The story of detournement is perhaps known by many in the audience today: Artist-radicals from the 1950s to the 1970s engaged in a practice of detourning, groups such as the Situationists adeptly rescripted the language of the Establishment into mocking productions of the same. Much of the talk surrounding such derailments focused on the relative valence of irony versus sarcasm, satire versus parody, whether mimicry can avoid recuperation and reappropriation into mass culture. Before and after this period, other art movements also dabbled in lifting, stealing, re-presenting content and concept in tweaked contexts.
When the Surrealists ripped off Op-Eds and republished them word for word as “Simulations of Mental Debility” you could hear mocking laughter in the background. When Oulipo reduced literary labor to writing constraints, they had to free the Oulipian text by adding a clinamen, a wildcard element of mystery and danger, because otherwise the irony was so thick the projects risked being stillborn. In contrast last month, there was almost endless talk and dissection of Miley Cyrus at the music awards. Race, gender, sex—she authored an avalanche simply by being there. The pent-up energy of the commentariat eradicated the silence and the space that allowed previous mockings (intended or accidental) to stand ironically behind their reprint. The speed of current technology, however, makes appropriation seamless with production and performance. Sampling, versioning, and the cut-ups on youtube especially render the goal of detourning quaint (mimicry is almost automatically appropriated) or else it becomes simply dominant. 30 years ago, I might have read Kathy Acker’s Blood & Guts in High School and admired how the narrative content of the opening chapter was about a banal love triangle among adults and not about incest, as purported and implied by the generic character names in the margin. “What did Acker’s recontextualization imply about incest and taboo and prohibition?”
Is such a question possible today given the lack of interest in formal cues?
I’ll return to that question eventually, but (to that end) first I explore the way technology emphasizes content and ideas over the means of production. Franco Moretti, a Stanford professor, has devised a way to get through all those books in your shelves that you've never read. About Moretti’s project, a critic recently commented, “Here’s some advice for bibliophiles with teetering piles of books and not enough hours in the day: don’t read them. Instead, feed the books into a computer program and make graphs, maps and charts: it is the best way to get to grips with the vastness of literature.”
Such an approach to literature depends on computers to crunch “big data,” stores of massive amounts of information, to produce new insights. Who, for example, would have guessed that, according to a 2011 Harvard study of four per cent (that is, five million) of all the books printed in English, less than half the number of words used are included in dictionaries, the rest being “lexical dark matter”? Or that, as a recent study using the same database carried out by the universities of Bristol, Sheffield and Durham reveals, “American English has become decidedly more ‘emotional’ than British English in the last half-century”? Echoes of Beckett preferring French because it was easier to write without style. In this respect, Moretti’s project is in line with the efforts of the psychology outfit known as MarketPsych (specialists at decoding investor sentiment): they’ve developed proprietary text analysis software that identifies and quantifies economically predictive sentiments such as optimism and pessimism, or tones such as uncertainty or surprise. “From the tens of thousands of newspaper articles, blogs, corporate presentations and Twitter messages being analyzed every day, MarketPsych builds a picture of investor feeling.”
Maybe my earlier attempt to even think of fiction or poetry as a kind of writing that exists alongside such monstrous narrative machines as MarketPsych or Moretti’s literary digester is futile. But wait, when the former provost of the University at Buffalo introduced Joyce Carol Oates before a reading, he transformed the entire body of her writing into statistics. A mathematician by training, he declared, “Oates has published 16,347 pages, 341,879 words…. etc. etc.”
I recently came across an article on so-called "Persona Software."
“Persona management entails not just the deconfliction of persona artifacts such as names, email addresses, landing pages, and associated content. It also requires providing the human actors technology that takes the decision process out of the loop when using a specific persona. For this purpose we custom developed either virtual machines or thumb drives for each persona. This allowed the human actor to open a virtual machine or thumb drive with an associated persona and have all the appropriate email accounts, associations, web pages, social media accounts, etc. pre-established and configured with visual cues to remind the actor which persona he/she is using so as not to accidentally cross-contaminate personas during use..."
We’ve all been there—oh the dangers of cross-contaminating personae!
The company automates the ability of poseurs and agent provocateurs to infiltrate social media in order to carry out propaganda campaigns. The software allows one user to employ prepackaged personae that proliferate on the internet. Hackers and bloggers are ostensibly the targets of the propaganda campaigns of Persona Software. These are automated attempts (by both cognitive scientists and computer/math experts) to apply narratives in social media spaces, and then to quantify their impact. Just last week Popular Science magazine shut down their online comments section after a scientific study showed that the impact of trolls and provocateurs on electronic discourse was stifling and deadening. Perhaps Persona Software's most compelling feature is not the discreditation of bloggers and journalists, but rather their engagement with a new form of fiction. The narratives created through use of these personae are quickly and systematically distilled, collated and then eventually sold back to the corporations that fund the propaganda projects in the first place. The companies are paying for the stories to be written, and then paying to see whether the stories are having an impact, without caring that the process is basically one and the same. So, what begins as a propaganda effort, an effort to change minds, quickly turns to something new: a narrative that exerts power over the “told to,” “the told,” and “the tellee.”
By comparison, the story-selling world of book publishing relies on a model in which a story is sold to a single user. The massive social media projects, on the other hand, sell a story about changing the world.
Maybe this is all old hat. I’ve basically agreed that what literary texts mean is a very boring and passé concern. In this respect, the new emphasis on concept, idea or theme brings back older revaunchist impulses. A kind of New Criticism. Yet I’m also saying that how literary texts mean also reinscribes older interpretation methods in an era when no one stops to notice anymore. It is more or less impossible to read Kathy Acker now. And holding, as I am, to the 1980s-1990s postmodern hell that swears how things mean is interesting reveals that I’ve killed one form of interpretation for another. This is a problem in the sense that how things mean is perhaps not the necessary precursor to questions of how things are related to culture, to the relationship of discourse and power. Which is the thing that most literary people today are really interested in (if they even admit they are somehow affiliated with anything to do with the literary). Instead, new narrative machines are more geared to the ways in which they connect to other narrative machines, the ways they produce other narratives and/or machines, or predict the comings (and goings) thereof. Though this world of new narrative machines is brave, there is always the niggling insistence that the primary way to understand how things connect is through language, indeed that’s how meaning forms, an act of interpretation.
Maybe this is not so. Maybe things connect virtually without need for interpretation. The focus on language and linguistic possibility has been eclipsed by the power of computation and the creation of data sets. The interest now is in how these sets are compiled. Shakespeare can be distilled into a set of emoticons that designate the dominant symbol of each play or sonnet. What level of manipulation is required to transform the work into its relevant concept. And, finally, does this shadow concept substitute for the original work or is it the main conveyor of interest itself?
Reverse the tables and ask: if data sets (inasmuch as they distill a work’s real value in the world) are the most important element of a work, how do the data sets operate as works in themselves?
In essence, the question is, is it really possible to talk of distilled concepts or ideas rather than talking about them as language? If a work is flayed to reveal its play within discourses of power, has it really escaped the curse of linguistic interpretation?
Just briefly before I end, I’ll give two examples of works that trouble when I try to avoid interpreting them (since I already stated that I’d find someone like Kathy Acker practically impossible to read under anti-interpretive paradigms). The first work is Brian Evenson’s “Bon Scott: the Choir Years.” The story recounts how the AC/DC lead singer, shortly before his death of alcohol poisoning, had joined the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Evenson’s narrator trades on his credibility (based in research and reportage) as well as the tone of voice that seems so familiar and seductive in its breezy mode of discovery. Even the story structure emulates the world of reportorial expose. Here’s the very last sentence, for example:
Whatever direction his music would have taken, whether he would have continued his experiments with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and transformed his life startingly or else moved in the direction so admirably pursued by Brian Johnson, or pursued some other path entirely, any direction would have been better than the end.
Here, the reporter ties up loose ends not only with a gratuitous salute to Brian Johnson (Bon Scott’s replacement) but also with the wrap-it-up moralizing of a Rolling Stone article. Evenson passes this feat off deftly, making us wonder about the validity of what we have read (yes, the tired talk of fact v. fiction might come into play, but in this story, it’s the mode of expression that disturbs, and not questions of facts). For instance, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is juxtaposed against the Mormon Church’s genealogical archive project (which seems almost a futurist scheme surely fictional). When the factual seems fictional and vice versa, the realm of possibility (Bon Scott’s choir years) seems possible or even plausible. Here, the question of facts and fiction is not one of content, it requires absolutely no interpretation at all. It’s a question of power and credibility more than it is one of factuality. The story seems to latch onto a familiar mode of expression.
Since I began with detourning, I’ll end with something that is entirely more earnest, but not straightforward. That is, Woody Guthrie’s song 1913 Massacre. Guthrie wrote the song in the 1940s, a few decades after the massacre itself. This is the story of the death of 73 people, mainly children, in a social hall due to a prank played by union-busters. The historical record of this event was practically buried until Guthrie wrote his song. There’s very little written about it even to this day. In this respect, Guthrie’s song serves as a chronicle and memorial of the massacre, an alternative to the official record.
The lyrics are simply stated:
Take a trip with me in 1913,
To Calumet, Michigan, in the copper country.
I’ll take you to a place called Italian Hall,
Where the miners are having their big Christmas ball.
I’ll take you in a door and up a high stairs,
Singing and dancing is heard everywhere,
I’ll let you shake hands with the people you see
The song recounts how the children were killed, and then it casts blame on the copper company. This serves almost as oral history. The song functions in that capacity powerfully. Beyond that, however, Guthrie self-consciously focuses on the politics of telling stories at all. He begins by highlighting that one needs to trip through time to imagine the massacre (his disembodied-calling narrator in this respect hints at the way the story was buried, resurrected by a troubador). The lyrics then hint at simultaneous suspicion of the fellow traveller (Why are you listening? Why witness? Why empathize?) and also lets us know whose business it is to grant permission. Guthrie goes so far as to situate his narrator as intermediary between the victims and the listener (“I’ll let you shake hands with the people you see.”) This reveals the coercion by narrator. “What else have they been hiding from you?” And it emphasizes the contested space in which one might recognize this massacre. The lyrics are strange, in that sense. But this mode of interpreting how Guthrie’s narrator involves the listener in the story would seem to be lost in any listening that focuses on content alone.