Thursday, April 20, 2006

Well, yeah, I certainly proved my ineptitude around technology last night. (Self-indulgent-pop-psych-self-examination-moment: I've been realizing lately that I have trouble with motivation and focus in certain competitive situations, a problem that manifests itself most noticeably around video games and playing-cards.) Emily, Darren, Bill, and Ken Babstock weren't inept however. Emily's talk dealt with narrative tropes in early video games and how they function in her novel. Actually (and I admit my attention was fading in and out as I settled into the evening, and then it skittered around a bit when some of her ideas caught), it was as if she was talking about archetypes and breaking them down into their relational configurations, which was interesting to me because I'm haunted by space. Darren and Bill talked so comfortably I expected to see a two-thirds-empty pitcher in front of them, and Babstock was a good foil. Interesting moments included a statement on Bill's part that pushed the Apostrophe Engine beyond (or maybe beside) the artificial intelligence debate, discussion of the role of failure in art, and(unsurprisingly) talk about the role of context in the reception of poetry. I wish there had been a chance for the audience to jump in. I would have asked them what they've learned about the world through the Apostrophe Engine. A slightly dumb question, maybe, but I would have been interested in how they'd take "world" in the context of their work and where they'd go from there.


Anonymous stop14 said...

hmm. "world"?

well, one of the more difficult post-structuralist concepts was the notion of there being no world outside of text. difficult, not in the sense of being hard to understand, but difficult in the sense of making you sound very lame when you try to explain it to someone. this was compounded by a lot of bad "deconstructionist" literary theory in the eighties, that saw the world-as-text thing as an excuse to "read" everything ("reading Madonna", "reading the grout in your bathroom"), and a host of annoying criticism flowed forth.

with the apostrophe engine, it's no longer a strained metaphor trying to be theory. it's quite literal. the web IS a world of text. moreover, it challenges metaphoricity, which is entirely in keeping with post-structuralist thinking.

the target of that thinking was metaphor, the presumption of a unity between a piece of writing and the larger world outside it, between the presence of the word on the page (or screen) and the absent thing it's trying to represent. the engine, as darren mentioned, works metonymically... larger meaning is derived by contingency and chance. in fact, the engine makes it difficult to reconcile the results, as a whole, either between themselves or with a larger "world" outside of the words. there is little sense of the absent being made present, just a laying bare of some, and i say some, odd workings of the world of text. maggie helwig refered to it as the "webmind" - our collective thinking as betrayed by our collective writing.

as far as the engine is concerned there is no outside, nor does there need to be for it to make a certain kind of sense.

what have i learned from this? nothing, sadly, absolutely nothing.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Great answer. Thanks, Bill.

I guess I had a sense of what you’re describing above. Maybe I should rephrase my question to get closer to what I mean. What I wonder is whether working with the engine has made you feel anything different about the world you live in or given you any insight (Ken Babstock mentioned that as a reader he felt his subjectivity threatened). I’m guessing that understanding these things conceptually is one thing, but living (with) them (or, in any case, working closely with them over an extended period of time) is something else. (It seems to me that we tend to fall back and live in the world we’ve received, whereas our conceptual thought can push us beyond it. Writing might be a chance to engage with this conceptual thought and to press it into living and see if we can go further. I guess this assumes what I’ve read somewhere: that art stands on the vanguard of thinking.) I tend to think of my practice as being an opportunity to push myself to the limits of my understanding and to catch glimmers of something just beyond. I don't mean to ask for a summary or explanation of the book. I wonder if you feel your work has pushed you anywhere. Has it given you a felt sense of something further to understand? (And I don’t expect you to be able to articulate it if it has. In fact, I’d imagine you wouldn’t be able to.)

These spatial metaphors might be off. Maybe we dig down. Maybe we just keep moving laterally. I don’t know.

I suppose it could be that this type of question doesn’t apply to your work (since, for instance, you’re not writing in the way writing is generally conceived of). It could be that it doesn’t apply to my work. It could be a vestige of an inappropriate model. Also, it could be a little naïve to privilege you as author or programmer/compiler, but I’m guessing at this point you and Darren have also had the best opportunity as readers. So, yes, anyway, I probably shouldn’t have asked, “What have you learned?”

When I read the engine’s output, I, like Babstock, feel something a little strange (and exhilarating). I wonder how that works over an extended period of time and in greater proximity. It’s fun to imagine.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

A reader of this post asked me if I have an answer in mind when I ask a question. I hope it doesn't seem like that. My initial question was based on a feeling I got while listening to Bill and Darren talk, and so it wasn't especially well formulated. Bill's answer helped me figure out what I wanted to ask a little better.

If you feel as if you're being led or boxed in by my question, Bill, don't answer.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous stop14 said...

again, hmmm. has apostrophe given me insight about the world? has it surprised me? you like asking the big questions, don't you mark?

since you bring up babstock, maybe i'll start there. i think, in an odd way, the apostrophe project is the flipside of babstock's concerns in airstream land yacht. both, and here's the surprise, are eminently humanist works. if apostrophe is anything, it's the unfolding story of what it means to be a human being, one told outside of traditional models for understanding humanity (or, perhaps, one which draws attention to those models). apostrophe has inspired a personal fascination with finding "love among the ruins" - what kind of humanity emerges amidst the general debasements of postmodernity?

i was reading airstream land yacht this morning in the wake of todd swift's annoying globe review (all well and good to compare babstock to auden or muldoon... the great lyrical hope... but way to give the readers no sense of what the work is on about or the issues that it raises). it's definitely a work in crisis - it even feels that way, packed as it is with jarring, sprung-like rhythms.

babstock himself frames it as a crisis of subjectivity brought on by the challenges of materialist and behaviourist models of thought, seeing the investigation into the technical aspects of humanity as a direct attack on the lyrical poet's metaphysics.

what i found surprising about the pieces i've read in babstock's book is their deep sadness. very few take on the material sciences, they almost seem resigned in defeat. in one poem, "Pragmatist", he addresses the effectivess of those who respond to the big questions (like you've asked) by concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. this is a practical framework for humanity: "concerning one's self only / with the tasks at hand while temporarily ignoring / metaphysics". the poem ends with the figure of him and a pragmatist friend: "I was pulling a trailer onto which / a friend was loading irrigation pipes. / He was powerful, and beautiful, yet / far from me... There is a kind of shroud i pull over my life".

i can't help but think of john donne in his death shroud, along with donne's metaphysics. for babstock, the sadness is the sense that the big questions, truth, beauty, creativity, may well be the wrong ones (though the use of the word "temporarily" suggests that the questions may come round again). if so, where does that leave the poet?

apostrophe, in its way, is situated in the same romantic tradition. a portrait of humanity is constantly unfolding, and changing. what i found surprising is that, while at times frightening, the portrait is, in the end, relentlessly charming. apostrophe doesn't make me sad for the state of humanity, i makes me increasingly intrigued by it. that too was a surprise: maybe, instead of fearing that the machine (and machinic analysis) is killing off what humanity has been, we should be asking the machine to help us understand what humanity is becoming.

11:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if part of Babstock's sense of threat is that he (and most of the lyric tradition, actually most of the modern world) are so deeply bound up in a purely individual conception of subjectivity. It seems to me that the engine is not really about individual subjectivity -- not to say that individual subjectivity doesn't enter into it, because it certainly does, but it's essentially a social/communal project (this is why I quibble every time anyone says "written by a computer" -- it was compiled by a computer, but it was *written* by thousands of people, potentially including any of us). And I don't think we have a lot of tools or languages for understanding community right now; poetry is all about the individual subject, or when it's not, it tends to be heavily (and tediously) ideological.

Babstock keeps retelling the story about how Moritz astonished him by, basically, drawing his attention to the existence of other people, but I'm not at all convinced he's really taken that revelation on board. he's still driven by fear about the reality of the conscious entity Ken Babstock, which he positions just outside any social context. The operation of the engine utterly depends on the existence of other people, is perhaps about the precise fact that other people exist, in all their profound difference and interconnectedness; that other people are in fact other than us, and outside the reach and control of our subjectivity, and yet part of us in any number of complex ways. (which is part of the power of the constantly repeating "you are", "you are", "you are" ...)

I've been rambling about fragmentation and community on and off for a long time (without getting anywhere much with it), and i think that my fascination with the apostrophe engine is quite close to my fascination with the language of mental illness -- um, not meaning that the way it might sound -- but the partial disintegration of the core of individual personality that happens in mental illness also enables a less mediated expression of society's fears and desires and all our collective longings. And the engine, which of course does not have an individual personality, "talks" the same way (it's different, in this, than the original poem, where the core of individual personality is visible).

does this make any sense? probably not.

p.s. i've been playing with the engine since it went public, and my favourite piece that it's generated so far ends "you are ridiculous, humanity is one long, borrowing, delusional trend • you are a bit strange"

-- maggie

3:22 PM  

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