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.
How great was Tim Maly’s month of cyborgs? I liked it not only because I like Tim, and not only because I like, um, cyborgs; I liked it because it seemed to play into the events-as-future-of-media model, and to deepen it. It seemed to suggest a new way of both producing and presenting ideas.
Bruce Sterling said this about Tim’s undertaking:
[It is] a project with an extremely heavy science-fictional tinge that is in fact quite remote from science fiction. It lacks the look, feel, extrapolative techniques and sense of wonder payoff of science fiction. There’s no fiction in it, and it has scarcely a whiff of science. Basically, it’s a large clique of obviously intelligent and creative people who all more or less know each other through the Internet, and are all loosely riffing about cyborgs, and what-cyborg-means-to-them. A cultural artifact of this kind could not have existed without collapsed barriers-to-entry in publishing.
And it’s not even dull, fannish, or self-indulgent. It’s a little overwhelming in its volume and its focussed erudition, but it’s a very readable and illuminating “project” (whatever a “project” is). Certainly it’s far more interesting and gets much more to the core of the matter than, say, a commissioned science fiction anthology titled “Cyborg!” which might have had fifteen science fiction stories about cyborgs. Even if they’d been great science fiction stories by top sci-fi authors with lots of gosh-wow and plot twists, they wouldn’t have torn into the depths of the subject in this remarkable way.
Emphasis mine; I think that line sets up such a revealing comparison. It ought to make anybody in the anthology business pause and ask themselves if they’re using the right tool for the job. It makes me think, for instance, of New Liberal Arts; how might that project have been different if we’d thought of it as a slow-burning event—an internet-powered lecture series—instead of as a static body of work that we rushed to complete and then release whole?
And maybe this is noteworthy, too: I read perhaps 25% of all the cyborg posts. First of all: that’s a way better ratio than any anthology I’ve ever picked up. Second: maybe this is an important new technique! You want to get an idea out into a big, busy world? Don’t just take one shot. Instead, refract the idea through dozens of different minds; send it ricocheting through dozens of different niches. Blast it out like grapeshot. Modernist poetry fans? We got ya. Kanye West fans? We got ya.
It’s not just grapeshot across, like, idea space, either; it’s grapeshot across time. Stringing the project out over a whole month gave Tim and all his contributors more opportunities to talk about it. It gave readers more time to discover it and get excited about it.
There’s a lot to chew on here if you’re a media maker or a media inventor. I’m eager for a post-mortem from Tim himself; I’d love to know, from his perspective, what worked, what didn’t, and what surprised him.
In the meantime, here’s Alexis Madrigal’s capstone to the project: an interview with the man who coined the word cyborg in the first place. Click over for the context, and stick around for the kicker; I guarantee it will make you smile.
So, I love Tim Maly’s kickoff post: What’s a cyborg? It’s fun, revelatory, provocative, and it uses design to tell its tale. (You know I love that.) Tim laces the post with striking images, and he labels them: This is a cyborg. This is not a cyborg.
But I think he misses one.
Because this is a cyborg, too.
I’m not saying that because of the sampler on the pedestal or the vocoder attached to the microphone (although somebody could do a great #50cyborgs post about the recent robotization of pop vocals). I’m talking about the frame itself. About the image of a star on stage in front of 11 million people. About the digital distribution of that image to screens and eyeballs around the planet. And, most importantly, about the fact that Kanye West has the media muscles to make that happen.
Isn’t there such a thing as a media cyborg?
After you read Tim’s post, you start to see cyborgs all around you. It’s not just people with, you know, gun-legs; it’s anybody who uses a cell phone or wears contact lenses. It’s anybody who brings a tool really close in order to augment some capability.
Aren’t there people who have brought media that close? Aren’t there people who manipulate it, in all its forms, as naturally as another person might make a phone call, or speak, or breathe?
When you think of someone like Kanye West or Lady Gaga, you can’t think only of their brains and bodies. Lady Gaga in a simple dress on a tiny stage in a no-name club in Des Moines is—simply put—not Lady Gaga. Kanye West in jeans at a Starbucks is not Kanye West.
To understand people like that—and, increasingly, to understand people like us (eep!)—you’ve got to look instead at the sum of their brains, their bodies, the media they create, and the media created by others about them. All together, it constitutes a sort of fuzzy cloud that’s much, much bigger than a person.
This hits close to home for me. In fact, it’s the reason I do a lot of the things that I do. At some point in your life, you meet a critical mass of smart, fun, interesting people, and a depressing realization hits: There are too many. You’ll never meet all the people that you ought to meet. You’ll never have all the conversations that you ought to have. There’s simply not enough time.
You know those movie scenes where two characters miss each other by just a fraction of a second, and how it’s so frustrating to watch? You want to reach into the screen and go: Hey, stop! Just slow down. He’s coming around the corner! Well, that’s life—except in life, it’s multiplied a million-fold in every dimension. You can miss somebody not just by a second, but by a century. You can miss somebody not just by a couple of steps, but by the span of a continent.
Media evens the odds.
Media lets you clone pieces of yourself and send them out into the world to have conversations on your behalf. Even while you’re sleeping, your media —your books, your blog posts, your tweets—it’s on the march. It’s out there trying to making connections. Mostly it’s failing, but that’s okay: these days, copies are cheap. We’re all Jamie Madrox now.
Okay, let’s keep things in perspective. For most of us, even the blogotronic twitternauts of the Snarkmatrix, this platoon of posts is a relatively small part of who we are. But I’d argue that for an exceptional set of folks—the Kanyes, the Gagas, the Obamas—it is a crucial, even central, component.
Maybe that sounds dehumanizing, but I don’t think it ought to be. We’re already pretty sure that the mind is not a single coherent will but rather a crazy committee whose deliberations get smoothed out into the thing we call consciousness or identity or whatever. Use your imagination: what if some of that committee operates remotely? If 99.99% of the world will only ever encounter Kanye West through the bright arc of media that he produces—isn’t that media, in some important way, Kanye?
Again: I don’t think it’s dehumanizing. I don’t think it’s dystopian. Any cyborg technology has a grotesque extreme; there are glasses and there are contacts and there are these. So it’s like that with media, too. We all do this; we all use media every day to extend our senses and our spheres of influence. At some scale, sure, things gets weird, and you lose track of you, and suddenly you’re being choked to death by your own robotic arm. But way before you get to that point, you get these amazing powers:
- The power to reach beyond yourself, outward in space and forward in time.
- The power to have conversations—really rich, meaningful conversations—with more people than you could ever break bread with.
- And, increasingly, the power to get reports back from your little platoon—to see how your media is performing.
We’re all media cyborgs now.
P.S. Don’t miss Kevin Kelly’s contribution to #50cyborgs!
Paterson is a long poem in four parts — that a man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody — if imaginatively conceived — any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions. Part One introduces the elemental character of the place. The Second Part comprises the modern replicas. Three will seek a language to make them vocal, and Four, the river below the falls, will be reminiscent of episodes — all that any one man may achieve in a lifetime.
– William Carlos Williams, “Author’s Note” to Paterson
[Note: This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term.]
[Note 2: This is also very literary, and very weird.]
William Carlos Williams knew plenty about bodies. He was a pediatrician and general practitioner in Rutherford, NJ, and his great poem “To Elsie,” which begins “The pure products of America / go crazy —” moves seamfully from the flesh to aimless machines:
expressing with broken
brain the truth about us–
ungainly hips and flopping breasts
addressed to cheap
and rich young men with fine eyes
as if the earth under our feet
an excrement of some sky
and adjust, no one to drive the car
And then there is the mighty fragment from Spring and All, “The rose is obsolete,” imagining a new, cubo-futurist symbol of beauty with the delicacy and strength of organic steel. We could go on.
But Paterson is the poem, the book to be reckoned with, which conceives of a body as a city and a city as a body and both as a flow of heteroclite information, the poem a machine containing them all.
To make two bold statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.
Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.
And this is what we see in Paterson. The italicized faux-definition on the first page in verso calls it “an identification and a plan for action to supplant a plan for action… a dispersal and a metamorphosis” but also “a gathering up; a celebration.” In other words, a book.
To make a start,
out of particulars,
and make them general, rolling
up the sum, by defective means–
Or as he would write (and repeat) a handful of pages later, “–Say it, no ideas but in things–” which is to say (he tries to refine) “no ideas but in facts” but also:
Say it! No ideas but in things. Mr.
Paterson has gone away
to rest and write. Inside the bus one sees
his thoughts sitting and standing. His
thoughts alight and scatter–
Paterson, whose ideas are themselves cities criss-crossing his streets in machines made from the mind, is both the Passaic Falls (“the outline of his back”) and the bridge thrown across those falls, and the men who dare each other to jump from the bridge, the women who mysteriously disappear, and finally the fragments of texts from newspapers and letters Williams gathers (the gathering at the same time a dispersal, a release of the information confined in the archive) to make the outline of his poem.
So far everything had gone smoothly. The pulley and ropes were securely fastened on each side of the chasm, and everything made in readiness to pull the clumsy bridge into position. It was a wooden structure boarded up on both sides, and a roof. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon and a large crowd had fathered — a large crowd for that time, as the town only numbered about four thousand — to watch the bridge placed in position.
That day was a great day for old Paterson. It being Saturday, the mills were shut down, so to give the people a chance to celebrate. Among those who came in for a good part of the celebration was Sam Patch, then a resident in Paterson, who was a boss over cotton spinners in one of the mills. He was my boss, and many a time he gave me a cuff over the ears.
Such prose fragments are dropped into the text of Paterson like stones in the Passaic Falls, or like Sam Patch’s body when, after a career of daredevil jumps inaugurated in Paterson (“a national hero”), it’s found frozen downstream after a jump from Niagara.
Sometimes the language is reincorporated later (or before) in the narrative (such as it is) of the poem. Williams describes Paterson as a search for language, the river like the language itself, many languages, bearing many kinds of information:
A false language. A true. A false language pouring— a
language (misunderstood) pouring (misinterpreted) without
dignity, without minister, crashing upon a stone ear.
And with this we are on the terrain of Claude Shannon’s mathematical cryptography, elaborated in the 1940s with the help of John von Neumann, Alan Turing, and others, just miles away, the engineering and metaphorical aspects of which fascinated Williams. In information theory, the medium of information is immaterial (both in the sense that is abstract and not relevant to the calculus), only its degree of distortion, compression, storage, and loss. Signals with(out) the codes to decipher them.
Once we can abstract from the medium, information does not need to be a letter, a photograph, or a radio wave. It can be a body, or the movement of bodies across a city, or any system, whether synthetic, organic, or hybrid.
Williams is known for his work as a physician, for his friendship with avant-garde artists, writers, and photographers in New York (the Williams-Marcel Duchamp-Man Ray friendship was especially fertile), but his interest in science and engineering was equally profound. In 1945, the year he forged Book One of Paterson, he received an honorary degree from the University of Buffalo, where he struck up a long conversation and fast friendship with Vannevar Bush, who that year would write “As We May Think”:
Among the rest the man Bush, the head of the atomic bomb project, was the most interesting to me. I liked him at once. It is amazing what he and his associates have accomplished—looked at simply as work, as brains. He seemed curious about me and was astonished to know I was a physician. I told him that I was deeply impressed by the sheer accomplishments of the persons on the platform. He replied that it took a lot of energy also to write books
(see T. Hugh Crawford, “Paterson, Memex, and Hypertext”)
How could we retrieve disconnected fragments, to make their hidden connections manifest? This was Williams’s problem as a poet, Bush’s as a researcher, Shannon’s as an engineer. To create a network of things — to roll up the universal out of particulars, and make what’s long kept in storage MOVE, faster than microfilm:
Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed, in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass.… Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path
Or as Williams writes in Paterson:
Texts mount and complicate them–
selves, lead to further texts and those
to synopses, digests and emendations
A new line, for a new mind; a new mind, to be the mind of a city.
The library, the library is on fire by Book III of Paterson:
Hell’s fire. Fire. Sit your horny ass
down. What’s your game? Beat you
at your own game, Fire. Outlast you:
Poet Beats Fire at Its Own Game! The bottle!
the bottle! the bottle! the bottle! I
give you the bottle! What’s burning
Whirling flames, leaping
from house to house, building to building
carried by the wind
the Library is in their path
Beautiful thing! aflame .
a defiance of authority
— burnt Sappho’s poems, burned
by intention (or are they still hid
in the Vatican crypts?) :
a defiance of authority :
for they were
unwrapped, fragment by fragment, from
outer mummy cases of papier mâché, inside
Egyptian sarcophagi .
Knowledge cannot lie dead, buried in tombs, it must be transmitted, brought to action, by electrical means if necessary, by film if necessary, fire if necessary, every destruction a liberation, bearing with it the possibility of rebirth.
That is, at least — if one conceives of the body as something more than flesh — as network — as city. As a machine made of words.
A machine with a man inside.