Street of Crocodiles/Tree of Codes

For my final paper I plan to look at Jonathan Safran Foer’s most recent work, Tree of Codes. Foer is a pretty notable author, but strangely Tree of Codes doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page. If you want to know more about it, your best bet is to look at some of the descriptions on sites like Amazon–I discovered the book because my boyfriend is a huge JSF fan and bought it when it was first released, but I think copies of this book are actually pretty hard to come by and fairly expensive (for a college student). But basically it’s a cut-up novel taken from Foer’s favorite novel of all time, Street of Crocodiles by deceased Polish author Bruno Schulz. Foer took Schulz’s novel and literally cut it up using the die-cut method, creating his own text. I haven’t read either of the books so that’s mainly what I’ll be doing for the next week, and I’m interested in looking at Foer’s authorship versus Schulz’s, and how the physical book itself challenges or adds to some of the conceptions of “books” that we’ve been considering in this class. For example, I’ve been reading some of the interviews Foer did to promote the book, and he often talks about it as if it were a work of art or a sculpture instead of an actual novel. Is Tree of Codes really a book at all, or just a piece of visual art? What’s the difference, and where should we draw the line? What makes it different from Street of Crocodiles, and what makes it its own text? (Foer himself has stated in interviews that he believes himself to be the author of this book, and NOT Schulz). The book itself reminds me a lot of some of the artists’ books we talked about earlier in the semester, and I’m hoping our conversation on Nox next week will give me some more insights I can discuss in my paper.


Games as Storytelling

Playing Braid made me think back to the discussion we had about Jason Nelson’s works, and the way that storytelling and gaming can intersect. Like Jason Nelson’s “games,” Braid is frustrating in its simplicity: almost everything “gamey” about Braid is modeled after the classic platformer game Super Mario Bros., one of the most straightforward and “playable” video games (outside of casual games), requiring little-to-no experience with videogaming for a user to successfully play. And like Mario, Braid also attempts to tell a story; in fact, Blow makes little attempt to hide his homage to the seminal platformer–he even has a level in Braid called “Jumpman,” Mario’s original name when he first appeared in Donkey Kong. The level is modeled after the iconic level in Donkey Kong where gameplayers met Jumpman for the very first time. If we acknowledge the ways that Blow incorporates elements from the most classic of classic videogames, this emphasizes the ways in which Braid vastly differs from gaming tradition–and the ways that it slips into storytelling mode.

While Braid attempts to straddle between storytelling and gaming, I believe that it actually demonstrates how difficult it is to merge the two modes. Many gamers will talk about Braid with a tone of frustration–they appreciate the artistry, but believe that Blow fails to create a successful “game” because of his heavy reliance on storytelling via blocks of text. While gamers delighted in the puzzles and experimentation with controlling new elements of the game such as time, many of them wished that Blow had found better ways of incorporating the textual storytelling into the gameplay itself. However, for the purpose of exploring post-print fiction, should we instead view the text as the main focus of Braid, and the gaming as simply a way to reveal the text in a new and interesting way? Further, it seems to me that the gameplay aspects of Braid allow us to think even deeper about the thematic elements that the text wishes to emphasize. Mainly, while the text itself refers constantly to the limitations and constraints of time, the gameplay allows us to interact with these ideas firsthand, instead of simply thinking about them abstractly.

There are plenty of texts which play with time and its constraints–Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Slaughterhouse Five, and even Back to the Future are a few that come to mind. However, these texts all exist in comfortable little worlds where the reader themselves is free from the burden of having to manipulate time–instead, the author creates his or her own rules for controlling time and invents characters who can use this control to their advantage, or sometimes disadvantage. What the readers are left with is an impression that the ability to manipulate time can be easy or straightforward, and useful if it is done properly. While the textual elements of Braid are reminiscent of this, the gameplay immerses the “reader” into an entirely new position where he or she is forced to take on the role of manipulating time. Further, Blow succeeds in showing us how cumbersome altering the mechanics of time can be, leaving the reader longing for a more straight-forward exploration like in Mario or Donkey Kong, which represents the way chronological way that we experience time in real life. Blow couldn’t make this argument without incorporating the gaming elements into his story–otherwise, we’d just be “taking his word for it” that manipulating time can be frustrating, ineffective, and hardly worth the effort it takes to make things work out advantageously. Because Blow uses the gameplay to further emphasize the point he is trying to make in the story, it works effectively as a complementary, immersive layer to the text. However, if Blow was simply using a basic platformer where the player beats repetitive bosses or solves puzzles to unveil a text, Braid would pitfall into the frustrating realm of “too much text for a game” or “too much game for a text.”


I’m beginning to believe that post-print fiction is inherently grounded in a total disruption of conventional ideas of genre. I’ve been tempted to look at my concentration in poetry and my boyfriend’s film major and think “wow, what a total waste of time.” If I’ve spent the last few years of studies learning what poetry is and how to read it, Jason Nelson and other post-print authors have begged me to throw all of it out. They’ve shown me that it only inhibits my ability to read.

What most of the texts from our class have in common is their inability to conform to a genre convention. Is interactive fiction textual literature, or is it a game? Is The Whale Hunt photography, a database, or a story? Even House of Leaves made us teeter between looking at poetry, film, academic writing, music, and photography. Jason Nelson tries to posit some of his art as “games,” but it’s really just an art exhibit explored through a generic platformer rather than through your own feet. If I try to read it as a game, I don’t understand. If I try to read it as poetry, I don’t understand. If I try to view it as graphic art, I feel like I’m missing out on half of what is there. Is it possible to read multiple genres at one time within one text, keeping the assumptions of Rabinowitz’s Rules for Reading? The rules–assumptions–that we keep in mind as we explore a text are inseparable from genre convention. Genre convention, in other words, sets the rules. What we notice depends on what we’ve been told to notice based on our experience with the genre before, and what genre we categorize the text to be.

I think what it boils down to is that the internet and computers makes it so remarkably easy to mash genres together. All it takes is a little programming. It’s impossible to expect artists not to experiment with this exciting new ability, and it reminds me of one of the most recent genres to develop it’s own conventions–film. For a long time, viewers, academics, and filmmakers alike struggled with positing film outside of the worlds of photography and theater. These were the genre conventions that people knew, but seeing film as one or the other limited the full capabilities of the technology’s impact on art. There’s been an equally remarkable transition with the genre of video games; while critical engagements with video games often rely heavily on knowledge of film studies, “video game studies” itself is trying to break away from this. While I explore Jason Nelson’s art, I can look at it with all of my knowledge of genre conventions from poetry, film, and games. But I feel like this is limiting my experience with the text–and undermining Nelson’s project as an artist.

However, instead of inventing a “new genre” for works like Nelson’s with it’s own rules for reading, I wonder if it’s possible for human understanding of texts to ever move post-genre. This maneuver seems so counter-intuitive to our abilities to “read” art, but I feel like the genres themselves are also perpetually limiting. As Nelson writes in The Bomar Gene, “Humans cannot stop creating.” We can’t stop breaking the conventions. Can we stop relying on them as a crutch when we read, or will we always need them, and simultaneously be eluded because of them when we approach texts like the ones we’ve seen in this class?

Who’s in control here?

One of the more theoretical questions that this novel has posed is What is the real relationship between characters and their authors? Naive readers of any fiction will assume characters to be complete constructs of an author’s psyche, unless they are explicitly grounded in reality–for example, the characters Rita, Saturn (Salvador) and even lovesick Napoleon. However, People of Paper makes the relationship between the “fictional” characters and the author’s life explicit and transparent. For example, Federico de la Fe’s wife, Merced, seems to mirror Salvador’s estranged lover, Liz. After learning about Liz, it is impossible for us to ignore the parallels that Salvador creates when he “invents” Merced’s character. Applying this broadly, we can conclude that no fictional characters are drawn straight out of thin air. Even creatures of fantasy–Albus Dumbledore, for example, or Bilbo Baggins–must be rooted in someone or something that their creator/author once knew and felt passionate about. That which we call “fiction” is never really false, just fragmented rearrangements and re-dressings of everything around us.

This discussion is further complicated by Plascencia’s extended metaphor of war between novelists and their characters. Throughout the novel, Plascencia replicates an ongoing battle that his characters are waging against him. At first I thought that this was a symbol for writer’s block–writers often struggle with characters who they are unable to develop, who seem to refuse to cooperate with their ideas for the story. Instead of blaming himself for constructing such disagreeable characters, Plascencia reverses the roles of writing and attempts to convey a passive author and active characters.

However, we have to question whether Plascencia’s portrayal is accurate, or even at all possible. One question I’ve been struggling with as I read People  of Paper is the potential for autonomous characters. Sure, Plascencia has created a world where they exist. But is this world itself a fictional construct? For example, can characters in a novel actually wage a war against their creator, or are the EMF and the people of El Monte only doing so because Plascencia himself has allowed them to, given them permission to, and decided it was important for them to do so? I have trouble imagining a book where the characters have any true agency or control over their fates. Is it even possible for characters to think independent thoughts? Isn’t everything a character says actually thought by the author, constructed by the author, and included in the text because the author chose to write it down? While I grapple with these questions, I think they are precisely the questions Plascencia is asking of his readers to confront. If the answer is that characters don’t ever have agency–what does this tell us about their authors? I think Plascencia’s world of independent characters poses these  important questions that are critical to our discussion of post-print fiction, I think it is ultimately an optical illusion.

I will say now that I still have 50 pages of reading left to do, which I can’t attend to until Wednesday. Maybe some of my questions will be answered in these last few pages, or my classmates can provide their own answers for me!

Get Book

Learning about Interactive Fiction, especially after reading House of Leaves, makes me think about what a Reader’s goals are when they engage a text. The most striking difference between “interactive” fiction and regular books (even ones like if on a winters night and House of Leaves) is that in the interactive version you have a concrete goal or a way to win. Although everyone can explore the text differently, everyone wins in the same way.

When we read books in the traditional codex form, every reader has a unique approach to the text, which can arguably be as limiting and controlling as an IF game. But unlike an IF text, reading fiction (as opposed to…interacting with it?) produces much looser variations of winning and losing. I’d like to argue that when a reader “wins,” he or she can understand, appreciate, and internalize or utilize a text. When a reader “loses,” he or she is unable to find anything useful in the text or refuses to acknowledge the assumptions necessary to interact with it (and therefore does not find any enjoyment in the reading.)

I guess what I’m really grappling at here is what are the differences between so-called Interactive Fiction and just -regular- fiction. The word “interactive” seems to suggest that experiencing other forms of fiction is a purely passive experience, which we all know it is not. While I can understand why IF authors and readers (gamers?) reject terms like “Text-Based Video Game,” I think “Interactive Fiction” isn’t really pegging down what’s going on here either. I’m not going to be the one to propose a proper term, though, and I’m sure I’m far from the first person to speculate about this.

However, if you want to keep looking at the ideas of ‘winning’ and ‘losing,’ then maybe we should look more at the book form in juxtaposition with the computer program-based form of fiction. I think one important aspect of codex books is that they have a physical, linear beginning and ending. IF certainly has a beginning and ending as well, but unlike when you read a codex, you can’t relax under the (false) assumption that when you read that last page, you’re done. How many times have you read an entire book, only to reach the bottom of the last page and rejoice thinking “Thank God it’s over! I win! Homework complete!” How you experienced the text and whether you gained anything from it doesn’t necessarily matter–you read the book, so you won. This is different from in IF, where you could presumably play forever and ever and ever and you’re never finished with the text until you accomplish a given task.

Anyway, I’m really just arguing with myself now. But I’m excited to explore IF and its relation to post-print fiction in class on Wednesday. It seems great that we’re studying this in an English class, and I can certainly value IF from a textual standpoint, but its relationship to its readers (and I feel awkward calling them that) makes me a little unsure of what to do with it.

And as a total aside–someone in class had once mentioned that Danielewski’s House of Leaves seemed to account for all of our presuppositions about what goes into a book. It was full of footnotes, appendices, and even an awkward (but interesting) index. However, it’s occurring to me that the one thing Danielewski didn’t account for was an “interactive” part of the text. Maybe you could argue that the option to read Pelafina’s letters in the beginning instead of at the end offers a sort of “Choose Your own Adventure” reading. But I like to wonder what an interactive fiction component to House of Leaves might have look like…obviously, you could explore the house, talk to Karen and the kids, etc…but what else? How could Danielewski have incorporated this into House of Leaves, or would it have been impossible? House of Leaves maybe strikes me as being as close to an IF text as a book can get, without actually becoming IF.

Re: Mrs. Sample

Saw your e-mail, and to answer your question…the Navidson Record is fictionalized, but I can’t tell you who made it up or why. I think you’ll find more questions than answers in this text. But after reading House of Leaves, I’m tempted to say that even though The Navidson Record doesn’t exist as a documentary or an academic essay, the novel House of Leaves brings it alive and makes it very real to the readers. Is writing about something enough to make it real? By the time I finished reading House of Leaves, I didn’t care whether the Navidson Record was real or not. It existed in some capacity. I don’t think it exists in as a piece of “non-fiction” but what is non-fiction anyway? It’s a bit of a misnomer, if you ask me.

Anyway, like I said…questions. You’ll have a lot of them. But keep reading. The questions are important. More important than the answers, I think.

An unusual book indeed.

Who is the hostage here?

Since nobody else has bitten yet, I’ll go ahead and look at the final scene for the character Jean-Claude Julien. I found Julien’s role in the novel to be incredibly complex and elusive, but since we’re only asked to try and make sense of it, I’ll do the best that I can.

Rabinowitz’s Rule of Notice can be applied even further to Jean-Claude Julien; not only is his final scene significant for its finality, but each of his scenes seem to carry a heavier weight since there are so few of them. As we mentioned in class, this same phenomenon happens when we read poetry and each word seems to play a greater role in making meaning (perhaps it is fitting that Jean Claude is also a poet).  Julien’s sections themselves are brief and concise, but full of meaning. Jean-Claude Julien is the character who drives Mao II’s plot—without his hostage situation, DeLillo would have no concrete plot to drive the story. The other characters would simply exist, motionless and meaningless. In a way, DeLillo’s creation of Julien holds the book–and DeLillo’s writing–hostage in its significance. The few sections where we are privileged to see from Julien’s perspective remind the reader that there is a plot here, something that at least three characters (Bill, George and Charlie) seem to be working toward, and the rest of the characters follow suit. In this way, the hostage is holding the other characters (and their actions) hostage.

Going off of this, Julien’s final appearance in the novel makes several reflections on some of the larger themes that the other characters are grappling with throughout the novel. Earlier in Mao II Bill makes the bold comparison of terrorists to novelists; with Julien we see a direct interaction between the two, and it makes us reflect on their similarities and their relationship with each other. I don’t know if it’s necessary or not to distinguish Julien as a poet and not a novelist—perhaps for the sake of my blog post, I’ll pretend that Bill compared writers to terrorists in general. In fact, it wasn’t until Julien’s final narrative that I began to really see what Bill was getting at with his comparison.

While being held hostage, Julien begins to obsess over being able to write. I use the word “obsess” intentionally, because it strikes me as a characteristic that writers and terrorists both share. Without the ability to write, Julien becomes anxious, and on page 203 he mentions that “There were thoughts he could not formulate without writing them down.” This seems similar to the relationship that “terrorists” have with the senseless acts of violence and destruction that they commit. They need it to make sense of the world, and without it, their conceptions of reality begin to break down. On page 204, it is mentioned that “Written words could tell [Julien] who he was,” much in the same way that Mao II’s terrorists use terrorism to define their existence. Everyone’s understanding of the world around them is linked to some ideology…writers, through their craft, strive to make sense of their ideology. Terrorists, too, try to test it or stretch it, and both writers and terrorists make some attempt to push their ideology onto unwitting Others. Writers tend to do it peacefully, yet subconsciously, whereas terrorists are violent and obvious in their methods. That right there may be the fine line that differentiates the two.

Besides the connection between writers and terrorists, Jean-Claude Julien’s section also had me drawing parallels between Julien and the other writer, Bill. Both seem to be obsessed with the more grotesque imagery of their bodies (the mention of vomit, fever, waste, serous fluid, is mentioned all throughout the passage). Julien echoes Bill’s suggestion that a writer’s work in inextricably bound to their bodies. Obviously, without their bodies, the writers cannot produce their work; even further, the connection that the authors feel to their writing is similar to the connection that a parent might feel for their offspring. This is not meant to be sentimental, but only to emphasize the reproductive aspects of writing, as opposed to seeing it as purely a productive act. Throughout this class, we have come to understand how writers cannot help but write themselves, their perspective, and their ideologies into their works. By writing, they are reproducing their vision, not producing an altogether original one.

Also, if I can completely turn on everything I just said…maybe I’m a little dim when it comes to really obvious-but-unspoken plot twists in novels (which Mao II seemed to be full of) but are we supposed to believe at the end that Julien was entirely made up by Bill? Or at least the Julien that we read. Bill mentions several times that he is ‘writing’ about the hostage, and then on page 215, when he’s looking at what he’s written, he asks himself “Who is the boy.” I assumed this was the same boy that Julien constantly refers to, the one who is holding him hostage. But how could Bill have known about this? Are the passages we read from Julien’s perspective actually written by Bill? Just curious to see if anyone else drew this connection.

The Cult of the Individual

Funny how my readings for my English classes seem to mirror the texts I’m reading for other classes. In my English Education Methods class, we’re looking at ways to approach teaching lit theory in the classroom. The book we’ve been reading, Critical Encounters in High School English, discusses reader response theory and how it is usually touched on in English classes but never fully realized (and rarely ever made explicit to students). When teaching reader response theory, you are effectively teaching students how to read. Sure, you’re skipping all the phonics stuff, but you’re still introducing student readers to a new way to understand texts. But when reader response is taught ineffectively, it runs the risk of becoming too focused on individual response and not enough on how that particular response is generated through dialogue with the text, or through ideological/sociological influences. This quickly leads to the “no wrong answers” sentiments towards reading that causes many people to shrug off the discipline, and make it difficult for people who haven’t been properly instructed in theory to take reader response seriously. Students are told that when they read a text, they can create their own unique meaning; while it’s important to have students connect the text to their own experiences, they should do so without digressing to “Romeo and Juliet reminds me of that one time my boyfriend broke up with me and it sucked, and that’s why I like this play.” The writer of my textbook calls this mistaken reader response approach “the cult of the individual.”

So where am I going with all of this? I’m still only five chapters into Mao II, and I read the assigned articles with some frustration. Crowds and Power mentioned several times how the crowd is the antithesis to the individual. In the crowd, everyone is equal… individual differences cease to exist. Along with this, being in a crowd means individual accountability–individual creation and destruction–is surrendered. Through my reading on teaching reader response theory, I began to think about ways in which reading is a fundamentally individual act, and stretching that even further, writing can often be thought of as an individual act as well. While the acts of reading and writing necessarily depend on each other to exist, they exist as a conversation between two individuals. Such conversations cannot exist within a crowd or crowd mentality.

Thus, crowds can be thought of as the antithesis–or even the arch enemy–to reading and writing. Perhaps in Mao II, DeLillo is trying to examine the way that modern impulses toward crowd logic (or “groupthink,” to borrow a familiar term) lead us further and further away from a culture that celebrates individual readers and writers. Along with this came a series of other questions: How do crowds perceive texts? Can they perceive texts? And if they can’t, is it because their impulse towards groupthink don’t allow it? If the answer to the last question is yes, it affirms our belief that reading is truly an individual act.

But even further… how can we relate this to our understanding of the way authors exist alongside the “revolutionary” e-books? Internet and electronic publishing have made it easy for anyone to become an author, and in a way, when you spend an hour surfing the web you probably read texts written by anywhere from 10-20 authors (who are writing those tweets? youtube comments? status updates? blog posts?). Has the internet effectively transformed into a “crowd” of authors? Or is this statement contradictory in terms? I might be digressing a little, but  I think these are all important questions that could relate to our understanding of the fundamentals attributes to reading and writing, and the status of reading and writing in a post-print world.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

After class I was telling my boyfriend about some of our class discussions, and he brought up a great example of questionable “authorship” that had totally slipped my mind. Many of you may be familiar with the street artist Banksy (if you’re not–familiarize yourself, NOW!). Banksy recently released a documentary titled “Exit Through the Gift Shop” that presents an interesting take on the timeless question “what is art?” which inevitably turns in “who should be considered an artist?” If you want to be broad and say that anyone who ‘creates’ is an artist, it can become problematic. If you try to make a tighter definition, you begin to exclude creations and creators who seem validated in their craft. It is a tricky territory to navigate.

I won’t go into great detail about the documentary here, because I think it most effectively presented in its form. I strongly urge any of you who are interested in this topic to add it to your Netflix queue though (I think you can instant-stream it). In a nutshell, it tells the story of a self-proclaimed avant-garde artist nicknamed “Mr. Brainwash.” Mr. Brainwash hires freelance designers and sculptors to hang out in a warehouse with him all day, while he gives them orders about what to paint and what to build. Then, he has the nerve to take credit for it in his own art gallery (which turns out to be an ironically huge success). The guy is a little crazy, but it’s important to keep in mind that this is a documentary so it is presumably real…and quite terrifying. I just thought that the “morals” of the story can be applied to what we’ve been studying–to what extent is someone an author if they’re simply assembling someone else’s words and presenting them for the world to see? If you’d consider Jonathan Harris to be an author, shouldn’t you consider Mr. Brainwash an artist?

If anyone has already seen this documentary, please comment and discuss! If you haven’t–get to it! I think all of you will be able to appreciate/enjoy it.

We Feel Fine: The Book?!

I am so unbelievably glad that we’re finally looking at We Feel Fine in this class, because it has been bugging me since Sample introduced it in my ENGL 325 recitation 2 years ago. Like everyone else, my first reaction to the website–text?–story?–was “wow, this is really cool,” but the more I thought about it, the more I kept coming back to that age-old question that professors continually drill into your head: “why does any of this matter?” I’ll admit that my first idea for this blogpost was to analyze Whale Hunt, just because it presents a more traditional narrative (i.e. it has a beginning and an ending, with a definite story in between). Looking at We Feel Fine for an English class made me want it to tell a story, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around that, which led to my frustration.

Lev Manovich’s article The Database quelled many of my confusions. In one particular quote from page 228, Manovich directly addresses the root of my discomforts:

“…if the user simply accesses different elements, one after another, in a usually random order, there is no reason to assume that these elements will form a narrative at all. Indeed, why should an arbitrary sequence of database records, constructed by the user, result in “a series of connected events caused or expanded by actors”?

But hold on a minute. As an English major, I’ve been hard-wired to find narratives in everything. Even Manovich’s insistence that “not all cultural objects are narratives” seemed problematic to me. Doesn’t everything have a story? As a human, processing data and observing your surroundings, aren’t you registering a particular narrative (albeit a subjective one) to make sense of the world? Even if I concede to Manovich’s suggestion that not everything is a narrative, certainly everything fits in to a narrative, to some capacity…right?

I’m both excited and hesitant (in the way that those two often go hand-in-hand) to unlearn the process of “narrative-izing” texts, documents, and databases. Clearly, my frustration upon seeing We Feel Fine in an English colloquium was that I was unable to discern why a student of English literature could be concerned with anti-narratives. However, to the extent that databases do present a way of understanding and experiencing the world, in the same way that novels and films do, they illicit my curiosity and interest.

However, as I explored the We Feel Fine website, reveling in its randomness, I came across another troubling feature that only compounded my confusion: We Feel Fine, the book. After going through so much trouble to accept that We Feel Fine isn’t supposed to be read like a book, I find out that the creators of the database have now cataloged their data into the most traditional narrative medium that exists. While I understand that the book version is an altogether different project than the website database, how is it possibly interesting without the database interface?

In The Database Manovich insists that one of the characteristic features of a database, and the internet at large, is that it can always be edited, added to, rearranged–it is never complete. We Feel Fine fits nicely into this mold, maybe more-so than Whale Hunt which presumably is a completed database with no room for editing, additions or deletions. We Feel Fine, the Book no longer has access to the stream of incoming data (via the internet) necessary to make it an interesting project. I’d be interested in looking at the book to see what data the authors felt was important enough to include–and this also violates Manovich’s assertion in the very first paragraph of the article that database logic treats every piece of data equally (“they are a collection of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other.”) We Feel Fine the Website doesn’t discriminate against incoming data–everything is received, organized, and stored, and can be accessed through any of the site’s multiple viewing interfaces (madness, murmers, montage, or any combination of the three).

Manovich would argue that the way We Feel Fine is organized indicates the way humans perceive cultural artifacts in the age of new media. As we become a more and more web-based society, the ability to archive and organize data based on its most important and relevant characteristics has become probably the primary way we perceive our existence. For example, I’ll go ahead and assume that everyone in our class is active on either Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, or flickr, all of which can be considered databases. As our world–and ourselves–become more and more ‘databased,’ it is critical to understand how this medium functions and also how it can be criticized from an artistic or rhetorical standpoint.

To see the online version of the We Feel Fine book, click here.

The Cut-Up Method of…Everyone?

Like Lauren and Adam, I was fascinated with Brion Gysin’s “Cut-Up Method” and the implications it has for writing and art writ large. In fact, I just read the article and realized I had to post my thoughts right away.

The introduction immediately brought my mind back to that passage on page 128 of If on a winter’s night, when the reader is “subjected to the uninterrupted reading of novels and variants of novels as they are turned out by the computer.” Clearly, there’s something about this image that makes me uncomfortable, similar to the feeling that must have been aroused in the surrealist riot of the 1920s, when Tristan Tzara proposed to write a poem entirely by pulling random words out of a hat. Like Adam, I thought back to the times I’ve looked at the paintings of Jackson Pollock and famous collage art and questioned–not whether or not it was art–but what it implied about art in general.

What’s becoming apparent to me is the importance of the author to the reader. When we read, we read assuming that the work in front of us is of another person’s mind. How much more we assume is variable depending on the work and what we know about the author. For example, if I read a book authored by William Faulkner, my favorite author, I am of course assuming it was penned by his hand. If I found out that The Sound and the Fury was actually written by someone else and was credited to Faulkner by mistake, the entire work would change. This goes on to remind me of the Shakespeare authorship debates–a very real, historical incident of the kind of situations Calvino discusses in his novel. What does it mean if Shakespeare didn’t write these plays? How does it change the way we study them? Are they still important plays, once they become non-Shakespearian?

Further, when we “read” a piece of visual art that is actually a collage of other artists’ works, we can immediately see that it is a collage, and we’ll keep this in mind as we draw further conclusions from the work. When we listen to a remix or mash-up on the radio, we can hear right away that it is the work of a DJ. We give the DJ proper credit, but also can acknowledge that the art he is creating is a re-structuring of previous art. However, in a published poem or piece of literature, it can be less obvious that the language has been “cut-up.” Unless the author specifically states this, as Burroughs does at the end of his piece (“…here are the preceding two paragraphs cut into four sections and rearranged”) we tend to assume when we read books that the words are completely original, extracted only from the author’s mind.

This leads us to some of the issues Calvino deals with in his novel, and the question of authorship that we are trying to address for our class. For example, what does it mean if a text doesn’t have an “author”–if that author is a computer? How would this influence the way that we read the text? What does it mean when a text has the wrong author? I can speak for myself and say that if I found out that my favorite novel was actually the product of an inanimate machine, my understanding of it would dramatically change. When we read a piece of great literature, or a great poem, (as subjective as the idea of ‘great’ can be) we assume that it is a stroke of genius coming from an insightful person. We read hoping to catch a glipse of that ‘genius’ so that we can experience it and somehow make it a part of us. I think that a certain level of credit must be given to artists who “cut up” and rearrange previous works to create their own…after all, there’s always the argument that no artwork is truly ‘original,’ that it is always a call and response to a previously generated work. When anyone writes, they are recycling conventions they internalized from previous readings, no matter how broadly these conventions may be. In this way, maybe we all are cutting up and rearranging other people’s words. But in this broad sense, the idea of “cut-up” writing becomes less interesting.

I feel like I am digressing. I suppose I am just fascinated with this idea of to what extent can artwork be considered ‘original,’ versus artificial, and how this affects the way we read it. There is definitely a certain point where it becomes artificial, but where do we draw that line? Is it arbitrary, based purely on personal preference, or can we all agree that a computer-generated novel isn’t art? But what if you genuinely enjoy reading it? What a crisis. I will note that in my methods class for my English education minor, we’ve been encouraged to have students create “cut-up” poetry, whether by rearranging those magnetic words (you know the ones), composing a collage of words cut out of magazines/books/newspapers, or by having them rearrange actual poems we’ve already read in the class (for example, one assignment was to rearrange MLK’s “I have a dream” speech). Interesting that Burroughs’s technique has already won merit in the unfortunately conservative territory of the English Literature and composition classroom.

As an aside…in a somewhat eerie coincidence, a daily blogfeed that I subscribe to just emailed me the following links on automated writing, and the perceived threat of the ebook to writers and publishers. As more and more of what we read is published–and written–digitally, these questions seem to become more and more relevant.

And for the record, I was very, very tempted to write my blog post entirely as a “cut up” of all the other blog posts that have been posted, just to make a point…but I didn’t think Prof. Sample would have been very amused.

Books have become “increasingly pointless.”

Hey everyone, spend some time this weekend looking over this article just released by the Economist. The author addresses the popularity of e-books, and ways the publishing industry should change in order address the way books are transforming with new technology. Somewhere they mention that publishing houses are still important, but personally I don’t think they make a strong case. However, it’s interesting to consider the implications that Amazon has taken over the digital book publishing industry much in the same way Apple took over music downloading and Netflix seems to have a lockdown on streaming movies.

What does it mean for there to be this sort of monopoly on e-book distribution? It reminds me of the scene in If on a winter’s night a traveler when Calvino (or Marana? or you?) describes the “great fabricator of assembly-line novels” (130) and “novels and variants of novels as they are turned out by the computer” (128). Kind of eerie how Calvino was able to predict such a drastic change in the book industry as we are seeing now. Personally I think e-books are pretty genius, but as we’ve discussed, some books don’t translate well into this form…what is their fate? And most importantly, what is the fate of the Reader?

Greetings, Other Readers!

I’ve just finished the chapter Without fear of wind or vertigo, and Italo Calvino’s storytelling has introduced a series of questions and critiques of the reading process that are vital to our understanding of authorship and readership. Coincidentally, these themes continue what we addressed in my last English Honors course, Reading, Rhetoric, and Embodiment with Professor Eve Wiederhold. In Dr. Wiederhold’s course we learned the methodologies of reader-response criticism and feminist theory, which Calvino appears to be drawing on when he forces us to examine the nature of reading, the choices of the Reader, the presence of the Author, and the interactions with Other Readers that inevitably shape the way we see a text. At this point, Calvino is just beginning to introduce gender issues into the story of You and Ludmilla, and I am excited to see how Calvino develops and expands on this compelling form of literary criticism. Calvino keeps bringing up the problem of translation and how it effectively rewrites a text based on one reader’s interpretation; this is an issue we addressed in Wiederhold’s course and something that Canadian author Margaret Atwood has concerned herself with for some time. While searching for a piece Atwood wrote on the subject, I instead found this article where she discusses what happens when reader subjectivity meets ebooks. Could be relevant to this course later on, or at least worth looking over.

Here are some questions Calvino’s text presented to me:

To what extent is Italo Calvino the author of all of these stories? While there are a series of ‘fictional’ authors (at least to my understanding, they are fictional), it seems to me that Calvino is the real author here and there is no mistaking that. Narratively, Calvino is able to introduce us to several different stories each with different authors; however, in my mind, I am unable to forget that Calvino is the real master of the craft, and at least for me, that somewhat muddles his project. As far as making us think about issues of authorship, Calvino is successful, but to me it would be even more provoking if there were several different stories in here that actually were authored by different people, and Calvino simply assembled them into his novel (this same issue is brought up in House of Leaves). Who, then, would be this story’s real ‘author’? How can stories have multiple authors, and to what extent should we acknowledge multiple authors and their different contributions to a text?

Another question…what is the ‘story’ here? Is it necessary to define the words ‘story’ and ‘narrative’? Calvino himself offers several different potential definitions. For example, on page  72:

“…there is a thing that is there, a thing that cannot be changed, and through this thing we measure ourselves against something else that is not present, something else that belongs to the immaterial, invisible world, because it can only be thought, imagined, or because it was once and is no longer, past, lost, unattainable, in the lead of the dead…”

To me it seems that the story is about you and Ludmilla, and your reading experiences. While the interposed short stories are all interesting, I’m waiting to see if any plot-level connections are formed between them. I’ve enjoyed reading them (mainly because of Calvino’s brilliant handle on language and metaphor), but to me it seems that if they were removed from the book I might get the same understanding of ‘you’ and Ludmilla’s struggle with the complexities of readership and authorship.

Perhaps these questions will be answered as I read on, or read the articles assigned with this week’s reading. If not, hopefully we’ll examine them in class.