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?]
I did attend Catholic school, so perhaps this was a subversive attempt to tie the scientific to the religious ála 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
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]