Attic Revisited

“How many times are we offered the opportunity to rewrite the past and therefore the future, to reconfigure our present personas — a widow rather than a divorcée, faithful rather than faithless? The past is subject to all kinds of revision, it is hardly a stable field, and every alteration in the past dictates an alteration in the future. Even a change in our conception of the past can result in a different future, different to the one we planned.”

– Katie Kitamura, A Separation, 2017

 

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Attic

We’ve been cleaning the attic. Mostly it’s a matter of winnowing, clearing out some of the older and more useless junk in order to make room for the new junk we’re presently accumulating. Of course there are the physical mementos, the old baseball gloves and so on, but mostly it’s paper: receipts, documents, forms, reports, notes, letters. I’m pretty efficient; nostalgia doesn’t typically waylay me. For me a stroll down Memory Lane feels more like digging up a graveyard.

I have however found myself decontextualizing the junk.

I know what these old things used to mean, their purpose and value, their provenance and history, their rise and fall. But what if all this junk had been somebody else’s junk, stacked up in somebody else’s attic? Unplugging it from the context it once occupied for me, alienating it, rendering it opaque, stripping it of meaning — I’d likely be even less hesitant about getting rid of it: if it’s not valuable to me in the here and now then it’s worthless. But if I took the time to scrutinize these things one by one, sorting and categorizing them and piecing them together, would I be able to infer some sort of backstory for them, some context, however alien to me, into which they once fit together? Let’s call that sort of meaning-making the Rosebud Protocol.

Or, invert figure and ground: keep the context but drain it of its contents. Each empty cardboard box, each hanging file, each manila folder has a label already affixed to it: family history, class notes, expert-novice differences, AI system specs, questionnaires design/scoring, national demonstration project, startup business plan, taxes, insurance, home buy/sell, homelessness, ex-/repatriation. What sorts of junk, in what alternate realities, might fill up these empty sets, these blank slates, these formless voids?

 

Proust’s Eulogy for a Fictional Novelist

He was dead. Permanently dead? Who shall say? Certainly our experiments in spiritualism prove no more than the dogmas of religion that the soul survives death. All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying the burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be fastidious, to be polite even, nor make the talented artist consider himself to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his body devoured by worms, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much knowledge and skill by an artist who must for ever remain unknown and is barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations which have not their sanction in our present life seem to belong to a different world, founded upon kindness, scrupulosity, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this, which we leave in order to be born into this world, before perhaps returning to the other to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we have obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, knowing not whose hand had traced them there — those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only — and still! — to fools.

– M. Proust, In Search of Lost Time: The Captive

 

Site Stats for 2018

In 2018 Ficticities has had just over a thousand page views, or about 3 per day. I’ve published 94 new posts on Ficticities this year — about one every 4 days.

So far this year my old blog Ktismatics has had more than ten thousand page views, or about 31 per day. I haven’t put up a new post on Ktismatics since March 2014 — nearly 5 years ago.

Reruns

As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.
– Proverbs 26:11

Thinking about Cam, the recently released movie by screenwriter Isa Mazzei and director Daniel Goldhaber (streaming on Netflix), I’m struck by how long I’ve been trying to do the same things.

  • I keep wanting the world to be other than what it is.
  • I keep imagining other ways it could be.
  • I keep trying to figure out how to move the world, or some small corner of it, from what it is toward what I imagine.
  • I keep realizing that I can’t do it, or that it can’t be done.
  • I keep making phase shifts, from imagining changes in the world-that-is to imaginary alternative worlds-that-aren’t.

There have been times in my life when I’ve allied with others who also want to change the world incrementally from what it is to what it could become. Mostly those efforts proved disappointing, to me at least, and arguably also to the world, though lots of people have made their careers that way.

A prototypical conversation between my father and mother:

Father: I did my best.
Mother: Your best stinks.
Father: Expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed.

A prototypical conversation between me and myself:

Me: No reason it can’t be.
Myself: No way it ever will be.

If you’re chronically dissatisfied with the world as it is, don’t you at least once in a while have to acknowledge that the problem might be yourself as you are? It’s more adaptive to take what the world gives you by making the world a little bit more like itself.

###

Take Cam. Alice the cam girl is taking what the world gives her by giving the world what it wants. She’s good at it, but she’s insatiable: she wants more. The world is insatiable too: it doesn’t just want what she can give; it wants all of her. She resists. With no allies and no resources other than her own ingenuity and pluck, she reasserts herself as an autonomous agent in the world. The movie is smart, arty, engaging, exciting. It might be the sort of movie you make if on some level you’re satisfied with the movie world as it is, if you can take what that world will give you, if you’re prepared to make that world a little bit more like itself. Maybe you can resist, can retain your autonomous agency while immersed in an insatiable world, can climb the charts to a position where you’re able to call the shots. Maybe, if you’re prepared to do what it takes, you deserve what you get. You have to work at it, but you also have to want it. Not only do you have to accept the world as it is; you have to love it.

I can’t do it. I lack the drive, the energy, the desire. I lack the love.

When I started writing fiction it was mostly because I loved the world of fiction. Not pop genre fiction, but what for lack of a better adjective has to be labeled literary fiction. I wanted to adapt to that world of fiction, to exert personal agency in that world by writing my own fictions, to make that world more like itself through what I wrote. In retrospect I concede that I misread that world, that I was adapting to a fictional version of the world of fiction, a world riddled with holes and lumps and contorted by digressions and loops, unreal as psychosis, as science, as theology.  Since coming to that realization I’ve wanted to make the fictional world-as-it-is into something closer to my imagined fictional world-as-it-is-not. I’ve tried, but it hasn’t worked. My best stinks; expect the worst and I won’t be disappointed. No reason it can’t happen, no way it ever will.

###

When I first met Danny he was a senior at our daughter’s high school, introduced to me by Isa, the older sister of our daughter’s best friend from early childhood. At the time I was thinking about starting a film project among high schoolers who wanted to make movies, not for class credit, not as a program they’d have to pay for, but as an endeavor motivated by shared enthusiasm. I imagined a project called Reruns — here was the gist:

It’s a zombie world. Sitting zombified on the couch, you click through the TV channel changer. Every channel is showing reruns of old zombie programs. The collaborative project is to write and film these short clips of zombie TV shows, assembling them into a simulated trip through the channel changer. The clips will be short — from 5 seconds to a minute long — and fragmentary. All genres of programming are fair game: drama, comedy, reality TV, quiz show, news, documentary, sports, ad… The unifying structure or narrative isn’t imposed on the fragments; it emerges from flicking through them one after another.

Sounds a lot like Son of Strands. I presented the idea to Isa and Danny, both of whom were adept at cinematic art and craft. They liked the idea and were prepared to help me get it going. Around that time, out for an afternoon run, I came across the father of one of our daughter’s other childhood pals. The dad was a PhD physicist who worked in a government alternative energy lab but who had toyed with the idea of quitting to become a science teacher. Figuring him for a fellow traveler, I ran the Reruns idea by him as we ran along the Boulder trails together. Now’s the wrong time of year, he said; you should wait till the summer. And do you have any experience with filmmaking? with teaching? I told him to go fuck himself, to shove it up his ass — the last conversation I ever had with him. But I abandoned the project shortly afterward, having decided that I was attempting to manipulate kids into doing something that I wanted to do. It would be better if the high schoolers themselves initiated and ran their own project — as Danny had done a couple of years earlier, starting and running a kids’ theatre troupe.

Son of Strands. Do I write short stories? No. Have I ever edited a literary magazine or anything like it? No. Go fuck yourself and shove it up your ass. But you’ve got a point. I’m an outsider to that world; I don’t like many aspects of that world; I’d want Son of Strands to take shape in an alternative world of short fiction that’s more to my liking. Shouldn’t this sort of project be launched by people who already live inside the world of short fiction, who love that world, who want to carve out a niche in that world by making it more like itself? I’m the wrong guy for that job.

###

Around the time I was sketching out the Reruns project I wrote “Looking Up” for an Open Mic event at a nearby bookstore. It’s a 2,000 word story about an unknown novelist who suddenly achieves worldwide fame, reading long portions of his work in progress aloud to a vast and rapt audience, a novel that seems to be writing itself as he turns the pages. I asked Danny to read my story, giving particular attention to the ending: should the writer continue reading his self-writing novel and increasing in renown, or should a sniper from the audience shoot him dead and take his place at the dais? Danny thought ending A was better. I posted the story on my blog: most of the commenters preferred ending B. I went with ending A for the Open Mic reading, but in subsequent rewrites I stuck with the B version. Analogously, in my imaginary ending to Cam Alice wins the competition against her AI döppelganger by snuffing herself on-screen; the audience, oblivious, celebrates AI-Alice for having staged such a clever CGI performance, propelling “her” to the top of the charts.

 

Cam by Mazzei & Goldhaber

A postcapitalist interlewd:

I.  The cam girls and boys organize themselves into a collective syndicate, ousting the corporate platform that takes 50% off the top of their earnings and replacing it with their own DIY platform.

II.  The Syndicate develops a profit-sharing program in which a substantial proportion of the revenues is divided among all of the members of the Syndicate, substantially leveling the income disparity between high and low earning cammers.

III.  Instead of a free-for-all of individual cammers copying the top earners to boost their ratings and earnings, the Syndicate establishes an R&D lab for developing routines, props, staging, acting techniques, etc. with proven audience appeal.

IV.  With competition being minimized as a motivating force, many of the more ambitious and high-achieving cam girls and boys quit the business.

V.  The Syndicate establishes a school for novice cammers, with courses taught by experienced practitioners based on their own experiences and lab findings.

VI. The cam customers organize themselves into a purchasing co-op, negotiating a per-performance price paid to the Syndicate for unlimited open-access viewing instead of individually paying subscription fees to the cam platform and/or tips to the cammers.

VII.  No longer able to juice their competitive sense of power and status through extravagant tipping, many of the big-spending audience members abandon cam world.

VIII.  Together, the cammer Syndicate and the customer Co-Op promote camming not as a consumer commodity but as a performance art, a liberated form of entertainment, a collective intervention for enhancing pleasure among the populace, a valuable cultural resource.

IX.  The cam audience dwindles, the covert thrill of indulging covertly in naughty behaviors being replaced by the wholesome patronage of the arts.

X.  The Syndicate’s R&D lab launches a fleet of cam AIs, able to perform 24/7 at a high level without taking a share of the revenues.

XI.  The cam audience dwindles further, no longer positioned as sadistic voyeurs paying to watch human cam girls and boys abase themselves for money but as rubes watching simulated girls and boys perform simulated masochistic acts.

XII.  A revival of old-school camming springs up, with cam girls and boys competing for ratings and tips while audience members compete for sugar-daddy spending status.

XIII.  Rumors circulate about an alternative underground camming movement in which cam girls and boys perform for no money before simulated audiences or no audiences at all, motivated solely by self-expression and the perfection of art for art’s sake.

XIV.  Solo onanism, unaided by device or gaze, enjoys a resurgence, while copulation, experienced by those who’ve tried it as too interpersonally threatening, sags into impotence.

Cam the movie can be streamed on Netflix.

Standards of Anarchy


A couple of days ago Jonathan Erdman wrote a comment on one of my posts, and my reply to his comment has extended itself so much both in time and in length that I’m putting it up as a separate post. In his comment Jonathan wrote:

Another possibility as regards anarchist-leaning writers…..Anarchistic folk tend to be difficult to herd together — for any project… The original philosophical anarchists were called “libertarians,” in truth the two terms were synonymous. In any event, anarchistic folk tend to be very independent and opinionated. Again, not easy to get them to commit to a large-scale movement… I also tend to believe that markets work, on a small scale. So, my idea of anti-capitalism would be more along the lines of Ebay: bring together the collective works of all the authors of the world and let them run their own massive publishing house, with no Jeff Bezos to skim billions of profits off the top.

There are three established mechanisms for herding individual writers together: the traditional publisher-bookstore apparatus, the edited literary magazine, and the online platform. In theory the writers could have self-organized any or all of these herding schemes; in practice it’s typically been imposed on them by managers, operations people, marketing people, investors. Amazon is like that: the writers and readers could have banded together to create a collective anarchist platform, but they didn’t. Now it’s too late: Amazon holds a monopolistic stranglehold, and it’s well-positioned either to crush alternative models, or to buy them out, or to imitate them and beat them at their own game. The writers might see themselves as anarcho-libertarian entrepreneurs as they send out inquiry letters to agents or submit short stories to magazine publishers or self-publish novels on Amazon, but they’re being herded nonetheless.

I’m picturing an Amazon-like platform for short fictions — there are some out there. Writers self-publish their own stories on the platform, readers look through the offerings to find what they like. Let’s assume that no money changes hands: it’s all open-access. Writers write from whatever passions motivate them, and they respond to the call of the audience as they see fit. No doubt an emergent order would arise from this anarchist swarm, not necessarily in the pyramid shape of commercial fictions but in a kind of N-dimensional clustering, with writers and readers who share particular interests or tastes finding one another and generating enough critical mass to form an asteroid, a planet, a solar system… But it’s a big universe, so there’s plenty of room to expand before either the singularity collapses everything back down in its black-hole gravitational field or entropy splits everything back apart into isolated atoms floating in the void.

Like you, I find that sort of emergent order idea appealing. What draws me to a more collective form of anarchism is a concern for excellence. The converging forces pulling together a totally bottom-up self-organized system would seem to involve the interplays of passion and calling, of supply and demand, unencumbered by the external constraints imposed by the owners and managers. It’s a kind of laissez-faire capitalism without the money and top-down organization, the invisible hand freed from the shackles of capital. Or maybe like democracy without political party apparatus and lobbyists and big-money campaign contributors.

It’s not certain that unfettered bottom-up democracy would turn into mob rule, nor that unfettered capitalism would generate a bunch of commodified junk. I am, however, concerned about a possible loss of excellence, overwhelmed by the mediocre tastes of the herd. Writing options would be generated as variants on what already achieves popularity, not on what ought to be or even what could be. So too with judgment: it’s a matter of deciding among the options on the table rather than comparing those options to some sort of standards.

All the same I’m skeptical of the standard-setters and the tastemakers, the elite who separate the sheep from the goats. Who anointed them; by what standards are they rendering judgment; who holds them accountable? In a republic the voters, the elected officials, and the government appointees are all held accountable by laws and the Constitution. Capitalism too is held accountable to laws and regulations. But as we well know these standards are subject to interpretation, to selective enforcement, to change. In a post from February 2018, also inspired by a comment from Jonathan Erdman, I wrote this:

So let’s say I’ve already actualized my potential to be a novelist by actually writing a novel. Am I justified now in professing myself to be a novelist? Or, in making the profession, am I offering my response to a higher calling, issued by some standard beyond myself, a standard to which I aspire, an actualization of a potential that resides not in me as writer but in the standard, in the sacred order of the True Fiction?

I agree that anarchists were originally libertarians, but typically with a collective orientation toward ownership and management, as opposed to the individualism that tends to dominate contemporary use of the term. “Anarchy” doesn’t mean lawless; it means leaderless. Laws and standards can be promulgated and enforced by collective agreement, rather than being pushed down everyone’s throats by the authorities.

I’m not advocating some sort of eternal ideal of beauty and justice against which every work is measured (and inevitably found wanting). Surely standards too can change: they can emerge bottom-up from a free democracy or a free market. They can also descend top-down from a political and economic Olympus.

In my posts on this website I’ve been reluctant to render any sort of judgment about the short stories I’ve read. It’s not that I harbor no opinions; it’s that I wanted to engage those texts on some other dimensions. My sense is that, when most people finish reading a text, they quickly arrive at an opinion as to whether they liked it or not, whether they thought it was good or bad. It’s nearly instinctive. Consciously or otherwise, people compare the new text with what they’ve read in the past, not just specifically but generally, as a sort of composite image or template. Some readers are able to make explicit the evaluation criteria they’ve abstracted from prior readings, from discussions with friends, from reviews. These templates and standards, built and refined on an ever-expanding experiential base, shape the experience of evaluating an actual text. But the standards and templates aren’t actual texts; they’re products of memory and imagination and thought. I.e., the standards and templates are fictions.

So I’m interested in exploring these fictional criteria by which people judge actual fictional texts. Readers spontaneously render judgments even if they can’t make their evaluation criteria explicit. Writers want to know what readers think of their work even if the opinions aren’t well elaborated. The Bestseller Code (2016) described a self-learning AI that was able to predict bestsellers based on variables it abstracted from data on previous bestsellers — these variables constitute a kind of bottom-up set of standards emerging from the marketplace. I’m curious also about the more top-down standards imposed by editors and publishers, the vetting process by which they decide which texts readers actually get to read. Maybe by understanding judgment — the comparison of actual fictions with fictional abstractions — from both the bottom up and the top down, some sort of meaningful convergence could result.