Friday, 15 January 2016

The mystique of reading

Reading has a je-ne-sais-quoi about it that always troubles the reasoning minds.

Source: Hippies Read Too
There is, of course, that insistent kind of reading, to which I often subscribe, which refuses to read the obvious. That, in itself, is an act of rebellion. It’s, if you trust me, a way of asserting a belief in the force of the almighty reader. But try as we might, strive as we might, the text is there with a reason. And that reason is to puzzle us. I don’t mean this in the sense of mystery novels, but in another, more general sense. I mean it in the sense of an encounter. All encounters which are not re-visitations (re-readings) are, of course, by definition, encounters with the unknown. Texts are no exception to the rule. Simply put, we never know what to expect. And that’s precisely what makes texts beautiful, worthy of our effort, interesting at all. Also – infuriatingly challenging. To someone who wants to swear that he/she has decoded the cultural means by which texts are formed and re-formed, i.e. written and read, this reality of the text that never clarifies its intentions is insufferable. The same applies to someone who is completely, unequivocally sworn to the idea of reader’s omnipotence. Their trust in that ability is a little too optimistic, a little too patronising.
But let us assume this was correct. Let us imagine a situation in which the reader, by some miraculous means, manages to get to the core of the game. Let us imagine that a text has been left with no place to hide, that we’ve nailed it, so to speak. So?
Cui bono?

There’s disappointment in revelation

Vilém Flusser said something to a similar effect about his technical images. He made the same supposition. He was in fact able to give good examples of this class of textual objects. When one watches tv, Flusser says, one is flabbergasted by the mystery of the medium. You’re familiar, I suppose, with the children’s puzzlement: how is it possible to reduce people and buildings to such a small size and, moreover, put them inside that box where they act as if they were real? It’s a valid puzzlement, is it not? Most will resolve this shock by suspending their disbelief. The classical solution of the deserter: flight, don’t fight. Pretend the danger didn’t exist. Act as if the difficulty has never been posed. It makes sense. Difficulty, as Yeats put it, wears you out. So why bother?

Source: Early Television Museum
But – adds Flusser – there’s another approach to the problem. It’s something akin to the attitude of the hero: he/she will hold the ground; he/she will fight, will face the difficulty, will get to the bottom of all this puzzlement. In the case of technical images, this is possible, if only at the end of some effort. All you need to know is the technicalities of image production. Once you’ve gained that knowledge you know that electric impulses replicate the images created in a studio and transport those replicas into your own tv set. You’ll know, now, that everything you’re watching is an illusion, that Plato was right, that you can point out with perfect precision the whole process of creation. No more mystique! You can, if everything comes to it, replicate the process, because you are enlightened.
But the bitter truth is this: enlightenment is disappointing. As in Jonathan Swift’s poem, once you remove the layers of makeup from a young lady’s face, you’re left with the horrible truth of her anatomy. And now you have to live with it! Now you have to be happy with the important discovery you’ve made! Congratulations!

The fog that protects signs

And this is only the materiality of texts that I’m talking about. I refuse to go into the metaphysical zone (may I call it that, simply to differentiate it from the material, ‘physical’ constituent: what with the pen and the paper, the computer keyboard and the printer, the videotext and the YouTube channel, and so on and so forth), for fear of not having a proper argument. I believe Flusser’s demonstration to be frightening enough to curtail any attempt at future arrogance on my part. Yes, I can exercise my free will, I can do violence to a text by making it mine (even if I hate the notion of taking-over – of colonising), but I need not be so outrageously arrogant as to ignore the many roads that lead to the text I’m reading into.

The body that reads

So let’s face again this assumption that one can read a text completely. Let’s face that with the evidence of – I don’t know – irony, double entendre, jokes, textual traps, hidden meanings, hermeticism. Etc. Etc. Plagues upon the lives of readers. Let’s do the facing, then let’s go back to the initial idea: the mystique of reading. And see what happens.

Source: Kurz Weil AI
I would define the mystique of reading by reference to that tickling sensation, to that tremor of the limbs, to that quickened heartbeat one experiences when encountering a passage that touches a nerve. Regarded from this perspective, reading is a seismic business. It causes real somatic reactions in a reading subject, palpable as all emotions. Put differently, reading relies on events to prosper. It needs to create those seismic movements just mentioned.
How boring would it be to go on perusing the surface of a flat desert where there’s no hope for an oasis? Very boring, indeed detrimental to all forms of reading. If there’s no projection of a reader’s expectations there’s no pleasure to be gained from a text. The page-turner argument is a perfect tool from this perspective.
In many cases, those sensations generated by a text are little more than a preamble to something that could be more important, more complex. But readers often reject the enlightenment that might reside in the decoding of a passage. They do this for various reasons. ‘We don’t have enough time’ is one of them. ‘We don’t have enough time to spoil our amazement’ is another one. Since reading marks a gap in the mundaneness of life, we might as well go with the wind, accept the chance of deserting.
This escapist theory doesn’t apply exclusively to literature. The reading of a philosophical text follows the same pattern. We read in order to see what happens next. How the argument develops, how the thought is turned into what it is. Since texts are defined by linear progression, there’s no way of avoiding this sense of expectation, this hope for what is to come. And as long as what-is-to-come exists, as long as this present absence titillates us, the possibility of reading’s mystique is unavoidable.

Dead ends

Reading appeals, I believe, precisely because it is such an interesting concoction of certainty and uncertainty. On the one hand the letters in front of my eyes. Always there, bright as daylight, sure as hell, immutable. On the other hand the invisible meaning. Somewhere else, always somewhere else, never on the page, never blinding my sight. The former engenders arrogance; the latter – humility. I mean humility in an almost religious sense. A reader is always a pious reader insofar as they accept the challenge of not challenging the text beyond the point of no return.
As in Flusser’s technical images, what would I gain if I managed to subject the text to my impulses? Nothing but a disappointment, no doubt. I would see the wires that connect the circuits, the strings that make the text stand together. And then what? Then nothing. Then a dead-end.
Mission accomplished followed by the despair of boredom.

Source: Screen Crave
That’s why the mystique of the text is so necessary; why it is so necessary that we stop where there’s still hope. Even if we’re not satisfied. Precisely because we’re not satisfied. Professional writers know exactly what I mean, because to them reading is no longer pleasure but something else. Not quite pain but certainly something else. A professional writer reads in order to rip the text apart, to see its entrails, to smell its guts, to watch the gore of its internal functions, and hereby to discover the ‘secrets’ of other writers. If there is pleasure in this insistence, it will fade the moment this reader asks the ordinary question, Now what? This question is inevitable in relation to any finite objects, because once an end has been reached continuation is craved.
But what a bliss that reading cannot produce finite understandings...

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Seven things about procrastination

Susan Sontag once said, “I read too much – as an escape from writing.” That’s how reading becomes a god-damned good excuse, something so addictive it can turn everything into ruin (my urge-to-write included).

Source: Work. Progress. Life.


I don’t want to protest my innocence. On the contrary. Coz let’s face it, procrastination kills. Worse than traffic accidents. Putting some creative task aside for later is like allowing the grim reaper to hack through the best stash of would-be beauties.
Like Sontag, I too read convinced that reading is the closest thing to writing you can imagine; its best bedfellow. And also like Sontag, I know I’m wrong. Because reading understood under these circumstances is not unlike doing dishes when you have a cake to finish for a better party.
So yes, I am embarrassed every time I dare to procrastinate, because when I’m doing it I’m doing it to myself. There’s no other addressee to my delay and no other victim of it.


But here’s another one, from Erica Jong:
“We are so scared of being judged that we look for every excuse to procrastinate.”
Now that puts procrastination in a different light, doesn’t it. The dread that we might be falling short of whatever anticipations others have of us and our conduct? Everyone who’s ever been terrified to speak in public or to raise their voice when they knew they were right – they know what this means.
But with me there’s yet another aspect to procrastination that merits discussion. It’s not the fear to be judged. It’s not the laziness of a good summer’s day. It’s a different fear and a different comfort. To me, it is the fear of reaching back into that area where everything becomes a struggle. Because writing is – it’s always been – a struggle to me. Don’t get me wrong. I do enjoy writing. I do write the hell out of myself and with an enjoyment that I can only heartily recommend to others. But there’s this point where I put myself at a risk I hate to revisit. The risk of getting into a dead end. The risk of reaching the point where I start going in circles upon circles upon circles, no advancement in sight, no hope for a good outcome. That’s the thing that gives me the fright. And staying away from it is what I consider an act of personal comfort.

Source: Men's Health
Often, I resolve this yucky feeling by giving myself the easy ride of reading.
I tell myself, whenever I try to appease this sentiment of guilt, that, at the end of the day, someone who writes needs to read too. Someone who writes needs to read more than he/she writes – to be more precise. This promise, alone, provides me with that damned place where I can hide.
I’m reading this or this because it must be read. The urge becomes suddenly clear, it becomes unavoidable.


Another reason why procrastination works is the opposite of the fear I mentioned a little earlier: the certainty of things that went well earlier. That day all words came out like they were being milked out of an abundant cow’s udder. That day it was so easy. That day I was a champion. But with time this certainty too becomes, alas, a pain I’m left to live with. Because what can I say when, damn if I know why, nothing seems to coagulate in my brain or under the tips of my fingers hovering over the keyboard?


“What is deferred is not avoided.” (Thomas More)
That would have sounded almost psychoanalytically correct had More lived in the nineteenth century. The thought of having avoided a task doesn’t mean the thought of the task has disappeared. That’s why procrastination is so painful. It comes with this certitude that, no matter what, there’s no escape: the demon will be back. He’ll have a shower and return fresh as ever, ready as ever to bite into our resistance to chorological pressures. So a cycle of postponements is inevitable. It can only be stopped by the act of doing the damned thing. And although it sounds easy, we all know it’s not.


The best attempt at describing procrastination I found in Poe’s story, “The Imp of the Perverse” (itself an exercise in long procrastination):
“We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, with the anticipation of whose glorious result our whole souls are on fire. It must, it shall be undertaken today, and yet we put it off until tomorrow, and why? There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, using the word with no comprehension of the principle. Tomorrow arrives, and with it a more impatient anxiety to do our duty, but with this very increase of anxiety arrives, also, a nameless, a positively fearful, because unfathomable, craving for delay. This craving gathers strength as the moments fly. The last hour for action is at hand. We tremble with the violence of the conflict within us, – of the definite with the indefinite – of the substance with the shadow. But, if the contest have proceeded thus far, it is the shadow which prevails, – we struggle in vain. The clock strikes, and is the knell of our welfare. At the same time, it is the chanticleer – note to the ghost that has so long overawed us. It flies – it disappears – we are free. The old energy returns. We will labor now. Alas, it is too late!”

Source: Jane-Beata

This perversity that keeps our hands tied, our voices shut. We crave delay the way we crave a word that must be said but for which we cannot find the right energy to form an utterance.


But procrastination cannot be all bad, can it?
Perhaps not. Just think of all the things we do instead of the things we should. They get done! And that’s good.
What’s more, they’re done with aplomb. I’m never more intent on doing something than I am when I procrastinate. All my surrogate actions are performed to perfection. I’m such a keen and attentive reader when I read in order to postpone writing. I become so aware of subtleties. The pores of my intellect are wide open to receive the blessing of a good text. I do – I swear – enjoy my put-off reading more than the reading done as a task (research, etc.) Somehow, my avoidance makes me better at performing the alternatives. I would never – never – treat the alternative with disdain. All guns blazing, I do them like there’s no tomorrow. That’s why I write so much every time I am supposed to be reading. Funny, right, how things turn on their own heads. But it’s true. When I need to research, when it’s urgent, when it’s supposed to happen – like right now – I embrace procrastination once more, my friend in times of distress, my way of fleeing responsibility.

Source: The Australian


When I read instead of writing I defend myself against a disappointment. (See all of the above for clarification.) This type of reading is a safeguard against injury. It is a way of helping me be well and sane. And, no doubt, the act of preserving my soul thus is a way of doing myself a favor. I spare myself the unpleasant feeling, usually associated with danger, that I’m on the verge of causing a personal catastrophe. Delay postpones calamity, and that’s all I need for self-defense.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Silence doesn’t work

I want to go back to a place I visited three posts ago. I want to go back to the problem of frames. But from a slightly different perspective.

Source: Chiharu Shiota
Beckett: “To restore silence is the role of objects.” Objects, I would venture to say (keeping the necessary distance from terminology, which would, I think, require me to be more precise), objects, that is to say, objectivity. Or in other words, everything that’s beyond us, beyond the borders that make us whole.

The “ghastly business”

It’s the outside of us that can bring us back to that silence of when we didn’t have to make up things, when we dealt with language naked (both us and it). Silence, then, is what dwells beyond the frame, what flourishes in the open (see Giorgio Agamben).
To be able to enjoy that silence we would have to damn art. We would have to simply eradicate the frame, behave as if it has never existed. Otherwise, what a cacophony of attempts, what a hurricane of trials and errors, what a useless, impractical, wretched condition: in Beckett’s words, “a ghastly business,” or more appropriately, “senseless, speechless, issueless misery.” To Beckett, the eradication of the frame takes the form of an obliteration of words. Since writing is what he cares about, it is writing that he wants to eradicate. He cares about it so much that he wants to protect it from the noise that comes with utterances. In order to construct the same emptiness of expression, a painter might want to write off dabs of colour, a musician might attempt literal silence (à la John Cage). Beckett, who writes, writes so as to stop the further progression of writing. Because progression is, let’s face it, the expansion of noise.

The sounds of the Other

But you see how even these instances of rebellion need to take place somewhere. They need to literally take place. They need, in other words, to happen within an identifiable territory, within a given frame. That’s why the frame cannot be ignored. It jumps at you just as you think you’re escaping it. John Cage’s episode is soundless and we’re fine with that for now; but it cannot be spaceless as well. His silence must happen on a stage, within the coordinates of a music show, with the necessary props that make everything look like a joke, like the jest of music.

Source: Ausopinion
And what’s more, that eradication he proposes isn’t really eradication. Yes, he eliminates his own sounds, but that doesn’t impede the sounds of the Other. When the stage is mute, it’s the off-stage that becomes noisy. And that is due to the very fact that the show needs that stage. That frame. This is, perhaps, why Cage could not do without instruments. In order to make a joke about music he needed the frame of music itself. Otherwise, who would have known what it was that he was jesting about? Without the frame the best one can get from such a situation is a pathetic candid camera act, where the participants are fooled because they didn’t know they had been targeted. The audience needs to recognize the target of the joke, and that target can only become apparent if the frame is re-instated for the sake of recognition. Cage instructs his performers to have the instruments on stage in order to avoid confusion, and that’s important. Precisely for the reasons mentioned above.

The soundless tree that hears itself

Confusion is apparent in a stageless state, when there’s no way of understanding, when no event has taken place, so as to draw our attention towards its presence. Confusion is when there are no instruments on the stage, when there is no stage, when there is no 4’33’’, when there is no John Cage. “To restore silence is the role of objects.” But where there are objects there cannot be silence, unless there’s something else missing: the questioning subject, the subject that is by virtue of questioning the frame. You know the old kindergarten riddle, attempted by philosophers but never quite given a satisfactory answer other than the presumption of unperceived existence: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Source: Style of Design
Confusion reigns supreme right here, since the given question proliferates more, equally confusing, questions. If we aren’t there, in the forest, while the tree is falling, how can we even know that it has fallen?
In their objectivity, objects are, indeed, frameless. They are, in that case, non-objects, since they cannot be delimited, separated from silence, outlined. A tree can fall all it wants: the fall will be significant only to itself. It will, therefore, escape our frame of understanding and representation. It will leave, in other words, complete silence in our heads. None other than the confusing silence just mentioned.

Vladimir and Estragon need a stage

So to speak of a pure off-stage, of a frameless world, would mean not to speak of it at all. Because as soon as the first word is uttered, as soon as I bring up the question of the frame, the frame emerges from silence and presents itself as a loud statement. A word is all it takes for the frame to become apparent. Putting on a show where the stage dissolves into the audience doesn’t erase the stage from the picture; it only enlarges it. A stage is what we have, no matter how hard we might try to eliminate everything else. Include the spectator if that’s what you will. There’s only going to be more of us playing the roles. There will be more roles, I presume, more possible accidents, but the frame is still the same: just one, just there.
What I think I’ve been trying to say here is simple. Imagining an art of non-art is as absurd as thinking that it would be possible to carry water in a sieve. Yes, it is wonderful to imagine it possible. Yes, it warrants all the efforts in the world. But at the end of it all, at the end of all efforts, there’s the frame, waiting, waiting to see what we make of it. Waiting, that is, being there forever, like the two idiots waiting for a nonexistent Godot.

Source: Alisa Mandel
So then my conclusion: I can’t see a way of approaching silence that is not always already situated within a frame. Recognizable, discernible, delimitable. So then this: in order to make silence possible we must not take it seriously. We must not take it at all. We must leave it there, because there is the definition of silence.
There, you guessed it, is not here. With all the implications that may follow from this statement.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Because writing is such a virtual thing

We tend to equate the virtual with things that bear the label of the digital. And as such, we often fall into the trap that this association sets for us.

Source: Bioskop24
Let’s take a look at a few things. What exactly are the criticisms formulated against social networks, of all things?
  • That they’re solipsistic to the point of turning us antisocial
  • That they’re privatizing the essence of public speech and, therefore, are likely to harbor elements dangerous to society (the list never changes: extremists, pedophiles, terrorists, etc., etc., etc.)
  • That they are undermining a presumed righteous core of the public soul with their guerilla tactics
  • That they’ve put public valor under a gigantic question mark, throwing us all into regrettable immoral mire, making us a tribe of selfish cowards
  • That they spread misinformation, second-grade truths, often falsity
  • That, because of the above, they’re terroristic to a high degree
  • That they have no cause, no real cause, and that, consequently, they enjoy ranting and running about like an empire of headless chickens
  • That they’re so goddamn anonymous they obfuscate all attempts at creating a ‘decent’ (yes, the word gets mentioned pretty often!) discussion based on the acknowledgment of the enemy
  • That, because of them, enemies are no longer what they used to be
I like to think of the above as a list of phobias.
Rumors are widely spread that social networks act subversively, in the shadows of good-and-healthy, i.e. acceptable, interaction.

Source: Cinematic Catharsis
But this (this terror, this argument of fear) is not about social networks. Or not exactly about their inherent iconoclasm. This is about writing at large.
The ill sentiments caused by social networks must indeed be due to the ill sentiments engendered by writing at large.
Social networks, and all things online for that matter, have flourished out of writing’s virtual nature. And that’s a truth we must not overlook.

Avoiding direct gaze

Simply put, writing makes it possible to avoid the face-to-face. Verba volant, scripta manent – this is the dictum that articulates the power of script over speech. But at the same time, it is an argument for an act that takes place in solitude, far from the madding crowd, in one’s closet, in one’s own work space.
As Alain Badiou has put it recently, “thought resides in the solitude of labor.” As such, a thought always poses a threat, in the way the private sphere has been posing threats against the public domain ever since the two categories started being discussed together. What happens in the privacy of an individual life risks escaping control, and therefore becomes undesirable.
That’s our writing, right there. Solipsistic, relying on a separation from public life, the process of writing is as dubious as the process of thinking out of control. Publication is, therefore, the sanction of ideology given to writing. In order for writing to be validated, it needs to appear; it needs to come about. Appearing in print is the most public of forms taken by writing. Of course, writing appears in many other forms. Writing, for instance, appears when a social subject of no particular distinction becomes a writer; when he/she has produced a text that hasn’t been read yet. We’re talking pre-publication. We’re talking a state that’s more akin to thought production: devoid of public value, unacknowledged, “residing in the solitude of labor.”

Fictions we enjoy

Written words are nothing but that: words. They are not truths. Truth transgresses the printed page. We have invested writing with this strange attribute which has become a kind of obligation: to produce truth, to deal in irrefutability, to describe things as they are. But it’s always been too much to think of writing in these terms. Written manipulation, propaganda, ideological scriptures, the belief in logos – these are no guarantors of writing’s ability to produce truths. On the contrary, they show how weak writing truly is, since it needs the suspension of our disbelief in order to operate at all. Only if we buy into the fictionality of written discourses can writing work as a persuasive tool.

Source: Cinematic Catharsis
Not to mention that persuasion itself is not production of truth but production of assent. If I’m good enough at manipulating rhetorical devices, I can persuade you of anything. Even of an untruth.
If this sounds like prestidigitation, it is. Magicians do precisely that: they make beliefs. They persuade you, against your better judgment, that a coin can be fished out of one’s ear or that rabbits can inhabit peacefully the insides of a top hat.
But we know that all of the above is untrue. We know, yet we indulge. We know that writing gives birth to fictions, yet we take these fictions at face value.
Since we know with certitude that writing produces deceits, we know, at the same time, that the pleasure we get from it is a guilty pleasure. From Plato onwards, writing has been reprimanded many times for this departure from truth. And so, to trust writing is to trust something that is fundamentally flawed. The direct consequence of this is that we cannot swear allegiance to writing unless we reinforce it with the armor of ideology, which is about believing in spite of the otherwise.

Afraid and alone

Writing had to withdraw into the writer’s solitude, since, like all forms of prestidigitation, it must rely on a secret, on a truth untold and unsayable. Public writing (if such is ever allowed to exist) must be avoided precisely because of this sanction of the public sphere, where standards of objectivity demand full display.
What we do witness publicly is not writing but its offspring, reading. The act of reading is the public negotiation of the written discourse. It’s where we all end up as soon as we’ve been spotted by an audience, be it as small as it may be – the audience of one, if you like.
Writing is, for this reason, suitable mostly for introverts or for those afflicted by speech impediments. For those who, in the able words of Rammstein, are disposed towards declaring: “wir haben Angst und sind allein” (We are afraid and alone).

Source: Bergen Filmklubb
I’ll leave it to the suspicious to return to the beginning of this post and draw the lines between writing and social networks, then. I hope they’re clearer now. If they only listened to Myra Breckinridge, the job would be so much easier: “The novel being dead, there is no point to writing made-up stories.” If we know writing to be what it is, is it still fun to indulge in its abilities?

Monday, 16 November 2015

In defense of bad reading

I have a problem with the customary reproaches leveled against those who, it is said, don’t read seriously and in-depthly (apologies for the adverb but I couldn’t resist). Deep reading. Such an interesting concept! One that makes me think of diving rather than desk-bound perusal. But that’s just me.

Source: Contently
We want reading to be deep. That’s not all. We want all reading to be deep. All of it, page after page, book after book. We want our minds busy in an almost professional manner. Like academics, if you get my drift. Because academics – well, they know how to read well. Their reading is perfectly tuned. It can spot an intention, the hint of a meaning, no matter how small. The reading of an academic is able to tell you, on the spot, what the author truly wanted to say. You see how this kind of reading is x-ray-like. It can pierce through a book, it can see beyond the visible. Reading of this kind blooms like a flower that’s taking itself very, very seriously.
But there’s something to be said here, before we go mad with passion. A question. How many people do read a book with all these good intentions? Academics, students, scholars. Ok, all ticked. But who else?
Behind this question stands, obviously, the generalized concern I’ve noticed (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) with the perils of new technologies.

Hands-free reading

For a long time we complained, if I remember correctly, that not enough was being read. That books were waiting in vain to be picked up from their shelves by individuals too interested in watching tv or playing video games, or simply being couch-potatoes that fried slowly in the oil of their own apathy. Then something happened. (In the way technology comes about, it always seems as thought it has appeared out of the blue.) Tablets and smart phones came about, cloud storage and online databases, and now there’s more reading taking place than ever in the history of humanity. Are we satisfied, though? No. We’ve reformulated another complaint. Those who were not reading before are now reading incorrectly, inappropriately, irreverently even.

Source: Academic Sciences
The problem with this new complaint is primarily a strategic one. It belongs in the infrastructure of learning. How is one who wasn’t reading at all supposed to have learnt, by his/her own accord, to read like a pro? How? As we have agreed before, they’ve never had the tools to be Readers. Never. They never liked it, they never had that special chemistry within their souls, they never did what was necessary. Then why are we complaining about them? I’ll leave this question here (no need for an answer) because I’ve got another one at the ready. Haven’t we somehow forgotten that most readers read for a kind of pleasure that’s more akin to movie-watching and videogame-playing than to any highbrow objective? Take a look around. There are more readers at the beach, in a train or bus, on a bench in a park, in bathtubs and on toilet seats – than in the world’s libraries. Note: there’s nothing wrong with reading like that. What I mean to say is this: most readers do it because they want to relax. Reading like a pro is painful. It requires a pen or pencil in one hand, a library in the other (to find concordances, to draw parallels, to note down peculiarities of style and intertextual similarities). That’s why reading like a pro is usually limited to the pro.
The reader who seeks relaxation wants their hands free of any prosthetics. Hands-free reading is for fun. It is for giggling when a funny passage comes about, for the heartbeats to accelerate when suspense kicks in, for pallor to settle on one’s face when he/she comes across a horror scene.

One way of reading

The complaint against new readers comes from a minority group: the careful readers, the practitioners of close reading, the examiners for whom reading is not skimming but perusal, not browsing but inspection. This minority group forgets an essential aspect of the story they tell: they’re trained to read this way. They’ve spent hours and hours educating themselves, turning their attention from the easy bits or complicating the same to the point where they’re turned into something unrecognizable. These readers deal well with difficult texts because they’ve made those texts difficult. Self-flagellation is the favourite technique of the readers with busy hands. They don’t accept ease because, for some reason, ease comports the risk of stultification. It’s like looking at a horse that’s gone through expensive dressage and not seeing that the same animal is equally capable of pulling a cart.

Source: PsyBlog
With reading, though, the problem is that its high horses are taken for granted. There are rites of passage throughout school, various forms of taming and training, all meant to educate the reader, to make them sensitive to the finely tuned and the highly pitched. But what should happen with those who haven’t (for one reason or another) acquired the techniques that guarantee their acquisition of greatness? Those who have fallen through the cracks and yet still want to read a book the best they can? The best they can!
This is where my problem lies. In applying that one-size-fits-all adage that says, ‘a book can be read in a million ways.’ If that’s the case (and it must be!) then hands-free reading is also a form of reading. So let’s accept it. I don’t care that it doesn’t add value to the ontology of reading. I don’t care that it leaves the reader speechless at the end, incapable of articulating a thought, of formulating a cogent analysis. It’s a form or reading and that’s that.

A perversity

For those who want to reach depths, there’s room enough to develop their own passion. That’s because their reading is also one form of reading. It’s not the absolute form, it’s not the only one. The democracy of intellectual matters contains, like the democracy of politics, strong binary opposites: high and low, poor and rich, adventurous and timid.
What goes unacknowledged in this story is a simple fact of personal obligation: I must not impose my pleasure upon another subject. That would amount to tyranny. To perversity. I can draw attention to the fact that other options are likely to exist – that goes without saying. I can, if I am smarter, better equipped, luckier, I can point out the richness of the world of reading. But I must not talk about reading in terms of preferences. De gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum. I must not pull my nose in disgust when I hear another’s preferences. My likes cannot be another’s, unless by accident. If I belong in a community of interpreters (as Stanley Fish likes to put it), that belonging is the result of pure chance. It’s not unlike being born in a particular language.

Monday, 2 November 2015

The question of the frame is always wrong

We learn that the most terrible of things, the stuff likely to return in nightmares, might very well be this: to keep your eyes on the frame, only to realize (after the act, after the pleasure) that what had mattered all the way had happened outside the frame. To spend hours with your eyes fixated on the stage only to learn that the show was somewhere else; that what you watched was only a detour, a joke, an inexistent show. Painful, isn’t it? Downright embarrassing, one might say. But still.

Source: Hippo Wallpapers
The question we formulate as soon as we become aware of the risk is: how to avoid all this? How to stop this embarrassment from happening? But the question itself is greatly misguiding. At the end of the day, all there is for us to see is the frame. The work of art is presented to us on that stage, through those actions. There’s nothing else but the stage. It’s what we’ve paid for, so it’s what we’re getting.

Don’t kill the messenger!

To watch, to read, to contemplate – these things need to be considered as if. Always as if. As if there were a show on stage that could be taken literally. (All writers want, ultimately, to be taken literally – otherwise why would they write? Why would they invest so much effort into the writing of letters?). As if there were such a show but knowing all the way (sensing!) that there’s never been any literal thing to behold. This is exactly like keeping your eyes within the frame but seeing only what's beyond it.
Every piece of text sends us away from itself, into the nebulous uncertainty of meaning. But the movement-out happens via the frame. In order to go beyond you need to start from being within.
We know too well that meaning is not on the page but somewhere else. It might be in us, readers. It might be in the encyclopedia of the world: in this world which, like a vast encyclopedia, contains everything that has ever been possible to write, everything that has ever carried a meaning.
The page is only a messenger. Then every time we have an account to settle with the page we must, at least, remember that the messenger must not be killed. The same goes for the stage, another materialization of the page. Or the painting surface, or the block of marble. There’s no meaning in them at all. Meaning occurs when a well-intended human individual starts filling them with his/her intentions.
A dormant stage, let’s say before the beginning of a play, is nothing but a wooden structure which might indicate a place where dramatic pieces are staged every now and then, but that would be all. The stage-in-itself can only have a repeatable meaning, one that is carried on from one play to the next and never changes. Change occurs only when an individual play is being acted out, when the frame is filled, when it becomes significant to look at the interior of the frame and ignore the rest.
The art of the stage is (no need to remind anyone) an art of illusions. Creative prestidigitation. But the success of these deceptions depends on the ability of the stage to channel attention, to make itself the object of some mystical adoration. Like an ideology, a stage makes us believe, although we know that what takes place on it isn’t true. In this case, looking outside of the stage is not recommended, unless we want to spoil the show.

The frame is a territory of forgetting

This means, simply, that the frame cannot be ignored. That it’s impossible to behave as though it did not matter. Because it matters greatly. The frame is where the spectacle of the work of art is set out to unfold. A work of art in itself can be called a work of art precisely because it can be delimited. Art is not existence, not disinterested existence. It is precisely the opposite of that, the counter-argument placed against the argument of what can be without signifying.

Source: USC Institute for Creative Technologies
Insofar as existence is without meaning, looking outside the frame of art is looking into the non-signifying immensity of existence. Not a very encouraging perspective for us, dwellers in signification, since reading outside the frame means reading outside of meaning. The only outcome of such reading-outside-the-frame must, therefore, be non-signification. The absurd, perhaps, although there’s still meaning in there. (The absurd is the meaning of non-meaning, but the non-signifiable transgresses even this minimalist meaning, insofar as it cannot even be postulated as potential.)
Writing, then, makes meaning. It draws a frame because the intensity of framelessness is not conceivable to the subject who has learnt to speak, who has learnt to use language in order to produce. In order to produce anything. There’s no way one could forget (as in the Christic kenosis) the presence of language, which is the most obvious production line of sense. The frame of language (which creates a territory within the world) is always there, with us. And this frame produces further frames. Every employment of language cuts through the world, takes a slice out of it and models a territory that is supposed to stand alone. Alone, as well as independent from the world.

There’s something artistic in being us

With this, we may turn the discussion towards a different sphere, where we might be able to touch on the issue of alterity. Here’s the gist of it. To be able to see outside the frame I need to be not-I. Insofar as I is a subject whose fundamental attribute is the capacity of articulating his/her own individuality, it is not an I that this problem needs to be formulated as, but a you: an externality. I am a you if I am capable of seeing myself from outside. And if I am, if I can have that insight that only the Other can have (because the Other belongs in the realm of objectivity, where things are said to be things-in-themselves) I can only address myself in the second person. Through this conversation between the I that’s not yet formulated and the he/she/it of pure objectivity, I can rise towards myself as an Other that can be addressed, that must be addressed.

Source: Backstage
So when I’m talking about externality and about frame, the model I am emulating is the one I have learnt from addressing my own frameness. If I address myself as a you I know instinctively that outside of this conversation, beyond the limits of this logos with myself, there is an objective expanse that includes the frame, that includes the self, that swallows up the I. From here, from this realisation, I can extrapolate so as to understand the art that surrounds me: the artistic nature of being-human. The world can only be experienced aesthetically, as a representation, as a ‘best guess’; and everything starts from here.
Then (to return to the question formulated in the beginning) why is it so terrible to look inside the frame when the show is somewhere else? Why is it embarrassing to look askance, when the show is always somewhere else? The problem is wrongly put, since there’s no way out for us, only a concentration towards the interior, an intensification of our artistic nature.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

How SEO transforms writing

Every time we write we write to someone. This is true whether that someone is somebody else or just us in a later instantiation, when, with a different intention and a different demeanor, we return upon the text to revise it, to read it again – like strangers. This presence of the other that reads has been made even more obvious in the digital age. Now, there’s no more writing for oneself, if there ever was one.

Source: The Platypus Directive
Let’s look at it this way. Even when the privacy settings on your social media platforms are turned to ‘Private,’ we must not overlook the fact that ‘privacy’ is highly deceiving. We should have learned this lesson already. Remember ‘Like’ that doesn’t mean ‘enjoy’? ‘Friend’ that doesn’t mean ‘pal’? ‘Tweet’ that involves no bird? They’re all part of the patois of the day and we kind of understand where everything really stands in the picture. We only pretend to use the word ‘friend’ in its original meaning. We play the game of arbitrariness rather well. We pay it back to the source.

Your text is read by an algorithm

But this is only semantics. What I mean to say about digital writing is that when you write on your blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, on reddit, on any other digital platform, you cannot save yourself from the gaze of the other. The other is there all the time. Considering what I said earlier, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. All’s old and boringly familiar. But what’s new is that the other doesn’t come about as an actual reader, a person you might be able to identify in a crowd. The primary reader of your text is an algorithm. It is the machine that does the crunching of numbers, the perusing of texts, and, of course, the ascertaining of meaning.
This awakens the contemporary writer to an interesting reality. Not only are they writing to produce content, they also write to produce audience. In other words, they become entrepreneurs who pitch their product to a market. But this pitching is made to please first and foremost the algorithms that run the show.

Source: Lisa Kurt
It is commonly said among SEO specialists that the value of your text doesn’t matter if you’re invisible. Indeed, in the logic of the digital universe, one makes sense only insofar as one is reachable. But reachability is established through algorithms running in the background. They decide what is and what isn’t interesting, what is and what isn’t professional. Google has gone so far as to regulate language. Poorly written texts, which, let’s face it, have been bothering us big time, are kept at bay by Google algorithms that comb through content in search for mistakes. Of course, this doesn’t mean you’re in a one-mistake-and-you’re-out situation. It takes a little more than just a missed comma for Google to give you the boot.

Conform or remain invisible

But grammar isn’t everything in this game. When it comes to correctness, algorithms are far more sensitive than the occasional grumpy grammarian stomping their feet at the sight of a disagreement between a noun and a verb. Since they are logico-mathematical entities that function on the premise that the input is always valid (i.e. within predetermined parameters), it becomes understandable why an algorithm reacts bitterly when it encounters weird or unacceptable formulations.
At the end of the day, in order for mathematics to work we need to renounce the idea that the distinction between natural objects is relevant. 1+1=2. But what is the first 1 and what is the second 1? What do they designate in the real world? And what does the final result mean, if anything? 1+1 may very well be one apple and one orange, but who cares? We dismiss the very possibility of this distinction to matter. On the other hand, and also because of how mathematics works, we can’t perform an operation such as   ҉   + 1, simply because   ҉   doesn’t belong in the class of calculable elements designated by mathematics. It is not a number. So unless we give it a numerical value, it cannot play this game.
By association, we can think of the   ҉   in the above proposition as the equivalent of a sentence that doesn’t match the patterns written into the software. (I’m not going to go into what can be done to accommodate eccentricities. Rules that break rules exist everywhere, and so do algorithms that allow for abnormal propositions.)
But the point? The point is this: algorithms (and I’m talking about the ones designed to control textual matters) shape the outlook of content. The writer who is a user of such algorithms will find, sooner or later, that he/she must conform to the algorithm if they want to cross the threshold drawn by these invisible robots between writing and display.
Because display is what matters. Not the display of letters on a screen, but the display of content made accessible to the other.

SEO and clairvoyance

Algorithms don’t just automate assent (by pointing out to forthcoming audiences the worthiness of a given text). They also anticipate the writer’s next move. Since conforming to the algorithm is the only way about, the algorithm, through its prescriptive properties, makes the appearance of a text foreseeable. Once you get your head around SEO matters you understand why a URL looks the way it looks, why some keywords appear insistently throughout the text, why titles have to be this long and this many, why some parts have to be highlighted, why links matter, and why there is a need for social media visibility.

Source: Tactix Marketing
Search engines search the internet for content. They do so by mining information present in the HTML script. HTML, whose role is to order the chaos of the digital world, precedes content. It is there before the text. And this is another way of putting the question of precedence.
Let’s be frank, SEO is all about pleasing the search engine, which establishes worthiness via authority. It’s precisely the notion of authority that’s the most intriguing, because consensus is the function of a statistical result.
Content optimized for the search engine is exactly what its name indicates: an effort to answer the pressure exercised by the search engine, i.e. by software designed to crunch the numbers no matter what. So that a groundbreaking piece of epistemology, the best novel of this generation, the most illuminating analysis, the best solution to a million problems, amounts to very little if the search engine doesn’t perceive it to be worth pitching. In other words, it will remain invisible.

The viral aspect of content

In order for all of the above to become detectable, visibility has to grow exponentially. And with this statement we slide into the territory of viral content. Spreading about depends on factors external to content, but which writers can stimulate by including in their content elements likely to cause contagion. The first and foremost of these factors, maybe the only one that truly counts, is none other than out good old friend, the algorithm. Because it’s the algorithm that discovers the text in the first place. Growth of popularity depends on how other users share content. While there seems to be agency here (when I choose what to post online I am communicating a personal decision), the expression of this agency is made through a piece of software.

Source: Forbes
It’s the Like button I’m talking about here. It makes apparent one fundamental thing about software: that when we use it we don’t bring our free will to light. On the contrary, we admit to our conformity to the algorithm. When we choose anything, we help the software bring its function to fruition. We are an element in the system, a cogwheel in the apparatus, an operative factor in the code.
Then there’s the even more mundane realization that only the already-popular becomes more popular. That’s because the algorithm takes shortcuts. Once a piece of content is deemed worthy of interest, a search engine will push that piece up in its ranking system. That’s what happens when we come across certain results when we search for a keyword: why some results come first, while others trail behind, in pages so distant they’re the guarantee of total failure.
With all this in sight, it’s clear, I hope, that the writer who cares about the fate of their content will have to bend to the new rules. Make sure to repeat a keyword but not too many times. Make sure to leave snares for the search engine, to catch the spiders that crawl the web. Make sure to check your text for mistakes. Make sure to send reminders, to share, to encourage interaction with your content, to catch the eye of those who can boost your traffic. We all do that. We all do SEO, whether professionally or just out of instinct. Not because of a suddenly awakened entrepreneurial spirit in us, but because the algorithm demands it. It does.
So write well!

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Algorithms, traces, and solitary work

Digital algorithms and software raise fundamental questions about writing. And so it should be, since most things don’t look the same when you turn to the logic of digits. For a start, the environment in which inscription takes place is no longer that of a trace immediately noticeable.

Source: The Renegade Writer
A text written using the keyboard of a computer appears to a viewer as an inscription already finished. That’s because the erasures that come with versions and drafts are no longer perceivable, the way they were in environments dominated by the work of pen and paper. Pencil corrections, and even those made by typewriters, stay on paper; they travel along with the text. Visually, they are inextricably part of it. Their presence is proof of the text’s evolution.

The archaeological gesture of tracing

This is not to say that digital writing dismisses the possibility of tracing. It’s only that traces are not immediately visible in digital composition. They don’t stay on the screen as such, not like the marginalia on a page pre-occupied by what is considered to be ‘the primary text.’ If they do stay somewhere, this somewhere is a place where the material traces, in order to be seen, must be dug out, unearthed in a gesture that is archaeological in nature.
Archaeology is about digging-in-order-to-find. It is about dealing with the underground and with the undergrowth. And as such, one would be tempted to say that even the tracing of analogue texts (marks on paper) is subjected to the processes of unearthing. Which is very true. But also incomplete. Because analogue writing shows the signs of a draft without requiring an effort of visualisation. This is why a digital text always appears as completed, even when it is work-in-progress. On the computer screen, all signs look definitive. They look as if they had no past and no future. To put it differently, an analogue text is diachronic (it flows, it progresses along a continuum that is permanently discernible), while a digital one is synchronic. Its stasis is caused by the absence of versions, insofar as versioning doesn’t take place on the screen. More precisely, the surface of writing is moved somewhere else. It is not the screen that plays the role of this surface but the electronic apparatus that registers the impressions of one’s fingers and of one’s intentions. And that apparatus remains, in most cases, unseen.

A form of writing that is always elsewhere

Metadata, which is precisely an assortment of traces left by a digital text, brings about the very possibility of this gaze that sees into a text’s past. But the tracing of digital signs requires a technological apparatus of its own. The reading of code is not the same thing as the reading of a short story or of a shopping list. Code exists beyond the surface. Code is brought to the screen only if the writer/reader is directly implicated in the writing/reading of a line of code. But otherwise writing and reading take place under the surface of composition. What I mean here is writing that is other than code-writing. The simple (in digital terms) composition of a short text on a computer screen requires the work of software, which comes prior to the compositional act. From the keyboard that transforms mechanical, electrical, and digital processes into letters to the word processor that enables the transformation of keystrokes into images on a screen, the technical aspects of composition remain largely unnoticed and unacknowledged, but not unimportant because of that.

Source: Penn State
As with all technologies, the functioning of a writing apparatus becomes apparent when it ceases to work as programmed. The business-as-usual standard does not provide a model for the acknowledgment of technological processes. But what’s truly important is that business-as-usual presupposes a subject who thinks he/she is working alone.
A subject who works alone is a subject who doesn’t need the presence of external factors to tell them how the work needs to be carried on. This, though, can only happen when the technology on which the subject is reliant functions without interruptions, i.e. when the subject forgets that there’s technology around, believing they worked alone, without actually doing so.

There’s an ideology behind something that works

Well-functioning technologies are, for this reason, of the ideological order. Only an ideology without hiccups can persuade a subject of its absence, so as to work efficiently beyond (or under) the surface, unseen, unnoticed, unacknowledged. It’s important for an ideology to remain invisible and thus to persuade by means of its apparent absence. The subject of ideology is a subject convinced that they are not ideology-driven; that they are free.
The same goes with technologies in general, and the digital ones in particular. In our case, it is crucial that code stay in a territory that’s largely unacknowledged, or where access is permitted only to specialists. (Code-writers are the technocrats of the digital age.)
It is interesting to note that, precisely because technology (as the Other) presents itself as non-present, the subject goes about doing business-as-usual as though they were working alone. They don’t share the tasks of writing with anybody else. They dwell, for this reason, in a symbolic time and space that are anachronistic when regarded from the perspective of, say, Foucault’s theory of the author as a function rather than a real person. Prior to Foucault, authors did not cross the threshold of individuality. They performed their tasks unhindered by any acknowledgments of the Other. Foucault brought external factors into the picture. He brought the Other to the centre of writing. After him, the apparatus can no longer be thought of as something to do things with. It is something that contains the very act of doing, and the doing subject at the same time. A writer writes within an apparatus of which he/she is a cogwheel of sorts. Not that writers are less special, but they are special in a different way: a way that acknowledges the multiplicity that characterizes their very work.
Anyway, the conclusion is that it’s kind of impossible now to think of a writer as someone who can work alone.

Function is found in dysfunction

But writing-as-if-technology-did-not-exist is an illusion. We all know how important apparatuses of writing are in the process of composition. Let’s think no further than the moments when we seek a power plug for our laptops, or the simple gesture of pressing the power button on the writing machine before anything else can happen. These simple gestures are often forgotten, and their role in the generation of text is ignored. That’s for two reasons.
1. As mentioned above, technology works best when it doesn’t seem to work. This apparent not-working obliterates technology, and thus propels it towards well-working.
2. We forget the simple gestures of digital writing because we are already accustomed to the logic of the other technology that predetermines writing: the technology of pen and paper.

Source: Nation States
The work done by means of pen and paper is only slightly different. It’s only different in that it employs analogue technology. But that only means one thing: that it is not technology-free. The fundamental similarity is that, like digital technologies, pen-and-paper involves techné, which is at the same time craft and trick. The trick of the pen and paper is that they obliterate their dependence upon one another and, more importantly, of the writing subject on both of them at the same time. Once again, in order to gauge the depth of this illusion all one needs to envisage is an interruption of business-as-usual. A pen that’s run out of ink or a pencil whose tip is broken are rendered un-operational exactly like a laptop whose battery has run flat. Dysfunction lays bare the ideological foundations of function. All it takes is for a piece of technology to cease working as expected in order for it to become fundamental. If it cannot facilitate, it impedes. And impediment is outside the scope of the good functioning of ideological reassurance. That is why a good algorithm is an algorithm that yields symmetrical results. Once this condition is fulfilled, the user is likely to give in to the argument of efficiency, and so the algorithm is likely to be left to work alone.