Scrawled in Wax

WHERE MODERN THINGS MELT INTO OTHER MODERN THINGS

Finding a Home

Anyone who’s ever spoken to me about the internets knows I’m a bit obsessed with the concept “n-1“. Lifted from the intro to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, the concept essentially represents an inversion of the Enlightenment analytic framework: rather than starting from a singular unit or object and building an understanding outward, one instead takes the always too-big multiple as a starting point and subtracts. The point is to not only foreground the numerous networks of relations that constitute the object, it also highlights the provisional nature of each analytic moment – that, in effect, the act of a reading is also an act of writing, a specific choice to arrange a system of relations in a certain way. In that act of arranging, one also must acknowledge the possibility of an alternative.

It works for so many things: for a kind of phenomenology of Twitter; the logic of the database; understanding how digital has changed the idea of “the collection”; and so on ad infinitum.

I’m wondering, though, if I haven’t reached a kind of limit in my personal embrace of n-1.

I only say this because of a feeling of dislocation lately. For years, I’ve spoken about immersing myself in the web’s ceaseless flow – of the glut of RSS feeds, the rushing stream of Twitter, or the never-ending cluster of tabs. Well-managed, that’s all and fine and good. It just takes a well-tuned ability to focus on what’s important to oneself, and quickly and efficiently cast off what is not.

But I now realize that, at least for someone like myself, that kind of decentred approach in which one is constantly left attempting to constitute a relationship to the sea of information – orienting oneself not only ideologically, but pragmatically in terms of ‘the attention economy’ – can be draining. It can be overwhelming. I’ve recently found myself paralyzed, partly because I’m always seeing so many different sides of things, but also because uttering an opinion – something I have to do to pay the bills – often takes the form of attempting to get all sides of an argument right. I find it leaves me stretched – as if I am writing as a mythical neutral character rather than myself.

It’s as if what I need is a centre – or something like a home.

A home is a space of self-definition, or a way to anchor oneself. It is a metaphor for an outlook, an ideological position, a social grouping, or an identity. It must, lest it descend into dogmatism or rigidity, be a porous concept. And for many, finding such a space specifically online would be unnecessary, because their lives are not lacking that belonging. Mine, however, happens to. And I realized that I was missing a home – a locus from which to speak outward, rather than constantly attempting to find my footing on a sand dune constantly slipping away from itself.

All of this is a very long-winded way to say that Snarkmarket, that bastion of optimism and smarts, is cranking up again, and has expanded beyond its core triumvirate of Tim Carmody, Robin Sloan, and Matt Thompson to include, oh, about 20 or 30 other members of the Snarkmatrix, including me. Already there’s a few fascinating posts up with very cool comment threads. The whole thing feels very retro and very pleasant, and I’ve been finding myself feeling not only more invigorated, but also just a bit calmer: as if what I needed wasn’t more organization, or more self-control, or less distraction – but simply to have a place or community in which I felt like I belonged.

Defending the Realness of the Unreal Self

Or, rather, if I had a chance or the time to rewrite it, that’s what I would have said. Something about the representation of self as ‘unreal’, but that’s why it’s so vital to defend from snooping. Or something.

Anyway, because I have nothing else to put on this blog right now, over at Hazlitt I consider a couple of things: if people (like Jonathan Safran Foer in the NYT) say that the virtual is unreal, and takes us away from what’s important, then why do we get so antsy about the idea that our ‘virtual lives’ might be surveilled? And more importantly, if our metaphors of ‘authentic living’ so often involve transparency and light – that we must ‘be seen as ourselves’ – do we need a different metaphor for the ‘authentic augmented cyborg self’? i.e. one that embraces opacity, obfuscation? Or is that just a coping mechanism?

But yeah, it’d be nice at some time to come back to this idea and think about whether privacy is actually more important for spaces of fantasy than it is for the usual normative behaviours we find online – and are arguably encouraged by the panoptic nature of social media.

Anyway, my editor seemed to suggest it was less stupid and less badly written than most of my drivel, so if you like, take a gander here.

Don would know what to do…

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After blitzing through season 5 recently, I was recently catching up on the latest episodes of Mad Men. Though the show always has lots to talk about, what struck  me was a tiny moment (spoiler!) in which Don needed the simplest of looks from Sylvia Rosen to know he should head back upstairs for another ‘romantic dalliance’. The reason it stood out? If I had been given that look, I would have nodded politely, headed off to work, and spent the rest of the day wondering what it meant.

In fact, my life has been a litany of missed and misunderstood romantic looks. There was the New Year’s Eve party in which repeated, prolonged glances from a woman only made me exasperatedly respond “What?!” There was the time I dropped off a coworker at 5AM and, when she cocked her head and asked me if I wanted to come in, I obliviously said “No, it’s late, I’m gonna’ go home and sleep.” I’ve even had a woman analyze my hopelessness at the end of an evening: “yeah, there were a couple of times that were perfect for you to kiss me… but you didn’t.”

It’s as if I were absent the day everyone else got their Romantic Moments 101 Handbook. Once during grad school, we had our last class at the professor’s house. There, over beer and talk of the sublime, I kept glancing at another student, who kept meeting my gaze in return and smiling. When class was done, we said farewell on the street and—while she stood next to her boyfriend, mind you—she looked intensely at me, with an expression you might describe as…. pleading? Apparently I was supposed to do or say something so that we could… what? Meet later so she could cheat on her boyfriend? I have precisely no idea.

But then, that’s just the way my life is. When I walk into a bar or a party, I feel as if everyone is speaking a completely silent language made up of looks and gestures that only they understand. I think perhaps that’s why I find Mad Men so compelling: it’s full of people who all know how to interpret this mute world of meaning. And I guess that’s why Don Draper is the perfect anti-hero. You can tell he’s an awful person, but you’re still jealous of his prowess. He would have known what those looks meant, would have known the next move to make—and he would have done it, too.

Idea #7: An Ode to the Sentence


Readers of Scrawled in Wax are likely familiar with Nieman Storyboard’s “Why’s This So Good?“, an ongoing feature which takes a work of long-form journalism and, well, tries to explain why it’s so good. It’s a brilliant bit of insider baseball because the vagaries of long form excellence – the narrative arc, those short, punctuated paragraphs that reveal fascinating tidbits, the careful restraint by which a writer often speaks through circumlocution – are difficult to tease out, even for experienced writers.

But what about the sentence? Sometimes, it is that basic unit of long form writing that can be so beautiful. The precision and care of the well-crafted sentence, after all, is writing. It is that fastidious love for the ordering of words — a la Jakobson’s view of poetry as an emphasis upon substitution rather than sequence — which makes writing an art.

Utterly awash in utterly banal language, I rarely have the patience for poetry or a poetic appreciation of language. But it was the following paragraph from Ta-Nehisi Coates that reminded me of something which I used to hold dear:

When your life is besieged, the music is therapy, vicarious mastery in a world where you control virtually nothing, least of all the fate of your body. I had a friend in middle school who would play Rakim every morning because he knew there was a good chance that he would be jumped en route to or from school by the various crews that roamed the area. But, in his mind, the mask of rap machismo made him too many for them.

It was that last clause which stopped me dead in my tracks. I mean, not too big, not too strong, not too tough – too many. What a brilliant turn of phrase, one that in just a fragment manages to evoke the dialectic of virtually projected image and the material body, and the aching desire for one pole of the binary to supersede the other.

So what about a “Why’s This So Good?” for the sentence – except rather sentences in fiction a la traditional literary analysis, we look at sentences in journalism, on social media, etc – i.e. the language that makes up our daily interaction with words.

I know I’ve talked a lot about Twitter over the years, but it’s always fascinated me to watch so many gifted writers work within the constraints of the medium, crafting and then re-crafting clauses to fit in that tiny space. Wouldn’t it be great to sit back and think about what makes the truly great ones work — what rhetorical devices produce what effect; of how the linearity of language can be used to conjure an expectation, only to have it reversed just a few words in; of how to foreground a particular ethos through vocabulary or tone; and what distinguishes the brilliant ‘standalone’ sentence to a tweet very much ‘of its time’, almost down to the minute?

But Jesus: too many for them. It’s that which is really the concern. How might we emulate the spirit of a sentence that does so much with so little?

Which is to say: how, as a swirl of forces constantly tugs at attention and soul, might we learn to say so much more with less?

Idea #6: Secular Sunday Services

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I spent the first quarter of 2006 living in Galway City, a small, nearly perfect town in western Ireland. Here’s one thing I learned while there.

In the early 1960s, on the site of what was once a jail, Galway chose to erect something rather surprising: a great stone cathedral, in the tradition of similarly grand religious buildings scattered all across Europe. It’s sorta’ brilliant. Situated on the banks of the river Corrib, it’s a relatively new building that feels old. Entering it is almost akin to experiencing what a medieval cathedral must have felt like shortly after it was built. Sitting inside it was as calming as it was awe-inspiring.

Sometimes on Sundays, I and Roxanne, the charming lady with whom I lived at the time, would saunter over to the Cathedral to partake in the Sunday service. Though I’m far from ‘a believer’, the lingering antagonism I had toward theism simply gave way in the face of the peace and ritual of a Sunday morning spent with others, heads bowed.

What struck me most, however, was the idea of taking time each week to reflect upon one’s life and its relation to one’s principles. The priest’s sermons, though obviously underpinned by the Catholic faith, nonetheless had a way of speaking to me. It wasn’t so much about the assertion of a particular set of principles that drew me in, though. Rather, what appealed was the opportunity to ask myself whether I was living by mine. What I heard was something like “Are you, good Christian soldier, spending your time chasing one definition of success and abandoning what’s really important?” But put Art, Pleasure or Family in the place of God and the question once again becomes relevant to those who don’t believe.

Instead of simply fostering an ethos of ‘self-help’, however, I also liked the anti-modern feel of the whole thing. I can’t find it now, but scholar Alan Jacobs once tweeted something like “modern Christianity is transgressive because, in its refusal of selfishness, it resists the tenor of the age.” I may have that wrong, but that’s the idea which stuck with me. Regardless of what you think of that, there’s something very interesting about a ritual and community space explicitly  not meant to fit within economic structures of consumption and the attendant focus upon self-concern. In our imaginary secular meeting space, there is no equipment to buy, no smartphone through which to access something, no purchase or insider knowledge to conspicuously perform. There is only a desire to put yourself somewhere and pause in order to think about whether there is a disparity between the kind of person you are, and the kind you wish to be.

So. Idea #6 is the secular Sunday service: a weekly gathering, led by a rotating set of speakers who, in relating a tale or a series of thoughts, beckons you to always be on two seemingly contradictory paths that are in fact one and the same: of ever being on the verge of becoming a radically different person; and being just about to truly become yourself.

Oh: a really really nice building also helps.

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