Reading

Fragmentary, No. 12

confusion

What is new is not that the world lacks meaning, or has little meaning, or less than it used to have; it is that we seem to feel an explicit and intense daily need to give it meaning: to give meaning to the world, not just some village or lineage. This need to give meaning to the present, if not the past, is the price we pay for the overabundance of events corresponding to a situation we could call “supermodern” to express its essential quality: excess.

♦ Marc Augé, Non-Places

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An Old Derridian Exercise

Let me trace an origin. “Trace” is a privileged word. As a verb it is how I am opening this piece and using it to set an intention and a process. The word denotes a nuanced spectrum of definitions, and these definitions superimpose upon one another to produce what then becomes complex. Possible readings proliferate. Exploring some of the more provocative connections that are inhered within trace, and by tracing that trace as an action of writing—as it unfolds and complicates itself through elaboration—will render something complete but unfinished.

Intimately and inextricably linked to movement, both figurative and literal, the first entry under “trace” in the OED defines it as “[t]o take one’s course, make one’s way; to proceed, pass, go, travel, tread.” As I trace, I “go.” The word is thus implicated in the progression of a journey, one without reference to genesis or telos, but instead simply a functional activity of “proceeding,” or “making one’s way.” This sense of the word dates to the formative years of the modern English language itself, 1400 CE, and it forms a core, a kernel of denotation. The word is inscribed with the connotations of taking action and progressing towards an uncertain outcome; but other permutations are quickly overlaid like a semitransparent tissue and further refine its meaning.

When we encounter trace’s second OED definition, it is more lighthearted: “[t]o pace or step in dancing; to tread a measure; to dance.” This is a different set of implications altogether, though not incompatible with the first. There is suddenly an element of grace included in the word: a co-ordination; choreography. To trace is not simply to travel, but can also be a kind of movement with its mind on form, on the intricacies of “treading” some way that is recognized as premeditated—a “dance” implies repetition; gestures that might be predicted and anticipated. Here we are introduced to the idea that to trace is not to perform an act that is entirely original, but that to do so might actually be to imitate or to copy.

trace

So when we are told that to trace is also “to follow, pursue (instructions, example, etc.)” this elaboration can be read in such a way as to amplify the word again. Tracing may not be original in the sense that some source precedes the activity, some kind of a plan or a demonstration, but there is nothing to say that this “following” has ever been done before. To trace could conceivably be to be first, a kind of originary emulation or performance of something that has previously only existed as an outlined boundary, a stricture which has been delineated but never honoured; or a path never followed once blazed. To trace might very well to be to take the first step towards the production of a tradition or a rule, just as easily as it could be enacting a repetition that is tried and true; an action that contains no surprise or uncertainty, a rote presentation of the established.

But by tracing you might yet reverse the direction of your action. Rather than being derived from you might be driven or drawn towards. Yet, another meaning of the word is “[t]o discover, find out, or ascertain by investigation; to find out step by step; to search out.” Tracing becomes the activity of the sleuth, of the inspector, of the scholar; it is a peering into things, a discernment based on evidence. It remains a kind of following, a dogging of hints or what might be derived as instructions, but there is novelty there, for nearby is an implication in this understanding of the word that denotes that the knowledge gleaned, though always there to be “discovered,” was either forgotten or unarticulated before. To trace, in this sense, is to enact a revelation by increments. As I trace this trace the whole of the project becomes more fully described.

The OED recognises that there has been an element of ambiguity within the word’s origin from the outset. The dictionary’s entry on the etymology of “trace” says that “[t]he primary meaning of the verb was apparently ‘to proceed in a line, course, or track,’” but this was by no means absolutely clear as “[t]he early sense-development in Old French and Middle English,” the identified linguistic sources for the modern English word itself, “is not very clear, and some of the senses attach themselves immediately to trace [the noun] in its sense of ‘mark left by anything moving, footprint’, itself a derivative of the [verb] in its earlier senses.” This close interchange between “trace” as a verb and “trace” as a noun remains, which makes it so much more evocative in writing when that duality can be exploited. “We must begin wherever we are and the thought of the trace,” writes Derrida, “has already taught us that it was impossible to justify a point of departure absolutely.” He, quite rightly, questions the implications of what he means by employing this bifurcated word, apparently naming a thing; but does he entirely exclude the action? Or are he and I counting on an inherent polyvalence to evoke a plurality of action and intent, or objective and process? The answers lie in the outline of the word.

Notational, No. 17

We do not know what the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man’s imagination, and thus the dragon arises in many latitudes and ages. It is, one might say, a necessary monster, not some ephemeral and casual creature like the chimæra or the catoblepas.

♦ Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings

In conversation with a friend a few weeks ago, we began to speak of the impulse to be seduced by the suggestion of a master code lying just below the surface of all the information constantly generating, and already generated, out of the interminable human project. When you look at the sheer volume of the manifest content in existence—details recorded, interpretations disseminated, queries logged, hypotheses enumerated, conclusions inscribed—it is no wonder that our inclination is to try and mobilize everything in our field of view into a comprehensible, interrelated structure. We are particularly suited to such projects. The human mind is, above all else, a preturnaturally adept pattern recognition machine, often to the point of fault.

The Theory of Everything remains the holy grail of the physical sciences: a master rubric to unite all other suppositions within a grand paradigm, capable of drafting every natural structure legibly and in totality; and this is an accepted, if improbable (perhaps impossible), goal. This is not to say that the human sciences have not taken aim at detailing complete systems to account for the sum of experience—they most certainly have—but the results are often transparently reductive once analyzed. Every armchair philosopher can usually pinpoint the limitations of any supposedly comprehensive explanation of reality in short order. The beautiful and theoretically immeasurable variations of human expression are bounded by very real limitations, but are, in fact, effectively infinite. For example, the number of possible games of chess exceed the number of particles in the known universe. This staggering fact gives a very real sense of perspective on the potential productivity of human ingenuity.

Yet we make sense of the patterns that emerge form our activity, just as we do from the movements of the universe. Theories abound and facts continue to be detailed in our repositories of knowledge. Information exists, and if you mobilize that fact in a certain way, it is evident that everything that comprises human experience is, quite essentially, information. Contending with this actuality meaningfully is something that everyone has to do, sooner or later.

It is evident, if you take pause and survey the transmissions that connect our lives in a vast and complex web, that we are all attempting to wrestle with this dilemma. If we are not formulating then we are trying to learn strategies to deal with the cosmos of data that churns about us, carrying us along as we wonder endlessly where it is that we are going.

It takes a heroic sort of bravery to acknowledge that we are, each of us, motes in the currents of history, and that totality is, in fact, beyond the comprehension of any individual mind. As beings of recognizable finitude, contingent and impermanent, the Absolute remains unimaginable by definition; but this radical state of mortality does not console, nor does it imply any comprehensive or potent type of universal agency.

dragon

What does the dragon mean? It has appeared, seemingly independently, in multiple cultures, across multiple points of recorded time. To suppose that some master force generates this primeval icon with purpose and significance is to tap into the source of mystery. To know how and why this monster guards its horde throughout history is to decode a piece of the puzzle, to reveal part of the mechanism of an intelligent design. To suppose that there is a comprehensible secret waiting to be uncovered musters a terrible sort of hubris: one that might create the illusion of mastery over the morass of cultural manifestations, but one that constrains the possibility of perceiving the awesome beauty of a pointless synchronicity.

Looking into the treasured and constantly evolving network of human expression to be amazed and inspired is an approach diametrically opposed to the jaded adjudication of the conspiracy theorist. Teleological narratives, and neatly sewn up summations, that account for every admissible iota of detail presume a world bounded by limitations that offer no egress, and foreclose the possibly of surprise; which is the precursor of delight. Any answer that does not harbour within it the seeds of another question is a terminus. The pride that comes from reaching the end is also the surety that there is nothing left worth exploring, and that there are no longer any frontiers left to exceed.

Fragmentary, No. 9

The rule that secret files must contain only information already known is essential for the operation of a secret service, and not just in this century. Likewise, if you go to a bookshop specializing in esoteric publications, you will see that every new book (on the Holy Grail, the mystery of Rennes-le-Château, the Knights Templar, or the Rosicrucians) repeats exactly what was written in earlier books. This is not simply because occult writers are averse to carrying out new research (nor because they don’t know where to go looking for information about the nonexistent), but because followers of the occult believe in only what they already know, and in those things that confirm what they have already learned.

♦ Umberto Eco, “Thoughts on WikiLeaks”

Shore Leave

There is a charm to Gaiman’s writing that waxes and wanes as you move about his body of work through the years. His Ocean At the End of the Lane is particularly rapt by instances of imagination that seem to have occurred to him before, and that he has shared with his public, but they have seldom played out so well, or so well crafted. It is a book that neatly walks the seam between what strikes one as young adult and what might be termed a more mature fiction, but it is really a story about revisiting your childhood from a distant—yet not unmanageable—vantage point. He neatly weaves together motifs that lurk in the psyche of our current age in amongst each other—pop culture references, the trappings of modern life in the seventies, mythology, juvenile pulp-ficiton, popular science—and the result is a little bit of spellbinding. His conceptualizations of eternity, and his spin on the underlying nature of reality, are formulations that crop up from the pens of other fantasists working in the English language, but they are no weaker for the similarities. There is something comforting in this coalescing mythology that attempts to unify the mysteries that lurk beyond understanding in the world of an increasingly atheist and agnostic educated class, where there are a mass of facts but very little interpretive meaning. It is nice to know that there is room for dreams in the spaces between instances of our scientific and technological growth. It is nice to read something that finds permutations of comfort and solace in amongst the frightening scale of the universe.

Bellow’s Howl

More Die of Heartbreak is an extended meditation on the longings which suffuse the core of modern existence, at the heart of the “posthistorical” world. For the most part it takes place in an undisclosed, Midwest American city that rises vertically out of a declining Rustbelt. Kenneth and Ben are the foci of the narrative, what is primarily Ben’s story pulled together from meticulous notes Kenneth keeps of conversations and excursions he participates in with his Uncle. We are painstakingly introduced to the content and foibles of these two intellectual men, our narrator a scholar of Russian literature surrounding the Revolution; his uncle, a world famous botanist who has a “magical” rapport with his objects of study. These men are both romantically challenged, and love each other more than they are seemingly capable of loving others, or perhaps even desirous of accomplishing. Their homosocial bond in more intimate than any of the heterosexual ones that they develop throughout the book. Which is part of its charm. The argument, if there is one, is that longing, and heartbreak, are at the centre of more misery than other, more sensational natural and man-initiated phenomena, and that love between two heterosexual men cannot assuage the misery or the damage that can grow out of it despite one’s best efforts to nurture or even avoid it.

Kenneth is incapable of switching off his academic analysis for more than a couple of moments. Everything that transpires elicits a host of tangential, associative pondering, directed at either his unspecified reader, or his reader and his uncle, who participates in the endless unwinding of the permutations of living a life that yearns for a higher plane, but is unequivocally mired in the dirt with those who live a “throw-away existence,” including, most especially, Ben’s new wife, who is a fully realized avatar of the commerce-driven, consumer identified, day-by-measured-day concatenation of mundane events—even if they are held to a certain aesthetic and monetary standard. Kenneth is chasing a dream, a vision of education—the kind of education that comes from being close to a luminary who has cracked some element of the world’s code. The usual suspects that he lumps into this category are identifiable, but where the poet Blake and his realer-than-real compatriots are sealed away from him by space and time, his Uncle Ben is accessible to him, and holds him in high regard. They are attempting to gain enough perspective to render a coherent image of what it is that they encounter in this world. They are critical and dismayed, angered and impoverished in their encounters. They are two souls gifted with reflection but little ability to muddy themselves in the trenches of life. As they do get dirty, they make a mess of everything they come in contact with except their relationship to each other.

There is something in all this that speaks to the heart and the soul’s yearning for communion with something higher and more refined than what we toil with in the quotidian world. I spent much of the book sympathizing with Kenneth and his Uncle. Their journey is the journey of the rarified intellect contending with contemporaries and peers who do not share the patience, the insight, or the inadvertent innocence that marks their experience of the world. They both secretly yearn to be paragons of the human project in a sense that only those who can leave something to antiquity can be, and this may ultimately be incommensurable with a more regular modern life. Although who’s to say that these kinds of powerful ambitions were ever commensurable with any age of life; but the speed at which the sedate are dodged and made to accommodate the contemporary, the up-to-the-minuet transmissions of information, beggars contemplation. That which stands to contend with it on the plane of human consciousness, and looms over us in invisible transmissions like a vast, geodesic dome, is anchored by the twin horns of an Electronic Tower and stands at the centre of the modern concern.

Fight the Current

I’ve developed a nasty habit, and it has become obvious that, in its modest way, it is supporting the disintegration of a culture I adore. To be fair, it’s insidiously easy to access, and the convenience of indulging the compulsion is almost obscene: I can do it at home, at school, on the streetcar. The initial satisfaction it provides is almost instantaneous, but the long-term personal payoff is a humble, yet steady, stream of pleasure. I admit, it might be a problem. There must be a way to curb the urge. Somehow, I have to cut down. I must try and give Amazon the slip.

Perhaps there’s a program.

This epiphany came after reading George Packer’s rather epic survey of the monolith’s history of operations, “Cheap Words,” that just appeared in this week’s issue of The New Yorker. It summarizes the rather horrifying operational strategies of the company and the calculated exploitation of a market that is already besieged by the vicissitudes of the information age. “Amazon is not happening to bookselling,” the founder Bezos is quoted as saying. “The future is happening to bookselling.” Which, in its way, is probably true, but in the hands of someone who sees professionally published writing simply as a specialized niche product, rather than an institutionalized and rather unique medium of exchange, there is bound to be some damage done to the culture which surrounds it. In this case it’s a little ironic. The big, intimidating publishing firms, which have held the keys to the kingdom all these years, are finding themselves being muscled around by an entity even more interested in the bottom line than they have proven themselves to be, and if they suffer a little I doubt many writers or readers will shed many tears, but it’s the independents that suffer; and, without a doubt, the writers.

The rise of Amazon’s power to influence and determine the decisions of the houses that publish, based solely on consumer buying patterns and cost efficiency, represents the democratization of content selection. This, on its face, may not appear to be such a horrendous thing. A marketplace dominated by the most generally appealing products is, most would agree, efficient; but it does nothing to address issues of discernment and the prospect of innovation. I do not agree that the expert has nothing to offer to the process of selecting and curating the products that are exposed to the world. I’m rather invested in the premise that the authority of the specialist is worth paying attention to. Much that has become culturally relevant to antiquity through the ages has not been contemporaneously popular. The frame of appreciation has to be adjusted by innovators and connoisseurs. Complacency needs to be challenged if there is to be any room for the new, as well as reverence for the old, and I don’t want an uneducated committee to determine what art is available for me to interface with.

I came of age as Amazon was coalescing within the invisible circuitry of the Internet. Its presence in the world has developed as I have, and as we have both matured my attitudes towards the company have been fairly ambivalent, up until now. The mega bookstores were already annihilating the independents when I started my working life; the more fragile components of the trade were already suffering by the time I ordered my first book online. I felt like I was shafting Chapters, not the publishers of small press and academic work. This past year my Kindle has felt like a reasonable acquiesce to the realities of the modern age, and one that could save me significant shelf space. It still does, if I’m honest; but I need to stop clicking so thoughtlessly through the pages of a digital marketplace that has no reverence for the literature it trades in, or for the true value of the objects that it barely profits on, objects it just uses simply as a means to an end. There’s an evil ring to “total commercial domination.” It may be an exercise in futility, but a small act of resistance—ordering my volumes from an actual bookseller while the option still exists—is a reasonable enough commitment to an industry that I not only support, but steadfastly believe in its necessity.

As outright rebellion I have deleted my Goodreads account. For, although I feel comfortable judiciously sharing components of myself through Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress, I feel like I must draw the line at handing over my consumer profile to an entity that simply wants to exploit my data to, in turn, exploit those I would rather support. Though perhaps, in another way, that decision may ultimately prove more harmful, by refusing to let my reading choices stand and be counted amongst the crowd of bestsellers and reams of pop-psychology. Ah, the double bind.

Who wants to fight the future?

Oh, I do.

Notational, No. 3

For my talent is to give an Impression upon words by punching, that when the reader casts his eye upon ’em, he takes up the image from the mould which I have made.

♦ Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno

Undeniable that talent has a weight, both as an aptitude and as a currency. What you might trade it for, how it might exchange, is heavily dependent on a market value that is largely outside the possessor’s control—also, on where and who is deprived of its heft and influence. The value in this case is clear: Smart’s ability to produce an impression in a textual medium, punch an outline in “words,” and manifest the affective register of his language, the evocations of startling turns, nouns translated into verbs, actions and things superimposing to occur as unified objects. He knows what he’s doing is effective. He has a strong enough sense of what he is worth to pay the audience almost impudently, as if the suggestion of madness has never veiled the lines of his verse. Are all iconoclasts inherently confident?