This entry begins my week in the Snarkmarket Seminar, but even if you’re not a seminarian, you should feel welcome to comment here!
Hello. I’ve dubbed my lecture in our ongoing Snarkmarket Seminar “Worldbuilding: Mutual Acts of Creation.”
Before we continue, I’m going to ask you to play a game called Parameters, for at least 20 minutes, or until you beat it, whichever you prefer. I’ll warn you that the game is pretty cryptic, so you’ll probably need to click around for a while until you start to get the feel of things. But I’d ask that unless you completely hate the experience, you give it about 20 minutes before you give up. Here’s the link.
You can play for as long as you’d like, and truthfully, you don’t have to play to engage with the questions and ideas I’ll be presenting here. But I think it’ll help. So I’ll pause now, and wait for you to return.
How was that? Was it fun? I genuinely want to know, so if you’d pause one more time and take a quick survey — which you’ll find here — I’d appreciate it.
In case it’s not clear, Parameters is basically a spreadsheet. That’s reductive, of course. There’s a lot more to it than your average spreadsheet. And clearly plenty of thought went into the feeling of the game-ish aspects of it, the way the money and experience come bouncing out of the boxes all random and fun, the little animation of attacking the boxes with your mouse and watching the colors recede and rebound as you click.
But a determined developer with some time, elbow grease and Google Apps Script could probably create something reasonably close to Parameters in a Google Spreadsheet.
When I play Parameters, though, I recognize it as a deconstructed version of every role playing game I’ve ever played. So let me talk about role playing games — RPGs — for a second.
This is the opening scene to the game Skyrim — a pretty recent RPG. I’m just going to shut up for a second and let you watch it.
To me, this is kind of gorgeous and cinematic — slowly waking up to this wintry world, bound in the back of a wagon. As a player of the game, you have very little agency at this point. You can look around, but that’s about it. As the first 10 or so minutes of the game progress, they’ll start taking off the training wheels and unveiling more and more of the game’s controls bit by bit. This allows you to get a handle on the game’s basic mechanics and storyline before they send you out into this incredibly detailed world.
But once that tutorial is done, part of the majesty of the game is how thoroughly rendered it all is. Every tree, every mountain, every path that you’ve glimpsed during this little opening segment is a part of the world you’ll be able to visit and interact with. Many of the plants you pass along the side of the road during this opening wagon ride are actually available to harvest later if you’d like.
Skyrim is so extraordinarily detailed, you could actually sort of live in this world if you wanted to. You could buy a house, make a living for yourself hunting animals and selling their pelts to merchants, find a partner, get married. But so that you don’t get overwhelmed with all of that at the start, they introduce you to that world this way, bound by your digital hands, encountering one by one all the incredible varieties of things you can do.
It’s a pretty sharp contrast with Parameters, isn’t it? That opening screen written in Japanese wasn’t really that much more helpful to me after I found the “English” button. It’s hard for me to think of two more different introductions to a game than these.
Yet Parameters is essentially Skyrim boiled down to its basic essence. I’m being very reductive when I say that, but on a fundamental and important level, it’s true.
The fundamental structure of both of these games goes back to Dungeons and Dragons, and probably even before. You’ve got your hit points, your stats like attack power and defense power and endurance, you earn experience and gold by plundering caves and fighting enemies (or in Parameters’ case, yellow boxes). Parameters even presents the classic RPG phenomenon known as grinding, where in order to defeat more advanced enemies, you spend time hunting down and earning experience from lesser foes.
So when I first found myself playing Parameters and getting the basic concepts, I quickly started imagining that RPG world. I saw the boxes as monsters and the locked black tiles as caves. I pictured the big box at the bottom of the screen as a dragon. The squares that let you pay to up your stats or purchase keys I saw as your classic merchants. All of these basic elements that you’d find in Skyrim or a Final Fantasy game or any other RPG are present in this game that’s basically a spreadsheet, and being familiar with this language, I found myself visualizing it in my head.
This brings me at last to what I’m most interested in: that imaginative act.
My thesis is that works like Parameters and so many other texts similar and not involve two mutual, symbiotic creative acts — the world constructed by the author, and the world constructed by the reader.
By reader, of course, I also mean user, listener, watcher … this is “reader” in the sense that Beck might have meant it in his recent un-album “Song Reader,” which I’ll come back to in a minute.
What I’m most particularly interested in is that second act of creation, the world the reader creates.
Had I the talent and know-how, I could probably even take the world that Parameters inspires in my head and actually make a game engine that actually renders that big ol’ box at the bottom as a moving, fire-breathing dragon.
And then I would have created Skyrim.
But of course users actually do this with Skyrim! The game inspires them to build these hugely time-intensive, significant worlds on top of the worlds the game’s developers have already constructed. They’re called “mods.” There’s a mod for Skyrim that even turns the world of the game into the world of Game of Thrones, the HBO series based on George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels.
That type of creation — modding Skyrim — is basically a form of fan fiction, which is the most obvious manifestation of this creative act I’m talking about. And this is one of my first and biggest questions: What are the conditions that best inspire fan fiction? Why do things like Skyrim and Game of Thrones provoke people to spin out these stories into these enormous extended universes? How does a creative work inspire so much creativity in its audience?
I’m interested in the fact that Parameters sparks this vivid world in my head, but I have no real desire to further manifest that in any essential way. It would seem that the difference between something like Parameters and something like Skyrim in terms of inspiring further output is that Skyrim gives you the foundation of this incredibly rich and detailed world. You don’t need to build the engine to turn the box into a giant dragon, the game’s engineers have already spent significant effort on doing that for you.
But then I think about Scott McCloud and his simplicity theory for comics, which suggests in part that the more room the author leaves us to imagine something, the more we can and do imagine, and so the more we can project ourselves into a world. He points out that our brains are hardwired to scan the world for this pattern: two dots in a circle. And that for most of us, we can’t see that pattern without imagining a face. This is why McCloud says he draws himself so simply: to help his readers with their worldbuilding. To give them more freedom to imagine him, and therefore to empathize with him.
It feels like this idea clashes with what happens with worlds like those of Skyrim and Game of Thrones, worlds so detailed, they’d ostensibly leave the reader little space to imagine on their own. We’ve seen Skyrim’s depth, but let me talk about Game of Thrones for a second.
This is one of those fantasy universes so richly drawn that the show’s producers have actually hired a nonprofit called the Language Creation Society to manufacture one of the languages used on the show. There’s a blog about making this language, named after the language itself: “Dothraki.” If you’re a nerd like me, this blog is actually sort of fascinating, delving into how the fictional history of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy universe would likely have unfolded linguistically, based on what we know about how languages evolved in our world. I’m going to quote a snippet:
According to ancient lore, the Ghiscari Empire fell some 5,000 years prior to the time of action in A Song of Ice and Fire. The empire warred five times with the Valyrian Empire, ultimately falling each time because the Valyrians had dragons. After the fifth war, the Valyrians decimated the old city of Ghis, burning down the buildings and salting the earth so that none would ever return.
So what happened then? Well, Ghiscari had been the language of the empire. As the diaspora spread, the Valyrian Empire took over (until its untimely fall several thousand years later), and the High Valyrian language supplanted the Ghiscari language.
Naturally, what would have happened is that the residents of Slaver’s Bay who spoke Ghiscari would have gradually moved over to High Valyrian, creolizing it along the way. It seems likely that an aristocratic class would have maintained a working knowledge of actual High Valyrian to use with emissaries from the Valyrian Empire, but the day-to-day language would have evolved in a way similar to French or Spanish (i.e. not like either of those languages, but evolving in the way that those languages evolved from Latin).
The post goes on to share some of the Dothraki dialogue that would show up in the Game of Thrones Season 3 premiere.
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This is how many worlds have been spun out of that first giant world created by George R. R. Martin. A blog based on a language based on a show based on a series of books — each thing a whole lovely world of its own. This all suggests that rendering a world in extraordinary detail doesn’t seem to prevent others from building worlds of their own on top of it.
So there’s another question for you: what is the relationship between how detailed a world is and how much worldbuilding it inspires?
I’m interested in stories that cause their readers to build worlds because I’m interested in endlessness — for a long time I’ve been obsessed with stories that beget stories and worlds that don’t have boundaries. If you’ve been with Snarkmarket since the beginning, you probably recognize this as a theme of my thought.
I once thought it would be really fun to get a job managing the digital components of the show Gossip Girl, because of the worldbuilding potential there. I said:
Here you’ve got a television series that purports to be fully post-media — the central conceit of the show is the title character’s blog, which all the show’s characters interact with constantly from a stunning variety of mobile devices. Although it struggles for Nielsen ratings, it was picked up for a full season allegedly because of its popularity on iTunes (indicating where the series’ audience is). And importantly, the show’s entire telos is allowing its audience to eavesdrop on the lives of a glamorous subculture.
If any television show could have led the way for an immersive, cross-platform handoff between the boob tube and the cybertubez, Gossip Girl is it. We should be able to sign up for text alerts from G.G.’s blog, pinging us with the scandalous goings-on of the show’s principals. Whenever all the characters in the show are reading a missive from Gossip Girl on their cell phones, we should be able to read it on ours! There should be a Gossip Girl version of the Gawker Stalker, mapping the travels of Manhattan’s elite across the Upper East Side! The show’s website should be a dizzy wonderland of interactive innuendo, filled with voices (some, of course, claiming to be from the show’s fictive universe) commenting on the antics of the characters, all helping to compose and extend the show’s mythology.
So far I’ve only really discussed fictional texts, but of course I’m interested in things other than fiction. I might even be mainly interested in things other than fiction.
I think there’s something about texts that demand a lot of a reader — texts that require an investment just to enter the world of the text. It might be that that investment, once committed, is itself a spark to start creating. Parameters and Game of Thrones are both like this, in different ways. In Parameters, the demand is the opacity of the rulesystem; you have to spend some time just figuring out how it even works. In the case of Game of Thrones, it’s the very extensiveness of the world that makes it demanding, particularly if you’re actually talking about the books. But even the television series will stretch out over dozens of hours.
But then there are texts that require creation to even get into the game, like Beck’s “Song Reader,” which I mentioned earlier. This is Beck’s most recent collection of music, only it’s not actually an album, it’s a book of sheet music.
“Song Reader” fascinates me because it combines a pretty old phenomenon with a very new one. At one time, this type of thing was the entire music industry. Before records existed, artists didn’t release recorded music, they released sheet music. A piano was as ubiquitous a fixture in middle class homes as a speaker system or radio would be today. When a new song was released, you’d buy the sheet music, run home, and play it with your friends and family — a thousand little concerts happening in a thousand little homes.
But today, we’ve got this enormous, super-popular infrastructure not just for playing these songs, but for sharing them worldwide. Each of those thousand little concerts is likely to get uploaded to YouTube. You can’t really call them “cover versions,” ‘cause there’s no original, per se. So this, this right here, this YouTube query for the song “Old Shanghai,” is basically the equivalent of the single. This strikes me as a sort of worldbuilding as well.
Of course, several video games work this way, such as Minecraft and SimCity. They’re games that are actually canvases for creation. They’re more toys than games, even, like Legos or dolls. I think any creator can learn a lot from these things. But for the purposes of this discussion, I’m most interested in texts that are both discrete creative works in themselves and tinder for the creativity of others.
Another question: is worldbuilding always valuable? I wonder about works whose creators actually sort of resist the act of worldbuilding. Mark Rothko, for example, asked viewers of his art to consider his works as complete, self-contained entities, not as landscapes or references to things outside the canvas. But whenever I see one of Rothko’s large, suggestive canvases, I almost can’t help imagining it as a window into a world. To do that, I have to consciously try to shut down the impulse in my head to read it as a landscape, to just dial it back to colors, textures, moods, and scale and that actually sort of disrupts my experience of the art. Let me build a world out of this, I want to tell Mark Rothko. But of course, he can’t prevent me, so I do.
Journalists — particularly investigative journalists — are in the business of worldbuilding, whether or not they realize it. They’re trying to discover and connect facts in order to create a model of our own world, to understand it better.
Just this week the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (by the way, this is basically a shameless plug for their work; I’m on the board) released a massive investigation in partnership with news organizations across the world giving us a look at the shadowy domain of offshore tax havens. This is a corner of international society that operates in near-total darkness. Wealthy individuals tend to pad their offshore holdings with layers upon layers of intermediaries and puppet companies. Much of this is perfectly legal behavior to protect giant wads of capital, but some of it is intended to obfuscate laws and cloak illicit businesses. Because it all happens in this shadow corner of the world, it’s very difficult to figure out what’s what.
Like many investigative projects today, this one has at its center a gigantic database, one that actually dwarfs the US State Department cables released by Wikileaks. So investigative journalists from all over the world partnered to take this data and construct it into a faithful and quite detailed model of reality.
When we crowdsource an investigation like this one, releasing a giant data set and ask people to play with it, what I think we’re asking them to do is build a world with us, to participate in the mutual acts of creation. To create fan nonfiction.
So there’s the essential question: How do authors of all kinds inspire readers of all kinds to build worlds? What are the magic ingredients of a creative work that let it yield more creative works?
As you can tell, I’m leaving you with nothing but questions. But I haven’t yet questioned my premise itself. Is what I’m calling worldbuilding actually just creativity — is it just that creativity begets creativity? — or are these actually overlapping but distinct concepts? And if there is a difference between worldbuilding and creativity, is it merely that some of the worlds we create manifest themselves as works of their own rather than just sounds and images in our heads? So then how do you create something that cultivates that leap from the imagination to the canvas?
Thank you for playing, watching, listening and reading. I’ll see you in the comments.
My books are better thought about than read. They’re insanely dull and unreadable; I mean, do you really want to sit down and read a year’s worth of weather reports or a transcription of the 1010 WINS traffic reports “on the ones” (every ten minutes) over the course of a twenty-four-hour period? I don’t. But they’re wonderful to talk about and think about, to dip in and out of, to hold, to have on your shelf. In fact, I say that I don’t have a readership, I have a thinkership. I guess this is why what I do is called “conceptual writing.” The idea is much more important than the product…
My favorite books on my shelf are the ones that I can’t read, like Finnegans Wake, The Making of Americans, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, or The Arcades Project. I love the idea that these books exist. I love their size and scope; I adore their ambition; I love to pick them up, open them at random, and always be surprised; I love the fact that I will never know them. They’ll never go out of style; they’re timeless; they’re always new to me. I wanted to write books just like these. I think you hit it just right when you spoke of reference books. I never wanted my books to be mistaken for poetry or fiction books; I wanted to write reference books. But instead of referring to something, they refer to nothing. I think of them as ’pataphysical reference books.
For more on pataphysics (which I don’t think really needs that apostrophe), aka “the science of imaginary solutions,” read this.
I also found this fascinating, especially coming from the man who wrote “If It Doesn’t Exist on the Internet, It Doesn’t Exist” (back in 2005):
I’ve made a move in the Luddite direction recently by trying to remove UbuWeb from Google. I want the site to be more underground, more word-of-mouth. The only way you’ll be able to find it is if someone links to it or tells you about it, just like music used to be before MTV. But you’ll still find UbuWeb on all the bad search engines that no one uses: AltaVista, Dogpile, and Yahoo! Again, everyone wants to rush toward the center: they even write books about how to get your Google ranking higher. We’re headed in the opposite direction. We want to get off Google.
But actually, even if you go back to that 2005 essay, it has this gorgeous coda, under the subhed “The New Radicalism”:
In concluding, I’m going to drop a real secret on you. Used to be that if you wanted to be subversive and radical, you’d publish on the web, bypassing all those arcane publishing structures at no cost. Everyone would know about your work at lightening speed; you’d be established and garner credibility in a flash, with an adoring worldwide readership.
Shhhh… the new radicalism is paper. Right. Publish it on a printed page and no one will ever know about it. It’s the perfect vehicle for terrorists, plagiarists, and for subversive thoughts in general. In closing, if you don’t want it to exist — and there are many reasons to want to keep things private — keep it off the web.
Something to think about, when you’re too busy not reading.
From Robert Krulwich’s 2011 commencement speech at UC-Berkeley’s Journalism School:
Some people when they look for a job in journalism ask themselves, What do I like to do and Who can take me there? Who can get me to a war zone? To a ballpark? To Wall Street? To politicians, to movie stars? Who’s got the vehicle? And you send them your resume and you say, “I want a seat in your car.” … And you wait.
But there are some people, who don’t wait.
I don’t know exactly what going on inside them; but they have this… hunger. It’s almost like an ache.
Something inside you says I can’t wait to be asked I just have to jump in and do it.
So for this age, for your time, I want you to just think about this: Think about NOT waiting your turn.
Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy. Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.
And when it comes to security, to protection, your friends may take better care of you than CBS took care of Charles Kuralt in the end. In every career, your job is to make and tell stories, of course. You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back.
And maybe that’s your way into Troy.
This speech makes me want to run around the entire internet, giving a million high-fives.
(via @edyong209, who gets high-five #001)
MIT’s Media Lab recently tapped angel investor Joi Ito to be its next director. This was met with a ton of applause from my Twitter feed and folks in the tech press — and everyone zeroed in on the fact that Ito, rather unusually for head of a top university center, doesn’t have a college diploma.
Silicon Alley Insider’s response sorta sums it up:
It’s a brilliant move, because Ito is not an academic: he attended two colleges but dropped out both times. Instead, he’s an entrepreneur, angel investor (in companies like Flickr, Last.fm and Twitter), open source software activist and generally highly regarded tech visionary.
This is obviously a great career move for Ito — there are few more prestigious jobs in tech than the MIT Media Lab — but it’s also a brilliant move from MIT. It recognizes that you don’t have to be an academic, or even a college graduate, to be a great innovator and leaders of other innovators.
I’d definitely agree with the last sentence, and Ito might absolutely be the right pick to run Media Lab. Another story I read talked about his unique ability to enable other brilliant people, arguing that it was rare for people his age, who tend to be focused on their own career. I honestly don’t know enough about him to judge.
But I think it’s weird that the lack of credentials are, paradoxically, being seen as a credential. Universities are freaky places. They don’t work like startups or big businesses, for good or for ill. Maybe MIT Media Lab needs to work more like that. But then it’s helpful to have somebody who knows and is comfortable with university culture to run interference and camouflage what’s happening in terms that the people who still are products of universities (and who, you know, completely outnumber you) will understand.
I’m surprised nobody writing about Ito’s appointment to MIT has referenced John Maeda’s appointment a few years ago as President of the Rhode Island School of Design. Maeda also came from the tech world, outside the academy. He had a PhD, although that wasn’t his selling credential. In fact, he actually came from MIT’s Media Lab!
Maeda, too, was super-admired by working tech and creative people all over the place. But since taking over at RISD, he’s had a supremely difficult time trying to push change or even handle ordinary business, facing votes of no confidence from faculty, and generally trying to find the right balance between innovating and respecting the existing balance.
President of a college is a much more closed, university-admin-style position than director of a semi-autonomous technology lab within a college setting. Maybe the difference between the two positions will make all the difference. But I’m not sure. Nobody is.
And even if Ito turns out to be a smashing success, we should be careful about assuming that this is universally generalizable — that talented VCs can just run everything through the sheer power of their awesomeness. It’s not so simple. It depends on the institution, the personality of the new person brought in, and what the leader and institution are able to build together.
Likewise — (COUGH) — it would be nice if this whole “hey, the skills you need to be successful in the technology world and the skills you need to work really well in the academic world aren’t so different!” sentiment worked the other way, too. People who got those credentials weren’t just wasting their time when they “should have been starting companies.”
Instead of spending their twenties doing body shots, chasing money, or trying to find themselves, people with PhDs were busting their ass working sixty-hour weeks, learning multiple languages, mastering research tools, and learning how to write, edit, and think.
It’s harder than you might think to use Google Ngrams to actually chart trends in cultural history — or do “culturomics,” as the Science article authors would have it — because of well-known problems with the data set.
Here, Matthew Battles tries (on more or less a lark) to see some history play out, Bethany Nowviskie spots a trend (maybe true, maybe false), and Sarah Werner flags the problem.
Aw, man — that fhit Seriously Pucks.
You know what would actually be pretty cool, though? If it were easier to go one level deeper and use Ngrams to do Google Instant Regression. You could graph trends against well-known noise (other s-words misread as f) AND other trends — or instantly find similar graphs.
Let’s say the curve of the graph for the f–word in the 1860s is similar to that for other words and phrases — like “ass”* or “confederacy”* — you could correlate language with other language, individual words with stock phrases, and even (using language as an index/proxy) extralinguistic cultural trends or historical events.
Single-variable analysis just doesn’t tell you very much, even on a data set as problematic as print/language. You need systematic data, and better comparison and control capacity between variables, before you can start to do real science.
(* Ignore for the purposes of this example ascribing contemporary historical meanings to these two ambiguous terms.)
Robin is absolutely right: I like lists, I remember everything I’ve ever seen or read, and I’ve been making course syllabi for over a decade, so I’m often finding myself saying “If you really want to understand [topic], these are the [number of objects] you need to check out.” Half the fun is the constraint of it, especially since we all now know (or should know) that constraints = creativity.
Looking to do some sort of survey on film history. Any sort of open curriculum out there like this that runs in tandem with Netflix Instant?
I quickly said, “I got this,” and got to work.
See, trying to choose over the set of every film ever made is ridiculously hard. Choosing over a well-defined subset is both easier and more useful.
Also, I knew I didn’t want to pick the best movies ever made, or my favorites, or even the most important. Again, that pressure, it’ll cripple you. I wanted to pick a smattering of films that if you watched any given, sufficiently large subset of them, you’d know a lot more about movies than when you started.
This is actually a lot like trying to design a good class. You’re not always picking the very best examples of whatever it is you’re talking about, or even the things that you most want your students to know, although obviously both of those factor into it. It’s much more pragmatic. You’re trying to pick the elements that the class is most likely to learn something from, that will catalyze the most chemistry. It’s a difficult thing to sort, but after you’ve done it for a while, it’s like driving a car, playing a video game, or driving a sport — you just start to see the possibilities opening up.
Then I decided to add my own constraints. First, I decided that I wasn’t going to include any movies after the early 1970s. You can quibble about the dates, but basically, once you get to the Spielberg-Scorsese-Coppola-Woody Allen generation of filmmakers — guys who are older but still active and supremely influential today — movies are basically recognizable to us. Jaws or Goodfellas or Paris, Texas are fantastic, classic, crucial movies, but you don’t really have to put on your historical glasses to figure them out and enjoy them, even if they came out before you were of movie-going age. The special effects are crummier, but really, movie-making just hasn’t changed that much.
Also, I wasn’t going to spend more than a half-hour putting it together. I knew film history and Netflix’s catalog well enough to do it fast, fast, fast.
And so, this was the list I came up with. As it happened, it came to a nice round 33.
- Grand Illusion
- The 400 Blows
- Umberto D
- The Bicycle Thief
- 8 1/2
- La Strada
- The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
- The Passion of Joan of Arc
- Un Chien Andalou
- The Seventh Seal
- Wild Strawberries
- The Battleship Potemkin
- The Battle of Algiers
- It Happened One Night
- His Girl Friday
- The Big Sleep
- The Searchers
- The General
- The Birth of A Nation
- Pandora’s Box
- The Decameron
- Tokyo Story
- On the Waterfront
- The Red Shoes
- Olivier’s Hamlet
- The Lady Eve
I made exactly one change between making up the list and posting it here, swapping out David Lynch’s Eraserhead for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. I cheated a little with Eraserhead — it’s a late movie that was shot over a really, really long period of time in the 70s and came out towards the end of that decade. And Breathless isn’t Godard’s best movie, but it’s probably the most iconic, so it was an easy choice.
There are huge limitations to this list, mostly driven by the limitations of the catalog. Netflix’s selection of Asian and African movies, beyond a handful of auteurs like Akira Kurosawa, isn’t very good. There’s no classic-period Hitchcock. There’s no Citizen Kane. There aren’t any documentaries or animated films. And you could argue until you’re blue in the face about picking film X over film Y with certain directors or movements or national cinemas.
But you know what? You wouldn’t just learn something from watching these movies, or just picking five you haven’t seen before — you would actually have fun. Except maybe Birth of a Nation. Besides its famous pro-Ku Klux Klan POV, that sucker is a haul. Happy watching.
The Middle East is anxious about what’s perceived as a decline in Arabic:
[C]alls to forestall the language’s demise are accompanied by cautionary tales about parents who encourage their children to learn other “more useful” languages like English and French, only to find that they can scarcely recite the Arabic alphabet when they get to university. Meanwhile, teachers across the region warn about the rise of “Facebook Arabic,” a transliterated form of the language based on the Latin script. Exemplifying their concerns are the oratorical fumbles of some of the region’s younger political leaders like Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon, whose shambling inaugural address to the Lebanese parliament provoked much local tittering. Not everyone is amused: Fi’l Amr, a language-advocacy group, has launched a campaign to raise awareness about Arabic’s critical condition by staging mock crime scenes around Beirut depicting “murdered” Arabic letters, surrounded by yellow police tape that reads: “Don’t kill your language.”
Really, though, it’s not actually Arabic that’s suffering, but a particular grapholect, fusha, the Modern Standard Arabic that closely resembles the classical Arabic of the Koran. And fusha has always been more of an imagined commonality binding together the Arab world than a reality.
In a very basic sense, there is no such thing as Arabic; or, at least, there is no single language that all Arabs speak, read, write, and understand. Instead, Arabic is, like English and many other languages, a constellation of various national dialects, regional vernaculars, and social registers bearing different degrees of resemblance to each another. What sets it apart from a language like English is its diglossic nature, whereby the language of literature and formal address (newscasts, political speeches, religious sermons, and so forth) is markedly different, on multiple structural levels, from the language of everyday speech.
You can overstate this, but it’s a little bit like 19th-century Western Europeans watching literacy numbers boom while wringing their hands over the fate of Latin.
As recently as 1970, three out of four Arabs over the age of 15 were illiterate, according to Unesco. Two decades earlier, illiteracy among women was close to 90 per cent. Even in a country like contemporary Egypt – which has long prided itself, as the old saying goes, on reading the books that Iraq writes and Lebanon publishes – less than two-thirds of the population can read. To speak, therefore, of helping restore Arabic to its former glory, or of helping it to “reemerge as a dynamic and vibrant language” as the government of the UAE has recently committed itself to do, is to ignore the reality that Arabic – both in its classical and modern standard incarnation – has never had as many users as it does today. Even taking into consideration the sway that English holds in the private and educational sectors of various countries in the region, or the important position that French occupies in France’s former colonies, it is impossible to pinpoint another moment in the history of the Arab world when so many people could communicate (with varying degrees of ability) in fusha.
This article I’m quoting was written by my friend Elias Muhanna, who blogs about Lebanese politics as Qifa Nabki, and published in The National, then picked up by The Economist. Whoo-hoo! Comp Lit PhDs FTW!
There are many, many noteworthy things in this interview with Clay Shirky, but this caught my attention (bold-emphasis is mine):
[W]hat we’re dealing with now, I think, is the ramification of having long-form writing not necessarily meaning physical objects, not necessarily meaning commissioning editors and publishers in the manner of making those physical objects, and not meaning any of the sales channels or the preexisting ways of producing cultural focus. This is really clear to me as someone who writes and publishes both on a weblog and books. There are certain channels of conversation in this society that you can only get into if you have written a book. Terry Gross has never met anyone in her life who has not JUST published a book. Right?
The way our culture works, depending on what field you’re operating in, certain kinds of objects (or in some cases, events) generate more cultural focus than others. Shirky gives an example from painting: “Anyone can be a painter, but the question is then, ‘Have you ever had a show; have you ever had a solo show?’ People are always looking for these high-cost signals from other people that this is worthwhile.” In music, maybe it used to be an album; in comedy, it might be an hour-long album or TV special; I’m sure you can think of others in different media. It’s a high-cost object that broadcasts its significance. It’s not a thing; it’s a work.
But, this is important: it’s even more fine-grained than that. It’s not like you can just say, “in writing, books are the most important things.” It depends on what genre of writing you’re in. If you’re a medical or scientific researcher, for instance, you don’t have to publish a book to get cultural attention; an article, if it’s in a sufficiently prestigious journal, will do the trick. And the news stories won’t even start with your name, if they get around to it at all; instead, a voice on the radio will say, “according to a new study published in Nature, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania…” The authority accrues to the institution: the university, the journal, and ultimately Science itself.
The French historian/generally-revered-writer-of-theory Michel Foucault used this difference to come up with an idea: In different cultures, different kinds of writers are accorded a different status that depends on how much authority accrues to their writing. In the ancient world, for instance, stories/fables used to circulate without much, if any, attribution of authorship; medical texts, on the other hand, needed an auctoritas like Galen or Avicenna to back them up. It didn’t make any sense to talk about “authorship” as if that term had a universal, timeless meaning. Not every writer was an author, not every writing an act of authorship. (Foucault uses a thought-experiment about Nietzsche scribbling aphorisms on one side of a sheet of paper, a laundry or shopping list on the other.)
At the same time, you can’t just ignore authorship. Even if it’s contingent, made-up, it’s still a real thing. It’s built on social conventions and serves a social function. There are rules. Depending on context, it can be construed broadly or narrowly. And it can change — and these changes can reveal things that might otherwise be hidden. For instance, from the early days of print until the 20th century, publishers in England shared some of the author-function of a book because they could be punished for what it said. At some point in the 20th century, audiences became much more interested in who the director of a film was. (In some cases, the star or producer or studio, maybe even the screenwriter still share some of that author-function.) And these social ripples — who made it, who foots the bill, who’s an authority, who gets punished? — those are all profound ways of producing “cultural focus.”
Foucault focused on authorship — the subjective side of that cultural focus — because he was super-focused on things like authority and punishment. But it’s clear that there’s an objective side of this story, too, the story of the work — and that the two trajectories, work and author, work together. You become an “author” and get to be interviewed by Terry Gross because you’ve written a book. And you get to write a book (and have someone with a suitable amount of authority publish it) because you accrue a certain amount and kind of demonstrable authority and skill (in a genre where writing a book is the appropriate kind of work).
It’s no surprise, then, that the Big Digital Shake-Up in the way cultural objects are produced, consumed, sold, disseminated, re-disseminated, etc. is shifting our concepts of both authorship and the work in many genres and media. What are the new significant objects in the fields that interest you? Pomplamoose makes music videos; Robin wrote a novella, but at least part of that “work” included the blog and community created by it; and Andrew Sullivan somehow manages to be the “author” of both the book The Conservative Soul and the blog The Daily Dish, even when it switches from Time to The Atlantic, even when someone else is guest-writing it. And while it takes writing a book to get on Fresh Air, to really get people on blogs talking about your book, it helps to have a few blog posts, reviews, and interviews about it, so there’s something besides the Amazon page to link to.
Maybe being the author of a blog is a new version of being an author of a book. I started (although I’m not the only author of) Bookfuturism because I started stringing together a bunch of work that seemed to be about the future of reading; through that, my writing here, and some of the things I wrote elsewhere, I became a kind of authority on the subject (only on the internet, but still, I like who links to me); and maybe I’ll write a book, or maybe I’ll start a blog with a different title when it’s time to write about something else. I don’t know.
It’s all being reconfigured, as we’re changing our assumptions about what and who we pay attention to.
Chimerical post-script: Not completely sure where it fits in, but I think it does: Robin and José Afonso Furtado pointed me to this post by Mike Shatzkin about the future of bookselling, arguing (I’m paraphrasing) that with online retailers like Amazon obliterating physical bookstores, we need a new kind of intermediary that helps curate and consolidate books for the consumer, “powered” by Amazon. It’s not far off from Robin’s old post about a “Starbucks API.” See? Even your coffee has an author-function.
Anyways, new authors, new publishers, new media, new works, new devices, new stores, new curators, new audiences — everything with a scrap of auctoritas is up for grabs.