The “tap essay” is just that, a bit of kinetic text you navigate by tapping. Tapping, screen by screen. Sometimes line by line, poetically. Sometimes word by word, frantically. The gesture dictates your pace. There’s no back button. (I read it with the line breaks in, after an old friend.)
"Fish…" is about attention. The eponymous fish—as Sloan tells it—was a teaching tool of Louis Agassiz, a natural historian and Harvard professor, who would lay a dead fish out before his prospective students and command them to, “LOOK AT YOUR FISH.” And they would, for days, periodically reporting back to Agassiz what they had observed. No purpose to it, except to demonstrate in the starkest possible terms that there is intricacy everywhere, even (maybe especially) those places we never consider and accessible to us, though only with time, patience, attention.
"An endless flood"
The internet has done us all a great service, externalizing bits of our memory. My phone remembers the numbers of everyone I’ve ever called, which is the least of its capabilities. Wikipedia remembers the chemical formulas I always forget, keeps them just a few taps away. The “like,” the “favorite” can be a wave, a kiss, but for me they’re most often bookmarks, signs left by myself for myself to come back and pay attention to something later. Just, I often don’t.
Externalized memories are fundamentally different from real memories. Real memories, for good or for ill, impinge on the world. You can’t help but remember certain things. They return, whether you like it or not. And memories color the world. Really absorb a text, a song, a painting and everything afterward passes through it, is changed by it. Not so with the collection in my stellar.io profile (at least, not always.) I “favorite” dozens of things every day on Twitter and every one is meaningful, but how many can claim to be transformative? Would that be different if I were reading pamphlets instead of Tweets?
Navneet Alang, in his review of “Fish…” at the Toronto Standard, reminded me of Sloan’s post about internet “stock and flow.” “Stock” and “flow” are terms from economics (static quantities like inventory and dynamic quantities like payroll, respectively) and are, to Sloan, “the master metaphor for media today…Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets…Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today.”
With that, the heart of “Fish…” can be summed up: on the internet, stock is swept away by flow. Not that the flow isn’t sustaining. Not that there is any more or less stock than there has ever been. Only that we have trouble holding on to things we cherish on the internet. Why? As Sloan says, the internet “lacks an album view.”
As with real memories, books, albums and even ephemeral objects like iPhone apps impinge on your world. Book are there on the shelf, always ready to be looked over, no matter how thoughtlessly. Apps are always there on your screen, reminding you that they exist. ITunes has its “album view.” Content from the flow, though, is obscured once it’s any older than immediate. You have to know what you’re looking for and call for it. It’s passive.
"Maybe I just want a website that shows / me the same thing over and over again."
"Stock and flow" reminds me of Kenneth Goldsmith’s "The Bounce and The Roll.” This is not a coincidence. It’s the conceptual poet Goldsmith’s version of “stock and flow,” written roughly a year after Sloan’s. Goldsmith’s archive at Harriet is invaluable reading for anyone concerned with conceptuality, in poetry or elsewhere. A few pieces there (like “Always Almost Obsolete, Always Almost New" and others) would likely make it into my canon. And that phrase, above, "Maybe I just want a website that shows / me the same thing over and over again," reminds me of Goldsmith’s "Uncreative Writing." I’m less sure why.
The internet is full to over flowing with things like that, things that keep us coming back across the years. So, the problem isn’t one of content, but of attention. It’s a problem of canon. Canon is Sloan’s proposed solution to the problems laid out in “Fish…,” following this catalog of the essays and articles important to David Cole, a designer at Quora. A personal canon is the closest internet approximation of an “album view,” a chance to pluck things we love from the torrent and put them on display so they can’t be missed, by others and us.
This is certainly part of my canon, an essay by the poet Lyn Hejinian. I must have read it 10 times, 5 before I really understood it. It’s her articulation of a “prepoetics,” a “dilemma” of language and its relationship to experience. “[W]e begin by proposing that the boundary is not an edge but a conjunction — that the dilemma bears the meaning of conjunction: encounter, possible confusion, alteration exerted through reciprocal influence, etc.” Toward the end, Hejinian pulls an item from her own canon, George Oppen’s poem “Of Being Numerous.”
"There are things We live among ‘and to see them Is to know ourselves.’”
"THIS IS A PATH FROM LIKE TO LOVE…"
Nix the digital metaphor of an “album view.” There are things we live among and to see them is to know ourselves. We all have our daily canons, landscapes and storefronts and faces we live among. Their recurrence (or not) is definitional. As below, so above. But don’t nix the digital.
See that little bird in the screenshot? There are a few of those scattered throughout “Fish…” It’s a Tweet button, a feature made possible in the latest version of iOS. Tap that and, if you’ve linked your iPhone to your Twitter account, it Tweets the text of screen in full, automatically. By removing the back button, Sloan baked his thesis into the essay’s form, that we must must pay more and better attention. By including the Tweet buttons, he gave us all the opportunity to participate, to be active in our attention. Mike Barthel would call it an occurrence of simultaneity (another item for the canon), the essay impinging on your attention every time someone else discovers it. It’s less like quoting, more like chanting. Call and response. “Reciprocal influence.”
So “Fish…” is just that, an essay that shows you the same thing over and over again. Or, not. Finish tapping through the screens and the app gives you the option to “reset” back to the ugh Sloan counsels to leave it in place. It’s tempting, to make the app into some special piece of time, but that would do it a disservice. It bears repeated reading because it’s so carefully crafted. The first item in its own cannon. A real memory.
A marble bust, dating to the year 50, believed to be portrait of Julius Caesar (born in the summer of 100 BC; died 15 March, 44); in the collection of the British Museum, London
Suetonius’s account of the murder of Caesar:
Now Caesar’s approaching murder was foretold to him by unmistakable signs. A few months before, when the settlers assigned to the colony at Capua by the Julian Law were demolishing some tombs of great antiquity, to build country houses, and plied their work with the greater vigour because as they rummaged about they found a quantity of vases of ancient workmanship, there was discovered in a tomb, which was said to be that of Capys, the founder of Capua, a bronze tablet, inscribed with Greek words and characters to this purport: “Whenever the bones of Capys shall be moved, it will come to pass that a son of Ilium shall be slain at the hands of his kindred, and presently avenged at heavy cost to Italy.” And let no one think this tale a myth or a lie, for it is vouched for by Cornelius Balbus, an intimate friend of Caesar. Shortly before his death, as he was told, the herds of horses which he had dedicated to the river Rubicon when he crossed it, and had let loose without a keeper, stubbornly refused to graze and wept copiously. Again, when he was offering sacrifice, the soothsayer Spurinna warned him to beware of danger, which would come not later than the Ides of March; and on the day before the Ides of that month a little bird called the king-bird flew into the Hall of Pompey with a sprig of laurel, pursued by others of various kinds from the grove hard by, which tore it to pieces in the hall. In fact the very night before his murder he dreamt now that he was flying above the clouds, and now that he was clasping the hand of Jupiter; and his wife Calpurnia thought that the pediment of their house fell, and that her husband was stabbed in her arms; and on a sudden the door of the room flew open of its own accord.
Both for these reasons and because of poor health he hesitated for a long time whether to stay at home and put off what he had planned to do in the senate; but at last, urged by Decimus Brutus not to disappoint the full meeting which had for some time been waiting for him, he went forth almost at the end of the fifth hour; and when a note revealing the plot was handed him by someone on the way, he put it with others which he held in his left hand, intending to read them presently. Then, after several victims had been slain, and he could not get favourable omens, he entered the House in defiance of portents, laughing at Spurinna and calling him a false prophet, because the Ides of March were come without bringing him harm; though Spurinna replied that they had of a truth come, but they had not gone.
As he took his seat, the conspirators gathered about him as if to pay their respects, and straightway Tillius Cimber, who had assumed the lead, came nearer as though to ask something; and when Caesar with a gesture put him off to another time, Cimber caught his toga by both shoulders; then as Caesar cried, “Why, this is violence!” one of the Cascas stabbed him from one side just below the throat. Caesar caught Casca’s arm and ran it through with his stylus, but as he tried to leap to his feet, he was stopped by another wound. When he saw that he was beset on every side by drawn daggers, he muffled his head in his robe, and at the same time drew down its lap to his feet with his left hand, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered. And in this wise he was stabbed with three and twenty wounds, uttering not a word, but merely a groan at the first stroke, though some have written that when Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he said in Greek, “You too, my child?” All the conspirators made off, and he lay there lifeless for some time, and finally three common slaves put him on a litter and carried him home, with one arm hanging down. And of so many wounds none turned out to be mortal, in the opinion of the physician Antistius, except the second one in the breast.
—from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (De Vita Caesarum), by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 119; this translation by J. C. Rolfe for the 1913 Loeb edition)
Before I begin, let me stress that I don’t entirely believe what I’m about to say. I say “entirely” because I do believe it, just not always. Some mornings, I wake up with the courage of this particular conviction. Some mornings, I believe something mutually incompatible with the same strength. Also note, I’m talking about poetry, but it’s safe to substitute ”design” or whatever other discipline into what follows…
“One of the things we’ve really learnt over the last 20 years is that while people would often struggle to articulate why they like something, as consumers we are incredibly discerning, we sense where has been great care in the design and when there is cynicism and greed.”
An amusing mystery in creative work: how can an audience be "incredibly discerning" when their knowledge of any given work —its genesis, formulation, and context— is at best inexplicit and is more typically scant or nil?
"A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words”
— William Carlos Williams
There is, after all, a radical inequality between a creator and an audience. A designer, artist, or author acquires, through whatever varieties of education, a universe of technical and formal information; a familiarity with tens or hundreds of techniques, styles, contexts, traditions; an awareness of movements and ideas, developments and limitations; and so on. Indeed, meanings and consequences exist in a creator’s field with such density that they are a common impediment to progress; for an artist, a creative work is supersaturated with crucial facts and their connections to other work, other artists, other scenes, culture at large; at times, every detail carries too much with it.
You don’t need to know how an engine works to drive a car. Beyond the basics: “put the key here and turn to start it,” “this pedal makes it go,” etc., someone with a great deal of knowledge and a very specific skill set, likely a long time ago and very far away, crafted the thing to work almost invisibly. The intricacies of an internal combustion engine, like a poem or a well designed object, are vast and essentially inaccesible to us. This is as it should be. If a thing is made right, it doesn’t matter. It simply WORKS. If you notice the individual parts, the mechanisms, that usually means something is broken.
On the other hand, the consuming audience knows vastly less and often nearly nothing about the work, its contexts, the choices its creators were obliged to make, the limits within which they labored, and so on. They often fail to perceive the same theory-laden details which matter most to the creator. The typical iPhone buyer knows nothing about glasswork, metallurgy, electrical engineering, batteries, the design of hardware, Dieter Rams, the original Mac, filesystems and their discontents, software design, OS design, resource constraint and management, the relationship between scope and clarity or limitation and coherence, security issues, the idea that computers are bicycles for minds, or the thousands of other notions and fields the coordination of which the device represents.
It requires precious little knowledge to be discerning, unless what you mean by “discerning” is “conscious of other people’s preferences that constitute a standard for quality.” It’s very easy for me to tell, say, what sort of wine I like. It’s harder to tell what’s a “good” wine. Knowing that I prefer sweet wines, or wines from South Africa, might help me pick a strange bottle off the shelf. New information might bend or break my initial preferences (even update them, effectively changing the past), but the preferences came first. I need know nothing about glassmaking to discern that an iPhone feels good in my hand. It’s heavy, solid-feeling, pleasantly paradoxical in that way (the extent of my glassmaking knowledge is that glass is easily breakable, despite how it feels to the contrary.)
The matter is no different with an excellent novel or film. Apart from enthusiasts who immerse themselves in the communities which surround creative fields, the great oceans of users, listeners, and readers react to a given work without knowing much about why it is the way it is, what it inherits from its antecedents and peers, how it rebels against them, where it is innovative or original, etc.
Yet it is indeed the case that "while people would often struggle to articulate why they like something, as consumers we are incredibly discerning." How can this be so? Discernment is based on knowledge; you must know what to discern! The designer’s knowledge is his means of discernment: he distinguishes good from bad in large measure by referring to this knowledge. But what does the user know? How does he distinguish good from bad? If we believe that he does so impressionistically, lazily, ignorantly, why is it the judgment of the audience, the market, the masses which matter most to us?
There’s an ancient debate in poetry between those who favor “accessibility” in poems and those who favor “difficulty.” Elsewhere, think of those influenced by DFW, who crave a “active” readers and praise time spent in quiet contemplation of a work vs. pretty much everyone else, who write to be read in whatever circumstance. The substance of this debate is largely missing, folks agreeing with each other much more than they like to let on, debate being furthered by entrenched academics and blog polemicists. Still, there’s something to be said.
Second semester, my junior year in college, there weren’t enough students to run the 400-level poetry workshop. So, four of us met in our professor’s office, once a week and ran it anyway. One day, waiting for everyone else to arrive, I sat listening to a student across the hall, talking to her English professor during office hours. They were talking about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and, together, breaking down a poem almost word by word. “See, here, how these syllables highlight to first word of the line?” It made me incredibly angry, but I didn’t understand why. When the professor finally came, I asked, “Is there such a thing as reading TOO closely? Can’t close reading kill a poem?” He said that close reading is our most important tool. Without it, we’re lost. Which is true, if your goal is to write poetry for yourself. But, what about for a reader?
Knowledge helps; don’t get me wrong on that. There’s a lot of information folded in to a poem, into line breaks and stress patterns, information encoded with every tool at the poets disposal. Knowing where to look, how to look, reveals what could otherwise be missed. It’s just…that’s not reading. That’s something else, closer to dissection, an old quilt spread on the floor with engine parts scattered all over it. Not to stretch the metaphor too far, but a machine doesn’t run when it’s exploded all over the garage. You’ll never learn how to build an engine without seeing it like that, but it isn’t functioning, it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to. What it’s supposed to be doing is running. A poem only functions as a whole. Take it apart and it’s just a collection of tricks, little linguistic backflips.
Presumably Ive, like most creators, could explicitly account for a great deal, but not all, of his work’s success. He does assert that it is not to his audience, so to speak, that he turns for inspiration or cues:
It’s unfair to ask people who don’t have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design.
So: Ive’s knowledge is not common knowledge; his talents and tastes are not ordinary either. He does not believe that users can imaginatively escape “the context of today” and he doesn’t involve them in his creative process. Yet he believes that they are in some mute way “incredibly discerning,” and he stresses in particular the idea that audiences search for and find the motives at the core of any creation.
An enormity of knowledge is required to create; the creation is judged by those without much such knowledge; their verdict matches the verdict of the creator but is not based on his knowledge, though it seems to validate it. On what is it based? How is the knowledge of the creator isomorphic to the ignorance of the consumer?
Make a thing right and it doesn’t need to be taken apart. Write a thing correctly and it tells the reader everything he or she needs to know, regardless of whether he or she can see the effect of enjambment or know that your rhyme scheme calls back to Arabic love poems. Taste makes a writer, I’ll grant that, but not a reader.
years ago Channel 4 in the UK had seasons where they showed blocks of short films through the night. this was before they really did 24 hour television. so it was novelty to fill the schedule with this short form stuff that didn’t really get a slot otherwise. i had been keeping an eye open, because i’d seen word that there was going to be a short film based on the work of simon ings. i saw it listed and recorded the night of films - and was surprised when i watched it back to find this film “tomorrow calling” - based on the gernsback continuum. i’ve mentioned it to people a few times, but never found it online (though i have a video cassette somewhere…), till now - not great quality, but it exists.
The Gernsback Continuum is a wonderful example of “paleofuture" and, really, just kind of wonderful. An excerpt:
"Watch lots of television, particularly game shows and soaps. Go to porn movies. Ever see Nazi Love Motel? They’ve got it on cable, here. Really awful. Just what you need.”
What was he talking about? “Quit yelling and listen to me. I’m letting you in on a trade secret: Really bad media can exorcise your semiotic ghosts. If it keeps the saucer people off my back, it can keep these Art Deco futuroids off yours. Try it. What have you got to lose?”
…During today’s talk, Cage showed off a new prototype using their new technology and a new engine. The idea was to improve emotion in the game…”What you are going to see is this prototype I told you about,” he said. “It’s running in real time on a PS3. It’s not CG, it’s not pre-rendered. It is displayed by our new engine we created after Heavy Rain. The capture is almost raw.”
The perfect juxtaposition: shaky, handheld video of the cutting edge in human simulacra performance. This is “the new aesthetic.”
Serkan Özkaya’s “David…” (2012) parked outside @StorefrontNYC for Art & Architecture on Kenmare St. (Taken with instagram)
I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand, Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
“Often the narrative shell of a game (“you are the specially trained commando who has just landed on a Lunar base; your task is to make your way to the headquarters occupied by the mutant base personnel…”) masks a simple algorithm well-familiar to the player: kill all the enemies on the current level, while collecting all treasures it contains; go to the next level and so on until you reach the last level. Other games have different algorithms. Here is an algorithm of the legendary “Tetris”: when a new block appears, rotate it in such a way so it will complete the top layer of blocks on the bottom of the screen making this layer disappear. The similarity between the actions expected from the player and computer algorithms is too uncanny to be dismissed. While computer games do not follow database logic, they appear to be ruled by another logic - that of an algorithm. They demand that a player executes an algorithm in order to win.
An algorithm is the key to the game experience in a different sense as well. As the player proceeds through the game, she gradually discovers the rules which operate in the universe constructed by this game. She learns its hidden logic, in short its algorithm. Therefore, in games where the game play departs from following an algorithm, the player is still engaged with an algorithm, albeit in another way: she is discovering the algorithm of the game itself. I mean this both metaphorically and literally: for instance, in a first person shooter, such as “Quake,” the player may eventually notice that under such and such condition the enemies will appear from the left, i.e. she will literally reconstruct a part of the algorithm responsible for the game play. Or, in a diffirent formulation of the legendary author of Sim games Will Wright, “Playing the game is a continuous loop between the user (viewing the outcomes and inputting decisions) and the computer (calculating outcomes and displaying them back to the user). The user is trying to build a mental model of the computer model.””
There’s this spooky little parable I heard somewhere…There’s a young boy who who hears the sound of a horn - maybe he hears Miles Davis - and he realizes that all he wants to do is play the horn. So he looks to the sky and says, “Please, please, please, make me a great horn player.” And the voice of the universe says, “Yes. Become a great trumpet player.” So the guy does that. He plays his horn. He devotes his life to it. He succeeds. He does all the things a usual obsessed person does, all the highs and lows. And at the end of his life he says, “I spent all my time playing the goddamned trumpet. That’s all I did, and I missed so much because of it. What a tragedy.” And the same voice of the universe speaks to him and says, “Yes. What a tragedy.”
"…'Kenneth Goldsmith,' writes Tuma, 'says that what defines our moment is knowing that it has all been done in poetry, in writing, and art…' I didn’t spend much time on thinking about the passage (I’d barely touched my coffee), except to note Goldsmith’s typical concern with what it means to be up to date, what it means to be engaged with things specific to our own time.
Then, this afternoon, I was plugging away re-reading Yeats’ autobiographies, taking notes for a chapter about his work I hope to write for a book of criticism I’ve been working on. And there, in a passage about his association with the poets of the Rhymer’s Club of the 1890s, I found Yeats describing himself and his peers as ‘men who spoke their opinions in low voices…and timidly as though they knew that all subjects had long since been explored, all questions long since decided in books whereon the dust settled…’ Yeats and the Rhymers came to this belief after reading Walter Pater’s Renaissance, particularly the chapter on Michelangelo, where similar sentiments of belatedness were expressed. Pater’s book appeared in the 1870s…”
We long for the revolution of modernism, even the rupture of post-modernism, because we’re adrift. If Kurt Andersen and others are to be believed, we have been for some time. Andersen sees a lack of cultural innovation in the last two decades and concludes that,
"…[I]t’s an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts…[W]e are clinging as never before to the familiar…"
At the end of his post, Archambeau offers his own assesment of our condition, nominally in response to Goldsmith:
"…Maybe one of the things makes our moment distinct is our need to think that we’re distinct from a past with which we actually have a great deal in common — our compulsion to find differences and distinctness at any cost, even historical accuracy."
No revolution, no rupture, if not a “compulsion to find differences,” then a desire to feel at home in our own time. So far, that desire has manifested as appropriation, sampling, nostalgia, etc., various particulars used to generalize about the now.
For so many years, we moved forward, forward, forward. We stopped dealing with history, rolled culture over every decade without any concern for processing it, since it was passe to to look anywhere but ahead. Anderson takes stock and sees stagnation, a sort of collective psychological crisis in the face of all this new stuff. I take stock and say we spent too long not learning from the past. Thus, we play catch-up. We float, though it may appear we’re drowning. Show me any recent cultural phenomenon and I’ll show you an attempt to sort through our backlog, decades of accumulation, cultural “superabundance.” Not clinging to the familiar, just clutching it as if to climb it like a ladder and, hopefully, kicking it away once we’ve reached the top.