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…

 

Googling the Random Short Fictions

I’ve written only 3 posts here since April, so it’s not surprising that there haven’t been many visitors to Ficticities. Still, I do get a hit here and there,  now and then. Today for instance someone came to look at this post — one of a series of fourteen posts from almost exactly a year ago, in which I interacted textually with short stories I selected at random from online literary magazines.

These occasional Ficticities visitors got me to wondering about hit rates. If I were to google the author and the title of each of the 14 stories on which I wrote a post last year, how high in the stack of google results would my posts appear? And how does each of my posts about these stories stack up popularity-wise compared with the original story itself, or the author’s website referencing their story, or the litmag’s tweet announcing publication of the story, or others’ reviews or comments on the story?

Well, let’s find out, shall we? I’ll google the stories in chronological order, using this search format: author’s name “title of story”:

“Cockatoo Tears” by Daniella Levy — the Ficticities post is the first result listed; the story itself comes in fifth.

“Pity and Shame” by Ursula LeGuin — Ficticities post comes in third, following the story and an interview with the author.

“Breadcrumb 398” by Olivia Hardwig — Ficticities post first, story second.

“Nobody Knows How To Say Goodbye” by Richard Spilman — Ficticities post first, story second.

“Christmas Lights” by Demian Entrekin — story first, Ficticities post third.

“A Legend is Born” by Calvin Celebuski — Ficticities post first, story third.

“The Singing Tree” by Shawn Goldberg — Ficticities post first, story fifth.

“Rattle and Spin” by Jeannette Sheppard — story first, Ficticities post second.

“The Wallaby & the Python” by Alexis Kale — Ficticities post first, story second.

“A Deceptively Simple Word Problem” by Samuel Rafael Barber — story first, Ficticities post third.

“Pop” by Carlo Gallegos — Ficticities post first, story not at all.

“Death for Serafina” by Rayji de Guia — story first, Ficticities post second.

“Big G Little G” by Kelsie Donaldson — Ficticities post first, story third.

“Entry 038::After Ash Wednesday>>Moon Quincunx Pluto” by Sade Lanay — story first, Ficticities post second.

So, for this random sample of 14 cases, the Ficticities post is the top google result for 8 stories, while the story itself gets top position for the other 6. That might be exciting for me, if I didn’t know how few hits these posts have received during their year of online existence. Still, on average these 14 story-based intertextual pieces fared better than other Ficticities posts I wrote that were original content, untethered from other published texts — which I find a bit disheartening.

I might find it even more disheartening if I were the author of one of these short stories. Why, I’d ask, should some random guy’s blog post about my story generate more Internet traffic than my actual story? To be fair, the stories might well have been read by a lot of people like me who happened upon the story while looking through the latest issue of the litmag in which the story was published. But still…

So:

  1. People are more likely to search for my posts about other writers’ stories than for the stories themselves.
  2. People are more likely to search for my posts about other writers’ stories than for my independently inspired posts.

Gossip? Do people want to hear what other people are saying about other people, rather than finding out what they have to say on their own behalf?

My takeaway, in the context of this website’s larger agenda, is this: If you’re a literary magazine, try to get other people to write something — anything — about the stories you publish, in order to draw greater attention to the authors and their work. If your magazine happens to be the work of a writers’ syndicate, then get one or more of the other authors whose work has previously been published in the litmag to write something about each of the newly published stories.

The Art Market

A 1986 sculpture by Jeff Koons just sold for $91.1 million. Why is art so expensive? “The short answer,” Gaby Del Valle writes, “is that most art isn’t.”

The high-end art market is “driven by a small group of wealthy collectors who pay astronomical prices for works made by an even smaller group of artists, who are in turn represented by a small number of high-profile galleries.” A few newcomers break through, but first they’ve got to find a gallery to represent their work. Gallerists shop for promising new talent at MFA programs.

As Roberto Ferdman observes, “only one out of every 10 art school graduates goes on to earn his or her living as an artist. So spending, say, $120,000 on an art education is often more of an extended luxury than an investment in an adolescent’s future.” Galleries sell mostly to the ultra-rich, for whom spending a few million on a painting signals their good taste in luxury goods while also providing them with a potentially lucrative investment if the market goes up for the artist whose work they’ve acquired.

 

 

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?

 

On the Go-Forward

The next step would be to launch an open-access publishing house specializing in long fictions.

It’s already being done for short fictions. No technical or logistical obstacles hinder extending the open-access model to novels and novellas, single-author and single-themed compilations, and other more experimental formats. The economic obstacles are minimal: most short story writers don’t get paid and published novelists get paid next to nothing, yet there’s no shortage of newly submitted texts. The obstacles are psychological and sociological…

If in the course of hosting this website, after 16 months and 144 posts, I’d been able to find any fiction writers who wanted to collaborate in exploring alternative models for publishing novels, I’d be eager to get started. That hasn’t happened. Alternatively, if I’d ever been a publisher or editor, or if I was now or ever had been enrolled in an MFA or undergraduate creative writing program, or if I’d ever taught in such a program, or if I belonged to a formal or informal writers’ group, of if I wrote short fictions and participated actively in the litmag scene, or if I’d had a novel published by a traditional publisher, or if I’d attracted significant numbers of readers to my self-published long fictions…

I imagine fiction writers getting together with their writer friends over drinks or over cell phones, talking about starting a co-op publishing house together. I imagine open-access litmag publishers wondering about branching out into novels. I imagine that some open-access novel publishers are already up and running and that I’ve just not heard about them yet…

Which future is going to show up? Maybe the system is working fine: novels still get published and read, authors still get paid, publishers and bookstores still make money. Supply and demand might seem out of whack, but the invisible hand of capitalism is always-already on the job, continually maintaining a dynamic equilibrium. Or maybe the system is broken beyond repair and it’s just a matter of time before enough fiction writers stop kidding themselves and wise up, organizing themselves into a different system. Maybe — probably — something else will happen…

Ficticities has been a work of fiction. Forecasting has always been part of the project: tracing multiple interacting trajectories from the past through the present into alternative possible futures. More importantly, Ficticities was to have been an alternate present reality in its own right — a collaborative laboratory, an experimental zone, a heterochronic heterotopia, a ficticity. When, in characterizing the agenda of this imagined laboratory, I invoked the term “postcapitalism,” I wasn’t so much pointing down the road toward what comes next, what succeeds capitalism. After all, anticipating the next thing and accelerating into it is the engine that drives capitalism. The word “novel” is a paradigmatically appropriate term for a capitalistic work of fiction, the production apparatus continually extruding the next new thing and displaying it on the shelf for a couple of weeks, then clearing it out to make room for the next next new thing. I anticipated that Ficticities might open up an alternative fictional reality inside the already-existing reality that surrounds it, an expanding bubble universe…

#####

For the past year and a half I’ve been occupying this bubble universe. The bubble has continued to shrink, down and down, until by now it feels like I’m the only one inside it. I find myself shrinking right along with the bubble…

Here’s what I think I’ll do now.

I’m not going to launch an open-access publishing house focusing on long fictions.

I’m going to abandon my efforts to build a collaborative laboratory.

I’m going to step back from this website. It’s easy not to write any more content; it’s harder to stop thinking about the ideas. I want to to both, before I disappear along with the ever-shrinking bubble that enshrouds me.

What’s going to fill the void? I’ll probably get back to writing fictions. Not like this kind of fiction, the fiction of this website, the designing of an imagined reality that could serve as a catalyst for constructing an actual material reality —  kind of like how a blueprint catalyzes a building. Trying to engineer a way out of capitalism into some preferable alternative entails a lot of problem solving, working through and around constraints via systematic logic and Bayesian probability trees, generating requirement specs and design parameters, collecting data and analyzing it, simulating and modeling, tinkering and iterating and overhauling. I used to do this sort of thing for a living before I got tired of it and started writing novels. I remember hitting the problem-solving phase in the middle of my first novel — it felt too much like work. A year or two later when I picked up that novel again I found myself writing with a freer hand. I’ve already written several interconnected long fictions, but nothing lately. I want to get back to it, to freehand imaginings, see if they’re still there. Let the catalysis operate in the reverse direction, the architecture of the actual world serving as blueprint for imaginary worlds.

What about blogging? For years I’d run a blog before launching Ficticities, where I wrote a lot of posts and engaged in a lot of online discussions. Blogging affords its satisfactions and frustrations. Ficticities wasn’t meant to be a blog. Originally I set it up as a staging ground for collaborative projects, but when those didn’t take shape the site morphed into a blog. Surely the most different sort of posts I’ve written here on Ficticities were my engagements with online published short stories. Those posts were moderately successful in generating visits from the stories’ authors and from their social media friends, though those interpersonal connections petered out after a few days without extending conversationally into the website’s collaborative experimental agenda. Not reviews, nor even commentary, the posts unfolded more as a strange sort of fan fiction. Even though I was maneuvering within the thematic and stylistic terrain laid out in the short fiction I’d just read, it felt freeing, even adventurous, to write my way into some alternative pathway that I’d find opening up through my active interaction with the text, moving around freely inside the fictional worlds revealed by these stories. Even if the authors of those short stories didn’t quite get what I was up to, I experienced a sense of intersubjectivity — or, better, a subjective sense of intertextuality.

I’ll continue reading fictions, novels mostly. In trying to track down writers on this website I found a renewed appreciation for the short form and for writers who excel at it. The open-access litmags open up the possibility of authorial experimentation unconstrained by commercial interests — constraints that too often render published novels more polished but also more predictable and less interesting. So I’ll leave open the possibility of reading more online open-access stories and writing something about them: probably not fanfics this time, not reviews either, but brief commentaries on aspects of the texts that resonate with my interests. Instead of posting my written responses on this website in hopes of luring the authors into my project, I’d send my observations directly to the authors if I can figure out how to reach them.  Somehow though I’ve got a feeling that this possible personal interactive future might not take shape — it’s too tied up in the Ficticities microcosm I’m trying to escape.

I could try to write up a brief rationale for the open-access novel publishing idea. I’d not try to persuade writers or recruit them into a joint venture or even engage them in discussion. I could imagine sending it out in an email to the writers whose short fictions I read online. I’d just present the idea for consideration. Maybe it’ll trigger something in their neural or social networks, if not now then later. Maybe some of them will be better positioned than I am actually to do something with the idea. This project too is probably a bad idea; hopefully it’ll fade over the next few weeks.

Another aspect of Ficticities that I’ve liked is investigating fiction not just as a vehicle for storytelling but as a way of imagining, both individually and collectively, aspects of reality that don’t exist in the here and now — the future and the past, the possible and the impossible, hopes and fears, nostalgia and regret, purpose and meaning. I could imagine extending this interest into a project, writing up my findings and musings here on Ficticities. I also see these more abstract musings about fiction finding their way into the worldbuilding and narrative aspects of my own long fictions. But here and now as I’m writing this I’m experiencing déjà vu, so maybe I’ve already been here before. We’ll see what develops.

So, on the go-forward, here’s where you’re liable to find me online:

  • For possible further meta-explorations of fiction, look here at Ficticities. As I mentioned in my last post, the URL will soon change to ficticities.wordpress.com, though now it seems that the transition will happen a month from now.
  • For my novels and other loose-handed fictional texts — the novels and novellas already in the can, the ones that need final editing and formatting, the fictions that haven’t yet been written — go to salonpostisme.com. All e-books, all free, all open access.
  • If you want to get in touch, you can send me an email at portalic@gmail.com.

À bientôt,
John Doyle