Surveying the Texts: Fictional Counterfactuals

This morning I woke up thinking about the number of short fictions I’m likely to track down and read over the next 3 months. I intend to survey the authors of those texts, but what about the texts themselves — why not survey them too?

The central organizing scheme of Ficticities Mach 2: each day I track down a few online short fictions; I excerpt some portion of each text that refers to some aspect of the setting in which the narrative takes place; I accumulate a single day’s excerpts into a single post, as if I’d witnessed each of these scenes or events in sequence while strolling through a fictional city; all of these strolling posts displayed together on the site comprise a kind of grand tour of the fictional city. It’s sort of the complement to Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which what seem like descriptions of various fictional cities all refer to the same actual city of Venice.

So I’m wondering: what sort of data could I accumulate from these multiple short fictions that is relevant to the site’s core conceit? Each of the short fictions takes place somewhere in particular, but from the standpoint of the website the particulars aren’t of central concern; it’s the relationship between the fictional and the actual that comes into focus. I wonder: in a short story, can textual indicators of fictional versus actual be discerned? I don’t mean actual versus fictional places and times during which the stories unfold, nor am I concerned particularly with the author’s use of “realism effects” to make the setting seeem actual. I’m wondering about the extent to which the place and time in which a story takes place drift into realms of the imaginary, the speculative, the abstract, the unreal — the fictional.

I’m going to assay the feasibility of such a project with reference to the next story in James Purdy’s volume of short stories, a library book that I just renewed. I’m going to read it for the first time right now, making observations relevant to the proposed textual survey project.

*   *   *

I hadn’t the slightest intention of pampering Naomi, the story begins. Intent isn’t actual; it’s speculative, about achieving some desired future state. And here it’s a negated intention, an undesired future state, implying two possible futures, one in which Naomi is pampered, another in which she’s not.

the wages I paid her were far in advance of their day when she came to me… — Here the narrator is reflecting on the past, which of course isn’t the story’s actual present; further, she’s regarding the wages she paid back then as in advance of their day, manifesting a future state that would later be actualized, even though its actualization is by now part of the past.

the rumor she has been circulating… — a rumor is a dubious recounting, unverified, probably fake news — a hypothetical situation that probably varies from the actual fact.

what I did to Naomi could never, not even in a court of law, be construed as striking — again, a counterfactual speculation.

Naomi had changed. She was not a double personality… — the narrator invokes the idea of a doubled reality while at the same time revoking it.

Naomi had simply become another woman… not a doubled reality, but an altered reality.

And that’s just the first paragraph. The next paragraph begins with dialogue: “You’re a woman of at least forty, though you lie to your men friends about your age!” — again, a counterfactual.

I went on, nearly beside myself… — is this just a hackneyed old-lady expression, or is the narrator herself beginning to occupy two realities at once?

*   *   *

I can see already that the task of distinguishing actual from fictional within a fictional text would entail a lot of work. The textual indicators of counterfactuality aren’t readily reduced to sets of keywords I could easily gather and count; close reading seems required. But maybe Purdy is exceptional in this regard; maybe contemporary writers of short fiction stick more resolutely to the actual heres and nows of their storied worlds. Still, finding a needle in a haystack requires sifting the whole haystack — just as much work as finding a dozen needles.

Maybe the thing to do is to select story excerpts based on their textual counterfactuality. Or maybe I should select excerpts based on other criteria, then conduct the counterfactual analysis post hoc?

Overhaul Update

Version 2 of this site should be up and running by next week. It will look more like a straight-up blog, displaying a series of posts, with the most recent ones at the top of the stack. There will be three categories of posts:

The City. I’ll spend a portion of most days as an online flâneur wandering through online literary magazines, excerpting fragments from short fictions and posting them on Ficticities. Each fragment will be labeled with some salient aspect of the fictional City that it occupies; e.g., Menswear, Sidewalk, Speed, Windows. The fragments collected during a single stroll through the e-magazines will be gathered together into a single post, with original sources cited and linked. I expect that writers googling themselves will come to the site to see what’s up, and while they’re here they’ll be invited to respond to…

Surveys. Respondents are asked questions relevant to two main questions: (1) Could writers and readers of fiction jointly run an open access e-book publishing house of distinction? (2) Would they want to? Google has an app called “Forms” that lets you embed formatted questionnaires in blog posts, so if I can figure out how to use it I’ll be in good shape. Here’s a draft of the first survey:

How important is each these motivations to you as a fiction writer? (1 = not important at all, 5 = extremely important)

  1.  to express and understand myself.
  2.  to describe and interpret the world.
  3.  to imagine and create.
  4.  to master the art and craft.
  5.  to make an impact on the world.
  6.  for people to read what I write.
  7.  to be published.
  8.  to be well regarded by other writers and critics.
  9. to make money from my writing.
  10. to qualify for an academic job.
  11. to think of myself as a writer.
  12. other (please write in) _________________

Findings from Surveys, along with interpretations, will be posted online.

*   *   *

I’ve reread all of the posts and comments from Ficticities version 1, excerpting and modifying the Pamphlets as needed. I don’t expect to display the Pamphlets on version 2, in part because I want the Surveys and Findings to do the work via the ask-don’t-assume, show-don’t-tell approach.

Heading Out the Door

Here’s what’s going to happen now on Ficticities.

I’m going to attempt to lure a bunch of writers who have recently published short fictions in open source online literary magazines. I’ll do this by going to those magazines and reading a selection of pieces published there, then I’ll post excerpts of those short fictions here on Ficticities, along with links to the original sources. If the writers of these texts are googling themselves, they’ll come across the Ficticities references and will likely click through to see what’s going on.

When they show up here, the writers will find excerpts from their short fictions embedded in a “fictiCity” — an imaginary city comprised of various imaginary places: the Bar, the Office, the Neighborhood, the School, the Courthouse, the Dump, etc. Each place in the fictiCity will be populated by excerpts from multiple fictional texts. The idea is to create an imaginary sense of collective identity among fiction writers, all of them occupying a fictional ecosystem cobbled together from a wide variety of disparate fictional worlds.

Illustration: I just flipped to a random page in The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy, a book I checked out from the library recently. I landed on page 519, which is part of a story entitled “Easy Street.” Here’s an excerpt from page 519:

One thing of course they could not help noticing. Bewie hardly ever returned without he was carrying a heavy package or two. At the ladies’ look of astonishment, he sat down and said in a joking tone, “My wardrobe. In my profession, you have to look your best. And the film people of course insist on it.”

I could post this excerpt in the Shopping Mall section of fictiCities, or perhaps in the Menswear Store.

While they’re here at the site, the fiction writers will see prominently displayed an invitation to participate in brief online surveys. These surveys will be designed to evaluate fiction writers’ attitudes toward specific components of the fiction publishing industry, as well as attitudes toward possible alternatives. For example, a survey could ask respondents to evaluate the importance to them of getting published, of being read, and of making money from their fiction writing. Survey results will be compiled and analyzed, with results posted on Ficticities. The survey questions will encourage writers to self-reflect; the published results will give them a glimpse of themselves in the aggregate, as a virtual collective called “fiction writers.” Hopefully the surveys and findings will generate enough interest for writers to keep returning to the site, perhaps also to recommend the site to fellow writers. And of course results will be useful in evaluating assumptions about the perceived attractiveness to fiction writers of a postcapitalistic alternative model to traditional publishing.

There will also be a brief description of the alternative postcapitalistic publishing scheme I’ve outlined here previously; the rest of the content — posts and discussions, pages, pamphlets — will be removed.

Let’s say this version of Ficticities runs for three months. Suppose I find, read, and excerpt from 30 short fictions per week: that’s nearly 400 texts, 400 writers. Let’s further say that I put up a new survey every week: that’s 13 surveys, plus results and analyses. By then maybe it’ll become clear what comes next.

So there will need to be a complete overhaul of the site, which will take some time. I’ll leave it open, maybe posting occasional progress reports.

Wading Out of the Water

Integral to human understanding and invention, fiction plays an essential role in imagining alternatives to reality, in shaping reality, in disguising reality, and in providing avenues of escape from reality. Fictional narratives are more than entertaining stories; they are simulations of worlds, not unlike scientific experiments, algorithms, and AIs. Realizing that they are trapped in an artificial world invented to serve commercial interests, writers and readers of fictional texts can escape together into an alternative world of their own invention.

– from the Postcapitalist Realities outline

What constrains fiction writers in perpetrating a collective escape from escapism? Habit is a big limiting factor:

People adapt to environments, even artificial ones. Adaptations become habits, hard to break even when moving into an alternative environment where those habits are no longer adaptive. Freed from the constraints of the traditional publishing world, would readers and writers of fictions remain locked into their habitual ways of reading and writing? Or would the alternate reality of writers’ syndicates and readers’ duplicating libraries establish a different ecology, calling for different adaptations from which different habits take shape?

Erdman has endorsed this idea of fiction writers being immersed in a habit-forming ecosystem. In the Blog Fail post he analogized from a DF Wallace commencement address:

An older fish swims along and two younger fish pass him coming the other direction . “How’s the water,boys?” he asks. “What’s water?” is their reply. Since capitalism is the water we swim in, most humans – and particularly Americans – have no idea there is anything else or that capitalism even exists. Why does a fish even need to know what “water” is when there’s no other reality in which they can live? Why do we need to know what capitalism is, since there’s no other reality in which we can survive? I run into this quite a bit in discussing socialism. It’s hard enough to talk about capitalism as though it exists, even harder to talk about it as though it doesn’t exist (as though there is another reality).

Wallace’s fish story doesn’t offer much room for optimism. Even if the fish realize they’re in the water, why would they want to escape from it? Water is the medium in which they evolved, to which they’re adapted, which provides the essentials for their survival. The older fish gets it, understands that he’s swimming in water, but he’s managed to get old by staying in the water, not by trying to make a go of it in some other medium. If fiction writers are adapted to a capitalist ecosystem, why would they want to get out of that water only to flounder around on dry land? As Erdman remarked on the Profession of Doubt post:

Americans thoroughly identify as capitalists, and as such I think that the psychology is one and the same. We sort of assume that the market is always working things out in the best way possible, more or less… As such, capitalism is so thoroughly our way of being that it drives our creativity, and I think that most American artists are more or less okay with that.

In my response to Erdman’s comment I conceded that most fiction writers seem to be trying to succeed in marketplace terms, either by writing popular fiction they hope sells well or by padding their CVs with published stories that don’t pay at all but that might eventually get them a gig teaching creative writing.

So let’s assume that most fiction writers are adapted to swimming in the waters of capitalism. But what if the waters are drying up while the number of fish is increasing — so many fish swimming around in shrinking ponds that there’s no room to move, no oxygen to breathe, nothing to eat. That’s the scenario I was trying to sketch in one of the earliest posts on this site: hardly any novels get published, and even published novelists typically earn a pittance from sales of their books, while most self-published authors make next to nothing. I’ve not yet written about the writing schools, but the situation is comparably dire: far fewer teaching slots than qualified applicants, the jobs being mostly adjunct and temp positions that don’t pay enough to make a living. In short, the capitalistic ecological niche can’t support most of the fiction writers whose talents and predilections are optimally adapted to that niche.

If Erdman is right — if most fiction writers aren’t consciously aware of how their immersion in the capitalistic pond influences the way they write — then describing an alternative postcapitalistic ecosystem to them isn’t likely to alter their habitual writing practices. The alternative ecosystem I’ve outlined on this sight doesn’t actually exist, so it’s not possible to lure writers into it to see how they adapt.

But what if Erdman is wrong? What if fiction writers are aware that they’re adapted to an ecosystem that can’t support them? Would that awareness make them more likely to climb out of the water and step into an alternative ecosystem, even if that ecosystem is only an experimental laboratory that’s not ready to support life on an ongoing basis?

One way to find out would be to open up the alternative ecosystem, issue invitations to writers to step in through the portal, and see who responds. The biggest obstacle is that the alternative ecosystem isn’t an empty habitat waiting for occupants, like a newly constructed housing subdivision waiting for buyers to move in or a newly established corporation waiting for applicants to reply to its help wanted ads. It’s more like a bunch of homesteaders building a settlement together, with houses and shops, a corral and a railway station, a church and a schoolhouse and a tavern, a town hall and a Boot Hill… Another way to find out whether writers are adapted to an alternative ecosystem is to ask them. Maybe don’t ask them point blank if they’d like to pitch in, sign up as one of the pioneers in the homesteading project. Instead, ask them about themselves as fiction writers: their preferences and practices, their hopes and fears. Ask them also about their perceptions of the fictional ecosystem in which they operate: its features and its bugs, what it affords and what it prevents. Eventually ask them to speculate about possible features of alternative fictional ecosystems. We’d learn something about writers’ enthusiasm and readiness for getting out of the water, while writers would learn something about themselves and about one another.

And what if I too am wrong? What if there already is a fictional habitat compatible with the postcapitalistic scheme I’ve outlined here? Would it be possible to expand and deepen that habitat?

There are a lot of online open-access literary magazines: readers don’t pay to read; writers don’t get paid for writing. I’ve been assuming that fiction writers publish in these venues as a way of paying their dues, building up their résumés, establishing credibility with agents and publishers when eventually they submit novels for consideration as commercially viable commodities. But maybe writers write short stories for free because those publishing venues encourage more variety in style and content, more experimentation in art and craft, than do the commercial publishers. There are, to be sure, some boutique publishers of long fictions that emphasize artistic merit rather than potential popularity, but those publishers, being short on staff and on revenues, tend to put out only a small number of new titles every year. Maybe these more adventurous writers would thrive in an alternative fictional ecosystem, a habitat run by and for writers themselves, a venue where they can edit and publish and distribute long fictions of distinction, its capacity constrained only by the merits of the books themselves.

I’m closing in on a redesign of this site…


Competing for Readers

The Experimental Agenda: Readers and writers collaborate in designing, building, and testing prototypes for an alternative postcapitalist fictional reality.

That’s been the guiding premise of this site, but so far the experimental agenda hasn’t been advanced. I’ve focused mostly on the writers; it’s time to shift to the readers.

There are good reasons why fiction writers would want to organize themselves into publishing collectives, assuming control over and responsibility for the means of production and the finished product. Self-publishers already do this, hundreds of thousands of them, but operating as solo practitioners they lack the creative synergy and support, the quality control, and the reach that a larger organization can offer. Control shifts from publishing companies and bookstores not to the writers but to the online platforms, which serve as centralized aggregators of products and distribution hubs. While each self-published book brings in next to nothing in sales revenue for its author, the platform makes it up in volume. Even if self-published writers were to cut out the middleman and build their own platform, there’s no reason to believe that sales of individual books would increase. A few would arise from the slush, but the vast majority would still be mired in obscurity.

As things stand, only the traditional publishing industry offers any hope, however meager, for a fiction writer to achieve fairly widespread readership and sustainable income. Sure, the middlemen take the lion’s share of the take, but a little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing. Writers could aggregate themselves together into a publishing syndicate, but where are the readers going to come from?

Where do the readers of traditionally published books come from? If other readers are like me, they find books by scanning the bookstore and library shelves. You’re drawn to the package — the title, the backcover blurbs, the author bio and the book summary. If it offers some promise you take it home with you. And how do the books wind up on the shelves where they can draw your attention? Sales reps, distributors and wholesalers shop their wares to the stores and libraries. It takes upfront money, money paid out to packagers and marketers even before the books hit the shelves.

Other books I find via recommendations: reviews, bestseller lists, online discussions, social media, word of mouth. This sort of interpersonal dissemination happens post-release. Only those books that have made it into the wholesale catalogs or positioned on the bookstores’ shelves are going to be featured in reviews; only those books likely to earn significant revenues for the publishers are going to merit prominently positioned reviews. Interpersonal recommendations probably tend likewise to converge on books already well received by critics and readers, where the tipster’s potential gain in social capital outweighs the early adopter’s risk of championing an unheralded and unknown book that may well turn out to be a loser.  Even the online platform algos — “people who bought this book also bought…;” “if you like this you might also like…” — converge on the big sellers. Imagine a host of newly launched mystical adventure novels, be they midlisters from trad publishers or self-published offerings. “If you liked Da Vinci Code, you’ll like…,” reads the backcover blurb. So you buy the book online. “People who bought this book also bought…” — what? One of the other new mystical adventures? No: they bought Da Vinci Code. The popularity-based algos drive sales toward the bestsellers; the rich get richer, the already-read get more readers.

A writer-owned publishing syndicate could attempt to replicate the packaging, marketing, and dissemination apparatus of traditional publishers, competing with them on their own turf, using the tools of the master against them and so on. But why? The publisher can earn back its upfront investment on a book with relatively modest sales of $100K or so. But that profit is earned on the back of the writer, who makes maybe $11K in royalties. If writers run the publishing house they’ll want to earn more money as authors, not as packagers and marketers and distributors. But if the writers’ syndicate wants to compete it still has to hire and pay those same sorts of packagers and marketers and distributors, requiring the writer-owners of the syndicate to ante up some investment money in order to get their portfolio of books out the door and in front of the readership Not only do the writer-owners want to recoup their investment; they want to be paid more as authors than the measly share offered them by the traditional publishers. The break-even point for a book published by the writers’ syndicate would therefore be substantially higher than that required by the traditional publisher. The syndicate would take fewer risks, launch fewer new books, generate less revenues than the traditional publisher. Pretty soon the writer-owners of the syndicate are going to start squeezing costs to generate more sales and profits so as to recoup their investment. Do they cut their own pay as authors, emulating the traditional industry? Do they shortchange the backroom staffers and contractors, hoping they don’t set sail for greener pastures?

A more radical reorg is required if the authors are going to own and control their own work.

The Metaphysics of Authorial Presence

Of Grammatology, one of Derrida’s earliest works, is in part an apologetics of writing in response to a long historical preference for the spoken word.

Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words. – Aristotle

A persistent attribute of Western thinking is the “metaphysics of presence.” Truths are eternal, but in temporal human existence the eternal manifests itself as presence. Humans live in the present; therefore any eternally true idea has to make itself known in the present. The true idea appears before our conscious minds in the immediacy of our thinking of it. Truth is eternal logos; speech is verbal representation of logos. Once truth comes to mind it can immediately be spoken. Speech and thought are nearly inseparable in time; there is no delay between thinking an idea and speaking it. Speech is characterized by presence: it is produced in the ongoing stream of moments that characterize human existence. Consequently speech has been regarded as the most authentic way of representing truth. Writing is deferred speech: there is a delay between the thought and the hand’s inscription of the words representing the thought. Writing, being not present, is not as “true” as speech.

Derrida observes other aspects of speech that lend it authority and priority. Historically, spoken language emerged before writing. Children learn to speak before they learn to write. Writing is tangibly external: it requires inscribing marks on a material surface in the world, a world that is not eternal or ideal. Speech is internal, produced inside the mouth and throat; it comes out with the breath that is intrinsic to living. I hear myself at the same time that I speak. Speech takes place in the presence of a listener, whereas text might not be read until long after it was written, if ever. Speech is present, immaterial, transparent, alive.

*   *   *

Recently our daughter took me to a Zombies concert – they were her boss’s tickets, but he was out of town so he couldn’t make the show. I know quite a few of their songs from the sixties, but they had disbanded after a very short run in the spotlight. They recorded an album just before they broke up, but it failed to chart. The band members went their separate musical ways, rapidly fading into public obscurity aside from the occasional airplay of their hit singles on oldies radio. It turns out though that over the subsequent decades that last Zombies album, Odessey (sic) and Oracle, gradually gained a cult following until now it is regarded as a kind of alt-pop classic.

The reunited band drew a full house, a thousand or more fans filling the vintage downtown auditorium. Though admittedly dominated by old-timers, the audience spanned an astonishingly wide age range, including youngsters who probably find it odd, maybe even a bit disrespectful, to remain seated at a concert rather than jumping up and down directly in front of the stage. After intermission the Zombies played their now-famous album in its entirety, it being the fiftieth anniversary since its original release. Was it just showmanship on display, or did those old musicians enjoy playing and singing their old music together as much as it appeared that they did, performing with practiced self-assurance and receiving with gratitude the exuberant audience response? A lyric from one of the album tracks: This will be our year, took a long time to come. It was hard to avoid making the obvious remark as we walked back to the parking garage: the audience brought the Zombies back to life.

The band had broken up before the album dropped so they never played the songs live: now, here they were, fifty years later, playing it start to finish on a multi-stop American tour. Not only would they play the songs; the keyboard player explained that the band would perform the entire album note for note. The original recording included some overdubs and multitracks, so in order to match the record’s sound in live performance several backup singers and musicians were brought onstage. At times the keyboardist performed his part on a vintage Mellotron, an electronic instrument that John Lennon left behind in the studio after the Beatles finished recording their Sgt. Pepper’s album, an instrument that the Zombies “borrowed” for their own sessions. Mostly though the band member used a synthesizer to simulate the original Mellotron sound. After playing a few songs he announced the end of side one – time to flip the record over.

They sounded just like they did in the sixties, enthused a Facebook post written by a friend of my wife’s who also attended the concert. Not to my ears they didn’t. The same band members may have exhibited the same level of musicianship, they may have played the exact same notes, but their live performance of the album did not sound the same as the album. The amplification and the acoustics combined to produce a rock concert, and a good one; the album, by contrast, is a kind of baroque pop suite, its subtlety and timbre more suited to an unplugged chamber ensemble.

The band and the audience converged in time and space to celebrate an audio recording made fifty years ago. We had front row seats, retail price $180 apiece. I never bought the Zombies album that was simulated note for note in the concert, but I can still listen to it anytime I want for free on the Internet. That’s why bands go on tour: when people can listen to the records for free, the only way the musicians can make money is to perform before a live audience. Just like in the good old days before radios and phonographs.

*   *   *

Derrida doesn’t try to argue that writing is as close to the moment, as present, as speech is. Rather, he directs his critique against presence itself. He doesn’t try to step out of the moment into eternity; instead, he embeds presence in a broader temporal and spatial context, undermining it from within.

The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more when one does not expect it

– Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, 1967

*   *   *

While you’re reading you might sometimes feel as though the writer is speaking directly to you, even though you know it’s not so. The relation between reader and writer is heavily mediated – by text, by time, by distance. Suppose you go to a public reading. The author, speaking aloud the words she had previously written, happens to meet your glance as you listen. Is the author speaking directly to you now? After the reading you approach the writer at the dais, telling her how much you admire her work. The writer replies, flexing her larynx to generate sound waves, shaping them with buccal and laryngeal muscles before launching them through the air. After a short but measurable delay those sound waves hit your eardrum, causing vibrations of corresponding frequencies. Are you hearing the writer speak, or are you hearing the narrow radial segments of sound waves being propagated through the air that happen to strike your eardrums? The eardrum’s vibrations are transmitted at a rapid but measurable speed through the auditory nerves to the brain, activating the various language processing areas in your cortex which, after a brief but measurable delay, translate these vibrations into comprehensible language. Is the author speaking directly to you now? The writer’s voice is electronically amplified and transmitted via radio waves; the signal is received on someone’s computer 3 thousand miles away. The writer’s vocalizations are recorded and stored, then retransmitted 3 months later, 3 years later, 30 years later, after the writer has died…

*   *   *

In deconstructing the metaphysics of presence Derrida leans heavily on Heidegger, who contended that human existence isn’t a continuous presence, a perpetual living in the moment, but is rather a duration. Being in time means being embedded in an interval whose temporal horizons stretch into the past and the future. It means having been born in a particular place and time and inevitably dying in some unpredictable place and time. These horizons inevitably influence the way we live in the moment. Ideas aren’t always present either; they take shape from prior ideas and memories, work themselves out, come to fruition, become transformed into different ideas. Ideas have history and trajectory — just like human lives. The present moment is only a trace of temporal duration as it moves from the past into future.

Again from Heidegger, Derrida rejects interiority as a criterion for truth. For humans, to be is to be in the world. In earthly existence there can be no transcendence of materiality, of incarnation, of place. The Western metaphysics of presence isn’t just temporal; it’s also spacial: it presumes the direct presence of eternal truths before the mind. But if being means being-in, then human truths, like human beings, are in the world. To uncover truths in the world requires investigation, movement, interaction with the world in its extension.

Truths, rather than being always already present in the mind, move through space and time. Truths are dynamic, taking shape not only in the unchangeable and the atemporal, but also in the play of differences across space and time. There are irreducible differences between idea and word, word and speech, speaking and hearing. Human thought depends on memory, which is the trace of past moments inscribed on the mind — so in a way even memory is exterior to thought. Likewise the signifiers of language are inscribed in memory — so speech depends on the temporal delay between learning the language and using it.

*   *   *

I’m not sure whether I’ve experienced it personally but I’ve heard others claim that, as readers, their engagement in fictional narratives is made more vibrant by their empathic identification with the characters. For me it’s more like I come to know the characters, my curiosity and concern being activated by a virtual relationship with them, or perhaps by my immersion in the fictional life space they occupy. Whether it’s identification or relation, the link between reader and fictional character is itself a fiction, because those fictional characters aren’t real. And what about when the reader forms a virtual relationship with or – heaven forfend – identifies with the author? Is this connection more real or less real than the reader’s fictional alliance with the characters?

I pick up Proust where I left off a couple of months ago:

My mother was asleep when, after engaging a room for Albertine on a different floor, I entered my own.

Though uncharacteristically short and direct, this sentence is embedded in the fictional ambiguity of the work as a whole. Whose sentence is it: Marcel the narrator’s, or Marcel the author’s? And now I’m thinking about an episode in one of my own fictions: a dinner at a Mexican restaurant in which a conversation unfolds between two characters, an unpublished writer and his cinematographer friend who recently expatriated to Italy along with his wife and children. Is this an imaginary event involving imaginary characters, or is it a thinly disguised recounting of an actual conversation I once had with a real friend of mine at a real Mexican restaurant – a friend who happened to call just last night, the night before he moves back to Italy for good (again)? If in my text I was chronicling an actual conversation, then would that text seem more authentic, a more direct communication with the reader, if I assigned to the two conversing characters their real nonfictional names?

*   *   *

In a Heideggerian framework presence no longer has priority over deferral and spacing. Material that is immediately available to consciousness doesn’t take precedence over material retrieved from memory or self-reflection or investigation. Speaking/listening isn’t a more authentic means of communication than writing/reading. Derrida doesn’t propose that writing take precedence over speech, that reflection dominate spontaneity. Rather, he calls for an end to the represssion of pluri-dimensional symbolic thought. All conceivable ways of thinking and communicating should be explored and encouraged to the fullest.

Implications? In psychotherapy, it might be less important to close the gap between client and therapist. Therapy need not concentrate solely on the present moment of client-therapist conversation; memories, dreams, reflections, even writings, can find a place in the therapeutic relationship. In Biblical study, the spatio-temporal gap between writer and reader can become a source of meaning rather than just an obstacle. And an event in which God’s presence was experienced in real time doesn’t necessarily take priority over the event’s subsequent commemoration in text.

*   *   *

In the old days an author wrote or typed a book on paper, so the typeset and printed copies distributed by a publisher constituted a more polished version of the original manuscript. I write my books on a computer. A downloaded computer file of one of my books is a lot closer to the original manuscript than is a printed and bound replica. Original written or typed manuscripts of famous books fetch a lot of money at auction. After contemporary celebrated authors pass from the scene, will their heirs sell the hard drives on which their forebears wrote their famous books?

*   *   *

The segments in this post addressing Derrida’s ideas on presence were cut and pasted from a post on my old Ktismatics blog: Derrida and the Metaphysics of Presence, posted 18 April 2007. That single 11-year-old post, on a blog that’s been inactive for nearly 4 years, has been viewed more often over the past 30 days than all 27 Ficticities posts combined. Now there’s 28.


The Decelerating Engine

Turning to a blog I visit often, I happen upon a link to a talk, recorded over a year ago in Ljubljana and presented by Benjamin Noys, a theorist whose work I’ve followed off and on and whom I suspect, based on only the most superficial of evidence, of a few years back and under an assumed name having engaged me in an amusing intermittent email correspondence. So, to begin with Marx, the recorded talk begins, Noys reading aloud from his own printed text:

Marx, in his work of the 1840s, defines the productive forces as the objectifications of human powers. Under capitalism these objectified powers are subject to alienation, so the task must be to repossess these powers. In the 1844 manuscript he writes: ‘It can be seen how the history of industry and the objective existence of industry as it has developed is the open book of the essential powers of man.’ Marx aims to make this book legible, to return us to a capacity to read, in industry, our own powers.

The book business constitutes one short chapter in the history of industry. A book isn’t just an inert object; it’s an engine, powered by the combined forces of writer and reader. By reifying a book into a commodity, industry objectifies the essential human powers of writing and reading. Originally a medium of communication between writer and reader, the book-as-commodity imposes a barrier between them, alienating them from each other.

How to repossess these alienated human powers? I continue listening to the prerecorded Ljubljana talk. Marx, Noys informs his audience, doesn’t propose rewinding history, flipping nostalgically back through the pages of the book of industry to its early chapters, before human subjectivity became objectified, back to the pre-industrial days of peasant farming and craftsmanship and oral storytelling. Engage in struggle, Marx exhorts. But how?

Noys outlines one option: accelerate. Resistance is futile, the accelerationists assert. Instead of slowing down the machinery of alienation, speed it up. Left-wing accelerationists presume that, by pushing the machine to its breaking point, exhaustion will morph into desperation, and desperation will trigger revolt. Destroy the machine or, better, seize the controls! So: accelerate the writing of books; accelerate the automation of publishing and distributing books; accelerate the decline in writer pay to zero; accelerate the book industry capitalists’ return on investment to infinity. Frustrated and enraged writers and readers: cast off the shackles of capital; join forces with one another to produce your own books! There’s no money in it? Pretty soon there won’t be any money in any jobs. Demand universal basic income! No work and pay! Accelerate into leisure and artistry.

In contrast, accelerationists of the right don’t want to crash into the apocalypse; they want to accelerate through it, pushing the pedal until they reach escape velocity. Writers are already prepared to work on spec for little or no pay. Hell, they’ll even pay for the privilege of being a writer – consider not just the vanity presses but, even more extravagantly, the MFA programs. Meanwhile, readers are still willing to buy books. Steady or rising revenues with costs decreasing to near zero: it’s a capitalist’s dream. But the dream goes on. If publication and distribution can be automated, why not editing? Why not writing? Why not, for that matter, reading? Marx’s objectified powers of labor are rendered obsolete, replaced by the abstract forces of capital, intelligence, and creation. These forces have, first by necessity and eventually by force of habit, been channeled through humans. Now comes the age of the intelligent machine: already faster and more proficient than humans in most realms, the machine is continually learning, continually expanding its powers, continually accelerating into a posthuman future.

The speaker in the recorded video from Ljubljana thinks that neither left nor right accelerationism is desirable or likely. What alternative does he propose? Well, this is a critique he’s offering his listeners, not plan C. But now I find myself captivated by the two variants of accelerationism that he’s served up. Neither one is a plan really; both seem to operate in a rather deterministic fashion, as though the outcomes are inevitable – which makes sense, accelerationism being predicated on the idea of an abstract machine that runs itself. The two variants, right and left, trace the unfolding of more or less the same future trajectory. Riding the machine into the future are two factions: one seeks escape and transcendence; the other, resistance and fully realized humanity. Are they pitted against each other as adversaries, these two factions? Are the Rights immune to the alienation and desperation into which the machine is accelerating them, or do they somehow hunger for their own abjection, thirst for their own annihilation? Can the Lefts see past the Apocalypse into the Millennium that seems sure to rise up from the ashes? Can either side derail the other’s machine? Will heroes step forward, and villains too? Faster and faster the machine churns out the situations, the conflicts, the confrontations – alienating, but also exciting.

Accelerationism: it’s a more exciting narrative than the one I seem to be stuck in. Everything seems to be slowing way down. I write less. I read less. I’m neither nostalgic nor hopeful. I rarely talk with anyone, and when I do I usually wish I hadn’t. If I’m strapped to a machine, it must be running out of gas. Not with a bang but a whimper.

Then something happens. It doesn’t seem like much at first, but one thing leads to another, and next thing you know… How often has a story taken shape from an unpromising setup like this?

In this particular setup the machine continues to accelerate, partly by jettisoning its excess weight. Workers have been powering the machine to be sure, but they’ve also been pulled along by it. Now they’re left behind, watching as the machine surges toward the singularity, shrinking into the vanishing point on the technological event horizon. Don’t merely destroy the means of production: seize them, take control of them – the workers never had a chance really, and now the controls are way out of reach. Revert to the pre-industrial age of smallholders and herders, of wandering minstrels and storytellers? It’s the nostalgic yearning for a past that none of them had ever experienced in their lifetimes. Mystical post-apocalyptic millennialism? It’s so difficult to set aside the self-reflexive irony. Demand that the machine reverse its thrusters and return, putting the workers back on the job in the engine room or else just carrying them along for a free ride? Right.

Maybe the obvious scheme is for the redundant workers to start cobbling together their own machine from the obsolete and abandoned components of the accelerating machine that’s left them in its dust. Left to their own devices, the obsolete workers can improvise a world of their own in the abandoned ruins. The problem, though, lies in the central metaphor. The machine isn’t accelerating away; it’s accelerating through. Nothing is left behind; the machine turns even the rubble and the rubbish and the homeless into profit centers.

And maybe too there’s something wrong with the acceleration idea. Corporate profits continue trending upward, but the economy as a whole is pretty sluggish, with the GNP in most advanced Western economies growing at 2 percent annually. Other than a lot of job automation and ecological destruction along with some cool phone apps, the technological thrusters aren’t generating much that’s truly innovative or catalytic. Government is shrinking too. Also the book industry: fewer readers and lower sales, with adult coloring books being the fastest growing sector. Mostly what’s accelerating is the gap between the one percent and everyone else. That’s the case even among writers, with revenues increasingly concentrated in the upper tier of best sellers.

In short, I’m probably not the only one who feels like everything is slowing down. I understand that most people who actually still have jobs are working harder and longer for less pay, that even filling in a coloring book presents a challenge when it comes to filling in one’s limited down time. And for what? It’s harder to stay fully engaged in work that seems so pointless, so destructive, so stagnant. That’s not just my view either: the Gallup pollsters find that only about a third of American workers are “engaged employees” who are “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”

Maybe there are two machines. One is the accelerating engine, run by and for the one percent, devoted primarily to increasing investor profits. The accelerator pushes workers harder and faster until, inevitably, it cuts them loose. The other engine, the decelerating one, is characterized by widespread apathy, disengagement, anhedonia, hopelessness. Together the two engines are playing a zero-sum game, with the accelerating engine being fueled by the decelerating engine. Sort of like the human batteries energizing the AIs in The Matrix (though that seemed like an awfully inefficient energy source, as well as a rather pointless expenditure of that energy by the AIs just to keep the illusory world up and running).

Fictional narratives – sometimes books, but more often TV and movies – function as components in both engines. The fiction industry is a component in the accelerating engine, a source of revenues and profits. The industry’s product – fiction as a commodity – keeps the decelerating engine chugging along, serving as circuit breaker, escape valve, recharger, distraction, and propaganda device for the workers whose efforts to turbocharge the accelerator are grinding them down into obsolescence. Too cynical? The Matrix was marketed as a wake-up call for would-be insurgents, but mostly it spawned two really bad sequels while generating hundreds of millions of dollars for the accelerating engine. The red pill is the blue pill.