The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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A family resemblance of obsessions

At HiLobrow, Matthew Battles interviews Tim Maly about his 50 Cyborgs project, for which Robin and I both wrote posts. Tim (Tim M, the other Tim) has a lot of nice things to say about Snarkmarket, and the whole interview is in part a response to Robin’s call for a postmortem on the project, but the interview’s mostly interesting for the smart things Tim says in response to Matt’s smart proddings.


A fair amount of the discussion circles around the nature of language. Here’s a representative chunk, where Matthew asks Tim about whether or not nonfiction criticism needs (or already has) a “fanfic impulse”:

I’m thinking about how Bruce Sterling in particular has identified or refined a series of concepts—spime, atemporality, favela chic, design fiction, to name a few — which people who aren’t students of his, but fans of his critique, sort of take up and extend. Maybe “hilobrow” has pretensions to this kind of conceptul life; “bookfuturism,” too has fans, now, and a life of its own. Of course we’re always doing this sort of thing in public discourse; it’s just a notion I have now that “fandom” becomes another mode or style of relating, alongside classroom, chiefdoms/tribes, and mentorship, among other models. Call it “fancrit”? Or not…

Tim is game, and runs with the “fancrit” idea:

The interesting thing about this, I think, is that where fanfic is necessarily ghettoized (you are playing with someone else’s copyrighted characters and worlds) fancrit is fed by a long academic tradition of fighting for mindshare via vocabulary. Sterling coins spime and that’s a meaningful event only to the extent that he can lose control of it. He wins when people start using the word without bothering to attribute it to him. Clynes & Kline coin cyborg and they end up winning to the point where Clynes becomes irritated with the way the meaning shifts and is twisted.

If you don’t get that etymological/genealogical twisting of cyborg from Clynes and Kline’s original, limited meaning, you don’t get 50 posts about it; the term itself isn’t generative or potent enough to move beyond its first-generation instance. It’s a concept that can’t conceive, in the sexual/reproductive sense.


That’s the power of language, which can be a dangerous power — it’s always exceeding our ability to, Humpty-Dumpty like, determine once and for all what words mean.

But it also means that words can be put into motion without permission, without determination — that they can circulate without anyone needing to hold them fast, or play Pope to decide what’s in and what’s out. They have a life of their own.

This is what I also like in Bruce Sterling’s comment on TM and MB’s conversation:

Some remarkable stuff in this discussion about positioning for niche intelligentsia eyeballs in the modern post-blogosphere. I think people used to call that activity “publishing,” but nowadays it’s a creolized effort badly in need of a neologism.

We don’t have a word for this! Let’s make one up! We have an old word, but it doesn’t work any more; it doesn’t mean what it should, or it means too much. Let’s let it go! Let it mean something else — and we can all talk about this in a different way.


I have something that I’m fond of saying, and it’s totally drawn from my training in philosophy: sometimes the most important thing you can do in an argument is to point out that we don’t have to talk about it the way we’ve always talked about it.

If you asked me to boil down the “real meaning” of the Bookfuturist manifesto I wrote, I’d say it’s that. We almost always talk about the relationship between culture and technology in very predictable ways that don’t solve problems. So let’s not talk about them that way anymore.

If you want a better example, look at this post on education, pointed to me by Rob Greco:

The “problems” we face with schools are right now are less about the schools themselves and more about a lack of vision and a fear of change. Put simply, the age-grouped, subject-delineated, 8 am-2 pm, September-June, one-size-fits-all system that we have makes the process of education easy. The realities of personal, self-directed, real problem-solving learning in a connected world are anything but.

Still, the hardest reality right now is that there is no groundswell to do school differently, not just “better.” Seems it’s easy to see a path to “better.” “Different” is just too scary.


If you want to do philosophy, or to show someone what it means to do philosophy, even your grandma, or a seven-year-old, get a group of people into a room and ask them, “what is a sport?”

Quickly, you’ll get strong opinions. Some people don’t think golf is a sport; other people don’t think figure skating should be one. Is dodgeball a sport? What about “tag”? (Some people are really good at tag.) Table tennis? Video games? Cheerleading? If not, why not? Eventually, people will try to come up with definitions. The definitions will resolve some problems but inevitably, they’ll exclude something that everyone in the room agrees is at least a borderline case.

What’s great about it is that you’re not arguing about the fundamental nature of the universe, drawing on complex symbolic logic, or questioning people’s ethical or religious beliefs (you know, depending on how strongly they feel about baseball).

You haven’t assigned any reading. There’s no mathematical equation to be solved, reference work to consult, or tool to be used to solve the problem. But everyone agrees that you’re talking about a real thing, something that actually exists and is relatively important, and at least for most of us, worth having an opinion about.

All you’re doing is asking everyone in the room to ask themselves: when I use such-and-such a word, what do I mean? What am I assuming? What am I committing myself to? If there’s a dispute between two people about how to use a word or what it means, how do we resolve it? How do we decide with language how we use language? And how do we do this, for the most part, completely organically and without great complication?

It’s a wonder. And it deserves to be wondered at.


Tim Maly has a great phrase for the group he gathered to work on 50 Cyborgs:

I’m lucky to have this great community (clique?) that’s emerged around a bunch of people whose work I love who have a family resemblance of obsessions.

“Family-resemblance,” if you don’t know, is an important phrase in philosophy. It’s the phrase Ludwig Wittgenstein uses to describe just the process I described above — how words like “game,” “sport,” “cyborg,” “community,” “book,” or “publishing” don’t have a single fixed meaning, a picture of a thing that you can match to each word, like God’s own dictionary.

Instead we’ve got this sloppy, fleshy language that generates and regenerates itself over time and across space and forms new clusters and meanings, and we can’t even collect the entire extension of the concept; all we can say is this word is used in such-and-such-a-way, and, within the broad unspoken assumptions of the lifeworld of a particularly community, we know what we mean and we know how to resolve misunderstandings.

Blogs — the best blogs — are public diaries of preoccupations. The reason why they are preoccupations is that you need someone who is continually pushing on the language to regenerate itself. The reason why they are public is so that those generations and regenerations and degenerations can find their kin, across space, across fame, across the likelihood of a connection, and even across time itself, to be rejoined and reclustered together.

Because that is how language and language-users are reborn; that is how the system, both artificial and natural, loops backward upon and maintains itself; because that is how a public and republic are made, how a man can be a media cyborg, and also become a city. That’s how this place where we gather becomes home.

October 12, 2010 / Uncategorized


My husband and I bonded over this issue when we first met 16 years ago. We came up with the term “infinite tag” to describe these words – words that embody so many subtleties and are constantly changing and which to fully understand in the same way as your partner in conversation you need to exist in the same temporal and physical culture.

But that nomenclature appears to have been almost prescient, because now we use “tags” all the time to categorize and organize our “preoccupations” on blogs as well as on Twitter. Tagging itself is a science helping shape and push language forward.

Matthew Battles says…

Lovely, humbling rumination, Tim. And as for Bruce S.’s call for a neologism for “positioning for niche intelligentsia eyeballs,” I’d like to think it ought to have some family resemblance to “spinning.” First, because “spin” catches the DJ spirit. But more fundamentally, there’s some etymologizing-by-analogy possible here: “publishing,” after all, gets its eyes and its smile from the public—its daddy is the public sphere. So we want a term that analogously relates the work of eyeball-catching to the ways in which our audiences aggregate. And our audiences don’t necessarily comprise a public, properly speaking; they’re webs. And webs are spun.

But maybe I’ve buried my lede here—which would be, a web is not a public. Now I’m going to have to get the family together and ask them what they think of that!

Here’s one of my favorite bits of whole thing—a total throwaway line in the intro graf: “In the first week of October, Maly and I met in Google Docs…”

Of course! Like: where else would you hold an interview in 2010? Awesome.

I’ve become an enormous fan of Google docs for holding interviews. Much better than email. For awhile I’d been thinking of doing some interviews but I just don’t have the time or desire to record 2 hours of talking and transcribe it.

But Google docs changes all of that. So ramping up that new project now.

There’s a lot that is very appealing and successful about the “fandom” model, even beyond the basic idea of taking a platform and running with it. From being fascinated with fanwork over the past few months:

A fandom is a community of reader-writers where pretty much everybody actively participates in the construction process (directly commenting on stories, writing their own stories, “beta-ing”/editing, writing “rec lists”), as opposed to the modern “one pro writer + some reviewers and academics and book clubs + a zillion fairly passive readers” interaction. It’s more pre-modern, more stories-around-a-campfire style…like a blog community.

Fandom is an additive process, where all efforts are welcomed and encouraged: it’s easy for anybody to post to central places where you get some readers, there’s not much of a barrier to entry, and even terrible beginner contributions get a few “You chose a great subject!” comments. The system of “beta readers” (every writer finds another fan to edit her stories before she posts them, often a friend or a person who becomes a friend) helps keep quality somewhat decent. It’d be pretty nice if blogging had more of this.

The core franchise/show/book/concept provides a set of unifying values and characters and tropes, really just a set of constraints to keep the community together. It’s a structure that people then build whole sets of ideas and original work and friendships on.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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