Monday, 27 July 2015

A carnival of gaffes

But let’s look at this hunt for errors from a more technical perspective. Or a more technological one, to put it otherwise. Or just from another perspective, pure and simple.

The example of the book reviews of last week doesn't make for an isolated phenomenon. Take a look at YouTube. It’s packed full of vigilant watchers who see mistakes in films and take great pleasure in sharing their findings. Best Fails. Greatest Mistakes. Funny Goofs. These are the titles that entertain the generation of faults: our generation.

Little they seem when regarded in isolation. But greatly they weigh when put together.One sees them and one criticizes. Or on the contrary, one sees them and one revels in the rise of all marginal genres, of which the fail is one of the most popular. The question remains at the centre of all this: What’s it with the hiccup, with the glitch, with the malfunction? What makes them so appealing, so exciting?

Possible answer: Maybe the lure of the power that’s crushing under its own weight. Or maybe something more technical, more, how should I put it, of our time.

The age of the non-expert

We need to see that things are changing around us, and in many regards. Formerly accepted methods, in knowledge as well as in technologies, have been falling short of their grandiose promises. They can no longer provide recipes to go by. They can no longer provide recipes, full stop. The world isn’t working the way it used to. Top to bottom is not the right trajectory anymore. Hierarchies (which are the very essence of traditional power, based on dissemination from above, on weighing down on the subaltern and on legalizing the utterance of the few against the argument of the many) are obsolete now.
Yes, this constant hunt for errors is the result of the new reality in which the non-specialist rules. It is the result of Web 2.0. The consumer turned into producer, the user turned into a manufacturer – these things have helped immensely the trend.
When the video cassette, and then the DVD player, were invented, they were praised primarily for one quality: the user's ability to go back and forth, a magical act permitted by the rewind and the fast-forward functions. That aspect has been immensely improved and further facilitated by Web 2.0, with its YouTube offspring and all the adaptations that ensued from it, which allows anyone with an internet connection to play with video or music files to their heart’s content. Add to that things like Netflix, or Igloo, and the picture becomes sharper. Access to mistakes is one of the many possibilities opened up by this unrestrained access to everything.

The more, the better

The issue is related, of course, to the general trend taking place in the online universe, where creativity has taken a sharp turn from creation to curation. Like all artists who take pride in their work, YouTubers find their own reserves of pride in the mashups they produce. Keeping things together is more important than pointing them out in isolation from each other. That's why the great hunt for mistakes is one that takes place in an ecosystem of its own, with cases upon cases making up the little universe of failures-on-record.

Source: Warren Fyfe
This seems, indeed, to be the case: the issue of recording, of having things on record, preserved (curated) in an effort to make a case for something. We seem to have learned rather well the techniques of argumentation taught to us as early as primary school: if you want to be credible you need to amass proof. The more, the better. Accumulation shows us the way, and this feels uncannily familiar. We must have seen it in another form, somewhere else. Maybe in the utilitarian logic based on the argument of quantity?
Errors can provide this reassurance of large numbers when they come about invasion-style. And by the looks of it they do seem to take up quite a lot of space; a lot of the generous space offered by the Empire of Data.

Going viral means growing fast

But there seems to be something else behind this abundance of failures, behind this carnival of gaffes.
Logic of nature: when abundance becomes apparent it generates movements of its own, interests that tip the ecosystem towards particular phenomena, to the detriment of others. Translated into human language, this theorem finds its materialization in the logic of profits. As long as the hunt for errors remains a local issue, it raises an eyebrow or two but nothing more. When the tendency becomes visible, though, when it goes viral, it calls for action. In that case, producing a piece of art riddled with errors makes perfect sense. Satisfying the pleasure of the hunters brings home the need to be in the limelight. In other words, there’s a lot to be gained from being talked about online. Good or bad, it matters not when the accountants start counting hits and data traffic. The most important thing now is to be seen, to be watched, to be shared, to be watched again, and to be shared and shared and shared ad infinitum. Value is nothing. Presence is all.

Monday, 20 July 2015

The fault in our stars (a narrative paraphrase)

There’s a pleasure we seem to take in looking for gaffes, for slip-ups. And that’s what I want to think about this week.

Source: Why to Read
When I started posting my book reviews on Zero to One I also started searching the net for others’ impressions on the same books. I simply want to know where I’m sitting compared to others. Something reviewers in general do, I’m told. It gives me/them a good feeling to know. Or so it should. What I’ve noticed, among other things, is that most book reviewers (and not just the anonymous bloggers that inhabit the vast expanses of the online desert, but also the ones who write for big papers and enjoy big audiences) take much pride in making known their dislikes. Especially their dislikes. And I don’t want to be trivial. I’m not accusing any of these reviewers of vanity. I’m only taking note of this trend.

Texts need space to breathe

There’s something essential that needs to be said, especially about prose writing: novels, essays, that kind of stuff. Not everything a writer says must be perfect! A lot could but not everything must, not everything can. I don’t know how many readers expect every given line to be the equivalent of a Mona Lisa to be put in a gilded frame and sent off to the nearest Louvre. But there seems to be quite a few of them out there who’re asking precisely for this.
Things, however, don’t work that way. They’ve never worked that way. Texts need breathing spaces. There are passages with a role as simple as their name suggests: they’re made to facilitate passage. That’s all they need to provide. Not explosive metaphors, not kerosene-like imagery to fire up one’s mind. If a book is good enough it will have plenty of those throughout its pages. But books, mind you, are not continuous displays of brilliance. Fueled on good ideas, which come always at intervals, books in general are made up of fits and starts. The reader has to be shaken out of their state of habituation with the text; they need to encounter surprise; they need to find gems strewn between parts made of base metal. There’s a good part here, another good part there, but most of what’s read is made to carry the plot, to fill the pipes that traverse a text.

Kernels and satellites, two elements of any narrative

Seymour Chatman has put together a whole theory of narrative structures, which is predicated precisely on this play with joints and juxtapositions. According to this theory, stories are made out of narrative blocks that follow upon each other. Within these blocks there are two crucial components, something that Chatman names, translating to a certain extent from Barthes, kernels and satellites. The terms should be pretty self-explanatory: kernels are cores, nubs, hearts, essences, while satellites are adjuncts, appendages, accessories. Think of kernels as the main actors in a film and of satellites as the supporting actors and the extras. The former make the limelight; they carry the message of the film’s narrative, they get the awards and the applause. The later are not so swell but they’re the mass that enable the protagonists to shine. In spite of their uncompromising differences, none of the two is possible without the other. In order to be the lead role one needs minor characters to wander around and fill the screen. At the same time, without the alpha character the minor ones have no reason to be.
When Chatman describes his theory in Story and Discourse, he makes it as clear as possible that the structure of a narrative requires a skeleton (a scaffolding, a framework, a pretext; something like the hardware of a computer) and the flesh that comes upon it (matter that makes the connections, a tissue, a context; a software, if you like).
“Kernels are narrative moments that give rise to cruxes in the direction taken by events. They are nodes or hinges in the structure, branching points which force a movement into one or two (or more) possible paths. Achilles can give up his girl or refuse; Huck Finn can remain at home or set off down the river; Lambert Strether can advise Chad to remain in Paris or to return; Miss Emily can pay the taxes or send the collector packing; and so on. Kernels cannot be deleted without destroying the narrative logic. In the classical narrative text, proper interpretation of events at any given point is a function of the ability to follow these ongoing selections, to see later kernels as consequences of earlier.”

To Chatman, kernels are some kind of signposts. They signal where the story could have become something else. They are also nubs where the story turns out to be hanging on mere threads. It’s with kernels that one becomes aware of structure as such. Satellites, however, are context-dependent; they are peripheral elements, the role of which is to cover the kernels, to make them invisible so as to create the illusion narratives are famous for.
“A minor plot event – a satellite – is not crucial in this sense. It can be deleted without disturbing the logic of the plot, though its omission will, of course, impoverish the narrative aesthetically. Satellites entail no choice, but are solely the workings-out of the choices made by the kernels. They necessarily imply the existence of kernels, but not vice versa. Their function is that of filling in, elaborating, completing the kernel; they form the flesh on the skeleton.”
To put it otherwise, in Twitter-like terms, strictly speaking a novel’s plot can be shorthanded into one sentence fairly easily. The essence doesn’t take much space. What happens beyond it is what comes as a surplus to the framework on which the novel is built. All that meat covering those bones is there to make the transition between the skeleton’s parts possible. Without the connecting tissue, the kernels would remain isolated, visible, ugly.

Navigating with satellites

I’m going to exaggerate here, but truth is we need to take these things (the fits and starts of stories) as what they are, so as not to demand a shining armor from something that’s meant to be rags.
With poetry yes, things are different. From poetry we have the right to expect perfection, because poetry is precisely the quest for faultlessness. In a poem, every line and every word must be taken seriously. The distinction between kernels and satellites is irrelevant in most of the poetic genres (with the unsurprising exception of the so-called narrative poetry, whose very title says it all). A poem is a kernel in itself. It can be read in isolation, even when the reader is aware of the poet’s oeuvre and where they can make the necessary connections between different poems, between different themes.
But the point of this post was to bring about the issue of the guilty pleasures we experience when we come across imperfections. The danger of exercising this pleasure is easy to identify: if one moans about the parts that aren’t that essential (which, unfortunately, happens very often – or at least in a lot of the cases I’ve seen so far) one risks missing the point. The point, i.e. the kernel. Outside the point one navigates with the satellites; one looks at the secondary; one looks at what could be taken out without affecting the structure.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Of classics, after all

In a short essay from 1981 (“Why Read the Classics?”), Italo Calvino says this about books: “If I read the Odyssey I read Homer’s text, but I cannot forget all that the adventures of Ulysses have come to mean in the course of the centuries, and I cannot help wondering if these meanings were implicit in the text, or whether they are incrustations or distortions or explanations.”

Source: University of Oxford
Calvino clarifies a couple of things. 1. That the classics are classics not because they’re fixed but because they’re mutable. 2. That a classic text is not only what it is but also (or mostly) what it has been made to be. The latter being due to the fact that a classic is read by many generations. But the fact of their readability across time is caused by being always young and restless. Which goes back under clarification no. 1, as above.
This is just to re-articulate the point in the quote.


Since some of these classics require translations (having been written in a different language or in a time too distant to sustain comprehensibility), let’s briefly bring up translations. There are translations contemporary to the reader, as opposed to translations contemporary to the translator.
Consider the former (the latter will be made clear by contrast). Insofar as they don’t fall for the archaic fallacy according to which a text must sound the way it sounded to its original readers, these texts arrive at the meeting with us vested in the garb of novelty. They’re fresh and crispy, just off the production line, and aimed at a public that speaks the patois. These texts use the exact allusions that make a contemporary tick. Example: Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf isn’t impossible to read; it isn’t made difficult by impenetrable allusions. And that’s precisely because he made the poem sound intelligible to late-twentieth century readers.
“So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”
Classics in the language of us – is what Heaney’s Beowulf is in the first place. Not that we don’t need explanations every now and then. Far from it. With the passing of time, the world itself has changed and understanding the basics of fifth-century chieftainship or the dynamics of a narrative that mixes fact and fiction rather liberally is not, as they say, as easy as pie. But those explanations aren’t directions; they are illuminations. And what’s more, they don’t try to make the translator sound intelligent. They simply ease the reader’s way into a text that’s bound to be difficult.
Or do I wrongly understand the role of a translator?


But the classics pose yet another aspect: that the readers change their gears too, with or without a translator’s help. The transference of resonances depends, to a certain extent, on the idiosyncrasies of biological ages. Let’s call them generations, for lack of a better word. One of the most apparent distinctions is that between a text read in one’s youth and the same text read at maturity. The constant: the reader; he/she is the same. The variables: a) reading the text once in one’s tender years and once in the years of mature undertakings; b) reading the text once only, when one is young and presumably un-formed, wet behind the ears; c) reading the text once only, but at the age when wines are better sipped than drunk in quaffs. As we move through these categories we get to understand texts in different ways. The battle between generations may very well be just this: a disagreement over readings, an impossibility to sign a pact over the meanings of a text.

Source: Deviant Art
Let me quote some more from Calvino:
“In fact, reading in youth can be rather unfruitful, due to impatience, distraction, inexperience with the product’s ‘instructions for use,’ and inexperience in life itself. Books read then can be (possibly at one and the same time) formative, in the sense that they give a form to future experiences, providing models, terms of comparison, schemes for classification, scales of value, exemplars of beauty – all things that continue to operate even if a book read in one’s youth is almost or totally forgotten. If we reread the book at a mature age, we are likely to rediscover these constants, which by this time are part of our inner mechanisms, but whose origins we have long forgotten. A literary work can succeed in making us forget it as such, but it leaves its seed in us.”
It’s the wetness-behind-ears thing. How to get over it, how not to consider it inexperience that needs to be corrected, stupidity that requires to be schooled.
Educating the young in how a text must be read is like a joke that needs to be explained. If you didn’t get the point in the first place, you should be left to figure it out for yourself, and through this figuring out discover the pleasure that was there to be had in the first instance. Explain to someone how to read the joke and you’ve destroyed everything. The classics are, I think, in a similar situation. Let them be encountered at first hand, approached with the uncertainty and the scorn that come with the inevitable, irrefutable distance in time, in mores, in consciousnesses.
Don’t provide introductions, don’t go on with footnotes, don’t turn yourself into an academic reader unless you’re forced by the circumstances of your profession! These things kill a text. And to whose benefit? We peek into the indexes and appendices of books not because we’re stupid; it’s because the one who rendered them anew has made it necessary for us to do so. The mere presence of such apparatuses of understanding draws the readers towards them because the readers believe too much in the power of the printed text. Simple logic: why would an appendix be there if it didn’t mean to be considered?
Translators/editors of this kind try to educate us by placing inside the text clues of their own capabilities. They depart catastrophically from the text, by making us dependent on their skills rather than curious about the text’s qualifications. We read the translator’s curriculum vitae instead of perusing the actual text. We’re given crutches when nothing’s wrong with us, when we can navigate easily the seas that we have never sailed before.

Forgetting well

What one should get from Calvino’s words, therefore, is this realization that a classic text isn’t, as many are tempted to think, a guaranteed memory but precisely the opposite. A classic text is one that forces us to forget. To forget its letters, its words, its semantic juxtapositions. To remember it, however, by means that resemble the intricacies of DNA: a memory that stays in the depths of remembering.

Source: Synonym
A classic text is, therefore, anti-educational.
I grew up at a time and in a place where rote-learning was the only acceptable way. What I did learn from that was how to hate the texts I was supposed to love. Yes, I’ve learned those things. Yes, I still recite them when I find it relevant, because they’ve been fixed between my synapses and refuse, by some chemical miracles that take place in my brain, to let go of me. But that doesn’t mean I have enjoyed them the way they (my teachers) thought I was going to enjoy the incident of the encounter. This, in fact, was the central problem: that the meeting with those texts was not at all an encounter. It had been prepared, premeditated, pre-designed, or as they say about old DVDs they sell in DVD stores, pre-loved.
Calvino again:
“The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.”
It’s the influence that matters: an influence that matters. Not just any dictation will make one a good writer, a good reader. Calligraphy classes make you a good calligrapher, but not a good novelist. Rote-learning of a text makes you a good reciter but not a good reader. I’m on Calvino’s side even when he speaks of books that “refuse to be eradicated from the mind.” Provided we’re talking about something that’s been acquired, not given by force (as it were), like a gift pushed into our pockets while we’re screaming that no, we don’t want it.

Monday, 6 July 2015

“These are my fancies…”

It’s probably worth noting that the history of the essay started with an affirmation of doubt. The words belong, of course, to Michel de Montaigne: “These are my fancies, in which I make no attempt to convey information about things, only about myself. I may have some objective knowledge one day, or may perhaps have had it the past when I happened to light on passages that explained things. But I have forgotten it all; for though I am a man of some reading, I am one who retains nothing.”

First and foremost, the essay writer is not someone engaged in a gesture of enlightenment. Montaigne doesn’t lay any claim at clarifying the world. If there is anything to be clarified in an essay, that is (must be) the writing self. Since the writing self is the one that really struggles, it is also the only one that matters. Outside of his immediate perimeter, the world lies wide and frightening; or, as Pascal would put it, less than a century after Montaigne, with a similar honesty and a comparable panic, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”
And so, in any truly honest undertaking of writing only the autobiographical gesture really means anything: the self writing about itself; the self writing itself down.
“I may have some objective knowledge one day.” What do I see here? Doubt! But more importantly, I see an assertion about writing as accumulation. After having amassed pages upon pages of exercises in self-assessment and self-exposure, I might be able to arrive at a conclusive point; one that is truly a point of departure: an introduction, a foreword, a preface.
It's not an myth that forewords are written after the actual texts have been finished. That prefaces are really postfaces. That in order to introduce something you need to have perused it first and to have become familiarized with it. Intimately familiarized, reading it like a writer, writing it like a reader.

Weapons of mass destruction

Montaigne didn’t acknowledge (not here!) the tricks that one can perform by means of writing. For instance, the messing-up of time, the reordering of events so as to serve a text’s purpose. Take rhetoric. Any apparatus of persuasion is a distorter of reality. Rhetoric deals in things that audiences are unlikely to take for granted. It turns up in places where the world is disappointing or where an audience refuses to believe that the world is possible that way.
Nobody will preach to the converted. There’s no point in dealing in tautology. It’s where there’s doubt, where there’s hesitation, that the orator needs to step in. Even where they create a problem that didn’t exist before, the orators (see politicians, as I can’t think up a better example!) conjure up that problem as objectionable in the first place: something likely to be regarded with a squint of reservation, with a pull-your-glasses-to-the-base-of-your-nose kind of suspicion.
The orator steps into the battle of persuasion armed with weapons of mass destruction. The mass, in its solid disbelief, is fiercely attacked, pushed into a corner, forced to agree with the orator’s dexterity. Not with the natural order of things (if such can be discerned), but with the orator’s talent for milking the cow of mass credulity. In essence, a person skilled in rhetoric takes the audience for a ride and messes up with their mind. Best examples: the sophistic theses of the Achilles-and-the-tortoise type, which negate the obvious in order to dwell in an outrageous probability, in a contemptible let’s pretend. It’s precisely because the argument can work mathematically and not ontologically (that Achilles, swift as he might be, will always be a slave to infinite division of time and space) that a sophism of this kind is accepted. And with it, an act or oratory ticks the box of its persuasive agenda.

Abandon hope. I’m only a prestidigitator

An essay (a trial) is indeed nothing but an attempt. And endeavor, a best-shot, a bid. I bet you what you will that I can convey the text I’m offering you in such a way as to dispel your suspicion and win you on my side of the argument (if there is one) or draw you into my own fiction.

“These are my fancies…”
You’re welcome to enjoy them but don’t make the mistake of taking them for the kind of truth they’re not. No objectivity is guaranteed. How could it be? As Montaignes says in the beginning of this essay On Books, “Let the man who is in search of knowledge fish for it where it lies; there is nothing that I lay less claim to.”
Knowledge is not with the writer (of an essay, of a novel, of a scientific treatise, of a policy), simply because knowledge means storage. In order to know you need to have stocks of information at your disposal. You need to be endowed with memory. But the writer is not a memorizer. Whatever he/she knows from previous experience is put under the harsh sign of doubt. Whatever he/she knows is permanently reevaluated. Hence the drive towards fiction. The writer is someone whose time is limited to a present that doesn’t want to change, a present that resembles a CD track stuck on repeat, a Groundhog Day without an exit visa.
Clarice Lispector reached precisely this insight in Água Viva:
“I am this very second forever in the now.”
Even if I speak of an action that took place in the past or will take place in the future, it is still a present action for me; I put it to you, my reader, in the present tense, which is not the grammatical present tense but the present tense of the narration. Past or future, they’re all the same to me, since everything I give a damn about is the fact that I’m addressing them now.
Hic et nunc, a writer’s slogan.

A radical present

Here and now, I am faced with this problem: How to put it? How to formulate my utterance? How to make everything sound clear to me in the first place? The writer is under this constant pressure of the present that demands proficiency and efficiency. This is why “there is nothing I lay less claim to” when it comes to the truth expected from my text.
The truth of truths is that the reader doesn’t expect to see the writer’s present. They don’t want to. Witnessing a writer’s struggle is uninteresting to them; it is repugnant to them. They throw up at the thought of a writer weeping and sniffing about the effort they’ve put into this text or that. Like the user of a pair of shoes who couldn’t care less about the workers who produced those shoes, the only thing the reader wants is to try on this text, to see if it tastes nice, if it suits them, if it’s worth investing in.
And the writer knows. The writer knows because the writer is a reader too. Lispector knew it:
“I don’t want something already made but something still being torturously made.”
Montaigne, especially, knew it:
“I can offer nothing certain except to recount the extent of my knowledge at the present moment. No attention should be paid to the matter, only to the shape that I give it.”
Montaigne doesn’t only lay bare his present, risking the reader’s contempt; he also points out the importance of form. Since things have been clarified about substance (none of it matters, because none of it is available in the writer’s store), we need not fool ourselves. Everything has already been said. “I have no doubt that I often speak of things which are better treated by the masters of the craft, and with more truth.” So let’s get off our high horses and admit that the thing we’re looking for while reading (the thing we know our readers are looking for while reading our texts) is the form – every writer’s present tense.

Source: Daily News
Shape, glorious shape, our only ticket to the Broadway show of immortality.
In order to be universal you need to be personal. Not in some narcissistic sense of exacerbated self-worth but in the sense of an honest self-estimation. Let’s face it. Writing doesn’t make us reinvent the wheel. It only allows us to use the same wheel on a different cart.