Friday, February 28, 2014

Get 'Em in the Guts (IPoS,tHL Part 5)

Get 'Em in the Guts

Of the decisions made within the creation of a book, it is worth commenting on how a series of words can come to take on a shape and that shape may be perceptible, but latent. A novel's shape isn't necessarily apparent. It belongs most-frequently to the unspoken quotient of subtext that fills in the space between words, the area where the author and the reader are meant to interact.   The Recognitions, for instance, takes on the shape of a screw, following the lives of a circle of people and pulling the action in tighter and tighter until the final collapse. Infinite Jest (in printed, not e-reader format) becomes a piece of exercise equipment: problem and solution bound in one hefty volume. To take a different tack, or to apply an anachronistic empiricism to the written word, what appears on the page and what appears within a reader's mind as the words begin to aggregate are separate and almost unaccountable phenomena, unless of course you suffer from perfect comprehension (zero noise as Wiener might have put it).

Determining where exactly meaning appears within a text or parsing the meaningfulness of a text is both personal and contextual.  It's personal in that whatever is being written must flash against some existing question within a reader's head for it to gain priority over other text.  It's contextual in that more often than not, meaning is a product of the subtextual games an author has deployed to manipulate our attention and bring us to a point of focus. We can see these quotes and excisions dragged out and held to the light and at times find enough in it to think we agree or to empathize with its sentiments or if we've seen it before, we nod in recognition and see that someone else found value in a statement.

In Ben Marcus's The Flame Alphabet another problem is introduced.  The narrator lets us know that he can only speak of dead ideas, that, much like the light from stars, we are reading something cast off, something that may have once been precious, but has now been outgrown. I extend this idea in part to some of the decisions Marcus makes within the novel, some of the themes he pursues and the slanted pieces of his own identity on display within the work.  The novel itself is about a language virus, so we already have a level of alienation from the text, but to get more into the lower guts, Marcus has provided a context where-in he can produce a special language, an enriched syntax and a means of exploring the written word that is jarring in its novelty but applicable to the world which he creates, but the writing is another cast off and perhaps part of the problem inherent with the form of the novel, we will always be reading something dead. Whatever life we try to bring to it is a kind of revival or resurrection, secondhand pants that may or may not fit but may also be toxic.

In The Captive, we encounter what seems to be the central problem of modern rationality. The narrator, who Proust shruggingly allows us to call Proust in this volume, has arranged for his mistress (Albertine) to live as his cousin, in secret, to share his home.  Obsessed by what she does when she is not with him, Proust has her surveilled, prods and manipulates her into staying at home. Considering his navigation against the history of Swann's path in society, the ways in which he strains to glimpse into Albertine's secret nature provides a perfect picture of his limit. Proust wants to know at all costs, even if it breaks his heart and it drives him mad that he cannot see around this particular blind spot. In part, it reminded me of an updated Oedipus myth, one where Oedipus is ever vigilant against the fulfillment of his fate, but where as well the vigilance is the signal of his character's flaw (a flaw crafted from a great strength) to the point where whatever peace we allow ourselves in the shade of our ignorance is ruined in an attempt at comprehension of our own particular place within the world. The way in which his thinking is bent by this blind spot shows that there are things that rationality cannot process, that knowing only begets further suspicion.

Walter Faber and to an extent Oedipa Maas both extend this concept of the rationally tragic. Homo Faber, the novel by Max Frisch, borrows its name from a concept co-created by Hannah Arendt and Max Scheler (it means "gay pencil" "Man, the maker"). Faber's rationality is that of a survivor looking to recreate the world in the wake of WWII.  His rationality is built upon a movement away from history, his own personal history and its resonance with the war, and a genuine need to put the past behind oneself in order to continue living.  The mechanics of Faber's tragedy are all folded within the folly of that very real need on the part of Europeans to not look back, but we can also extend his brand of hubris to the engineer and scientist castes of the 50's and of the supposed rationality of the play between the super powers built upon the mountainous irrationality of thermonuclear war.  Oedipa Maas on the other hand inherits the tragedy of lost knowledge (oh the sweats expired in the mattress fire) in the face of mass of culture and communication (Rich Chocolatey Goodness) censorship and greed.

To take a brief side step, the themes of Homo Faber find a number of echoes in The Crying of Lot 49, but the two books are deeply divergent in terms of style. Frisch's cool, collected plotting and descriptions vary widely from Pynchon's discursive plunge through southern California in the mid-60's. One difference may be psychedelia and Pynchon's great co-author, the substance, but another may be best stated as James Joyce. The best counter to the sequence above in the Captive, where Proust obsesses over the unknown, may be that epiphanic moment near the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when Stephen Dedalus grasps the louse crawling near his neck and crushes it. It echoes back to the description of his mother's finger stained with louse blood through to his confrontation with the British soldiers in Ulysses. It may be safe to say that Joyce was much more comfortable with inference than Proust.  That Joyce's poverty, relative to Proust, provided him early on with a sense of the place people saw him in, so in Joyce instead we have the fight against that fate, toward greater artistic freedom. And while both authors are capable of investing a single sentence with several layers of resonance, in Proust I find most often the meaning is organic to the book, the shade of meaning and the precedents provided in the pages that came before, even external references to authors or art are contained within the construction of the novel to ensure its significance is rooted in the perceptions of the characters.  Joyce on the other hand is constantly sampling referencing outside works, either pulling the knowledgable reader further into the plot and characterization or sending the reader to the library or whizzing the references right past the reader's head. With Finnegan's Wake we see Joyce's language freed wholly from the waking world and subsumed through the unconscious. Here we have sentences that read aloud as if written phonetically in brogue, but reveal puns in multiple languages, the simultaneous collapse and extension of the syntax, the English language broken and freed and we can see that the unknown may be best handled obliquely


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Methods of Extraction, a Detour (IPoS,tHL, part 4)

A Brief Detour

I was taught that the more a person read, the wrinklier their brain became, so, to be thorough about this:
  • Light hits the page of a magazine.
  • Photons absorb and reflect from the page, cross a threshold of atmosphere to enter the lens of the eye, stimulate the rods and cones which creates a signal that travels down the optic nerve to the visual cortex, in the back of the brain, where the signal is justified.
  • The signal is then rushed through to the pertinent portion of the brain [like a library the segments of the brain are neatly categorized by type of knowledge, so writing from Sport Illustrated goes to the sports section of the brain] where the brain has to store this vital bit of news and has no choice but to grow to take it in, but since it already fills the space within my skull, the brain has no choice but to fold in on itself to accommodate this new important data set: Kathy Ireland. [Was that wrinkle curvier than the rest?]    
Neurological growth as a direct physical result of encountering the written word, as if the word were nutritive enough and air, water and food were completely foreign to the growth of grey matter.  Whether this was my biology teacher's shorthand, whether the science at the time dictated it or whether it was caused by my short-attention span, it strikes me as odd now considering that physicality.

I did attend Catholic school, so perhaps this was a subversive attempt to tie the scientific to the religious ├íla the word made flesh, but considering the mysterious grey and white matter, that the nervous system traffics in electric and chemical signals and that those signals arc synaptic gaps, one could ask the function of empty space in thought (I'm really too eager to imagine a vacuum here, but okay, plasmic conductivity in gap junctions). Thought, though it feels cloudy and poof-like, is a physiological process that for reasons unknown incorporates the insulated neural cabling of dendrites but also synapses, so that Milton Gloaming (whose mind is always gathering correspondences) can make new correspondences.  Ben Marcus's rebuttal of Jonathan Franzen in Harper's grazes the neurophysiological refinement that actually happens while reading (my misapprehension was almost right).  I'm thinking here about the teleology of gaps (after-all, we're all Tauruses born between April 20 and May 20 toruses) and perhaps the temporary psychic balm for my on-going provocation-- if it doesn't happen in public, it didn't happen-- can be tallied if not by EKG then by the knowledge of those signals whether there's a measure of the output (one guy thinks the brain uses about 24 watts of power a day-- converted from 500 calories-- those calories tied to food- so there's a minimal/ materialist impact to thought-- if one could squeeze out a smaller portion of that percentage that is engaged in active thought).  Not to get all Cartesian here, but I read therefore I read better does not get us closer to output (the trek from Wernicke's Area to Broca's).

I watched Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry last night and if I can put aside for a moment the personal resonance of Arendt's idea and focus instead on the true intent, Ai Wei Wei echoes it in the film, in the face of opaque and oppressive government, publicity can be the catalyst to change.  It may be the duty of intellectuals and artists to unite their ideals and their actions, to keep themselves from feeling safe with their thoughts in private and to pronounce them (oh but I cringe when I think of the Futurists in this light). It brought to mind Blake Butler's piece in Vice, posited as a return to censorship as a way of making literature feel dangerous again.  With Vice, the tone is always contrary and shifts the question of irony back on the readership. In part, this is in keeping with the notion of real political engagement, confrontational writing, but it straddles as well the place of the North American media spectator. The thrill of confrontation can become yet another reason to stay on the couch or another back pocket item to take to the bar and trot out when talking politics to prove a certain edge in understanding the grim geo-political realities (and so the ultimate balm for the disillusioned and apathetic since it can justify ingrained jadedness). But the flip side to Butler's argument is that censorship does still exist, naturally, it's just a more difficult kind to adapt to as a writer.  If the government is not pressing back directly against writing that takes on problems, the writing loses the power of notoriety and subversion, so it becomes entertainment.  The interesting thing is that the impulse in writing now seems to be to expose the personal, that self-exposure is rewarded more consistently than say exposure of corporate greed.  This may not be fair-- there is a generation of writers coming of age in a time where unprecedented levels of self-exposure can occur, so it does seem to be there is some genuine role here for writers to play in normalizing this and taking the opportunity to highlight broader issues within our social framework (thinking of Marie Calloway here). But for those of us who came of age earlier, in the days of Pine, and have had to work to adapt to the tools, Ai Wei Wei shows a good way forward.          

As entropy increases, the universe, and all closed systems in the universe, tend naturally to deteriorate and lose their distinctiveness, to move from the least to the most probable state, from a state of organization and differentiation in which distinctions and forms exist, to a state of chaos and sameness.
In control and communication we are always fighting nature's tendency to degrade the organized and to destroy the meaningful; the tendency, as Gibbs has shown us, for entropy to increase.

Is it a big thing or small thing we need to describe? How many words do we need to make it feel complete?  I'm finding the terms minimal and maximal useful in a certain way, to get at methodologies of expression, but their usefulness ends at the point we recognize the wide variety of works that can fall under either umbrella.  To go back to Proust, if you spend any kind of time reviewing your memories, scrutinizing them, you'll recognize how frail a thing they are, how intangible. You can't use a bulldozer to study orchids. And where the context of a memory's inhabitation may be caught up in incidentals we don't readily recognize when we revisit them in the quiet of our own minds, my appreciation of Proust comes through to the effort of rebuilding the full architecture of his place and time and setting the content of his memories throughout like so many jewels. In this way, the articulation of his memories, folded through with the estimable care of his meticulous craft may not be maximal at all, but merely sufficient.

In The Human Use of Human Beings, Norbert Wiener,former child prodigy and originator of cybernetics, applies Willard Gibbs's thoughts on entropy as well as thoughts of machine governance to communications. Signal, noise, feedback, noise. He makes some interesting parallels between systems commands and human language and shows a possible measure of linguistic efficacy.  Signal, noise, feedback, noise.  He even makes a point to talk about meaning and inference and the faith of a scrutable universe. THUoHB is a kind of Ur text to American writers working in the US throughout the Cold War. It's the text crouching inside of William Gaddis' JR, which is quite literally a novel of voices, as if the text arrived by floating microphone with the occasional need to report a detail here and there.

Gaddis would certainly fall within the maximal mode of expression.  As mentioned above, the merit of his works have already been hashed and rehashed in the court of public letters.  I'll take only a moment to say that what was missed in those exchanges with Marcus and Franzen and then Ozick is that the formal conceit which Gaddis undertakes does require some work on the part of the reader (a different type of work than say Julio Cortazar requires in Hopscotch) but the real question is whether it is work worth doing.  In reading Gaddis, I find ideas I wouldn't otherwise have come to. His level of engagement with those ideas is what's at play in his form.  He is, in JR, taking Gibbs' theory via Wiener and savagely applying it as a kind of artistic proof of the merit of the idea and providing his audience the tools for recognizing the ways in which social entropy attaches itself so thoroughly within a cultural malaise.  If there is an element of Cassandra here, one can always point to the doom of a culture and eventually appear wise, I see, specifically in the work Gaddis asks the reader to undertake, an antidote to that malaise.   Not that all long books are inherently prescriptive to a lulled society, but the formal invention presented within JR invites the reader to focus on cues and engage with the voice directly, as with radio, to encounter the rhythm of language (and the consistency of Gaddis' rhythm and musicality pulled me through the book) and in this way it doesn't seem accidental that JR, the eponymous 12 year old tycoon who pulls the strings within the novel, wads a handkerchief into the receiver of the phone in order to disguise his voice.  As a follow up to The Recognitions, which is about art forgery, social fakery and the degradation of ideas, where so many problems of the visual world are produced, here too the sonic world is fraught and lulling and deceptive. Taking a 12 year old's sense of morality and fairness as the organizing principal of the book (oh how JR just wants Bast, the composer and JR's second hand man, to love him), he satirizes the underlying ethos of late 20th century capitalism.

You can learn a lot by the way a person handles their money.  In Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, money is shown in a much more complicated way. We watch as a confidence man or a team of confidence men (a god in disguise or a demon, depending upon your perspective) set about fleecing the passengers aboard a steamship on the Mississippi on April 1st (ship of fools). Melville sets the novel as a series of dialogues.  In each scene we wonder at the true identity of the participants and look for the ways in which trust is built, until the character of the mark becomes evident.  In each, whether money is given or held back, the issue closer at hand is always trust, faith.  One can see in it Melville's experience with money: the charity he received as a child is inset as a story the confidence man deploys at one point, but also there's insight here into his role as a novelist, as a man who lies to try to show truths in the hopes of payment.

Looking back to the activism in North America in the last decade, a lot of it has used consumerism as the fulcrum for change.  Its hard to remember life without the ubiquitous local/organics, but Michael Pollan and a number of other food writers and documentarians increased awareness of environmental, health and ethical issues with mass processed and factory farmed foods. Or the (Red) campaign, which has raised over $240 million dollars to fight AIDS in Africa by harnessing our gigantic will to spend.  Like BioMass energy, maybe our own sloth and bad credit can be used to fix real-life problems elsewhere. So what's the problem here?

As an aside-- on Kurt Vonnegut's chart showing the shape of stories, he sometimes marked "the end" as "entropy."                

[Next time, More on Amplification, some Mystification, Pynchon and a variety of silences]