Living the Part

You may play well or you may play badly; the important thing is that you should play truly,’ wrote Shchepkin to his pupil Shumski. To play truly means to be right, logical, coherent, to think, strive, feel and act in unison with your role.

If you take all these internal processes, and adapt them to the spiritual and physical life of the person you are representing, we call that living the part. This is of supreme significance in creative work. Aside from the fact that it opens up avenues for inspiration, living the part helps the artist to carry out one of his main objectives. His job is not to present merely the external life of his character. He must fit his own human qualities to the life of this other person, and pour into it all of his own soul. The fundamental aim of our art is the creation of this inner life of a human spirit, and its expression in an artistic form.

That is why we begin by thinking about the inner side of a role, and how to create its spiritual life through the help of the internal process of living the part. You must live it by actually experiencing feelings that are analogous to it, each and very time you repeat the process of creating it.

— Constantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, 1936


Degrees of Ficticity

A vendor scatters the placid wasps as he scoops candied peanuts from a black kettle, pours them into a paper cone, and hands them to the walking man in exchange for a few coins. A monkey, perched on the shoulder of a veiled woman, chatters insistently as it points toward the walking man, who now holds the cone of peanuts in his hand. The woman approaches him, her attitude of supplication accentuated by the kohl-darkened eyes. Suddenly the monkey screeches and twists its head to the right. Agitatedly it jumps up and down on the woman’s shoulder as it points away from the walking man. The woman stops a meter in front of him, then abruptly she changes direction. Popping a few of the nuts into his mouth, the walking man resumes his linear trajectory through the plaza.

This text is realistic enough, describing a sequence of interactions linked together into a dynamic scene that could conceivably happen someplace in the real world. The narrator simply recounts what he sees and hears, without interpretation. It’s an episode in a novel I wrote about ten years ago. Yesterday I read a new online essay that brought my fictional marketplace scene back to mind. In that essay David Leavens, a comparative psychologist, describes an interaction he had 25 years ago with Clint, a captive chimpanzee:

One day, I came back to Clint’s cage and saw him point with his index finger at a grape that had fallen on the floor, due to a technical problem with the automated reward-delivery system. The grape was out of his reach, and he pointed to it, making loud raspberry sounds (like a Bronx cheer), looking back-and-forth between me and the fruit. Now, you don’t need a PhD in experimental psychology to be able to interpret this signalling behaviour, right?

Leavens and a colleague devised a series of experiments to demonstrate convincingly that Clint’s pointing was in fact an intentional communicative gesture signaling his desire for the human to give him the fruit. As they were writing up their findings — this was back in 1994 — Leavens discovered that they’d been scooped in a newly published journal article by Call and Tomasello entitled “Production and Comprehension of Referential Pointing by Orangutans.” I’d been reading Tomasello’s 2003 book Constructing a Language around the time I wrote the marketplace scene in my novel, so it’s not too surprising that a pointing monkey would come riding through the imaginary scene perched on a woman’s shoulder.

But that seemingly direct transport from a psycholinguistics text into a novel loses sight of a series of transformations the pointing primate passed through in its voyage from nonfiction to fiction.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the English word “fiction” first appeared in the 15th century as ficcioun, “that which is invented or imagined in the mind,” derived from 13th century Old French ficcion, “dissimulation, ruse; invention, fabrication,” from the Latin fictionem, “a fashioning or feigning,” originally “to knead, form out of clay.”

The world humans occupy isn’t solely a matter of matter; it’s also constructed, invented, crafted in complicity with the imagination, populated by mowed and weeded lawns, automobiles and traffic lights, financiers and schoolteachers, TV programs and fast-food restaurants. In short, we’re thrown into a world where nature is fashioned by fiction.

The humans who occupy this partly fabricated world, this “ficticity” — aren’t we too partly fictional, partly products of others’ imaginations, and of our own imaginations as well? What about the pointing nonhuman primates — aren’t they too becoming partly fictional even before they show up in my story? Revisiting the transformation of Tomasello’s pointing real primates into my imaginary ones, how many degrees of separation can be traced from the natural world into the fabricated world, from facticity into ficticity?

* * *

Ficticity Degree 0.  Primates living in the wild, rarely if ever pointing as an intentional communicative gesture.

Degree 1.  One species of primate — Homo sapiens or an earlier ancestor — invents what Tomasello calls a “joint attentional frame,” in which one individual intentionally calls a second individual’s attention to an object of interest by pointing at it, while the second individual follows the trajectory of the pointing finger from the pointer’s perspective toward the object of interest. The joint attentional frame occupies physical space, but the framing context is an imaginary one, a function of intention and goal-directedness and gesture and perspective-taking — capabilities that require both participants to engage the material world in immaterial ways. Intentional finger-pointing is a key evolutionary predecessor to the acquisition of language.

Degree 2.  Members of another species of primate — chimpanzees in Leavens’s work, orangutans in Tomasello’s — are introduced to the artificial environment of a psychology research laboratory. Through exposure to humans these domesticated primates learn the pointing technique, occupying joint attentional frames with the scientists studying them.

Degree 3.  Human researchers, having observed the primates’ pointing, devise experiments to test whether the pointing gesture is an act of communicative intent. The experimental setup, apparatus, and protocol establish an artificial environment, a kind of theater in which the primates are immersed, interacting with the actors and props, watched by the researchers sitting in the audience.

Degree 4.  The researchers collect and compile primate pointing data, run inferential statistics on the data, test hypotheses via statistical inference, construct an empirical mathematical model abstracted from the flow of actual entities performing actual behaviors.

Degree 5.  The researchers document their findings, the write-up is published as an article in a journal, the article is summarized in a book — abstract intentional pointing through the medium of symbolic language.

Degree 6.  Joint attentional frames are established, virtually and abstractly, between writers and readers who never occupy the same physical space and time together, focusing mentally on beings and objects and places that the readers have never actually seen with their own eyes. I’m one of those readers.

Degree 7.  Reading a text documenting primates’ intentional communicative pointing during the daytime, I go to sleep and conjure a pointing monkey in a dream.

Degree 8.  I assign the contents of my dream to a fictional character, who describes it to another fictional character in a scene I’m writing:

“It’s midafternoon. I’m riding a city bus – not this city; someplace almost familiar. I’m scheduled to meet with a man who went to college with my husband – Leth and I are still married in the dream. Somehow I fail to get off at the right stop. I hop on another bus, but quickly I realize that it’s taking me even farther from the rendezvous point. I call my husband and tell him to let his friend know that I won’t be making the meeting. Already I am way off course, and my poor sense of direction means that I probably won’t be able to find my way at all now. Eventually I get home. As I recount my navigational failures to my husband and son I start getting weepy. I try to explain. I tell them that it’s like I have a sad little monkey perched on my shoulder pointing the way to go, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Immediately I start feeling better, happier. I smile. Then I wake up.”

Degree 9.  The other fictional character interprets the dream, transforming it into a source of meaning that’s not intrinsic to the dream content itself:

“I like that dream,” Stephen told Mrs. Dervain as he reached for another mint. “I wish I had more dreams like that. So, you feel that you don’t know the way toward the rendezvous point – toward your destiny, your becoming-Nephilim. You give up, go home. But…in describing your lack of direction you realize something, and it makes you happy. Maybe…you don’t find your destiny by steering toward predetermined coordinates. You need to follow the sad little navigation monkey who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Walk by instinct and chance, not schedule and plan.” Stephen sank back in his chair feeling a bit more pleased with himself.

Degree 10.  The dreamstate monkey is transformed into a metaphor within the fictional dream itself:

“Yes, that would be fine,” Mrs. Dervain began. “Live in the moment, follow your passion, and so on. It would be fine if in the dream I actually had a navigation monkey perched on my shoulder pointing the way. I didn’t. It was just another little speech I was making. It was not a monkey; it was like a monkey. I fabricated a precious little comparison in my dream. Things that happen in dreams: often we interpret them metaphorically, or at least we try to. I’m interpreting my dream experiences in metaphorical terms while I’m still dreaming. It’s as if I’m still awake, watching myself dream.”

Degree 11.  The fictional dreamer’s fictional interlocutor interprets the meaning of the metaphorical dream monkey:

Stephen shrugged. “Who says what a dream is supposed to be like? This dream of yours: maybe it’s unfolding out on the very frontier you’re looking for. A dream where you interpret your own dream experiences. Not a waking dream, but dreaming wakefulness. Not a lucid dream, where you control what happens in your dream. Dreaming lucidity. And what does it mean when your dream self starts speaking metaphors? What if your dream self starts to interpret your waking life metaphorically?”

Degree 12.  In the next chapter of the fictional text I write a passage disconnected in place and time from the main narrative — a kind of mythic, fugue-like voyage in which a monkey points at a character identified only as “the walking man.” It’s not clear whether this voyage is “really” happening or if the narrative has entered into an alternate dream reality:

A vendor scatters the placid wasps as he scoops candied peanuts from a black kettle, pours them into a paper cone, and hands them to the walking man in exchange for a few coins. A monkey, perched on the shoulder of a veiled woman, chatters insistently as it points toward the walking man, who now holds the cone of peanuts in his hand. The woman approaches him, her attitude of supplication accentuated by the kohl-darkened eyes. Suddenly the monkey screeches and twists its head to the right. Agitatedly it jumps up and down on the woman’s shoulder as it points away from the walking man. The woman stops a meter in front of him, then abruptly she changes direction. Popping a few of the nuts into his mouth, the walking man resumes his linear trajectory through the plaza.

I suppose that, by embedding the pointing monkey into this structured sequence of departures from the actually existing world of primates in the wild, I’ve entered into a Degree 13 Ficticity. Degree 14 began to take shape when you started reading this post…


I Think I Remember That Guy

My fiftieth high school reunion is coming up(!), which as you can probably imagine has stirred up some ambivalence. The website dedicated to the event includes a section where members of the class of ’69 can post a personal profile. I just put mine up:

I’ve explored alternate selves and alternate realities. With a few notable exceptions, things haven’t turned out the way I expected.


I Re-Upped the Domain Name

On the last day before expiry I walked it back from the brink by anteing up $18 to WordPress. I’m  not sure why — mostly it’s ambivalence about what to do next.

But also I’m outraged by the domain name reselling industry. If I let lapse, some reseller might have scooped it up for a buck or two, then offered to sell it back to me for a couple hundred. Most likely resellers rely mostly on sellers’ remorse — people like me who let their domain names lapse and who later, wishing they hadn’t, pay the ransom.

So I’ve gone ahead and re-rented the name, along with WordPress’s hosting service, for another year.

Book E-Fetish

Over in the right column of this website you’ll find a link to a pamphlet I wrote called “Book Fetish.” Today I found out that “Book Fetish” is also the name of a website that sells book-related accessories. As Hannah McGregor explains it:

Book Fetish is a testimony to the nigh-complete expansion of bookishness into a consumer category. It is, to be clear, not about books, but about book-proximate accessories likely to appeal to people (particularly women) who identify as bookish. A scan of a few recent columns gives a sense of the range of things: pencils, notepads, and bookmarks, sure, but also cross stitch patterns, enamel pins, tea pots, dish towels, t-shirts, mugs, jewelry, planters, art, and more and more and more.

Books as decorative objects, as status symbols? God forfend! A book isn’t a mere object; it’s an experience. Hmm…

[L]et’s think about what it means to call a book an “experience.” The status of the book as object is at once denied and overburdened: the physical codex is both a stand-in for the act of reading and a trophy to demonstrate that you have the correct emotional and intellectual relationship to that act. Mere book-owners may see books as things that can be repurposed as decor or given away when they’re no longer needed, but readers know that books contain other worlds — and their book collections become status symbols, signs of their heightened sensitivity.

The bookish don’t object to categorizing books as objects; they object to banalizing the book-object. A book is a sacred object, an iconic portal. McGregor briefly traces the history of bookishness, from 18th century gentlemanly bibliophilia, through the Book-of-the-Month Club commercialization of middlebrow middle-class housewifely self-improvement and emotionality, to the contemporary book scene:

All of these forces — class-consciousness, hyper-mediation, the link between reverence and commerce, the feminization of book consumption, and especially the figure of the general, or recreational, reader — come together in the figure of the 21st-century “bookish” individual.

Has the e-book curbed the impulse toward valorizing the book as a status symbol and a fetish object? McGregor doesn’t think so:

The movement of book culture online — from buying books on Amazon to reading them on a Kindle and reviewing them on Goodreads — has far from curbed the commodification of the book world: instead, it has heightened to a degree those 18th-century bibliophiles could never have imagined. The incorporation of Goodreads into the Amazon megalith further exacerbates this situation, the special status of books somehow serving as a smokescreen for whatever Amazon is really up to (fun fact: googling “what is Amazon REALLY up to” yields 1.4 billion hits!). At the same time, this leakage of book fetishism beyond books themselves into the lifestyle accessories associated with bookishness has been a major factor behind both the survival of Canada’s bookstore chain Indigo — which recently expanded into the U.S. while rebranding as “the world’s first cultural department store” — and the resurgence of independent bookstores. Is it overkill to imagine the niche indie bookstore, with its combination of carefully curated books, quality scented candles, and ironic enamel pins, as a modern-day version of the homemade manuscript anthology — a curated space in which bibliophilia might flourish beyond the limits of books themselves?


Apocalypse Porn

Thinking about the end of Wednesday’s post this morning before rolling out of bed, I realized that joining up with a collective of applied Ballardian fiction writers is just about the last thing I’d want to do.

I get it that Ballard exerts strong appeal in certain circles, and I do find myself intermittently drawn into their orbits. Ballard explicitly theorizes his own novels from inside the text — a kind of “theory fiction” that lends itself to traditional scholarly writing. And Ballard’s diagnosis of late-capitalist culture resonates with a lot of people. Here’s a passage from Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise:

These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.

Alternatively, their real needs might emerge later. The more arid and affectless life became in the high-rise, the greater the possibilities it offered. By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behavior, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting of their lives would take place. Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model for all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly “free” psychopathology.

That’s Ballardianism in a nutshell, or spilling out of the cracked shell. I’m skeptical that late-capitalist anomie and ennui, fermenting in the decay of traditional societal connections and expanding in the vacuum left by the collapse of traditional social constraints, is distilling itself into all hell breaking loose, the comfortably coddled bourgeoisie’s unrecognized and repressed desires frothing forth in a hedonic eroticized death drive pitting all against all and each against each. It hasn’t happened in the 44 years since High-Rise was published: the privileged bourgeoisie remain complacently conformist while those consigned to the lower storeys of the socio-economic high-rise are becoming more desperate, marginalized, precarious, more attracted to unshackling their aggression not as a Ballardian tonic for alleviating boredom but as an act of desperation.

Maybe the Ballardian reality is delayed but still coming. Maybe what seem like the side effects of late capitalism, the recoil from schadenfreudean hubris, the collateral damage and the unintended consequences, are really the main effects, the objectives. Maybe the distributed unconscious of the stock market really wants to crash. Maybe the multitude of immaterial labor — the creatives and bureaucrats and technocrats — really want to be made redundant by inhuman labor, tantalized by the nightmare of finding themselves suspended precariously above the abyss. Maybe the bored psychopathic elite really do mean to undermine their own security, to render the planet unlivable, to crank the creative destruction up to 11, to pick up the red phone and push the red button, to turn the controls over to an all-knowing psychopathic AI. Maybe Trump desires impeachment and imprisonment. Maybe the Democrats want to provoke the Trump followers to armed insurrection so they can call in the military to quell the insurgency, declaring martial law and suspending democratic process indefinitely. Maybe all of the Ballardian drivers are accelerating into the crash, thirsting for their own annihilation.

In contemporary theory, Ballardian notes can readily be discerned in Accelerationism, its Deleuzian lines of flight propelled by technology, capital, and intelligence, thrusting a disembodied affectless desire beyond the humanistic gravitational field into a posthuman exploratorium that to the normies left behind can look a lot like “the expression of a truly free psychopathy.” And Ballardianism permeates the world of fiction, from cyberpunk to the new weird to new horror into mainstream commercial entertainment. The medieval decadent ruling class in Game of Thrones and the well-heeled clientele of the futuristic Westworld theme park occupy recognizably Ballardian dystopian imaginaries. Are these cautionary tales or apocalypse porn?

Trump parades himself before his acolytes as a Ballardian president, flaunting his ill-gotten wealth and his “dark triad” personality traits of narcissism, machiavellianism, and psychopathy, aggressively provoking confrontation seemingly just for the hell of it. It’s a performance enjoyed by the master showman, his routine choreographed and scripted and staged as an opioid-glazed spectacle for entertaining the inert masses. Fake news mingles with real news; all of it gets weaponized. High-Rise again:

A group of residents, all from the 14th and 15th floors, leapt out and hurled themselves into the mêlée. They were led by Richard Wilder, cine-camera gripped like a battle standard in one hand. Royal assumed that Wilder was filming an episode of the documentary he had been talking about for so long, and had set up the entire scene. But wilder was in the thick of the fray, aggressively wielding the cine-camera as he urged on his new allies against his former neighbors.

Nowadays Wilder might be renamed Fox. But he’s not the only one…

‘They’re all making their own films down there,’ Anne told him, clearly fascinated by her heady experience of the lower orders at work and play. ‘Every time someone gets beaten up about ten cameras start shooting away.’

‘They’re showing them in the projection theatre,’ Jane confirmed. ‘Crammed in there together seeing each other’s rushes.’

‘Except for Wilder. He’s waiting for something really gruesome.’

Like I said, I’m not sure I’d want to hitch my anarcho-collectivist wagon to an alliance of applied Ballardian writers… unless, secretly and unbeknownst even to myself, it’s what I crave.