David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: otto dix (page 2 of 2)

Thoughts on Genre: Blogs and Practice

Some responses to the earlier entries brought up the issue that many blogs (and indeed mine) utilize a very essayistic format, and so the contrast I set up between autonomous work and the stream of blogging isn’t so black and white. I partly agree with this, but I want to keep the focus on the blog qua blog; locating a blog entry as an essay via Google does not in any way distinguish a web site as a blog. What defines the blog is its day-by-day composition, and the effects that this composition has on the work produced.

This emphasis–on new material rather than revision of old, on small incremental pieces rather than self-contained monsters–affects how bloggers tend to write. Blog entries are by nature quickly written, quickly published, quickly forgotten. They are not posted in a “final” state, in that finality implies that it be remembered for posterity. Given the short horizon of the content, any revision after the initial posting will only be noticed by a fraction of the blog’s readers. When blogging, the question of “Is this exactly how I want it?” is less important than in writing a book; if it’s not, you can always try again after the entry has receded into the distance.

Revision makes itself known through future entries. This leads to the content redundancy that I mentioned earlier, where bloggers tend to overpost rather than underpost, but it allows for more dynamic restatements than if the original content were fixed in view.

Blog entries, then, never reach a final state. This is most likely what drives some bloggers to complain that blogging is a waste of their time: the lack of clear finished product. But ultimately it potentially provides virtue as well. In the absence of the finished product, in the absence of a primary authorial personality, there remains two things: one, the ever-becoming practice of writing, and second, the continuity of the practice.

As the entries blend together in a stream, what becomes visible is an unfinished, open stream of information. No matter how open-ended a book might be, how many questions it raises, at the end of the day you still close the book and archive it in your mind. Not so with a blog, which, as long as you keep reading it, will maintain its continuity of topic until those abstractions settle in your mind and are brought up again when you next read it. The gestalt is never fully formed, always open to revision. And unless bloggers have an endless stream of new ideas, they need to engage in revision of their own previous thought to keep posting.

A few authors have adopted the open-ended revision model in the past. Wittgenstein in his late work is an exploding polyphony of fallible interrogators and tentative responses. Stephen Dixon’s fiction examines a certain strain of modern American life from conflicting, mutating vantage points. Kim Deitch has built towering edifices out of small pieces of trash culture, and continues a career-long pullback that continually redesigns the architecture of all his previous work. [These are only the three that first spring to mind; there are surely great examples that I’m overlooking.] Even in these cases, the chunking of their work into discrete books and/or collections is initially deceptive, implying a closure that is not actually present. Blogging declares the closure to be void.

It does so by requiring frequent work. In the absence of continuous practice, blogs do die, and collapse into low-pagerank white dwarfs of content only to be found via lucky web searchers. It requires the author’s constant effort (and the readers’ responses) to remain viable. To declare a blog finished is to declare it dead. It is the open-ended form that defines blogging.

Now a personal word from me: I said that the blog medium wasn’t particularly germane to what I wrote, since I figured I’d write the same sort of thing regardless of the format. I was wrong. It was the unfinished-ness of the blog that allowed me to write in this way in the first place, and it has been quite productive. Egos fly around blog genres, as they do in any other publishing venture, but I find them easier to deal with. People aren’t resting on their laurels after having a finished piece published in magazine X or Y. Instead, the question we ask each other is this: are you blogging? Are you continuing towards the unreachable end point of your work, and keeping your work alive?

Galen Strawson and Narrativity

I was planning to summarize Galen Strawson’s arguments against narrativity in the Oct 15 issue of the TLS, but I’m blessed, because Peter Leithart has already done a sterling job presenting Strawson’s argument. The key idea, in Strawson’s words, is the opposition between diachronic (or continuous, or narrative) and episodic (or discontinuous, or non-narrative) perceptions of life:

The basic form of Diachronic self-experience (D) is that one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future – something that has relatively long-term Diachronic continuity, something that persists over a long stretch of time, perhaps for life. I take it that many people are naturally Diachronic, and that many who are Diachronic are also Narrative. If one is Episodic (E), by contrast, one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future, although one is perfectly well aware that one has long-term continuity considered as a whole human being. Episodics are likely to have no particular tendency to see their life in Narrative terms (the Episodic/Diachronic distinction is not the same as the Narrative/non-Narrative distinction, but there are marked correlations between them).

Strawson slides some of the terms around, but to keep things relatively simple, let’s consider that diachronics are inclined to build narratives around themselves and others over time, while episodics are disinclined to construct cognitive edifices that rely on the assumption of a constant body undergoing incremental change. The assumption is not intuitive for them. I have no problem instantly classifying myself as episodic, or in accepting the basic nature of the dichotomy. As Strawson says, it is not the default position in most literature, and one of the reasons reading Proust has been so revelatory has been his stance that a person at one moment is incapable of looking upon their memories, their past experiences, and their acquaintances with the same authentic eye that he or she possessed at any past point. This stance struck me as refreshingly honest and non-reductionistic, and went a ways towards justifying the book’s length. It occurs first with Swann and Odette:

Was not Swann conscious of this from his own experience, and was there not already in his lifetime–as it were a prefiguration of what was to happen after his death–a posthumous happiness in this marriage with Odette whom he had passionately loved–even if she had not attracted him at first sight–whom he had married when he no longer loved her, when the person who, in Swann, had so longed to live and so despaired of living all his life with Odette, when that person was dead?

This represents to me a more realistic and complex view of human experience than anything in Balzac or Fitzgerald. From Strawson, I would take it that my intuitions are not shared by many, and certainly not by fiction writers. Strawson’s diachronic writers are canonical, his episodic writers are idiosyncratic. Beyond that, I was gratified to see that of Strawson’s list of episodic writers–

Michel de Montaigne, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Laurence Sterne, Coleridge, Stendhal, Hazlitt, Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Fernando Pessoa, Iris Murdoch (a strongly Episodic person who is a natural story-teller), A. J. Ayer, Bob Dylan.

–I felt favorably (sometimes extremely favorably) towards most of them, while of his list of diachronic writers–

Plato, St Augustine, Heidegger, Wordsworth, Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick O’Brian.

–I find Conrad, Greene, Waugh, and O’Brian extremely boring, and wouldn’t identify myself with any of the others, who I appreciate more in the role of philosophers of narrativity than when they are employers of it. Yet it’s amazing how, despite the disputable nature of the choices (wouldn’t Hegel have been a lot less controversial than Heidegger?), so many of the episodic writers are of special significance to me.

(I know people who would claim that Conrad, particular the Conrad of The Secret Agent, has a much more complicated view of character and choice than Strawson dismissively gives him. But I’ve never seen it myself.)

So whatever the debatable points of his taxonomy (and this being analytic philosophy, there are plenty of taxonomic points to debate), I think Strawson is on to something. Here is my personal experience with that something:

My great frustration with so much short fiction was not the narrative itself, but the function of change. There are stories that present a character in terrible, pure stasis and illuminates that stasis through assorted means, but the vast majority of stories end up with their characters some distance from where they started by means of some turning point event. This change is meant to stand out and mark a posthole in a character’s existence. But this assumes a backdrop not just of consistency, but of stasis itself.

After reading Proust, I came to believe that my frustration arose from the writer’s expedient mechanism of fixing the frame of reference so as to call out a moment of particular meaning or catharsis. I so often found this moment artificial, since the story would then assume an ever-extending future from thereon out with the reverberation from the story’s climax ringing down into the line. I was puzzled to run into other writers that thought of this approach not simply as natural for their characters, but for their views of themselves and others as well.

The modern American short story writer who I did feel the most identification with was Stephen Dixon, and in his endless variations on metaphysical possibility, hypothetical settings past and present for what is really a limited set of characters, he embodies something of what Strawson describes as episodic as much as any more experimental writer who has just thrown out the notion of realistic characters altogether. (Shoe gives some idea of his approach, though he requires a lot more space for the constant revisionism and moment-by-moment-ness of his style to take hold.) I wouldn’t describe it as “episodic,” but it is certainly anti-narrative in a way that owes a little to Laurence Sterne. Again, I have only my tastes to rely on, but Strawson’s framework is valuable for my own outlook if nothing more.

One last point that I couldn’t work in above. Strawson doesn’t mention Wittgenstein, probably because he tends to have the effect, like Kafka, of throwing a monkey wrench into whatever schema he’s inserted into. Wittgenstein might allow for the idea of a public narrative enshrined in language, but it would necessarily be cut off from one’s own idea of one’s self: a narrative that is not narrated. It’s entirely fitting then that Wittgenstein had no patience for most fiction save detective stories, with their objective descriptions of facts, flat characters, and galloping, punctuated plots.

Oulipo Tangent: John Sladek

I was always surprised that there wasn’t more overlap between the Oulipo and science fiction, since both fields were among the most ready to dispose of character and meaning in search of advances in their respective fields. Calvino had Cosmicomics and T-Zero, but those are more fantasies than anything resembling generic exercises. There have been a few sf authors over the years who have tried Oulipo experiments, and probably more recently that I don’t know about: the latest I know of is Geoff Ryman’s 253, which also happens to be one of the more successful hypertexts out there. I believe it succeeds on its own terms, but it does come off as a bit of an exercise, a left-brained excursion in assembling fragments that’s closer to computer programming than to writing a novel–which is not a criticism. It is also, of course, not science fiction. Why Ryman chose ordinary reality for his experiment is not for me to answer, but perhaps, as with Harry Mathews’ Tlooth, it’s more coherent to maintain the physical rules of common reality if you’re going to play havoc with the metaphysics of coincidence, symbolism, and structure.

(There is an old EC Comics story, I think from Weird Science, in which a man mows his double down with his car shortly before finding a time machine, and, well, you know the rest, but the best part of the story is the appendix, in which the entire loop is graphically represented and explained for teenagers who hadn’t yet read “By His Bootstraps.” This type of structure, in its simplest form in this story, requires as much contrivance as some of the Oulipo techniques, and may offer a similar form of getting-out-of-a-jam.)

I suspected that 253 was inspired by Thomas Disch’s 334, a fix-up collection of linked stories laid out in appropriately Perecesque fashion. But Disch seems to be toying with the device with less than full passion; it’s his friend, the late John Sladek, who always read as the most influenced by the Oulipo metaphysics. (If you aren’t convinced, Sladek references Mathews and people like Robert Coover and John Barth in this nice interview.)

Nearly all of Sladek’s books are set up like Rube Goldberg machines with the strings in plain sight, as he maneuvers all his pieces into place for a final conflagration. Sometimes, as with his massive 800-page Roderick, about a robot Candide, he lets the chain of events go slack to focus more on episodes of straight satire (which is always there to the degree that it’s not being steamrolled by the plot). Other times, as with The Muller-Fokker Effect, whose protagonist disappears very early on after his mind is transferred onto computer, the overwhelming drive is action, action, action towards that blowout at the end. Consequently, he doesn’t have time to develop most characters beyond caricatured monsters–corrupt professors, foolish hicks, parochial megalomaniacs–which happen to be exactly what the stories require.

The exception is Bugs. Whether it’s because of a slightly less complicated plot or a focus on one particular character, Bugs feels more rooted in several specific places and their corresponding emotions, the most striking being the dreary gray computer company. It’s working on nutty cybernetics, but in the spaces between plot points there’s a melancholy that seems more identifiable with a technical writing job in Minnesota (Sladek’s other profession) than anything else he wrote.

Fred Jones is an English writer who, possessed of little character except for literate decency, gets caught up in the usual antics, but Jones is sympathetic enough that Sladek sticks by him even more than he did with Roderick. There are scenes that don’t figure at all in the plot, as when he applies to a newspaper to write book reviews (“I’m Fred, and literate” is how he introduces himself) and is led into a backroom teeming with shelves of undifferentiated rack-sized fantasy books. “See, about ten years ago somebody made the mistake of reviewing one of these and the word got out. I mean, Christ, they print fifty of these fuckers a month!” says the editor, then the shelves collapse and bury him.

The robot soon goes berserk after Fred has it read Frankenstein and the pace picks up, but there is still a similarity between Sladek’s games of satire and the Oulipo’s reductionistic approach to character. It’s more noticeable in Bugs than it is in Sladek’s other work, or even, for example, The Day of the Locust, because the setting is intensely realistic and very contemporary. Fred remains the only real everyman character Sladek used, and his placement in the book amidst architected madness suggests an attempted escape from the specifics of his personality through a sort of super-detailed cartography of plot. Other characters get completely sucked into the machinery, but Fred remains psychologically present, and his own experiences, though carefully contrived, are more bitter.

The conclusion? That the structural, mathematical antics used by the Oulipo-ians are inspired by the same spirit that drives Sladek’s Rube Goldberg plot machines: it’s not an inherently avoidant technique, but it is one that moves away from what characters like Fred are supposed to represent. Bugs doesn’t resolve that tension, but neither does it fall apart.

(That same architectonic spirit is also what makes chapter 10 of Ulysses a diversion rather than a sequential component of the book. To me, the book holds unexplored answers to all these dilemmas.)

Sladek suggests in the article above that he was going to go further in his never-finished project Maps, where the novelistic structures would extend, Oulipo-style, into the metaphysics of the novel. It sounds like it might have been too fanciful and too arid for Sladek to manage, because his application of structure did not encourage perfect structure as much as it did satire.

Bill Dixon, Vade Mecum

The archive doesn’t seem to work right, but if you scroll down to the 12-10-02 entry of Melting Object, and you’ll see him salute trumpeter Bill Dixon. Dixon’s a great and underexposed figure, coming out of the 60’s avant-garde jazz movement and following his own path from thereon out.

I believe it has something to do with his melding of a very respectful classicism (he cites Webern especially along with the rest of the serialists) with an interest in pure timbre outside of the realm of explicit “notes.” His embrace of Austrian trumpet abuser Franz Hautzinger speaks to how open he’s been to abandoning structures of notes for pure sound. You can even hear it on his early (1964, I think, and it sounds like nothing else of the period), and rather unavailable Intents and Purposes, where his playing is far more linear, literally, than it became, but the relation of it to the bed of musicians beneath him shifts drastically and often.

But more specifically, just take the two Vade Mecum cd’s, from the early 90’s. Dixon works with two bassists, Barry Guy and William Parker, who come out of two drastically different backgrounds (English free improv and American free jazz–okay, if you like records like these, they seem drastically different). Parker plays with tonal and rhythmic ideas fairly often, while Guy is much more inclined towards extended techniques, more traditional “classical” playing, and noisy outbursts. The relationship seems to progress as the recording goes along (I’m with MO; the second disc is better), but my favorite moments are when Guy and Parker play at complete odds with one another, but Dixon bridges them. It’s beyond my ability to articulate without imprecise metaphor, but Dixon provides a well around which both Parker and Guy’s orbits can be independently sustained without crossing.

Dixon records sparingly, and the lack of flash in his playing has probably cost him as much as his personality has. But his structural concerns are, as far as I know, very different from anyone else’s, and only recently are younger musicians seeming to pick them up. (Two albums that strike me are GratHoVox and Wing Vane, but who can say?)

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