Search results for "anti-narrative "

Database obesity

Author: joe

Friday, 08 June, 2012 - 21:20

Specifying the nature of narrative - that is, the connecting of otherwise unconnected things into a coherent trajectory - is also to thereby define its antithesis - the anti-narrative. For Manovich, this is the database, which refuses to participate in the articulation of one item to another. They have no beginnings or endings, argues Manovich, nor formal or thematic development, no organisation. These items are flat: "every item has the same significance as any other". Of course there are different kinds of database which may well have structures and forms, hierarchical, arborescent or otherwise, such that users may operate on them and traverse those elements. In such traversals narratives may emerge as the members of collections are briefly brought together as the answer to a query - but in this action the distinction is confirmed: what was non-narrative became narrative, in the retrieval against some operation: "the narrative becomes just one method of accessing data among others".

The narrative act is thus one of selection, and in the example of the database as source of the given materials of narrative, quite literally we issue the command to "SELECT" data from stores according to given criteria. The symbolic form of the database is precisely not selecting: its logic is one of indiscriminately gathering and cataloguing, rather than picking out and assigning significance. Manovich notes the "storage mania" that characterises the digital world, in which everything is collected, from biological molecular structures to communication records to household shopping. A form of cultural sousveillance is at work and its production piece is the database. If we have left an age of myth in which stories provided the symbolic resources for scrying life, then we have entered an age of endless acquisition in which the symbolic imperative is to complete the record of everything. It is perhaps ironic that in a milieux that is claimed to be a "therapy culture" we should have become a collective case of compulsive hoarding.

The end point of such an undertaking is an absolute mirror, a digital record of every act, every cultural object, every distinct thing that makes a distinction, such that it be recordable. An archive of everything, a mirror of the world - not merely to have replaced the territory with the map, but to overflow the territory, such that the map outgrows the world it represents, filled as it is with endless possible repetitions of its own contents, infinitely reproducible. The archive is larger than the world it represents. Hence we see another anti-narrative characteristic emerge: where the collection expands arbitrarily, happy to accept all data and heedlessly insert the new or reproduce endless copies of the old, the narrative conversely simplifies by selection, reduces abundant and chaotic elements into something more manageable, digestible - indeed narrative is a kind of digesting of materials into meanings we can absorb, while the database is inflationary and inflammatory. It is unsurprising that contemporary challenges include replication and scaling, information giganticism and overload. We are obese with our refusal of narrative.

Categories: narrative, connection, database, Lev-Manovich, anti-narrative, sousveillance, hoarding,
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Narrative connections

Author: joe

Thursday, 07 June, 2012 - 21:52

In Database as a symbolic form Manovich contrasts databases, which are merely collections of data, with narratives which instead consist of "a series of connected events caused or experienced by actors" (1998). Manovich's aim here is to retrieve something about the database as a form which we had missed. Actually, far from being 'merely' a collection of data, the database is the catalogue of materials from which the artist might then construct a narrative. The database not only precedes the narrative act but also in fact enables it by providing its raw materials. He notes that "a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events)", whereas the database "refuses to order this list". Thus it is the connecting of elements that were otherwise without order, the catching up of them into trajectories of cause and effect, which characterises narrative. Great story-tellers – Manovich's example is Dziga Vertov – are able to merge database and narrative into a new form, as in Man with a Movie Camera in which Vertov's encyclopaedic cataloguing of the techniques of the new language of cinematography is transformed into a narrative of discovery and possibility.

The strange partner of the anti-narrative character of the database - its resistance to connecting and articulating, and its priority to narrative - is its incompleteness. The web, which is formally recognisable as a database at the largest scales, is always being added to, and these additions are not appended as though to the last items of a list, but can be inserted anywhere. No narrative could survive such a process without sacrificing its integrity - as Manovich puts it, "how can one keep a coherent narrative or any other development trajectory through the material if it keeps changing?" We should not be fooled, then, by the apparent interconnectedness that gives the web its very name. Notwithstanding the links that carry us from one place to another - whether that place is a site, a page, an element, a node within a collection of nodes - there is no way to pin down those connections into something fixed and finished. Even were we to focus in on just one location in the web, entirely within our control, and to impose our structured navigational system onto a designed pathway through our given materials, we must still concede that our user may at any moment stray off the prescribed route, by switching browser window or alt-tabbing away to glance at messages or to graze on walls, feeds, streams and timelines. Every online link is susceptible to insertions of material which may be earth-moving or inane.

Manovich's analysis, in distinguishing the characteristics of databases, gives us a working definition of narrative which is consonant with dominant interpretations. In Propp's formalism, the 31 functions from which all folk-tales can be derived become a narrative when they are instantiated in a story which must always present the functions in unvarying order, even if they may leave some or others of them out. Even in Levi-Strauss' analysis of myth, in which many narratives are taken as parts of an entire system, the de-temporalised components of those stories are nevertheless structured in ways that reflect the underlying imperatives of human nature. Barthes' transcultural, transhistorical narrative, which is "simply there, like life itself", is a corollary of the sentence, with its syntactical (connecting) arrangements of subjects, verbs, objects, modes. Greimas' even more granular analysis posits such connecting principles as desires or aims, communication, and support or hindrance, as the basic patterns of narrative. Todorov's definition, which consists of different states of equilibrium and disequilibrium, is precisely a narrative because those states are articulated to each other. Genette's understanding of narrative is relational, being a product of the interactions between levels of narrative, perspective and focalisation. Historians such as Hayden White and Louis Mink separate the narrative, with its explanatory agenda, from the chronicle, with its enumerative function. From Aristotle, with his requirements for the high being laid low and the lowly being exalted, to Brecht's desire to rouse the audience to reject the necessity of inevitable endings, narrative is only narrative if it is a discrete series of items, caught up together into a connecting principle, a trajectory, a start, middle and end.

Manovic, Lev, 1998. Database as a Symbolic Form Available online at:

Categories: narrative, connection, database, Lev-Manovich ,
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Telling grief II

Author: joe

Tuesday, 27 March, 2012 - 22:34

From a lounge

Eventually it occurred to me that the problem lay in my attitude to representation. Somehow I was short-circuiting several thoughts: one, that an image of something represents the entire extent of its referent; a second, that an image of something is never an adequation of its referent; and a third thought, that, to the contrary, an image is just a slit in the fabric of reality, allowing the viewer in this world to prise their way into the world of the referent.

I think back and imagine myself looking at a sheet of A4, on which an aunt has printed some old family portraits. There is my father as a boy, amongst his siblings. There he is as a young man, long locks and an art-school waistcoat. Even with his boy-looks and tank-top short-trousers pulled-down socks, I can see the features and lines I know and love so well, the line of the jaw, the direct look, the eyebrows, the ears - the older face that hangs in my memory is all there somehow, unripe and waiting. I can imagine him before and after the still frame, though with an incongruously deep voice, turning to a sister and prodding the soft flesh of their upper arm, tongue grinning between teeth; or scrunching his shoulders up around his ears in a comic villain pose. He was frozen in just that pose in a photo from his wedding day, a jaunty, wry look on his face as though he were stealing a prize.

The images are openings into that world. I can see round the corners, watch movements play out: I can see how he walked on out of that freeze-frame, hear how he talked to the wedding guest with his head cocked on one side, scooped up a thrilled child in his arms; or as boy, see how he wriggled with impatience as the photographer prepared, or jumped up after the deed and ran out of the room chasing his brother. Of course the picture is an artificial and ephemeral fragment, just a flake of a sloughed off skin of time; but it is a metonymic record, connected to a real moment whose veracity I can taste, whose world I can sense, and whose bursting inexhaustibility is tangible. If only I could so fully inhabit the laws of physics, so attune to the workings of time and space, perhaps I could follow the path, molecule by molecule, causal link by causal link, back to that moment in the fullness of its presence.

So much for the photograph as a memento: an opening onto a world, into which I could leap. This is a photograph at which I look, as I can look at any - a snapshot of a stranger is also that much pregnant with a hidden, discoverable universe. I do not need to know the face or recognise the place: my imagination has already worked the details out before I'm even conscious of them, and start to dimly realise the scene out of frame, the events after shot, the state of mind, the ambiguous presence, the great swell of time. But against all this is the photograph I should be able to take. The image I should somehow produce must have the entirety of this world inside it, and placed there by me! It mist be adequate to the task of suggesting to the unknown, non-specific viewer, all the nuance and interconnected wholeness of the world from which it comes. What hope can there be of producing such an image?

I suddenly see that this unbearably heavy pressure is that of the author of the narrative, the one who must trust that the words written are just the right weaving together of threads, just the delicately correct choices of what to write in and what to leave unannounced but suggested by the lacunae, the gaps which themselves are the very spaces into which the narratee is invited, and which provide the room in which the imaginary fleshing out and habitation of the storyworld occurs. Who would want to be that author, the one who must commemorate adequately the life of the one they have lost? Who would ever feel they can articulate the loss? What memorial image or line of words would ever be adequate? Who wouldn't feel that their efforts failed to do justice, and didn't diminish the dead? Nothing I can say will ever be enough - and so perhaps the only thing to say is ... nothing

Categories: memorial, bereavement, narrative, representation, grief, image,
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World / Text

Author: joe

Thursday, 16 February, 2012 - 22:18

One objection to world-as-narrative (even before we get to what we mean by narrative exactly) is that it leads us to the world-as-text, and that the world clearly cannot be a text, since a text is nothing and the world is not nothing. We dismiss the idea of world-as-text, or there being nothing outside the text, because textuality, like other appearances constructed from amorphous things such as sociality or the imagination, doesn't account for the irreducible heterogeneity and difference of real things in the world. The text is somehow unreal because manufactured, or too finite in its human contingency.

But look, there it is: the text is there, see it with all its words, its syntax and its endlessly concatenating generative grammar. The words are there in your mouth, and though the action of the muscles slip around it, and the phosphorescent images that glitter in its wake seem to disappear, nevertheless there is something under and behind it - in fact it is the very split nature of the word, with its surface shape and graspability, always divorced from its object which we nevertheless feel resisting us, hunted and vague, that allows us to see in its surface the evidence of what withdraws behind it. Moving behind a veil, yet giving the veil its very form and movement, like the wind through the opening pushing at the hangings which present a shimmering masque of surging and crashing forms.

Much as they may be arbitrary and conventional signs divorced from their referents, nevertheless there is something indexical in the relation of words the objects they symbolise. Bachelard talks about the beautiful and disturbing moments when a native of a gender-inflected language encounters, as it were, cross-gender transformations in other gendered tongues, as in the French speaker whose masculine sun (le soleil) becomes feminine in German (die Sonne), or the reverse gender-bending switch of the moon (la lune and der Mond). The shock or uncanniness, the delight and conquest, in such encounters points at the allusive and affective pairings - alluding to the same suns and moons with their many faces and adumbrations, affecting us as the world of things remind us of their irreducibility, repaying the transferred emotions we invest in them, turning us around. For all that language can be a buffer or a space between us and the world, nevertheless it is not supernatural, and cannot always keep reality from insisting on its way.

Categories: world, text, Lacan, Bachelard, narrative, story, reality,
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Author: joe

Wednesday, 06 July, 2011 - 18:50

Today I wrote a glossary for the wellbeing paper I wrote in May, following the comments I got from the reviewers. I had no idea which words to gloss, so I picked the interesting ones; and some were easy to gloss, others were difficult. Here they are.

- the power of acting, or exerting one’s will in order to effect the course of events.
- Aristotle’s term for ‘recognition’: the crucial moment of realisation in which a person or character either recognises someone’s authentic identity, or senses their own genuine nature, as if for the first time; the discovery or revelation of the truth.
- more than speaking, to articulate is to be able to connect things and join them together, such as words, sentences, ideas or narrative sequences.
- literally, ‘purging’; a term Aristotle borrowed from medicine to refer to the arousal and release of emotion through dramatic narrative.
- a heavily burdened word which refers to processes in which divergent views or positions are played out, through argument, conversation, dialogue or conflict, hopefully towards reconciliation; an unfolding of point and counterpoint.
- the term borrowed from Greek to refer to the world of a narrative; the internal integrity of the storyworld, which is filled with people, places and customs which belong to that world.
- literally meaning ‘outsideness’, this term is used by Mikhail Bakhtin to refer to the ability of an author to ‘speak’ the authentic voices of characters other than their own.
- the transference of one’s own agency to a symbolic proxy; e.g. sexual arousal through objects (Freudian fetishism), or allocation of value away from human labour and onto commodities (Marxian commodity fetishism).
- mistakes and errors of misrecognition, frequently a crucial element in ancient tragedies whose protagonists often fail to recognise someone they ought to know.
- in phenomenology, ‘intentionality’ refers to the ‘directedness’ of conscious experiences: always towards objects, concepts, feelings and perceptions; hence it is related to but not the same as the common understanding which implies purpose and motive.
- a Greek term used by Aristotle to refer to the ‘likeness’ of stories to the real world: their imitative capacity.
- the implied or actual audience to whom a story is directed.
- at its simplest, a narrative is a telling or re-telling of a series of events which are connected.
narrative configuration
- Louis Mink and Paul Ricoeur use the term ‘configuration’ to refer to the dual act of being able to grasp the different component or sequences of a narrative, while also apprehending the story as a whole, unified structure. Narrators and narratees, authors and readers, writers and audiences, all must be able to see both the figure of the entire story, and the sequences from which it is composed.
- a term used by Mikhail Bakhtin to refer to the diversity of languages and voices that are present in the many strata of societies, the different eras of history, or the lines of great literature.
- the lead role in the story, the main actor in the drama, the self of the individual’s storyworld.
- Augusto Boal’s terms for the new fusion of spectator and actor he wishes to bring about in both his drama and wider society.
technology of the self
- a term coined by Michel Foucault to refer to the means and techniques by which the self is shaped, both internally by the individual, and externally by influences outside the individual’s control.
- a neologism created by the translation of Heidegger’s term ‘unheimlich’; I prefer unhomeliness since it implies a non-supernatural lack of a sense of belonging, rather than the word ‘uncanny’ which is sometimes used as a translation.
- Brecht’s term for drawing attention to the artifice of dramatic performance - variously translated as ‘defamiliarisation’, ‘estrangement’, ‘alienation’ and ‘distanciation’; a mechanism whereby the illusion of narrative is punctured in order to highlight the highly contingent and constructed nature of stories and their worlds.

Categories: agency, anagnorisis, articulation, catharsis, dialectic, diegesis, exotopy, fetishism, hamartia, intentionality, mimesis, narratee, narrative, narrative configuration, polyphony, protagonist, spect-actor, technology of the self, Verfremdungseffekt,
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Narrative Approaches to Wellbeing

Author: joe

Monday, 23 May, 2011 - 21:54

I have recently been holed up writing a paper to be delivered at a conference later in the year. It's felt like a good exercise to express in one concentrated piece a lot of the intellectual development I've covered in the process of doing my PhD, and even though I don't address the specific issues around bereavement that I'm examining in my doctoral research, this paper captures the main thrust of my thinking. It's been a really bad time to write the paper itself - dissertation marking, bill-paying and most importantly wanting to spend time giggling inanely with my baby girl; but hey, when is it a good time? Anyway, here's the paper. Feedback welcome - it's currently under review so any comments in advance of the final draft will be gratefully received.

Narrative Approaches to Wellbeing

The Self-Annalist

The Reverend Robert Shields of Dayton, Washington, died in 2007 at the age of 89, leaving tens of millions of words of self-narration behind him. Numerous news reports from the New York Times to Boing Boing noted his production of the world's longest diary, which he wrote in considerable detail, down to five minute intervals, pausing to sleep only for brief periods. The vast majority of his output remains obscure since he bequeathed his diary to Washington State University on terms that will restrict its publication until 50 years after his death. However a few pages of his writing found their way onto the Internet following an interview with the reverend about his diligent self-documentation which aired on NPR in the mid 90s. These pages, once digitised, were low-res but readable, and showed a few of the typed sheets listing the everyday events of 25 years of his life, from moments of metaphysical contemplation to frequent instances of bodily evacuation, as in this passage from the early morning of April 19th, 1994:

12.30 – 12.55 I squatted on the throne and purged a #2, a slurry and slush and partly a solid state, while I read from the Swedenborg Concordance entries under End (conclusion, purpose, intent). I meditated as I read. Everything in man and of man is directed by, controlled by and governed by the end of his intentions, and his end is the purpose of his life's love. All else is adventitous. Whether the end is heavenly or not depends on whether the purposes are directed toward the good of the Lord, his church, and the neighbor, or towards one's own gratification. I am earnestly examining myself in respect to my motivations. I honestly don't know what governs me. I don't know whether my goals are selfless or not. In any case, the self seems to be in them. Or is it? I struggle with my thoughts.

On the subject of his intentions, there are conflicting accounts. The recirculation at the time of his death of the few available diary extracts provoked speculation and comment: some parts of the press noted his completionist approach and wide vocabulary in describing urination; other parts of the web diagnosed him at best as an obsessive and at worst a candidate for "nutorama"; editorials warn us of the numbing mundanity of his diary; meanwhile he is included in a compendium of "eccentrics, visionaries, dreamers, believers". For his own part, he offers little in the way of explanation for his "self-annalising". In interview he confesses it to be an obsession, though he is not sure what he is trying to do. He puts it down to his "make-up", his "nature"; but also speculates that the diary with its encyclopedic detail and stuck-in nostril hairs may be of use to future historians and geneticists. He allows himself a certain pride in his endeavour, describing it as "uninhibited" and "spontaneous", "No restrictions. No holds barred". "I'm doing something that no one else has ever done in the history of the world' he asserts, even though he confesses when asked why he writes: "I don't know why any of us do anything. That's the truth."

The demands of archive maintenance have an impact on his life of course: he doesn't leave town because being away overnight would get him behind - even shopping in the nearest city 30 miles away forces him to take notes which he then has to spend a day catching up on. He has many achievements to his name - ghost-writing erotic stories, producing Civil War novels, as well as a career as a minister - but these appear to date from the period of life before he turned earnestly to diary-writing. Leaving aside the interesting meeting of eroticist and ecclesiast, one might wonder whether he hasn't sacrificed living in favour of recording; but not keeping the diary, he says, would be like "stopping ... turning off my life". "I don't think it has happened unless I've written it down."

Although the portrayals of Shields in the various news reports often invite us to consider his eccentricity as pathological - either sympathetically as unhealthily compulsive or more brutally as a sheer "nutcake" - I want to avoid casting him in this role here if I can. He illuminates for me an urge to self-document which I recognise to some extent in myself and a multitude of self-archivists whose traces are daily accreting on the web in gigabytes. He is at once a paragon of journal-writers, but an outlying anomaly offering an ambiguous warning and invitation. The self-chronicle functions as a technology of the self - a device and process whereby selfhood is grasped and established as a form of intentionality - yet it instils a fear of obsession, self-absorption and narcissism. So I want to use Robert Shields, as a foil, as a text - as a tool for thinking about the function of narrative in wellbeing. Reverend Shields materialises an example of life as narrative, in which a person becomes both the object and subject of their own existence, ambiguously triangulated by an indefinite other: playwright, actor and spectator; narrator, protagonist and narratee. These triple roles are, I will argue, crucial to a formulation of narrative as a tool for personal development and wellbeing. Throughout this paper the reverend thus sits on his sun-porch with his 91 boxes of journal manuscript, begging questions of the claims I make, but reserving judgment on their fitness.

Narrative Therapy

The use of narrative is well-established in therapeutic situations. John McLeod offers a way of understanding the use of story as part of a psychotherapeutic process by contrasting narrative knowing with paradigmatic knowing. The latter emphasises abstract, propositional knowledge of the kind valued in scientific practices for its objectivity; the former by contrast emphasises the concrete knowledge of experience, context and significance. Paradigmatic knowledge strives for factuality, eliminating ambiguity and subjective evaluation and as such proves useful in systematic inquiry and instrumental endeavours, but less useful in providing the scaffolding necessary for people to understand their own lives. Narrative knowledge is precisely the kind of resource that makes it possible to contextualise facts into meaningful situations, and articulate the hazy significance that seems to surround human actions.

McLeod itemises a number of ways in which narrative knowing, and story-telling generally, are helpful in therapeutic situations: stories, he notes, give us our own personal myths, helping us to handle the multiplicity of our of selves; they offer ambiguity, allowing space for interpretive and imaginative acts, and as such they are liminal, offering "threshold" experiences which can be personally transformative or cathartic; they have sequentiality and thus impel events into an order, reducing apparent chaos, helping us to solve problems, and assimilate the exceptional; and they are shared experiences, opening windows into each others' lives, forging social bonds and implying a moral landscape where they emerge around sites of social conflict.

These tensions between selfhood and, on the one hand, the multiple selves we seem to be, and on the other, the community of social identities we live amongst, also feature in Celia Hunt's account of the therapeutic dimension of autobiographical writing. She draws on Hesse's notion of a "melody for two voices" and Bakhtin's concept of polyphony to explore the reflective acts necessary for comprehending what we might usefully call the self for-the-self, and the self for-others. For Hesse, the voices of the self both as self and as witness of the self are essential to breaking the unreflective absorption in life which breeds neurosis and peevishness. Hunt suggests that opening up and creating distance between the witnessed self and the witnessing self allows the narrative identity of each to be clarified. Meanwhile Bakhtin's celebration of the polyphony of novelistic discourse, in which a writer allows the many varied voices of the novel's world to stand on an equal footing with the author's own voice, depends on the "exotopic" self - the self who is able to experience an "outsideness", a protean ability to voice a "plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world". The process of writing exotopically, notes Hunt, "demands a greater degree of psychic flexibility than would be usual in everyday life".

Thus the recognition of and intersubjective dialogue between multiple selves, both within the individual, and in a community of people, are crucial aspects of the therapeutic potential of narrative. The act of writing is a reflective tool permitting us to open and explore facets of selfhood and otherness: the sense of the unitariness of the self and its multiplicity as many-in-one, the oneness of the self and its constitution as one-among-many. But to state in this way the powerful scope for personal development that belongs to narrative opens further questions: does the capacity for nurturing wellbeing belong to all kinds of narrative experiences, or a particular kind? Are writers the beneficiaries of a healthy habit, and ought we all to write? Is the place of narrative in wellbeing reserved for the therapeutic situation, a tool to be applied in cases of illness and malaise, or is an engagement with narrative a more fundamental dimension of both being human and being well?

I don't intend to provide exhaustive answers to these ambitious questions, but to begin outlining some broad conceptions of narrative that might suggest ways that it is implicated in wellbeing. The use of narrative as therapeutic device which I've described could be seen as a way of considering some aspects of wellness which match the characteristics of story-telling. I propose to reverse the direction of this movement, and instead try to draw out some key aspects of narrative and search for ways in which they match conceptions of wellbeing. Meanwhile, I wonder whether the reverend listens to these suggestions and reflects on his own writing. His words suggest he grapples with a faceted sense of self: "I struggle with my thoughts." Are his goals selfless, and if he finds the self in them, what would it mean for the self to be absent? As for the story - does his stupendous diary function as a narrative at all, or does the exhaustive documentation of every feature of life diminish the capacity to establish the significance of events? When does a chronicle become a narrative, and must a narrative be selective in order to establish an order that is not merely factual and chronological?

The Aristotelian Narrative

Narrative theory has a long provenance - over 2000 years if we take Aristotle's Poetics as the first work of literary theory, as Richard Janko suggests in the introduction to his translation. The Poetics defines a number of ways of thinking about what a narrative ought to be, and thus offers a set of prescriptive criteria whereby the art of epic poetry or tragic drama might be perfected. Such instructions are intriguing of themselves, but I wish to draw out three features of Aristotle's analysis of tragedy which seem particularly relevant to the questions of selfhood and wellness. These are mimesis, the verisimilitude of stories to real life; anagnorisis, the recognition of an authentic identity; and catharsis, the famous emotional 'purging' which the experience of narrative should facilitate.

In an Aristotelian view, stories achieve their effect through their believable imitation of life, without which the suspension of disbelief would be impossible. Inviting us into the diegesis, the world of the story, compels the author to present a familiar world like our own, a world of things and laws and events and causes, and of people whom we can recognise as like ourselves or as we'd like to be. Recognition thus occurs at two levels, as we recognise the authenticity of the characters of the story, and those characters themselves discover either their own or each others' true nature - a key to Aristotle's understanding of tragedy. The moment of recognition is often key to the emotional welling which should be aroused in us, since it depends on the hamartia of the protagonists - their mistakes and errors of misrecognition. It is as witnesses to the ignorance and bloody-mindedness of our fictional counterparts whose misjudgements lead to their downfall that we experience pity for their lot and terror for our own.

The cathartic effect which Aristotelian narrative aims for thus depends on the sharing of feeling - empathy for the plight of the tragic characters which manifests itself as a vicarious experience of the same emotions. The exact means by which catharsis functions has been the object of debate. Aristotle borrows the term from medicine where it refers to purification by purgation - the cleansing of the body of excesses. Interpreting it in this way encourages us to understand the role of the vicarious experiences provoked by narrative as releasing extraneous emotions which will presumably become dangerous if they are allowed to stagnate. Janko points out that this conception of catharsis suggests its purpose is best served by an audience of people who are disturbed and unbalanced, and its function is to ensure that their pent-up arousal doesn't escalate into hysteria. Meanwhile, Janko's own proposition is that catharsis instead is a device for learning to feel the "correct emotion toward the right object, at the right time, to the proper degree"; narrative is then a rehearsal space in which we should be habituated into the correct responses towards people and actions, thereby becoming "tractable for education".

Both of these interpretations of catharsis entail an understanding of narrative which is normative - whether it is through prevention of hysteria or socialisation into the correct emotional composure. The normative drive in Aristotelian theatre can be detected in the theatrical conventions that arose as the prescriptions of the Poetics were naturalised. The protagonist ought to be someone 'above the common level', such that the events of their life are of no little consequence; tragedy should befall characters not as punishment for vice but as the consequence of human frailty; the unfolding of the drama should express unity of time, place and action thus maintaining the imitative mode. The spectators of such dramas are often provided with an omniscient view of the helpless players, increasing the poignancy of dramatic irony, highlighting the catastrophe of inescapable fate and affirming the inevitability of the tragic outcome for the pawns in the world of the master author. Goethe and Schiller at the end of the 18th century reinforce this sweeping surge of emotional vicarity and epic scope, writing that the spectator of this theatre must remain in "constant sensuous exertion, is not allowed to elevate himself to reflection, he must passionately follow, his imagination is completely reduced to silence, one is allowed to make no claim upon it, and even what is narrated, must be as if it were graphically brought before one's eyes".

It is precisely this immersion into passion, this tide of predestination and its concomitant silencing of imagination, that Bertolt Brecht later reacted against so strongly in his conception of a non-Aristotelian theatre. Brecht famously argued in favour of the Verfremdungseffekt: alienation, distantiation and estrangement are all short-falling translations of this German term. These negative renderings themselves hint at the pervasive triumph of cathartic absorption that Brecht so disliked. Suzanne Langer's description of the misery of experiencing the shattering of the immersive illusion of a story captures all that was Brecht thought was wrong with the old bombastic theatre:

I ... remember vividly to this day the terrible shock of such a recall to actuality; as a young child I saw Maude Adams in Peter Pan. It was my first visit to the theater, and the illusion was absolute and overwhelming, like something supernatural. At the highest point of the action (Tinkerbell had drunk Peter's poisoned medicine to save him from doing so, and was dying) Peter turned to the spectators and asked them to attest their belief in fairies. Instantly the illusion was gone; there were hundreds of children, sitting in rows, clapping and even calling, while Miss Adams, dressed up as Peter Pan, spoke to us like a teacher coaching us into a play in which she was taking the title role. I did not understand, of course, what had happened; but an acute misery obliterated the rest of the scene, and was not entirely dispelled until the curtain rose on a new set.

Misery and obliteration: Brecht notes that indignant reactions are the correct response to the broken diegesis of a traditional narrative. Such a story presents itself as a self-contained, hermetically sealed world, outside which we must leave our imaginations when we enter; it presents a world of unchanging destiny, where disproportionate tragedy befalls people for their weakness or their hubris, rather than as a just punishment for their evil; and it is an ordered world of beginnings, middles and ends, in which the protagonists are powerless to escape their inevitable fates, since it is a world that is completely determinate, rational, explicable, inexorable. No wonder that we should, as Aristotle puts it, "thrill with fear and melt to pity at what takes place" - and no wonder, too, that, when the integrity of this spectacle disintegrates, we should, like Langer, crash to earth with misery and incomprehension.

I interpret Langer's misery at the rupture of her immersion into the storyworld as a direct analogy to the "unhomeliness" that Heidegger notes arises when our own world of being is disrupted by the obtrusiveness and obstinacy of things that seem not to belong - indeed the fracturing of the coherence of our world by traumatic events and exceptional circumstances is a key aspect of our experience of anxiety and illness. The order of our life and any sense of its providence descend into inexplicability and doubt. The "letting-be" that Heidegger suggests consists in an authentic sense of being at home in the world is lost to a sense of estrangement and unbelonging. The unity of life, events and actions no longer coheres.

9.00 - 9.05 I had to take a nitroglycerine tablet
9.05 - 9.45 I sat on the fixture voiding urine and reading Swedenborg on End, England, other subjects. I wish I knew something. Anything would do.

The Estranged Narrative

Brecht's alienation effect aimed at a different sort of defamiliarisation. Martin Esslin notes in his study of Brecht that he thought the Aristotelian theatre was a fraud. Instead he "demanded a theatre of calm contemplation and detachment, a theatre of critical thoughtfulness", where audiences should think for themselves, rather then be swept away in emotion. In his essay celebrating Chinese theatre, Brecht himself talks of a distance not only between the spectator and the world of the play, but between the actor and the role in which he is cast. This distance ensures that the performance is not imitative, but an artistic rendering of character; the actor clearly knows he is a part of a performance, and the spectators do not surrender themselves to empathy, but instead enter a reflective mode and adopt a "watchful attitude". The alienation at work here, then, does not strive to drive a wedge between the world of the spectator and the world of the performance; rather the remoteness between audience and actor is reduced, while the storyworld they are experiencing, either as observers or as players, is pushed far enough away for it to become the object of their shared contemplation.

One of the effects Brecht hoped to produce with this reorganisation of story, player and spectator was to historicise the drama. The Aristotelian theatre emphasised the unchanging universality of events, while Brecht's epic theatre emphasised their particularity. Aristotelian theatre proceeded inexorably toward endings, while Brecht's performers could "freely range forward and backward in time". Aristotelian theatre showed people at the mercy of fate, while Brecht's theatre invited the viewer to consider how things might have been otherwise. Aristotelian theatre thrilled the audience into submission, while Brechtian theatre strove to stimulate them into reflection. The challenge Brecht presented was to say that narrative was not there for us to learn the way of the world, but to provoke us into changing it. Injustice is not merely a doom that befalls hapless victims at the hands of fate, but is something that is carried out by oppressors in ways that can be contested.

In direct contrast to the normative tendency of the Aristotelian theatre, Brecht's theatre is avowedly political and aligned with the Marxist effort to disrupt dominant ideologies. However, the function of narrative in this conception is aimed at restoring the dignity of the individual not only through the wholesale restructuring of the social order, but through the transformation of the individual's consciousness. The Brazilian playwright Augusto Boal identified himself with the Brechtian tradition in his book Theatre of the Oppressed, by critiquing what he called the "coercive" nature of Aristotle's system of tragedy, claiming that "spectator" is a bad word, since the "spectator is less than a man, and it is necessary to humanise him". Boal conceives of the division of spectators from actors as an enclosing intervention by the ruling classes in the history of theatre. He writes: "First they divided the people, separating actors from spectators; people who act and people who watch— the party is over! Secondly, among the actors, they separated the protagonists from the mass. The coercive indoctrination began! " Philip Auslander helps to clarify Boal's aims here, by placing his work in the context of Marx's concern for what is human:

For Marx, alienation is pernicious primarily because it is dehumanizing: human beings, who are supposed to be autonomous, free subjects, endow things outside of themselves, whether another class, a deity, or the products of their own labor (commodities), with power over themselves and become slaves to those things. As I have suggested, Boal’s use of the basic categories of Marxism in his analysis of the body in performance suggests that, like Marx, Boal wants to overcome alienation and restore basic autonomy by eliminating actor and spectator in favor of the spect-actor, thus undoing the traditional division of theatrical labor and overcoming alienation (the audience’s surrendering of its autonomy to performers who act in its stead) and returning the "protagonistic function" [...] to the audience from which it was taken ...

It is precisely the tendency to delegate human agency to things outside ourselves which Marx, Brecht and Boal aim to challenge. Fetishism in both Marxism and in Freudian analysis refers to the way that potency is attributed to objects instead of human action. Thus it is that thrill-seeking audiences surrender their emotional lives to the characters in Aristotelian tragedy, no less than they accept that they are just as powerless to intervene in their own fate as that of the tragic characters themselves. Meanwhile the purpose of Brecht's Lehrstücke, experimental dramatic pieces in which the distinction between audience and actor is dissolved, and of Boal's 'forum theatre', in which audiences can intervene in an iterative unfolding of dramatic situations, is to restore autonomy to the individual human and remind them of their own radical empowerment. After all, if we devolve our autonomy to objects and players to act and feel on our behalf, whether they are fetishes, actors, institutions or leaders, we have deferred both our ability and our responsibility to determine our own lives.

From 'The Spokesman Review', 14th December 1995:

He says the diary doesn't control him. He says he could quit. But he won't, even though a minor stroke a few years ago slowed his typing speed. [...]
"Some people would say 'Well, he's a nut,"' said Shields, seemingly unfazed by the prospect. "Maybe I am." He'd rather be called an eccentric.
Asked if he worries about a fire or another stroke, Shields smiled like someone about to reveal a secret. "I don't worry about anything," he said. "Everything is in the hands of God."

Pasts and Futures

The tension between determinism and agency that is at the heart of the contrast between the dramatic tragedy of Aristotle and the epic theatre of Brecht, is implicated in the structure of narrative itself, and as I intend to argue, provides a way to understand how narrative is involved in a sense of wellbeing. The self is in a tension between its future and its past, its intentions and its history, its destination and its provenance - and this is a tension at the heart of every narrative which is bounded by the role of the author. Just as the author determines the intelligibility of the events of a story, so the self strives for authorship over its lifeworld, and the freedom of self-direction. This freedom apparently entails a paradox, however: the same paradox that is inherent in an author devolving free will to a character, yet maintaining the integrity of that character's world.

To help us understand the directedness of narrative, we can turn to Tvetan Todorov, the bulgarian philosopher, who proposed a very influential but essentially simple definition of narrative, which, he argues, is constituted by the progression from one state of equilibrium to another, through a stage of disequilibrium. Todorov examines a story from Bocaccio's Decameron, arguing that the presentation of a cast of characters living in Naples is not enough to qualify as narrative - it is only when Bocaccio begins to transform the states of affairs and the attitudes of the characters that we can understand his tale as a narrative. This transformation is an "unfolding of an action, change, difference", and leads Todorov to the insight that narratives have two principles: succession and transformation. Elements of stories are related to each other both by succession (following on from one another) and transformation (embodying change).

At the heart of stories, then, are transformations: upsettings and degradations, restorations and reversals. Narratives which only tell part of this transformation (which perhaps only have the degradation without the restoration), are only "half a cycle". To fulfil a complete cycle, a narrative must unfold and present succession; it requires transformation, and moves towards endings and resolutions - thus, narrative points at an implied future. Perhaps for this reason, Todorov says that death has an "exceptional narrative status": it is a reversal which cannot be restored other than in exceptional narratives - the logic of the non-exceptional narrative implies a future which death exceptionally negates.

Todorov pushes us towards a notion of a narrative as something that resolves, and that completes cycles. The structures of these transformations are implicit in their designation as "restoration" or "reversal", and in the exceptionality of death. He notes, "the passage from A to non-A is in a way the paradigm for all change" and thus sets up a dialectic between the successive elements of stories such that they are co-defined. The nature of the state of disequilibrium, which narrative demands must follow an initial equilibrium, is therefore derived from that initial state of affairs and the nature of its disturbance. Just as every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so narrative sequences must be articulated with each other. From this causal structure, future states of affairs are also defined. Many narratives may gain their appeal from striving to obfuscate what the nature of that implied future might be, but in Todorov's scheme, that implied future is limited to new states of equilibrium which are configured by the preceding succession of events.

Jean-Paul Sartre provides a sense of the importance of this implied future. He offers a powerful phenomenological insight into what it is like to realise the freedom of self-direction in his novel Nausea, whose name has already told us much about the experience. His protagonist's realisation that the freedom of self-determination comes at the price of absurdity throws him into an anguish in which he feels crushed. I cannot have both a sense that I have had a meaningful life journey leading to the present moment, and have a completely open future in which I can direct my actions in any way I like. To have had a meaningful trajectory to the present, I must have a purpose whose imperative limits my freedom if I am to remain faithful to that purpose; to have complete self-determination renders whatever actions I take absurd - literally, meaningless. The existential dilemma is that one can choose one or the other - purpose or freedom - but never both.

... for the most commonplace event to become an adventure, you must - and this is all that is necessary - start recounting it [...] a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it. But you have to choose: to live or recount [...] When you are living, nothing happens.

We find ourselves doubly caught here - if we wish to make sense of our lives, we find ourselves turning between the future-headed path to which our life-narrative directs us, and the retrospective sense we must make of our journey on that path in order to give our future a shape; or if we wish for total autonomy, we will be suspended between the vertiginous, nauseating experience of infinite possibility, and the denial of any purpose to the events which have led us to the here and now. Meaning is oppressive; freedom is absurd. To free ourselves into an indeterminate future, we must sacrifice any sense of articulation in the succession of events in our lives, or, if we follow Todorov, recast our narrative as mere description.

2.05 – 2.10 I was at the keyboard of the IBM Wheelwriter making entries for the diary.
2.10 – 2.25 I rested on the couch.
2.25 – 2.35 I checked on whether our county tax payment had been received. It had. We were shuttling back and forth between the ledger, the study and the telephone.
2.35 – 3.00 I rested on the couch.
3.00 – 3.25 I read the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. Matthew F[...] tried to take a baby from Walla Walla General Hospital. He assaulted four of the nursing staff, who held him for the police. He was charged with custodial interference and with assaulting the nursing staff. Boise Cascade’s loss of $421 million over the last 13 quarters has "embarrassed" the chairman of the board and Chief Executive Officer, but he will not quit.
3.25 – 3.35 I was at the keyboard of the IBM Wheelwriter making entries for the diary. I drank two cups of orange juice.
3.35 – 4.30 I prepared a 10-ounce tin of Campbell’s vegetable soup and ate it with saltines as I read Mr. Lincoln’s Army by Bruce Catton. I washed out the soup pan and a frozen food tray left by Cornelia.
4.30 – 4.35 I was at the keyboard of the IBM Wheelwriter making entries for the diary.

Annalist and Analyst

Contrary to Todorov's assertion that description alone does not qualify as narrative, a strand of thought that I will trace through Louis Mink, Arthur Danto and Paul Ricoeur suggests that there is no substantial difference between history and narrative; thus there is no chronological account of events that does not impose narrative order onto them, no description of events that is not "always already" structured by narrative. And if this is the case, then the existential autonomy which Sartre describes is unobtainable, and in any case, it doesn't play a helpful role in a conception of wellbeing which is grounded in sense-making, belonging or self-direction.

In debates about the value of narrative in the discipline of history, Louis Mink has argued that narrative is a primary cognitive form, rather than a derivative one. Hence, instead of thinking of narrative as a device by which a historian might present events of the past, he asserts that when historians present histories, the entire processes of research, selection, comprehension and dissemination are structured by narrative. Thus, events "are not the raw material out of which narratives are constructed; rather, an event is an abstraction from a narrative". To speak of a "narrative of events" is a tautology, since it is the narrative form of understanding that defines and constructs an event as such: its commencement, its closure, its causal connectedness and its transformative significance - these are the narrative criteria by which it can be construed as an event at all.

An objection to Mink's line might be that since narrative knowing, as it has been developed by McLeod, is attuned to the ambiguity and significance of events, it cannot therefore get at the facts of the matter. Narrative processes are partial and selective, rather than objective and comprehensive. An ideal history in this conception would precisely be a "non-narrative" - a pure record of everything. Arthur Danto imagines this ideal history, in the shape of the "Ideal Chronicler" (I.C.), who is a godlike figure with the powers of omniscience and instantaneous transcription, recording every action and event, every thought and motive: "everything that happens across the forward rim of the Past is set down by him, as it happens, the way it happens." We might imagine the mortal historian is now redundant, since the work of recording a faithful history of the past is taken care of. Alternatively we may ascribe to the fallen historian a new role, whose task it is to use the I.C as evidence as though it were an eye-witness account. The point, Danto urges, is that even though all of history is laid before us, it will still not tell us everything we wish to know about events. Even a complete account of the past is not enough. "The truth concerning an event can only be known after, and sometimes only long after the event has taken place," he tells us, and crucially: "What we neglected to equip the Ideal Chronicler with was knowledge of the future."

I take Danto's argument to be that just as the significance of past events changes as the catalogue of new events is enlarged in the passage of time, so readings of history are shaped by an anticipation of the future. "Our knowledge of the past [...] is limited by our knowledge (or ignorance) of the future." And just as much as we are able to make claims about the past, just so much are we also making claims about the future. The horizon of our interpretive action moves forward and backward in time, like the estranged Brechtian performer whose character's destiny resists being fixed. Our intentions for the future shape how we view our past, while what sense we draw from our journey into the present shapes our future purpose.

I find the figure of the "last historian" helpful here: succeeding in bringing to light the truth of history will also be to succeed in predicting the shape and significance of the future. Danto compares this striving with prophecy itself - to see the present as though from the future. The last historian must see the past from the perspective of the end of time - the last, exceptional narrative event of history. It is in this sense that we all strive to be the last historians of our own life-narratives. To assimilate the past and future into an articulate form, we interpret the past from an imagined future, and the future from an always re-imagined past.

Paul Ricoeur borrows terminology from Mink to express this double mode of narrative apprehension:

The art of narrating, as well as the corresponding art of following a story, therefore require that we are able to extract a configuration from a succession [...] every narrative can be conceived in terms of the competition between its episodic dimension and its configurational dimension, between sequence and figure [...] to narrate and to follow a story is already to 'reflect upon' events with the aim of encompassing them in successive totalities.

It is in the movement of configuration that we may see narrative implicated as an existential aspect of wellbeing. The extent to which we are able to apprehend the totality of a life from its discrete episodes, including those phases of it which have not yet occurred, ensures that we are able to feel both purpose and self-direction - indeed they become the one and the same. Ricoeur's own approach to expressing and resolving the tension between the discreteness and continuity of self that is captured in a single figure of many parts is to consider the duality implied in the word "identity" itself. Using the terms "idem-identity" and "ipse-identity", Ricoeur draws attention to identity as both sameness and selfhood. The idem-identity is that which is recognisable as the same, unchanging self, and asserts itself as the recurring identity that is and will be continuous through all the moments of a life. The ipse-identity is that which is present at any given moment - the one who voices the words, "Here I am!" It is in what Ricouer calls a "narrative identity" that the idem and the ipse meet, since it is only through access to the experience of self-sameness (idem) that the self (ipse) is able to answer the question "Who am I?"

To conclude, I wish to take these understandings from the writers and thinkers I have touched on. As much as I am willing to absolve myself of my autonomy by permitting others to define and direct me, just so much I become a spectator of my own life rather than its protagonist, living through vicarious emotions and fearing the dispersal of an illusion over which I have little control. Yet, if I am able to apprehend my life as meaningful, in even the merest details, then I begin to be the creator of my own life-story. Without access to the dimension of the self with a "history and a mortal future", my self is no self at all. The self which emerges for me at their intersection is justified in feeling that my life-narrative is coherent: the many episodes of my life are articulated into a unified whole, and the self-authorship of this "configuration" offers me a sense of self-determination. A pure freedom, which detaches itself from my past, is desirable only in so far as I am willing to forgo a sense of historical identity and personal heritage; but a directedness to a future which is faithful to my journey to the present is what gives my life purpose.


The Reverend Shields' diary is exhaustive, but if our guides have been right, there is no chronicle that is not a narrative, and therefore no diary which does not aim to configure events and episodes into a totality. In Washington State University are tens of millions of his words, of which we have read only a miniscule extract. Many of them inventively describe urination, and attract our prurient attention. Some of them elicit pathos, and provoke curiosity. A few might even seem mundane, but as Mink notes, annals are "fascinating to the teller, whose recollections they are, and boring to the listener, who has only the pointless story without the vividness of recollected content." But some of them invite us to see a glimpse of the self of their author on the page, and his apprehension of his own life. The reverend is reading from the The Swedenborg Concordance, a reference work which accompanies the theological writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, a philosopher, scientist, theologian and, in the latter part of his life before his death in 1772, a mystic. He is claimed to have predicted the date of this own death. He refers often to the "proprium" – an archaism referring to properties that belong to something – what is its "own". His concordance tells us that the flesh is the "proprium of man, thus the evil of the love of self", and the "voluntary proprium of man, which in itself is nothing but evil ... Fully ill."

1.05 - 1.10 I lip-read Psalm 97
1.10 - 1.30 I affirmed my conviction in the faith of the heavens: 1) The Lord reigns; 2) The Lord is the life of all; 3) All salvation is of mercy; and 4) The proprium is evil. Then I reviewed the things I want most before this life is over: 1) To write Thunder in Heaven or Up With the Star or both; 2) to endow the University so as to perpetuate the preservation of my papers; 3) to use the annuity to help six people and six causes. But I conceived of a way to do that. I would give the whole of the WSU annuity to the American Bible Society and use the annuity from the ABS to help the six people and the causes. I would save a bundle in taxes, both immediate and deferred, by doing this, and would bestow an immense benefit on the American Bible Society which is dear to my heart. I give credit for this intention to the Divine Providence. I realize that the achievement of any of those goals is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.


Auslander, P., 1997, From Acting to Performance : Essays in Modernism and Postmodernism, London: Routledge
Bakhtin, M., 1984, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Edited and trans. by Caryl Emerson, Minnieapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Boal, A., 1993, Theater of the Oppressed, New York: Theatre Communications Group
Brecht, B., 'On Chinese Acting' in Martin, C., 1999, Brecht Sourcebook, Florence, KY: Routledge
Danto, A., 1965, Analytical Philosophy of History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Esslin, M., 1969, Brecht, a choice of evils, London: Heinemann
Frauenfelder, M., 2006, Pages of obsessive diarist, BoingBoing, 5 Dec. Available from:
Geranios, N., 1996, Dear Diary: Every Second, Every Minute, Every Hour, Every Day, The Oregonian, 3 Mar
Goethe, W., & Schiller, F., 1827, On Epic and Dramatic Poetry. Available from:
Heidegger, M., 2008. Being and Time, Oxford: Blackwell
Hunt, C., 2000, Therapeutic Dimensions of Autobiography in Creative Writing, London: JKP
Isay, D., 1997, Holding On: Dreamers, Visionaries, Eccentrics, and Other American Heroes, London: Norton
Janko, R., 'Introduction' in Aristotle, 1987, Poetics, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing
Langer, S., in Ryan, M., 2001, Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media, Baltimore: John Hopkins University
MailOnline, 2007, Discovered: The world's longest diary - all 3.75 million words of it, 30 Oct. Available from:
Martin, D., 2007, Robert Shields Wordy Diarist, Dies at 89, The New York Times, 29 Oct. Available from:
McLeod, J., 1997, Narrative and Psychotherapy, London: Sage
Mink, L., 'Everyman His or Her Own Annalist' in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Summer, 1981), pp. 777-783
Mink, L., 'Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument' in Roberts, G., (ed) 2001, The History and Narrative Reader, London: Routledge
Neatorama, 2006, World's Longest Diary, 5 Dec. Available from:
Potts, J., (ed) 1888, The Swedenborg Concordance, London: London Swedenborg Society. Available from:
Ricouer, P., 'The Narrative Function' in Thompson, J., (ed) 1981, Paul Ricouer : Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Ricouer, P., 1994, Oneself As Another, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Sartre, J., 2000, Nausea, London: Penguin
Shields, R., 1994, Pages from unpublished diary. Photograph. Available from:
Sound Portraits, 1994, Robert Shields, World's Longest Diary, 27 Jan. Available from:
The Cincinnati Post, 1996, Dear diary: You fill 81 boxes on my porch. Journal obsession keeps author busy, 22 Mar
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Turner, P., 1995, A Life's Work - Robert Shield's Diary Chronicles Every Minute of Every Day of the Last 20 Plus Years of his Life, The Spokesman Review, 14 Dec

Categories: narrative, therapy, wellbeing, agency, sense-making,
Comments: 1

The Machine Starts: Computers as Collaborators in Writing

Author: joe

Thursday, 28 April, 2011 - 23:33

Earlier this week I presented a paper at the Narrative Research Group Symposium on 'Nonhuman Narratives', at Bournemouth Unversity. It was a day filled with very interesting papers ranging through the posthuman and nonhuman, the monstrous and inhuman, and the nonhuman animal. The text of my paper is copied below, but I wanted to make a few remarks about the paper and the symposium first.

As usual, I found it incredibly difficult to compress the things I wanted to discuss into a 20 minute talk. I'd have liked to have talked more about the practice-led side of the ideas that provoked the paper, discussed a wider range of 'flat ontologists' (e.g. Jane Bennet, as Anat Pick suggested in the Q&A following my talk), and I'd have liked to have gone on to explore both playful and serious consequences of machine agency, from Ted Nelson's Computer Lib / Dream Machines to Kevin Kelly's arguments for The Technium.

The huge depth of subjects from the day make it impossible to sum up or do justice to the ideas, but I want to pick out a couple of insights from the day that really got me thinking.

David Herman talked about understanding (and writing, in graphic form) animal narratives, which was derived from a post-Cartesian approach to mind influenced by Uexküll's idea of an animal's 'Umwelt'. This hinged on a conception of mind as distributed in the environment, rather than sealed inside a thinking being (reminding me, incidentally, of the work of my colleague Dr Paul Stevens), thus permitting questions such as 'what's it like' to be a dog, mollusc, even doorknob. In particular I was intrigued by a remark in the Q&A following David's talk in which he suggested that because mind is a phenomenon distributed through body, environment and institution, we therefore do have access to it. Access to mind! - literally mind-blowing.

Anat Pick's talk, which examined Robert Bresson's portrayal of the donkey Balthazar, offered a way of thinking about determinism and agency that I'm not familiar with, but that I found really intriguing. The tension here is less determinism 'vs' agency, and more determinism 'and' grace; grace in the face of the necessity of the world which involves a form of assent, but is neither mere acceptance, nor does it preclude the resistance of persecution. In the Q&A she cited a Spinozan approach to understanding the necessities inherent in a deterministic universe, which then enables an agent to act within those necessities. I will have to learn Spinoza...

Finally an interesting phenomenon on the day was the frequent dismantling of binary oppositions. In the summary, it was noted that many tensions were explored in the day - human and nonhuman, humane and inhuman, normal and other, known and unknown - but that the categories kept breaking down. In the case of my talk for example, taking a relatively uncontroversial interpretation of nonhuman and following the logical paths such notions suggested, ended in dissolving the distinctions entirely. Human and nonhuman writers are indistinguishable; human and nonhuman texts are too...

I think of this as the inevitable consequence of any dialectic: the definition of a category depends on the splitting off of that category from it's other; it is as though we halve an apple, and are then surprised that the one half is very much the same as the other half... To define good, we create the not-good in the image of the good. Arbitrary categories are susceptible to and dissolve under systematic analysis. The difficulty (even impossibility) is in finding non-arbitrary distinctions. Humans are animals, humans make machines in their own image, monstrous killers are humans; the challenge thrown up by the dissolution of firm distinctions are all ethical: why might eating animals be morally different to cannibalism? what happens when you recognise nonhumans as 'persons'? does dehumanising serial killers absolve the social realms in which they occur from any blame? There may well be a boundary between human and nonhuman, but it is not necessarily where we conventionally think it is.

So I'm grateful to Bronwen Thomas and Julia Round for organising the day, Einar Thorsen for live-blogging it, and to the other speakers and participants for their ideas and openness. I am however, sad that no-one seemed to recognise the opening slide I used. While I was preparing the presentation, I woke in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep, going over and over in my mind the ideas I had for the contents of this paper; my mind had been possessed by a parasite, and as its host I was powerless to resist it. I lay there and remembered an album cover from 1981: The Police, 'Ghost in the machine'. I was barely 10 when I acquired the vinyl LP, and it fascinated me - the songs' lyrics about spirits in the material world, the ethereal synthesisers, the images of circuit boards on the inner sleeve. So I got up at 5 in the morning and went downstairs and pulled out my 30-year-old record, amazingly still unscratched, and played it, and felt a strange mixture of sadness and pleasure that none of my machine collaborators were scrobbling it to

The Machine Starts: Computers as Collaborators in Writing

While I was preparing this paper, the 11-year-old I live with asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was preparing a presentation about how great machines are at telling stories. "How can machines tell stories?" he asked incredulously. I realised that should have been my title! I originally chose to reference E. M Forster's short story, 'The Machine Stops' in my title because I think it is necessary to invoke at once the dystopian vision that the idea of storytelling machines conjures. The idea of sentient machines - which surely they must be to compose tales - is popularly horrific, alienating, and dangerous. Intelligent machines always turn out to be evil. Often popular adaptations of this trope present clear lines between human and nonhuman 'intelligences', thereby permitting a war between them in which the happy outcome is the one in which the unfeeling machines are vanquished.

Forster's story is dystopian and has the contours of such an ethical boundary, but is more subtle, exploring the way in which the humans who inhabit the machine world are shaped by its demands and imperatives. A transgressing wanderer reaches close to the surface of the subterranean world of the machines, and later reports:

"There was a ladder, made of some primӕval metal. The light from the railway fell upon its lowest rungs, and I saw that it led straight upwards out of the rubble at the bottom of the shaft. Perhaps our ancestors ran up and down it a dozen times daily, in their building. As I climbed, the rough edges cut through my gloves so that my hands bled. The light helped me for a little, and then came darkness and, worse still, silence which pierced my ears like a sword. The Machine hums! Did you know that? Its hum penetrates our blood, and may even guide our thoughts. Who knows! I was getting beyond its power. Then I thought: "This silence means that I am doing wrong." But I heard voices in the silence, and again they strengthened me." He laughed. "I had need of them. The next moment I cracked my head against something."
The Machine Stops, (Forster, 1909)

I love the idea that the all-pervasive rumble of the machine is so constitutive of life that it withdraws from consciousness even as it guides our thoughts, and I'm going to return to the idea that how we think is shaped by the machines we live with. First though, I'm going to quickly talk about some work I've been doing with the digital writer, Tim Wright. In a project called 'Hauntology', we've been exploring how we can create interactive and participatory narratives using a combination of poetry, software, antique objects and digital sensors and circuits - and increasingly now - walking. In one piece, a chest of drawers was 'haunted' by the spirits of its previous owners. A user could access snippets of their lives by interacting with the chest of drawers and objects on and in it, as well as eventually 'haunting' it themselves with the sounds they left behind for the next users to hear.

We're currently exploring how we can use an old wooden box, wired up with an audio device and some sensors, to act as the focal device for a walking, talking, poetic experience based on the poetry of Thomas Hardy and the geography of the outskirts of Dorchester. In this we are trying to compose a narrative experience which is absorbing, authentic, haunting and provocative - out of antique bric-a-brac, digital sensors and media, physical space, sounds, smells, scenes, embodied and interpersonal interactions, and both reading and writing poetry. To this end I've been experimenting with wiring electronic devices into old wooden boxes.

One of the things I've noticed about the process is the feeling that the electronic systems and circuits, and the antique wooden boxes and drawers, are all exerting their own influence on the proceedings. They only allow certain sorts of behaviours and affordances to get the go-ahead. At first I thought this is an artefact of my own imprecision and inexperience. The further I get, though, the more I'm sure that the objects I work with have intentions of their own. Just as a sculptor seeks to find the form already within the matter at hand, as if discovering the spirit in the material, so I am collaborating with the devices I coerce and adapt to perform as they want to, as though I am obeying a ghost in their machine.

I'm now afraid that I'm sounding crazy, so I want to run through a quick and very partial history of writers collaborating with devices, to see if I'm alone in my craziness. I'm thinking here about the production of textual artefacts through the action of some sort of device - something I'm therefore going to call a device-oriented narrative - produced by some sort of rule or algorithm or heuristic process. I think this is a fairly good, low-level definition of a 'writing machine' - an apparatus or assemblage which performs some sort of function on the raw materials of textual production.

Here's an example of an electronically produced poem:

"Sentences begins.
money must
Sentences for love forsaken."
Sentences, (Hartman and Kenner, 1995)

Nick Montfort explains the provenance of this piece of text, taken from a book by Hartman and Kenner, "Sentences":

"To write Sentences, Hartman and Kenner took 457 19th-century "Sentences for Analysis and Parsing, Thayer Street Grammar School" and providentially generated an intermediate text, using Claude Shannon's Markov chain technique as implemented in TRAVESTY by Hugh Kenner and Joseph O'Rourke. The resulting text was corrected and used as input to Hartman's program DIASTEXT, which carried out diastic selection as developed by Jackson Mac Low."
Sentences in 1k, Grand Text Auto, (Montfort, 2008)

I don't want to dwell on the detail of the particular processes that were used to produce these texts - just to note that Montfort's description illustrates very clearly the notion that a non-trivial operation has been performed to produce the work: the raw input is worked on in some way to produce a text at the end. In this case at least two sets of iterative actions were performed on the input to produce strangely evocative words. This therefore is a machine text.

I want to draw a distinction here from what Espen Aarseth has refered to as a 'cybertext' - a text which requires work on the part of the reader to traverse it. I want to think of texts which require some act of delegation by the writer to a machine to produce them. We could get horribly metaphysical about what constitutes mechanism, machinism and what does not. Is a pen a machine? A typewriter? While it is tempting to say that in the term 'machine' I exclude devices which merely reproduce mechanical extensions of the writer's actions, this may become a moot point as we proceed. Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman in 1999, deals with the difference, for example, between a typewriter and a computer by noting the non-linear disruption that occurs when dematerialisation is introduced into the machinic action. I want to avoid this distinction, as there are perfectly good examples of writerly delegation that can occur within entirely material parameters.

I'm going to go with Richard Sennet's understanding of the machine in 'The Craftsman' of 2008, which I read as an intermediary device between the hand of the craftsman and the work itself, which effects some non-trivial transformation. This allows me to include devices such as horoscopes and Tarot cards, runes and tea-leaves, dice and difference engines, as well as electronic circuits, random algorithms, neural networks and artificial intelligences.

As the inclusion of Tarot hints, divination or possession by a deus ex machina seems to have a provenance in machine thinking. The 'I-Ching' was not only a repository of confucian wisdom, but a device for answering questions. Aarseth describes it thus:

"The I Ching is made up of sixty-four symbols, or hexagrams, which are the binary combinations of six whole or broken ("changing") lines [...] A hexagram [...] contains a main text and six small ones, one for each line. By manipulating three coins or forty-nine yarrow stalks according to a randomizing principle, the texts of two hexagrams are combined, producing one out of 4,096 possible texts. This contains the answer to a question the user has written down in advance (e.g., "How much rice should I plant this year?")."
Cybertext, (Aarseth, 1997)

From a European, humanist point of view, there is no particularly significant difference between a blind algorithm and the pronouncements of oracles and fortune-tellers - both are equally meaningless, and in the post-Enlightenment mind it is difficult to think otherwise. Educated people are supposed to scorn horoscopes and prophecies. Yet this adoption of a rational, materialistic ontology doesn't extend to our celebration of the transcendence of human agency and intelligence, with which we persevere in cherishing against the blind heuristic principle of automatons.

The automative principle of composition is evident in the work of Raymond Roussel, such as in Locus Solus from 1914. Although after his death he inspired the OuLiPo writers and the nouveau roman, during his lifetime, after some initial popularity amongst the surrealists, he was largely ridiculed and certainly critically panned. His works are very unusual, as can be gleaned from this account of his composition technique from John Ashbery:

"Sometimes he would take a phrase containing two words, each of which had a double meaning, and use the least likely ones as the nucleus of a story. Thus the phrase 'maison á espagnolettes' ("house with window latches") served as the basis for an episode in Impressions of Africa about a house (a royal family or house) descended from a pair of Spanish twin girls. [...]
"Just as the mechanical task of finding a rhyme sometimes inspires a poet to write a great line, [...] "rhymes for events" helped him to utilise his unconscious mind. "
'Introduction' to Raymond Roussel, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, (Ashbery, 1995 [1962])

The French surrealist writer Michel Leiris suggested that Roussel is tapping into an ancient tradition of eliciting myths from words, seeking out the 'disease of language', which is the source of mythology or collective unconscious." (ibid) Here, though Leiris is still perhaps seeking to legitimise the text for its inner human truth, its interpretation of the human unconscious. The text may be unconventionally produced, but its defender still seeks to recuperate it into the realm of human desires, motives and meanings, against the criticism that the work is a joke of no obvious inherent merit.

Similar recuperations might be made of other device-oriented narratives. In the 1920s the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, cited by Burroughs and Gysin later as an inspiration for their employment of the composition algorithm called 'the cut-up', apparently started a riot by pulling a poem out of a hat. In his dada manifesto, his wrote:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are - an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love, (Tristan Tzara, 1920)

It is difficult not to see the dada movement and Burroughs' later adoption of the cut-up as much a political gesture as one of literary exploration - though this was certainly an ingredient in Burroughs' extensive use of it throughout novels like The Soft Machine, Cities of the Red Night and others. Burroughs describes it in 1961:

"The cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and , still camera. In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passersby and juxtaposition cut-ups. And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident [...]
Take any poet or writer you fancy. Here, say, or poems you have read over many times. The words have lost meaning and life through years of repetition. Now take the poem and type out selected passages. Fill a page with excerpts. Now cut the page. You have a new poem. As many poems as you like."
The cut-up method of Brion Gysin, (Burroughs, 1961)

The casual abundance of poetry produced this way directly challenges the idea that a specially gifted and inspired writer is the essential ingredient in the writing - all that is necessary is a heuristic device and some raw materials on which to act. The results are often extremely powerful, as any reading from Burroughs' work will attest:

"Pan God of Panic piping blue notes through empty streets as the berserk time machine twisted a tornado of years and centuries - Wind through dusty offices and archives - Board Books scattered to rubbish heaps of the earth - Symbol books of the all-powerful board that had controlled thought feeling and movement of a planet from birth to death with iron claws of pain and pleasure - The whole structure of reality went up in silent explosions - Paper moon and muslin trees and in the black silver sky great rents as the cover of the world rained down - Biologic film went up.. . "raining dinosaurs" "It sometimes happens. . .just an old showman" Death takes over the game so many actors buildings and stars laid flat pieces of finance over the golf course summer afternoons bare feet waiting for rain smell of sickness in the room Switzerland Panama machine guns in Bagdad rising from the typewriter pieces of finance on the evening wind tin shares Buenos Aires Mr. Martin smiles old names waiting sad old tune haunted the last human attic."
The Soft Machine, (Burroughs, 1961)

The production of literary texts through machinic devices seems to proliferate in the middle of the 20th century. Writers like Barthelme, Beckett, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Robbe-Grillet, Perec and Calvino all produce texts which can be said to have been written with the aid of a heuristic device in the tradition of Roussel and Tzara. Often they are consciously political - David Porush in his work on cybernetic texts named after Burrough's novel, The Soft Machine, argues that such fiction:

"...far from being representative of a class of fiction in its decadence, is the most meaningful and hopeful sort of fiction. It cannot as a body be understood without constant reference to its source in a highly technologised society. For that very reason, however, it has the power to invent a new way of seeing, it offers a new language, and along the way it tells a fine, often amusing, often grim story about how far along we are."
The Soft Machine, (David Porush, 1985)

This odd combination of decadence and Brechtian self-reference and estrangement is also reminiscent of the flâneur and the psychogeographic movement: Benjamin's flâneur walked, either to revel in decadence, or to ambiguate the scopic regimes of the city's imperative to consume. No doubt, as in the situationist dérive and later psychogeographic texts and actions, there is an important emancipatory element: situationists walked to resist a 'world moving away in to representation'. The algorithmic obedience of tracing out a route that is arbitrarily pre/pro-scribed, but through the elective and playful devices of our own choosing, is actually, (ironically), a way to reassert the agency of the human and the individual against a machinic world of capital and convention.

However I'd like to go much further than Porush goes. He argues that one of the tropes of cybernetic fiction is that of self-dismantling. This is a deconstructive move, and resonates with the late 20th century concerns of continental philosophy, which seeks to dislodge the layers of meaning that stratify human existence in order to bring to notice the complex shifting network of linguistic and textual currents which inform our lives and institutions. However, I'd like to go further than seeing cybernetic texts and device-oriented narratives as merely deconstructive.

Consider that, even though we accept the premise of the intentional fallacy, we still privilege human intentionality as both qualitatively different from and somehow better than the nonhuman world of relations. So, even though we accept the notion that a text might be a device which can surrender novel meanings and effects which the author didn't intentionally encode there, we still find it hard to accept that an algorithmically generated text could offer anything of equal value: note that we still conventionally attribute the richness of a text, and its capacity for renewed interpretation, to the skill of its author - to have written something that 'transcends' the finitude of its human creator.

As I've suggested, we have tended to think of automatically produced texts as somehow lesser than those originated by acts of human imagination alone. It is with this tendency that we also consider the possibility of artificial intelligence as a watershed: the achievement of machine consciousness will be equivalent to lifting those machines up to some lofty, hard-to-reach transcendental threshold which makes them finally equal to humans. I'd prefer to see the problem from the other side, and wonder what it is we think is so different about human agency that separates us from the rest of the universe. This is not to reduce humans to mindlessness; Zizek puts it:

"It is here that the "reductionist" project goes wrong: the problem is not how to reduce mind to neuronal "material" processes [...] but, rather, to grasp how mind can emerge only through being embedded in the network of social relations and material supplements. In other words, the true problem is not "How, if at all, could machines IMITATE the human mind?," but, "How does the very identity of human mind rely on external mechanical supplements? How does it incorporate machines?"
Organs Without Bodies - Gilles Deleuze, (Zizek, 2008)

This is not just deconstruction (in which a philosophy of consciousness gives way to a philosophy of linguistics and signification), but a shift towards "placing humans and nonhumans on an equal footing". To go further then, we have to re-equate humans with the menagerie of other things in the world, the nonhuman - what object-oriented ontologists have called a flat ontology.

Levi Bryant has outlined a book-project called The Domestication of Humans in which he considers the way that plants and microbes have transformed human beings:

"The whole point of such a project, of course, is to develop enhanced techniques for thinking in terms of flat ontology. When posing questions in the humanities our tendency is to think in terms of unilateral determination. We talk about humans structuring reality through their perceptions, concepts, and signs, treating the process of structuration as proceeding from the human towards a sort of gooey chaos that then gets structured by the human. Flat ontology calls for bilateral determination, where determination doesn't simply run from human to world, but where all sorts of other entities structure humans and societies as well."
The Domestication of Humans, (Bryant, 2010)

Bryant derives this notion of a flat ontology alongside Graham Harman, who in turn cites Latour's Irreductions as a breakthrough in terms of escaping the realm of the human. Adrift on a sea of other agents and irreducible entities, Harman argues that we should start to rethink the bustling nature of the world of objects, amongst whom the human object is a mere one among many:

"Even as the philosophy of language and its supposedly reactionary opponents both declare victory, the arena of the world is packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball smacks green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them, while damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of "access" to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish and icebergs smash into coastlines.
"All of these entities roam across the cosmos, inflicting blessings and punishments on everything they touch, perishing without a trace or spreading their powers further, as if a million animals had broken free from a zoo in some Tibetan cosmology."
Object Oriented Philosophy, (Harman, 1999)

Andrew Pickering considers the consequences of putting human and nonhuman agency on the same footing. His work The Mangle of Practice from 1995 looks at the way that scientific work proceeds in practice, and argues that far from being the logical, deductive unfolding of evidential knowledge, this picture is a retrospective portrait imposed on a messy sequence of stumbling events in which human goals have strived and struggled with the material agency of machinic experimentation. Work of this kind (and I argue that there is a direct parallel here to the way that writers write and texts are produced) is the product of a mangling of ideas and forces, machines and hunches, objects and products. This is a dance of agency between the human and nonhuman, in which such apparently crucial phenomena as human intentionality emerge from the interplay of possibilities and events, "brought to heel by the cultures in which they are situated":

"Scientists do not simply fix their goals once and for all and stick to them, come what may. In the struggles with material agency that I call tuning, plans and goals are at stake and liable to revision. And thus the intentional character of human agency has a further aspect of temporal emergence, being reconfigured itself in the real time of practice, as well as a further aspect of intertwining with material agency, being reciprocally redefined with the contours of material agency in tuning."
The Mangle of Practice, (Pickering, 1995)

So I want to conclude by suggesting that I was right to feel that my machines are trying to have their own way. Me and my machines are, to use Pickering's terms, tuning each other to our own 'agenda'. We are both devices which perform machinic captures of input material and transform them into artefacts which, in Tzara's phrase, resemble ourselves. So the computers, circuits, dice, algorithms, typewriters, pens - and even the words themselves - are cybernetic machines with which we are forced into collaboration and partnership, rather than mastery.

Italo Calvino confirms this from his own experience of writing:

"Literature as I knew it was a constant series of attempts to make one word stay put after another by following certain definite rules; or more often, rules that were neither definite nor definable, but that might be extracted from a series of examples, or rules made up for the occasion - that is to say, derived from the rules followed by other writers. [...] The "I" of the author is dissolved in the writing. [...] Writers, as they have always been up to now, are already writing machines; or at least they are when things are going well. [...] And so the author vanishes - that spoiled child of ignorance - to give place to a more thoughtful person, a person who will know that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works."
Cybernetics and Ghosts, (Calvino, 1967)


Forster, E. M., 1909, The Machine Stops [Online:]

Hartman, C. O. & Kenner, H., Sentences, Sun and Moon Press, New American Poetry Series: 18, 1995

Montfort, N., 2008, 'Sentences in 1k', Grand Text Auto [Online:]

Aarseth, E., 1997, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Baltimore: JHUP

Hayles, N. K., 1999. How We Became Posthuman, Chicago: UCP

Sennett, R., 2008, The Craftsman, London: Allen Lane

Roussel, R., 1914, Locus Solus, [Online:]

Ashbery, J., 1995 [1962], 'Introduction' in Roussel, R., 1995, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change

Leiris, M., 1987, Roussel l'ingénue, Paris: Fata Morgana

Tzara, T., 1920, dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love, [Online:]

Burroughs, W. S., 1961, 'The cut-up method of Brion Gysin' in The Third Mind, New York: The Viking Press

Burroughs, W. S., 1966 [1961], The Soft Machine, Paris: Olympia Press

Porush, D., 1985, The Soft Machine, New York: Methuen

Zizek, S., 2008, Organs Without Bodies - Gilles Deleuze [Online:]

Bryant, L., 2010, 'The Domestication of Humans', Larval Subjects [Online:]

Harman, G., 2010, 'Object-Oriented Philosophy' in Towards Speculative Realism, Ropley: Zero Books

Pickering, A., 1995, The Mangle of Practice, London: Duke

Calvino, I., 1997 [1967], 'Cybernetics & Ghosts', in The Literature Machine, London: Vintage

Tim Wright, digital writer / cross-platform produce [Online:

Categories: machine, writing, digital, text, paper, academic, cybertext, device-oriented, narrative, research, Forster, Hartman, Kenner, Montfort, Aarseth, Hayles, Roussel, Ashbery, Leiris, Tzara, Burroughs, Porush, Zizek, Bryant, Harman, Pickering, Calvino,
Comments: 2


Author: joe

Monday, 15 November, 2010 - 21:52

- on anarchists and oligarchs

Ah-ah-ah, ha-ha, ho-ho!
Fly into the streets! All who are still fresh and young and not dehumanized - to the streets! The pot-bellied mortar of laughter stands in a square drunk with joy. Laughter and Love, copulating with Melancholy and Hate, pressed together in the mighty, convulsive passion of bestial lust. Long live the psychology of contrasts! Intoxicated, burning spirits have raised the flaming banner of intellectual revolution. Death to the creatures of routine, the philistines, the sufferers from gout! Smash with a deafening noise the cup of vengeful storms!

Is this the voice of the revolting, the oppressed, the unemployed, the disenfrachised - the jobless, the state-dependents, the unions, the students, the working-classes, the poor, the minority? Is it the call-to-arms of those fighting the old order, the oligarchs, the Bullingdons, the capitalists, the bankers, the bourgeois?


Tear down the churches and their allies the museums! Blast to smithereens the fragile idols of Civilization! Hey, you decadent architects of sarcophagi of thought, you watchmen of the universal cemetery of books - stand aside! We have come to remove you!
The old must be buried, the dusty archives burned by the Vulcan's torch of creative genius. Past the flaky ashes of world-wide devastation, past the charred canvases of bulky paintings, past the burned fat, pot-bellied volumes of classics we march...! Above the vast expanse of devastation covering our land the banner of anarchy will be proudly unfurled. Writing has no value! There is no market for literature! There are no prisons, no limits for subjective creativity! Everything is permitted! Everything is unrestricted!
Anarcho-Futurist Manifesto, 1919, by A. L. and V. L. Gordin

Where anarchy and the market meet: Smash everything, you neo-anarcho-liberals!

Categories: anarchy, revolution, anarcho-futurism, manifesto, neo-liberal, anti-intellectual,
Comments: 0

Being and Knowing: World as Diegesis

Author: joe

Tuesday, 14 July, 2009 - 22:52

Another conversation, this time with Shaun, and more thinking through, thinking aloud, thinking thought. Shaun attended all the first year media theory lectures over the last academic year, including the six part series I delivered on narrative. So, he got to hear me rework and reiterate impressionistically over the same endless themes of diegesis and artifice, story and plot, world and representation which I surreptitiously pretended was an overview of narrative theory.

So I was attempting to explain how that period of intense focus on ideas about narrative and, in particular, the phenomenon of diegesis, had since inflected my thought. The diegesis is the storyscape - the integrity of the imaginary theatre we accept when we give over to a narrator the suspension of our disbelief. The diegesis is the internally coherent world of the story - and 'world' is the key word here, since the idea of a 'world' is one of the ways in which I'm trying to muscle into an understanding of Heidegger which I think is going to be central to my PhD thesis. If you are going to read on here, put your Kafkaesque reading hat on and read it all as subjunctive: "I would, God-willing, understand in this way..."

Using a combination of Graham Harman's lucid writing on Heidegger, Timothy Clark's valiant exposition of Heidegger's thought, Hubert Dreyfus' concordance and commentary on 'Being and Time', and the dense source text itself, I've been trying to work towards an understanding Heidegger's concepts of Zuhandenheit and Vorhandenheit, theoria and praxis, not to mention Dasein, being there, and being a 'thing that things'. The concept of 'world' in this realm of thought seems helpful to me. Clark says that Heidegger's use of the term 'world',

"is close to the common meaning of the term when we talk about the 'world' of the Bible, or the 'world' of the modern Chinese or modern English - i.e.the fundamental understanding within which individual things, people, history, texts, buildings, projects cohere together within a shared horizon of significances, purposes and connotations. [...] the more fundamental shared disclosure of things within which [we] find [ourselves] in all [our] thoughts, practices and beliefs, providing the basis even of [our] self-conceptions and suppositions."

- all of which seems to be a perfect definition of diegesis if understood as pertaining not only to the fictional worlds we muster, but also the fields of meaning we conjure in every aspect of what we still call 'real life'. In the tool analysis, Heidegger's hammer [makes sense | obtains | is grasped] as part of the world of equipment, which [makes sense | obtains | is grasped] as part of the world of human action. These realms cohere diegetically - they belong to, define and co-constitute each other. In action, we grasp the hammer as a tool, we extend our limbs and 'be' our intentional 'being' in the praxis of carpentry, and by extension, the praxis of existence. We act, and as we do, we are attuned to the world of action and meaning we inhabit: we experience the world holistically - we cease to be figures, and recede into the ground of the diegesis. Praxis is the means whereby we live and dwell - believe - in the diegesis.

The hammer when it breaks, shatters the diegesis: we are no longer engaged in praxis, but in the comprehension of material objects divorced from their diegetic meaning: an extreme Brechtian 'Verfremdung', or alienation from the essence of the hammer. A broken hammer is no hammer: it is a residue, a fragment, a memory, a concept, an idea, an object, a construct, a prop, revealed and separated from its function in the diegesis: a corpse in the theatrical sense - a moment in which the illusion is shattered, the figure of artifice processes and emerges from the ground of the theatre, and we are appalled enough by the shattering of the illusion to be compelled to laugh uncontrollably in the face of the futility of pretence. The broken hammer is an object of our reflective thought, which we diagnose in its symptomatic failure; it is seen as though from above, outside, from nowhere, divorced as it is from the field of praxis. Our consciousness of the broken hammer is the kind of consciousness we simply relinquish in the midst of being. It is empty, shell-like, valueless, objective. It is the transcendental knowledge to which the academy, science, Western materialist thought aspires - and as in the perennial cliche, it pins the butterfly to a board in order to comprehend it even as it dies.

Following Harman, I understand the fate of the broken hammer not to be merely an event in the life of a lone doomed tool, but to be caught up in the being of all things that do their 'being' - the 'thinging' of things, people, starfish and coconuts - the dichotomy between Vorhandenheit (presence-at-hand) and Zuhandenheit (readiness-to-hand). All things which are capable of submitting to the gaze of other things and being translated into the intentional objects of contemplation are uncovered - as are figures processing and emerging from the ground of their diegetic existence - as lifted out of their being, their dwelling in the multiplicities of the interlacing diegeses to which they belong. The object of my reflection is a shadow of its being - the prehensile presence-at-hand of a thing, behind which all its indestructible being - the inexhaustibly rich readiness-to-hand of a thing - withdraws.

In this way, anything we care to articulate or speak of, any 'thing' to which we care to give edges through the process of signification, and by which we mediate a representation of that 'thing' to another, is reduced to a presence-at-hand - a mere one amongst its infinite resource of arbitrarily graspable facets - a reduction; a theory. Thus all representation, articulation and signification is work in the realm of artifice, mimesis - or presence-at-hand; a reductive distinguishing of a facet of an object from the ground of its diegesis - the world of its Romantic potential, its being, its participation in praxis. The insertion of the stethoscope between the healer and patient is no less than a conversion of the human subject into an object of instrumentation, a reduction of the being to one amongst its many facets: a mediated, rythmic, booming pulse stands in for the beating heart of a living being. The sound is a metonymic reduction of the living being of the beating heart.


A short recap then: praxis is the unification of human action and knowing - holistic. Theoria (and hence conceptual, reflective, objective knowledge) is the distantiation of the world from the experience of that world. This distanced, alienated knowledge, extracted from the diegesis of its being, is a projection, a paper-thin shell, a shadow - a presence-at-hand, available to our consciousness as no more than a facet of the fullness of being. Being itself never emerges from the ground of diegesis - the integral, coherent, self-consistent, co-constitutive storyscape of the world in which we un-self-consciously dwell.

From these thoughts flow other problematisations, to be dealt with another time, of impartial academic enterprises, traditional doctoral theses, and the very nature of the attempt to document the research process.

Categories: Martin-Heidegger, phenomenology, phd, working-through, Dasein, being, Zuhandenheit, Vorhandenheit, presence-at-hand, readiness-to-hand, knowledge, objectivity, research, praxis, diegesis, narrative, world,
Comments: 0

Health fiction

Author: joe

Monday, 12 November, 2007 - 18:45

I considered going to the hospital carrying a copy of 'Narrative Based Medicine' by Greenhalgh and Hurwitz. My experience has become so reflexively, regressively contingent that I thought I might as well go the whole hog, and encourage the consultants and nurses, by noticing the book, to become radically self-aware of the experience they were creating around me.

Earlier in the year I registered for my PhD, which I intend to focus on the therapeutic uses of creative activity. There is evidence that people who keep journals during their treatment for serious illnesses such as cancer have a statistically significantly improved prognosis. Why might this be? Is it the case that our experiences of serious illness are such chaotic, disempowering transactions with the machine of healthcare, that the productive act of creating our own purposeful, narrativised story out of the bare, brute facts of therapy and treatment actually improves our bodies' ability to survive?

My father was diagnosed with cancer 7 years ago and died six months later. He said the process of pin-balling between consultants and treatments was frustrating precisely because doctors want to tell you as little as possible. Perhaps for good reason. Perhaps euphemism ('growths' rather than 'tumours') helps to minimise the psychological trauma. Perhaps a gradual induction into the language of primary and secondary, benign and malignant, potassium levels, morphine and death spray is a therapeutically beneficial approach, and ignorance is convalescent bliss. Perhaps knowing little, and trusting in the authority of the medicinal apparatus improves the prognosis.

"How is your hearing?" one nurse asked him. "Pardon?" he replied.

And so, as I have had constant headaches since February of this year, which usually recede only after the self-medication of Nurofen, I have been witnessing at first hand the efficiencies of the British healthcare system. And rather like a media studies student who is suddenly noticing how adverts are constructed, I can't not examine the story of illness (or lack of narrative) the actors in my performance are creating. My consultant informed first, not me, but his dictaphone, of my almost certainly necessary surgery. What surgery, I am still only able to speculate. It is sinusitis, an infection, pus in the ethmoid. Today's MRI scan of my head was olympically efficient - I arrived 15 mins early and had left the hospital by the time my appointment was supposed to take place. I, rather unnecessarily, slowed things down by asking the nurse what happened next. "Your scans go to the consultant now, and then he will contact you soon. Just turn left out of the doors."

Of course I have the problem of Einstein's observer, watching trains travelling in different directions at the speed of light. I'm in the train, and can't get out of it to look. I can't experience medicine without thinking about the experience of medicine, and I can't think about the experience without picking out the moments that are self-selected to illustrate the competing narratives that constitute the phenomenon of medical treatment.

I also can't help but think there is a certain kind of guilt associated with querying the treatment that our noble welfare-state doctors and nurses provide. One is supposed to say "mustn't grumble...", adopt the Blitz spirit, "there are people worse off than me..", "oh it's just a touch of sinusitis..." How self-indulgent to expect a consultant to spend an extra few minutes explaining the diagnosis and how the treatment will pan out, when he must dash off to start someone's heart any second now. "Remember that the appointment that you cannot attend is very valuable to someone in pain or distress" the leaflet says. Unusual, fatal, healing, fictions.

Categories: medicine, hospital, treatment, therapy, narrative, phd,
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