Friday, April 19, 2013
How Should Reality Be
There are two ways of writing a diary. In the first, you note where you went and with whom. You detail people's conversation, clothes and jokes. You say who you slept with, and who all your friends slept with. The second way is more inward-looking: long lists of anxieties, hopes, dreams, feelings, worries, pledges to become more spiritual, cut down on unhealthy substances and take more exercise. Of course we all know that the more inward-looking we are, the duller we become, especially as most of us have similar anxieties, hopes and dreams.
It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.
A book is a discrete collection of text (and other media), that is designed by the author(s) as an internally complete representation of an idea, or set of ideas; emotion or set of emotions; and transmitted to readers in various formats.
Adrienne: While I’m an academic historian, I find works of art that draw on historical sources incredibly inspiring. I love how artist Zoe Beloff creates cryptic video installations using historical medical films, and I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve listened to the Neutral Milk Hotel album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, itself inspired by historical documents (the diary of Anne Frank). I think these works resonate so strongly because they bring an emotional immediacy to the historical sources. What they don’t capture, for better or worse, is the complexities of historical context that good scholarship really exists to capture. Both kinds of truth matter, but generally speaking they operate in entirely different spaces. But why can’t we have them in the same space?
So I thought: what if you started with a single source and asked people from different disciplines and artforms to create content inspired by it? How would the interpretation of a poet differ from the interpretation of a historian? How would a visual artist view a text differently from a scientist?
By layering together all of these different perspectives, we wanted to create a rich understanding of the past that could bridge the emotional and intellectual aspects of history.
Pete suggested that we could take advantage of the wealth of freely available archival material online if we made the project a website, and Each Moment a Mountain was born.
Pete: Not long after Adrienne pitched the collaboration, I happened to be reading a James Wright poem called “Today I Was So Happy, So I Wrote This Poem.” It’s a great poem overall, but one line drew my eye from the start: “each moment of time is a mountain.” This immediately provided a visual metaphor for what we were dreaming up. Each moment of time is impossibly, sublimely full. The point is to meditate on that, to celebrate it the way that Wright does.
The etymology of fiction is from fingere (participle fictum), meaning "to shape, fashion, form, or mold." Any verbal account is a fashioning and shaping of events.
In the recently released US version of Toronto-based writer Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be?, a revised edition of the novel she published in Canada in 2011, there is a disclaimer in small print at the bottom of the colophon:
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel either are products of the author’s imagination are used fictitiously.
Billed as “a novel from life,” How Should a Person Be?’s protagonist is a recently divorced twenty-something writer named Sheila, whose biography conforms more or less exactly to that of the author. Much of the book focuses on the relationship between Sheila and her best friend, a painter named Margaux, who is likewise modeled on Heti’s real-life best friend, the painter Margaux Williamson. The majority of the characters are similarly recognizable as members of Toronto’s art and literary scenes. Large portions of the novel take the form of emails and transcripts of conversations recorded by Heti, ostensibly reproducing her own words, as well as those of Margaux and others, verbatim. That a novel consists of fictitious characters, organizations, and events would normally seem self-evident, but in How Should a Person Be? such a categorization becomes somewhat more ambiguous. Under what circumstances are stories fictional, if the people, places, and events they depict might equally be recognized as fact?
What is the technology telling us? That copies don't count any more. Copies of isolated books, bound between inert covers, soon won't mean much. Copies of their texts, however, will gain in meaning as they multiply by the millions and are flung around the world, indexed and copied again. What counts are the ways in which these common copies of a creative work can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media and sewn together into the universal library. Soon a book outside the library will be like a Web page outside the Web, gasping for air. Indeed, the only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to wire their texts into the universal library.
All definitions of montage have a common denominator; they all imply that meaning is not inherent in any one shot but is created by the juxtaposition of shots. Lev Kuleshov, an early Russian filmmaker, intercut images of an actor's expressionless face with images of a bowl of soup, a woman in a coffin, and a child with a toy. Viewers of the film praised the actor's performance; they saw in his face (emotionless as it was) hunger, grief, and affection. They saw, in other words, what was not really there in the separate images. Meaning and emotion were created not by the content of the individual images but by the relationship of the images to one another.
The Belgian feminist Luce Irigaray used the term [mimesis] to describe a form of resistance where women imperfectly imitate stereotypes about themselves so as to show up these stereotypes and undermine them.
“The aphorism is one of the earliest literary forms—the residue of complex thoughts filtered down to a single metaphor. By the second millennium b.c., in Sumer, aphorisms appeared together in anthologies, collections of sayings that were copied for noblemen, priests, and kings. These lists were then catalogued by theme: "Honesty," "Friendship," "Death." When read together, these collections of sayings could be said to make a general argument on their common themes, or at least shed some light somewhere, or maybe simply obsess about a topic until a little dent has been made in the huge idea they all pondered. "Love." Via editing and collage, the form germinated into longer, more complex, more sustained, and more sophisticated essayings. The Hebrew wisdom of Ecclesiastes is essentially a collection of aphorisms, as are Confucius's religious musings and Heraclitus's fragments. These extended aphorisms eventually crossed the border into essay: the diaries of Sei Shônagon, Anne Bradstreet's letters, Kafka's notebooks, Pound's criticism.
Tree of Codes is an artwork, in the form of a book, created by Jonathan Safran Foer, and published in 2010. To create the book, Foer took Bruno Schulz's book The Street of Crocodiles and cut out the majority of the words. The publisher, Visual Editions, describes it as a "sculptural object." Foer himself explains the writing process as follows: "I took my favorite book, Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, and by removing words carved out a new story".
Due to the physical difficulties involved in printing a book where most of the words have been cut out, Foer stated that he had to contact several different publishers before finding one who was willing to print it. He also said that due to the way the book had to be bound, it could not be produced in a hardcover edition.
DH: So what do you write about? Do you write about real people?
SH: Increasingly I’m less interested in writing about fictional people, because it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story. I just—I can’t do it.
DH: I understand.
SH: It doesn’t make sense to me. And the complicated thing is, I like life so much. I love being among people, I love being in the world, and writing is the opposite of that.
“Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art. Zola: "Every proper artist is more or less a realist according to his own eyes." Braque's goal: "To get as close as I could to reality." E.g., Chekhov's diaries, E. M. Forster's Commonplace Book, Fitzgerald's The Crack-Up (much his best book), Cheever's posthumously published journals (same), Edward Hoagland's journals, Alan Bennett's Writing Home. So, too, every artistic movement or moment needs a credo: Horace's Ars Poetica, Sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poesie, André Breton's "Surrealist Manifesto," Dogme 95's "Vow of Chasity." My intent is to write the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media (lyric essay, prose poem, collage novel, visual art, film, television, radio, performance art, rap, stand-up comedy, graffiti) who are breaking larger and larger chunks of "reality" into their work. (Reality, as Nabokov never got tired of reminding us, is the one word that is meaningless without quotation marks.)
And the question we must ask is: Why, exactly, have we decided things should be this way? Why is it that only certain kinds of words and sentences are supposed to get sent to printers, stamped in ink on a page, stuffed and bound between covers, and sold in physical stores? (Or, sold through a Kindle, for that matter?) Why is it that other kinds of words and sentences are instead supposed to get typed into a keyboard, sent to a server somewhere, and then transmitted in one way or another to appear on the screens of computers and smartphones of readers around the world? What is the distinction between these kinds of words?
One answer came, from a fellow Twitterer, Damien G. Walter, in response to my initial post.
@hughmcguire No. Books are researched, written, edited, published, marketed...and hence paid for. The Internet is ego noise, hence free
There are two powerful ideas behind this point of view. One has to do with quality of work and attention to detail. Books, this position claims, contain “important” work.
Whereas the Internet? The Internet is the domain of celebrity gossip, flamewars, self-obsessed or half-crazed bloggers, and even Twitter.
I call this the Joyce/Cheezburger position.
“Once upon a time, history concerned itself only with what it considered important: the contrivers of significant events, on the one hand, and the forces that such happenings enlisted or expressed, on the other. Historians had difficulty deciding whether history was the result of the remarkable actions of remarkable men or the significant consequences of powerful forces, of climate, custom, and economic consequence, or of social structures, diet, geography, but whatever was the boss, the boss was big, massive, all-powerful, and hogged the center of the stage; however, as machines began to replicate objects, little people began to multiply faster than wars or famines could reduce their numbers, democracy arrived to flatter the multitude and tell them they ruled, commerce flourished, sales grew, money became the risen god, numbers replaced significant individuals, the trivial assumed the throne, and history looked about for gossip, not for laws, preferring lies about secret lives to the intentions of fate. As these changes took place, especially in the eighteenth century, the novel arrived to amuse mainly ladies of the middle and upper classes and provide them a sense of importance: their manners, their concerns, their daily rounds, their aspirations, their dreams of romance. The novel feasted on the unimportant, mimicking reality. Moll Flanders and Clarissa Harlowe replaced Medea and Antigone. Instead of actual adventures, made-up ones were fashionable; instead of perilous voyages, Crusoe carried us through his days; instead of biographies of ministers and lords, we got bundles of fake letters recounting seductions and betrayals: the extraordinary drama of lied-about ordinary life. Historians soon had at hand all the devices of exploitation. Amusing anecdote, salacious gossip would now fill their pages, too. History was human, personal, full of concrete detail, and had all the suspense of a magazine serial. The techniques of fiction infected history; the materials of history were fed the novelist's greed. Nowhere was this blended better than in autobiography. The novel sprang from the letter, the diary, the report of a journey; it felt itself alive in the form of every record of private life. Subjectivity was soon everybody's subject.
Take the problem of what is known as the "first sale doctrine." In physical space, it has always been hard to follow a product once it has left the store; for intangible goods in tangible containers (a book of poems, say), we have there long had a "first sale" rule, an understanding most people know about intuitively, though they may not know that is also spelled out in the law. "First sale" is a limitation on an owner's exclusive right such that once you have bought a book (or CD, or video disc, or map ...) you may do almost anything with it that you want. You may return to it multiple times, read it to your child, copy bits into a journal, give it to a friend, loan it to a student, sell it to a stranger... You may not print and sell more copies, that is true, but all these other things you may do. The right of first sale creates an object-specific, down stream public domain: the copyright owner's control ends at the point of purchase.
What happens to the first sale doctrine in cyberspace? It's not clear if it exists (technically a new copy is created each time someone downloads a file, and for all things under copyright, making that copy requires permission), and if it does exist, can any publisher be assured of selling more than one copy of a book? The first buyer could simply post it for the world at large.
That being the case, perhaps we should just eliminate first sale in the digital world. Market purists on the publishing side might welcome that; after all, with digital copying "first sale" looks more like a market failure than a consumer right. Yes, they might say, it was once hard to track every use of a book after it was sold, but happily those days are over. In cyber publishing it is easy to record every reading of a book, every passage cut and pasted, every time the work passes to a new users. Why not treat each of these as a unique commercial event and extract royalties along the way?
In a sense, this is already happening. To harvest such payments and thus to abrogate the first sale doctrine, electronic publishers have been designing their products to be as sticky as they were in the old container-based world; they have been wrapping work in "digital rights management" software or selling it under click-through licenses that effectively trump all the public domain aspects of traditional copyright.
Take, for example, an electronic book publisher's recent offering of Lewis Carrol's 1865 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The copyright notice carried the following warnings:
Copy: No text selections can be copied from the book to the clipboard.
Print: No printing is permitted of this book.
Lend: This book cannot be lent to someone else.
Give: This book cannot be given to someone else.
Read aloud: This book cannot be read aloud.
When I worked at a newspaper, we were routinely dispatched to "match" a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else's idea. But had we "matched" any of the Times's words–even the most banal of phrases–it could have been a firing offense. The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of minor differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence. Trial by Google.
I've always had a hard time writing fiction. It feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You're going somewhere, but you're in costume, and you're not really fooling anybody. You're the guy in costume, and everybody's supposed to forget that and go along with you.
If Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin hadn't been based closely on verbatim transcripts of Palin's performances, it wouldn't have been remotely as funny, and it wouldn't have affected the election; the comedy derived precisely from its scrupulous reframing of the real.
Part of writing this book was "Can I write a book where I'm not the sole author?" Or rather, I am the sole author, but my vision is influenced by what I encounter in the world, and what I learn from other people. The creative process was far more public – I showed it to Margaux and many of my friends, all the way along. I was thinking of open source software and writing a book that had more of that "open source ethos" rather than, say, Microsoft where even the people who understand computers can't break into it because it's so closed. There's an essay on the internet that I was inspired by early on called "The Cathedral and the Bazaar". I didn't want to make a cathedral, I wanted the book to be a bazaar.
Thomas Jefferson went through the New Testament and removed all the miracles, leaving only the teachings. Take a source, extract what appeals to you, discard the rest. Such an act of editorship is bound to reflect something of the individual doing the editing: a plaster cast of an aesthetic–not the actual thing, but the imprint of it.
On the top of each page of Brian Fawcett's Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow appear parables–some fantastic, others quasi-journalistic, and all of which are concerned with mass media's complete usurpation of North American life (Fawcett is Canadian). On the bottom of each page, meanwhile, runs a book-length footnote about the Cambodian war. The effect of the bifurcated page is to confront the reader with Fawcett's point: wall-to-wall media represent as thorough a raid on individual memory as the Khmer Rouge.
The same might be said of all art. I realized this forcefully when one day I went looking for the John Donne passage quoted above. I know the lines, I confess, not from a college course but from the movie version of 84, Charing Cross Road with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft. I checked out 84, Charing Cross Road from the library in the hope of finding the Donne passage, but it wasn’t in the book. It’s alluded to in the play that was adapted from the book, but it isn’t reprinted. So I rented the movie again, and there was the passage, read in voice-over by Anthony Hopkins but without attribution. Unfortunately, the line was also abridged so that, when I finally turned to the Web, I found myself searching for the line “all mankind is of one volume” instead of “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.”
My Internet search was initially no more successful than my library search. I had thought that summoning books from the vasty deep was a matter of a few keystrokes, but when I visited the website of the Yale library, I found that most of its books don’t yet exist as computer text. As a last-ditch effort I searched the seemingly more obscure phrase “every chapter must be so translated.” The passage I wanted finally came to me, as it turns out, not as part of a scholarly library collection but simply because someone who loves Donne had posted it on his homepage. The lines I sought were from Meditation 17 in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which happens to be the most famous thing Donne ever wrote, containing as it does the line “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” My search had led me from a movie to a book to a play to a website and back to a book. Then again, those words may be as famous as they are only because Hemingway lifted them for his book title.
Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time.
Copying is always already a crucial aspect of our ability to articulate ourselves and our world. Language functions mimetically, and therefore discourse, ideology, self-expression, community are also mimetic. The same is true for the university. As Kate Eichhorn has argued in her study of copy shops around the University of Toronto, historically universities have always relied on those who provide copying services (this was true even in medieval times), whether legal or not.
Put simply: there is no university without copying, since the university’s mandate is itself disseminative mimesis.
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto is a book by American writer David Shields, published by Knopf on February 23, 2010. The book is written in a collage style, mixing quotations by the author with those from a variety of other sources. The book’s manifesto is directed toward increasing art’s engagement with the reality of contemporary life through the exploration of hybrid genres such as prose poetry and literary collage. In Vanity Fair, Elissa Schappell called Reality Hunger "a rousing call to arms for all artists to reject the laws governing appropriation, obliterate the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, and give rise to a new modern form for a new century."
Reality Hunger consists of 618 numbered passages divided into twenty-six chapters. Approximately half of the book’s words come from sources other than the author. Because of Random House lawyers, attribution for the quotes is given in a fine print appendix at the end of the book, but with Shields's encouragement to cut those pages from the book so as to preserve the book’s intended disorienting effect.
 Major themes
The title of Reality Hunger comes from Shields’s idea that people today, living in an increasingly fragmentary culture, are experiencing a growing “hunger” for doses of real life injected into the art they experience. According to his argument, traditional genres, such as realist fiction, are failing to adequately reflect lived reality because they have gone largely unchanged since their early development.
The role of plagiarism in art also constitutes a major theme. Shields argues that plagiarism is something that artists have always partaken in, and that only recently has the act acquired the stigma it has, due in large part to copyright legislation and the culture surrounding it. Rather than shy away from wholesale appropriation, Shields encourages it, stating that “reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.”
"In Praise of Copying" is not an investigation of the ethical dilemmas of copying but a Stein-like affirmation of the mimesis that happens everywhere and everyday. Boon sees copying as fundamental to existence, part of "how the universe functions and manifests." Even on a molecular level, he writes on his blog, "all objects are made up of other objects." We cannot learn without mimicking (whether it’s learning to write a paper or learning how to catch a football)—but the way copying is defined in legal terms obscures this fact. Boon encourages us to rethink terms like "subject," "object," "different," and "the other," in order to "account for our fear of and fascination with copying."
Boon vividly demonstrated these principles at the recent launch of "In Praise of Copying" at the Brooklyn bookstore Spoonbill and Sugartown. Instead of reading from his book, he read from a slew of books selected at random from Spoonbill's shelves. From these texts, seemingly unrelated to his own, he was able to reconstruct his general thesis in patchwork (and the theses of these books could themselves be reconstructed in other texts, and so on). A book, he demonstrated, is really a kind of Borgesian library—a mirrored, labyrinthine entity that communicates and shares despite our best efforts to wall it in.