The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32
Anne Field § The booster pack / 2014-02-15 16:15:39
Josh Rubenoff § The booster pack / 2014-02-09 04:29:20
David Lang § The right flavor of fame / 2014-02-07 15:13:49
Robin § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 16:41:42
Navneet Alang § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 03:40:31
Sam M-B § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 03:32:35
Chris Baker § The booster pack / 2014-02-06 02:38:57
G Love § Conversation Media / 2014-01-30 07:26:22
Navneet Alang § Calculating the Weight of the Object / 2014-01-26 16:07:58

Tantric orgasms of critical insight

Sam Anderson takes to the pages of the New York Times to praise Roland Barthes, “the man who essentially created cultural criticism,” from the systematic analysis of novelistic structure to the TV recap:

Instead of constructing multivolume monuments of systematic thought, Barthes wrote short books built out of fragments. He was less interested in traditional coherence than in what he called jouissance: joy, surprise, adventure, pleasure — tantric orgasms of critical insight rolling from fragment to fragment…

His critical metabolism ran unusually high: he would flit from subject to subject, defining new fields of interest (semiology, narratology) only to abandon them and leave others to do the busywork. He treated canonical French works with such unorthodox flair it drove conservative professors crazy…

In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France — a sort of mission statement for the most prestigious academic post in the country — Barthes announced that he aspired above all to “forget” and to “unlearn” and proposed, as a kind of motto, “no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom and as much flavor as possible.”

I have a hard time giving up knowledge so easily — and really, Barthes did too. (I think it’s mostly the pretense to knowledge, the use of knowledge as a cudgel, that he saw as the problem.)

The part I probably love best and most fully endorse is the section on what a critic is supposed to do:

“Mythologies” is often an angry book, and what angered Barthes more than anything was “common sense,” which he identified as the philosophy of the bourgeoisie, a mode of thought that systematically pretends that complex things are simple, that puzzling things are obvious, that local things are universal — in short, that cultural fantasies shaped by all the dirty contingencies of power and money and history are in fact just the natural order of the universe. The critic’s job, in Barthes’s view, was not to revel in these common-sensical myths but to expose them as fraudulent. The critic had to side with history, not with culture. And history, Barthes insisted, “is not a good bourgeois.”

The pairing of these things, the genuine jouissance and the relentless critical awareness, the ruthless crusade against the conventionally obvious, is what makes it all work.

Never just a cheerleader. Never just a killjoy. Something beyond either. And listing always in favor of flavor.

PS: Mythologies was just published in a terrific new edition/translation which is like twice as long as the bowdlerized version we’ve had in English for forty years. That’s the occasion for the essay.


From Readership to Thinkership

Kenny Goldsmith (teacher, poet, conceptual writer, radio producer, UbuWeb digital archivist) deserves to have a book written about him (a book that, unlike his, people will read):

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.


Destroyed by its own use

Snarkmatrix alert: Tim’s post about James Joyce and the Google Translate API (!) over at Fast Company is awesome—a bright little constellation for your Thursday evening.

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Why Google Ngrams F—ing Sucks

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.)


What is social information?

Just a little A+B=Hmm for the weekend. First, Freeman Dyson reviews James Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood , which begins with a drum language once used by Kele speakers in the Congo:

Kele is a tonal language with two sharply distinct tones. Each syllable is either low or high. The drum language is spoken by a pair of drums with the same two tones. Each Kele word is spoken by the drums as a sequence of low and high beats. In passing from human Kele to drum language, all the information contained in vowels and consonants is lost. In a European language, the consonants and vowels contain all the information, and if this information were dropped there would be nothing left. But in a tonal language like Kele, some information is carried in the tones and survives the transition from human speaker to drums. The fraction of information that survives in a drum word is small, and the words spoken by the drums are correspondingly ambiguous. A single sequence of tones may have hundreds of meanings depending on the missing vowels and consonants. The drum language must resolve the ambiguity of the individual words by adding more words. When enough redundant words are added, the meaning of the message becomes unique…

The story of the drum language illustrates the central dogma of information theory. The central dogma says, “Meaning is irrelevant.” Information is independent of the meaning that it expresses, and of the language used to express it. Information is an abstract concept, which can be embodied equally well in human speech or in writing or in drumbeats. All that is needed to transfer information from one language to another is a coding system. A coding system may be simple or complicated. If the code is simple, as it is for the drum language with its two tones, a given amount of information requires a longer message. If the code is complicated, as it is for spoken language, the same amount of information can be conveyed in a shorter message.

Then there’s Devin Friedman’s “The Viral Me,” which looks skeptically but pretty honestly at both startup incubator Y Combinator and the broader sphere of social media. (This is a little older, but I’d have missed it if John Pavlus hadn’t tweeted about it today.)

One of YC’s big successes in the past year is a company called DailyBooth. It’s like Twitter—it’s a platform for communication, you can “follow” people, and people can “follow” you—but instead of typing 140 characters, you just take pictures of yourself. Here I am in my room in my pajamas. Here I am at Starbucks. Here I am in my new sweater. Here I am in my room again in my pajamas. (It seems like, as often as not, a DailyBooth picture is of someone in his bedroom in pajamas.) That’s the whole thing. There’s no pretext that you have information you need to get across or a really good joke. It’s a thingy that, you might argue, reduces the psychological physics of the social layer to its simplest equation: I’m alive right now; I’m a person; look at me.

DailyBooth is a good way to see one of the central paradoxes of the social layer. People engage in this stuff, I think, for the affirmation. To prove that they exist. But in effect, the collection and aggregation of all those photos, all those bits of unique self-expression from, literally, 500 million people (and Zuck says that a billion is basically a fait accompli) actually nullifies humanity. True, the smallest detail of your life might be amplified and spread instantly across what is the simplest and most effective distribution network ever invented. But more likely is that detail being almost instantly buried by the incredible volume of other people’s smallest details.

But why? At this point, it’s a cliché to say that adding too much information makes all the information we have meaningless. It’s the paradox of more that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in Blink: we will usually say that it’s better to have more information, but we don’t really believe it. We really believe in efficiency, in le mot juste, in exactly what we need to know something in a limited amount of time without getting confused.

I won’t say this is a Western way of thinking, because that’s a cliché, too — but compared to the drum language, it’s a very alphabetic way to think. And we have to recognize that in social media, the system of information is not, or is not purely, alphabetic. It’s also an accumulation of photos, tones, pings, a message shuffling back and forth between stations with a simple transmission: ‘I am here,” waiting for the return signal, “I am here.” And if you haven’t learned to listen for that tonal information, if you haven’t guessed that redundancy might be the key to the meaning, then it might just seem like noise.

But (Freeman Dyson paraphrasing founder of information theory Claude Shannon):

Even in the noisiest system, errors can be reliably corrected and accurate information transmitted, provided that the transmission is sufficiently redundant. That is, in a nutshell, how Wikipedia works.

Two more things. First — isn’t it funny that in the months since Friedman’s article came out, we’ve had a string of revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East in which social media played a non-negligible part — where the general consensus seems to have become that social media became important precisely because citizens were able to signal to each other, in an extremely minimal way, that they knew things were bad, that the government was dishonest, that something needed to change? That, while some organizers were doubtlessly using a range of media to transmit very complex information back and forth to one another, masses of people were suddenly emboldened by that simple ping: “I’m alive right now; I’m a person; look at me”?

Second — I’m re-reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I plowed through in college, and not very well, because somebody told me it was kind of like James Joyce but with more about mathematics, and I was all screw these kids playing tennis, I’m going to read some Raymond Carver. And ten years later, I’m just built to understand it so much better than I was then. Through the sheer force of biography alone, but for every other reason too.

Anyways, one of Wallace’s little linguistic ticks, which kinda nagged me when I just wanted to get my Carver on, where twice or more in his long sentences he’ll like, repeat the same piece of information, usually just to clarify the referent of a pronoun or to specify who or what he’s talking about, but in a very ostentatious way, and frequently just for its own sake.

Here’s an example (perhaps not the best but the best I can find) about a tennis drill called “Side-to-Sides” (all emphasis mine, all footnotes dropped):

The cardiovascular finale is Side-to-Sides, conceived by van der Meer in the B.S. ’60s and demonic in its simplicity. Again split into fours on eight courts. For the top 18′s, prorector R. Dunkel at net with an armful of balls and more in a hopper beside him, hitting fungoes, one to the forehand corner and then one to the backhand corner and then farther out to the forehand corner and so on. And on. Hal Incandenza is expected at least to get a racquet on each ball; for Stice and Wayne the expectations are higher. A very unpleasant drill fatigue-wise, and for Hal also ankle-wise, what with all the stopping and reversing. Hal wears two bandages over a left ankle he shaves way more often than his upper lip. Over the bandages goes an Air-Stirrup inflatable ankle brace that’s very lightweight but looks a bit like a medieval torture-implement. It was ina stop-and-reverse move much like Side-to-Sides that Hal tore all the soft left-ankle tissue he then owned, at fifteen, in his ankle, at Atlanta’s Easter Bowl, in the third round, which he was losing anyway. Dunkel goes fairly easy on Hal, at least on the first two go-arounds, because of the ankle. Hal’s going to be seeded in at least the top 4 of the WhataBurger Inv. in a couple weeks, and woe to the prorector who lets Hal get hurt the way Hal let some of his Little Buddies get hurt yesterday.

So Wallace has already signaled that this is going to be a paragraph about repetition to exhaustion or even injury before he even does it. You could say he needs to keep clarifying and repeating these things because his sentences are so convoluted that otherwise you couldn’t follow them, but 1) his syntax is pretty clear and 2) it’s not like he’s a freak about specifying everything. He doesn’t even spell out “invitational,” let alone give any other proper noun the same first name + last name treatment he offers Hal Incandenza, who’s the main character in the story, Hal is, so we’re not likely to forget who’s being spoken about here. You could say from a literary standpoint that the repetition of the ankle mirrors the repetition of the drill, Hal’s pain in his ankle, and his and the prorector’s worry about the ankle. But it’s also just Wallace — who understands all of this, by the way, better than we do: communication, information, redundancy, efficiency, purity, the dangers of too much information, and especially the fear of being alone and the need to find connection with other human beings — creating a structure that allows him to ping his reader, saying “I am here”… and waiting for his reader to respond in kind, “I’m alive right now; I’m a person; look at me.”


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.


On Repeat: Language Refracting in History’s Gravitational Well

Listen to this speech.

Listen to it!

I heard King’s “I Have a Dream” on the radio this afternoon. Despite the grandeur of the visuals of the March on Washington, and the power of the text, I think that radio is the best way to experience it. I am amazed, as a writer, teacher, poet, and speaker, at the range of King’s elocutionary instrument.

He doesn’t just use every sonorous rhetorical tool in the book. He makes words rhyme which shouldn’t. He finds transitory consonants and bends them to fit his alliterative schemes. He has the most versatile spondaic foot I’ve ever heard, so much so it could pass for iambic. (Try to find a genuinely unstressed syllable — or unstressed thought — in the way King says “We Will Not Be Satisfied.”)

And he matches and varies his pitch to highlight his parallelisms of matter and mind, in his voice and in the air; a small, thickly built man, speaking from the roots of the trees, from the center of the earth, knowing that the extension of his own gravity stretches like a column from the molten core to the orbit of the moon. He is a single still point with the granted power to bend straight the crooked lines of history.

Originally published January 19, 2009

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Facebook Arabic

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!


Team Snuck

I’ve long agonized over snuck vs. sneaked. But the sly force and grinning vitality of this defense of the former—from the Paris Review!—puts me over the top. I’m sold. Snuck it is.


Part-time crusader

I liked this galloping graf blogged by Frank Chimero. It’s written in that great exhortational style of Whitman, and of the American West. Which would, I think, work great on the web; somebody ought to just start blogging like this.

(Is “exhortational” even a word?)

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