dubious without masses to acknowledge it. According to the argument outlined above, once you have a mass of followers you are no longer odd. Whether you like it or not, you’re no longer special; you’re more like a slice of pizza shared between friends: yummy but enduring too many bites to remain good for long.

Authority equals popularity

Professionals who defend the tenets of their own profession on grounds of authority tend to easily forget a simple historical aspect: that their own profession was, at some point in time, regarded as substandard, ridiculous, bizarre practice. In the seventeenth century, those we nowadays call scientists were ridiculed as stargazers, useless blokes given to the debauchery of pseudo-intellectual practices. And to some extent they were. But look where science has gotten: to the point where almost everything it produces is regarded as a set of ultimate truths; to the point where being a scientist is the highest mark of one’s intellectual prowess; to the point where calling yourself a scientist is like placing the lid onto all debates, once and for good.

Source: Nicholas Lundgaard
And science is not all. Let’s give a thought to the literary genre most highly regarded since mid-nineteenth century: the novel. At its origins (whether we’re talking about the Greek prehistory or the eighteenth-century revival), the novel was looked at as a cheap pastime suitable for the “small minds” (as they were thought to be) of the rising middle class.

So here’s the point: most of the things we’re enjoying now have started on a wrong footing. They took off only when a critical mass of followers was finally gathered. In other words, they had a chance at becoming what they are only when they started rising in popularity. To cut it to the core: authority equals popularity, no matter how we turn the issue around.

Let's not fear the popular

Then what upsets me sometimes is this thing: the habit of completely ignoring the role of popularity in the appreciation of authority. As if popularity were an evil we needed to keep at a distance for fear of contamination. But popularity is not an alien thing. It has not been bestowed upon humanity by an evil-doing Martian race. It is the way we exist: through interaction, through the sharing of common understandings of things, through contagion. The history of human ideas is a history written using the terms of epidemiology. It takes into account not how many ideas have existed across centuries, but how many of those ideas have become significant; popular, that is; or even better – authoritative. Think religions, and we’re done.

But at the end of the day popularity is a very hazardous thing, which depends on the whims of so many factors... Which is not a proof that popularity is bad. On the contrary, it shows that authority is fragile. It only takes the next popular thing to put it out, like a cigarette butt that hasn’t even had the chance to burn to the end.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The saddest piece of news in a hundred years

Sad day, very, very sad day. The death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, although not exactly unexpected, considering his age and illness, feels like a blow in the head. I think I've always thought (as I'm sure many others did) that he was going to live forever. But reality really sucks when it comes to keeping up with fiction, and his Hundred Years of (not quite) Solitude have come to an end before the century could have a chance at reaching its upper limit.
Knowing how his death had been foretold, when he was wrongly declared deceased in 2000, I thought, for a second, that this could be just another mistake; just another joke. But then news came in waves, and now the death of the greatest Latin American author ever is a certitude. A Chronicle of a Death Foretold has, unfortunately, found its confirmation.

This is how I want to remember Gabo: giving the bird to death.
'Coz he hasn't really died; he's just gone somewhere to finish his work.
Source: San Diego Red
With Gabo dead, a new page in the history of literature will have to be written. I don't really care about what so many have found "controversial" in his life. It's not the controversy that I found insanely appealing in his texts, but rather that incredible extent of his story-telling. I don't think anybody else has managed (although many have tried, and some have come very close) to get to that kind of loss in the midst of a flood of fiction, which I discovered in Garcia Marquez's novels.

Things will be said these days: good and bad, in equal measure. Someone like him could not have passed through life without leaving the others debating over his presence. We have a few more hundreds of years to talk and talk. History, that bitch!, is a lot more generous in this regard. In the meantime, he's moved quarters to that celestial Macondo where angels are laughing about us.
Rest in peace, Gabriel Garcia Marquez!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Let’s do something wrong!

Last week I talked about garbage – the waste of writing, the stuff that’s condemned never to be encountered by the reader. But there were things that went unsaid in that post: my own garbage, of course. The part I took out was about mistakes: writing, reading, and the way mistakes intrude to mess them up. Or do they, really?

In order to arrive at these mistakes, I think I need to take the usual detour, which will prove to be of some importance later on. Critical reading: that’s what I’m thinking of. The two things go hand in hand, don’t they? Critical attitude and reading. Only a type of reading that is critical in nature can bring to light that which we take to be a mistake. Do you remember your years in high school or college, when you had to produce an argumentative essay? What was the thing that you were most likely to do? Read the original text with the intention of finding a flaw in it. A flaw serious enough to warrant the grunt in your response. A mistake that could not go untreated.

Source: JTM Games
That kind of reading, which placed critical unrest before and above everything else, was meant to develop one’s ability to judge. So they said, remember? But there was something else at work as well. Through the cultivation of this critical spirit, you were being trained into the profession of academic reading. It made sense, didn’t it? You were in school, not in a factory. You had therefore to learn how to read, write, and think the way schools read, write, and think.
But schools teach almost always through mistakes. Remember your teacher’s comments on the margins of your essay? That’s what I mean.

The critical profession

Critical reading is characteristic to the academia the way cleaning a pipe is characteristic to plumbing. What I mean by this is that it only makes sense to exercise your critical abilities if you read with an academic mind, or in order to impress (we say ‘interact with,’ or ‘find a channel of communication with,’ but it means the same thing!) another academic mind. That's like saying that you can only clean a pipe if you have the authority vested in you by the profession of plumbing. Once escaped from the confines of the academia, your reading turns into something else: something that is no longer limited by the predicaments of that profession. Once you’re outside of school, you discover that reading can take place without rules and neat margins; you discover that it can be full of garbage. And you like it, in 9 cases out of 10; the way you like not knowing what could cause a pipe to block. Ignorance is bliss, as they say, and the saying seems to be equally applicable to readers and plumbers.
All this has one major reason: being an academic is a profession, and critical reading is the major outlet of this occupation. (As for the plumbing profession, I'll let the knowledgeable ones say it in their own words.)
Let’s see if that makes sense.
When the professionals of critical reading are asked about the practicality of their profession, they spit scorn back at you. And that is precisely the response of a professional, since all professionals spit scorn when it comes to questioning the purpose of their actions. There is always a literal, fundamentalist, dogmatic reference to the letter of the profession (to what constitutes its purpose, to what warrants its lunacies, to how important it is in the context of human experience).
Based on this, one thing needs to be said: professionals are not flexible. Why? Because they are bound by their guild to defend the territory of their profession and to scorn all attempts at defamation – of which the world is full, since the world is made up of other professions too.


Yet there’s another thing about professionals: they tend to have words of criticism to utter about others in their own line of duty. And this is where we get closer to what I wanted to talk about: mistakes.
I have spoken to plumbers who, instead of giving me the straight answer about what had gone wrong with the drainage in my house, spoke about the insufficient professionalism of the plumber who did the job before. To professionals, there’s always something to criticize in the past of others. Not their own past – let’s be clear about this: always the past of others. The past in general is always flawed with them. A true professional lives in a continuous present, where the only thing that’s worth the penny of everybody’s attention is their present practice: the way they perform here and now. This immediacy of professionals is due, I believe, to the fact that they are task-driven. They don’t just choose what’s next. They don’t do what they want, but what needs to be done – what the world requires of them.

Source: Boomer to Gen-Y (and Gen-X)
But what’s very, very important is that the task itself depends on something bad having happened before. Let’s admit it: without a mistake there’s no task; without something wrong there’s no need for something good to be done to right it. Without an incomplete story there cannot be a sequel. Without a wrong theory there’s no need for a scientist to test his own. Therefore, the past has to be bad. Whether they succeed or not, the actions of a ‘fixer’ are expected to lead to an improvement, to a change in the wrong course of things. That’s why the intervention of a specialist, insofar as they are fixers-of-things, takes up an almost heroic aura.

Hunting for errors

Similar to plumbing, critical reading has its own professional fief. Academics will think of their work as significant in the present, while at the same time highlighting the insufficiency of their predecessors. In an academic dissertation or peer-reviewed article worth their title, there is a very clear demand for the assessment of previous work, which is expected to appear as incomplete. It is within the gap left uncovered by the predecessor that academic readers place their own performance. In this regard, the academic reader is by definition a fixer: a plumber of texts, a professional promising to provide the actual way of doing things.
The major task, here as in the case of plumbers, is to find that mistake, that shortcoming. An academic who writes his or her article is demanded (by professional rules, by peer-reviewing eyes, by colleagues and readers) to drill a hole into their field of expertise and plant inside it the seed of their own argument. In order for that seed to catch roots, it has to enjoy the photosynthesis of a well-discovered mistake.

Source: Odd Job Nation
Not long ago, I read a seemingly innocent article with a seemingly complicated title: “Promotional(meta)discourse in research articles in language and literary studies.” To take it to its nitty-gritty, the article is about how academics pitch themselves by downgrading others. It talks about “boosterism” and “self-advocacy” – two terms that speak for themselves. These may be only self-marketing techniques, the way they’re usually employed by professionals (doesn’t Pepsi thrive on showing how different it is from Coca Cola?). But behind the whole marketing thing, behind the pretentious assertion that irreverence is necessary if what you want is progress, lies the truth of The Mistake: this unavoidable engine that stands at the roots of everything.
Everything, really – you may ask? Of course, I say. Think no further than Adam and Eve and you’ll see what I mean.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Writing and garbage (a kind of advice, if I may)

A couple of days ago, Seth Godin published one of his brief but dense posts on the blog he is managing, and that post got me thinking.

Says Godin, on the blog:
"For every post that makes it to this blog, I write at least three, sometimes more.That means that on a regular basis, I delete some of my favorite (almost good) writing."
Godin wrote this to back up an argument about how organizations seem to be incapable of divorcing ideas that seemed too good to part with – often in spite of the logic of the market and the vindictive facts of efficiency.
I’m not thinking of organizations right now, and that’s simply because I believe Seth Godin’s post is so, so, so much about writing – about it in general, but especially about creative writing. The crux of the matter is this: we fall so deeply in love with our ideas, with our blood-stained, sweat-soaked pages, we often refuse to believe that some of them are just useless matter: the puss of those pages, the yucky bits. It’s not easy to believe otherwise, I know. It’s not easy to admit that we can be sources of waste more than generators of brilliance. And that may be due, to my mind, to the allegiance we have sworn to the idea of productivity.

Source: Written Words
Those who have given up all hope for a day job in favor of their writing adventure will know that once your life depends on it, you want every single word to shine in a way that makes it impossible to be ignored. And that is the dream of all creators. Nothing wrong with it. Nothing in essence, that is; but in practice? Isn't practice the testing ground of all theory? In practice, there is a lot of dead matter surrounding us. And I mean a lot. From a sentence we have backspaced into oblivion up to the most enchanting idea that’s never found the channel through language in order to live on a page.

Nothing else but human race
Writers do handle issues of life and death – they do it every day, they do it with every letter, they do it with every dream. Behind every success there is a ton of wondering, of doubt. What’s worse, behind every success there’s a lot of flotsam: not only scattered bits that make no sense, but also the painful memory of ideas that could have been and have never made it.
So what do we do with all this?
To answer the question let’s ask another one: What do we do with waste in general – with our domestic, daily garbage? The simple answer (in fact, I don’t think there could be a complex one) is this: we discard it. We chuck it away. We shake it off. We jettison it. So that we never see it again. The thing about garbage is that we never want it back. It is a form of embarrassment we inflict upon ourselves, and because of that we want it out of our sight. For good. The same goes, I guess, with writing. Ever since computers started being used (ever since typewriters have been forgotten, that is), it’s no longer possible to trace our writerly garbage. It’s gone for good. When we print a page out, we do it afresh. Every printed page is a page without blemishes, where discarded matter is never mentioned, never thought about, never acknowledged. And so, with every variant there is a form of forgetting taking place as well. Painful as it may seem in the beginning, it is all gone by the time the words appear on that white sheet freshly pulled out of the printer.

Glory to our masochistic selves!
This is what Godin’s post is about, I believe: about acknowledging that, no matter how much pain we feel – we do, eventually, forget things we have been deeply attached to. But this rupture will have to happen. There is very little text that shines after the first draft, unless you never doubt yourself – in which case, I would like to have the recipe, please, and I promise to start a campaign for dubbing you the God of Writing.
In reality, there’s more doubt in a creative act than leaves in the Amazonian forest. So all comes down to this: how to find, through all this doubt, the light that brings sparkles in our eyes? The answer I have in mind is this: Never write one draft alone. Always try, always shove stuff onto your pages, always have more versions to compare. If you don’t, you’ll never know the taste of alternatives. If you don’t delete your favorite writing you will never write that thing that becomes the favorite of others. And to do that, you need to get used to pain.

Source: Finding Wonderland
Yes, writing is an act of masochism – has anybody given you a different impression? Cultivating professional doubt is perhaps the peak of a writer’s standards of best practice. Doing away with the child of our brain is always a matter of severing an umbilical cord and watching that child float away, never to return. We watch and we cry; but, sooner or later, that child will be a distant memory.

What about hope?
This is not everything to be said, of course. Things we throw away are not exactly removed for good. The garbage in our trash cans doesn't vanish the moment we have discarded it. It is taken further, transported to another destination, handled by other people, processed, transformed. (From this very blog, for instance, to other places.) Yes, they may be doing the dirty work, but dirty work is done all the same.
What’s more, the garbage we throw away today stays with us forever, in forms that we may not always be conscious of. A writer’s style, his or her voice, his or her personality, his or her success, are things built in layers. Upon the ruins of a missed idea grows the luxuriant vegetation of a prosperous one. A word detested today may turn up tomorrow dressed like Prince Charming. An idea we kicked in the proverbial three years ago makes its way back, taking us by surprise long after we have forgotten it. This stuff happens a lot. It does. This is the backbone of writing, the meat and fat of creativity. This is the way forward.