Category: Theory

The Inevitability of Cultural Appropriation

Picasso in Native HeaddressI’m on a TGV from Paris to Monaco. The sun was out this morning and the Jardin de Tuileries was filled with homages in tulips to various still lifes at the Louvre. Two days ago, at the Musée de quai Branly—Jacques Chirac, I saw the Picasso Primitif exposition that showcased the influence of indigenous arts on Picasso’s work through the years, often by presenting statues from Africa or Papua New Guinea side-by-side with examples of Picasso’s efforts through the years. If you never made the connection between his cubism and the statuary of Chad (like me), it is eye opening. He wasn’t particularly culturally sensitive—like everyone else until at least the 1960s—because the fascinating people and their cultural works were largely aesthetic objects to him. If he was aware of the significance of particular pieces (and he might have been), it was something he rarely acknowledged or discussed. The photos that tie Picasso to the African statues are the primary thread of the exhibition, with each one, taken at his California atelier or in Paris or whatnot, inscribed by the curators with a dainty red circle or oval to highlight a grainy African statue lurking in the background. Sometimes they provide a blow-up in case you can’t quite make it out. It is only with a full Native American headdress given to Picasso by the actor Gary Cooper that we see him actively mugging for a camera and providing weight to the show’s theme. Then, next, Brigitte Bardot is leaning over him at the California studio and her cleavage renders the distant red oval uninteresting.

I am writing daily about things I don’t fully understand but try to imbue with a sense of character, of interest, and even of humor. In Against Superheroes I try to give a feel for Turkey, despite having never been there and only been introduced to one Turk, a computational linguist for the language, once. Did I do a good job? I can’t say. The audience is not necessarily Turks who would find fault with my renderings. Yet I do strive towards accuracy. I drill down with Google Earth. I read the history. I read recent  politics and analysis and try to imagine what it can be like to be a person there, immersed in that cultural microcosm.

Similar things are afoot in ¡Reconquista!, my newest novel. Though I grew up in the border region with Mexico, I, unlike my son who took three years of it in California, have only telegraphic and pornographic Spanish at my command. Yet I am developing an elaborate plot that weaves together the lives of an underemployed blue-collar white man with a revolutionary-minded Hispanic woman professor who drinks tequila like it’s water and speaks in elaborate abstractions about topics like, well, cultural appropriation. That’s a fighting phrase for her, despite the other incongruities in the tapestry of her life.

Should I feel confident about writing like this? And if I should not, what can I write about? And, the obverse might apply: should an outsider feel free to write about the array of complex social and political issues that make up America? In 2015, Lionel Shriver, the author of a book that got some press and was made into a movie, caused an uproar when she donned a sombrero in Brisbane, Australia and made a series of declarations that such cultural appropriation that might arise from, especially, white males writing about other cultures, should be treated as a celebration of those cultures rather than an attack upon them. Identity is a nebulous concept, she seeemed to be saying, and tying it down to ability, disability, tendency, orientation, upbringing, religion, culture, or nationality does a disservice to the spinning of a good yarn.

I’m certainly not fully in agreement with this, but I do sympathize with the notion that it is critical for writers to embrace the complexity of the pluralistic world we now live in. Doing less than that, avoiding painting pictures that are as polyglot and multifaceted as America and Europe, leaves little room for authenticity unless the works are written by a balanced committee. Perhaps the more important take-away is that building a more diverse collection of critics and reviewers can help, in turn, provide a better filter for the authenticity that, perhaps, critics of Shriver are looking for. This would parallel efforts to rectify the lack of diversity among Hollywood producers, directors, writers, actors, and voting members of the Academy.

I will close by noting that a chubby little French senior is attempting surgery to extract a splinter from his finger across from me. His wife was helping for a bit, too, stabbing at his index with a white Swiss Army knife that he spent some time surveying and unfolding before landing on the right weapon for the job. She hurt him too much, though, it seemed, and he waved her away. This, in public, and in first class? I suppose I need more data points on the French mind that is increasingly moving towards a closed focus on preserving Frenchness against the outsider. Safe for splinter-stabbing, I suppose.

Amazonian Griffins and the Fantastical New World

Background research for ¡Reconquista! (or any book) takes unexpected dips and turns, from Google Street Views of Mexicali, Mexico to the origins of Alta California and the campaigns of Colonel Frémont. But the most unusual find in a week punctuated by trail running in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and a brief, one hour, twenty minute circuit of Carlsbad Caverns (I was first in and had the descent largely to myself!), was a 19th-century translation of the Queen of California from Las Sergas de Esplandián. This 1510 book by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo related an amazing tale that, as the translator and commenter Edward Everett Hale notes, provided the origin of the name of California, for Cortez imagined what is now Baja California to be an island that was to the West of the Indies, following Columbus’ lead in mislabeling the New World.

Hale’s translation and commentary are even more remarkable in their intertextual reading of the postbellum mindset that pervades all the way to San Francisco. He carries a descriptive thread likening the battle prowess of the Queen of California’s man-killing griffins to Civil War naval craft:

These griffins are the Monitors of the story, or, if the reader pleases, the Merrimacs.

And in those comparisons, he shows a careful traversal of residual war sentiments, though he is more direct in calling out the implicit racism of Hiram Powers’ statue of California for being incorrect in depicting Queen Calafia (sic) as classically whitewashed when she was described very clearly as “large, and black as the ace of clubs.”

But what of the story of Calafia? She is queen of an island of Amazonian-like women who kill men and boy children alike by feeding them to a hoard of semi-controllable griffins. The island is made of gold and gemstones litter the ground. Calafia decides to go to war, joining several sultans in an assault on Constantinople. She ultimately gets her chance to deploy the griffins and they kill legions of men on the walls. But when she directs the Sultans’ armies to scale the walls, the griffins slaughter them, too. Oops. She gets control of the griffins, finally, but then the assault becomes more problematic.

Finally it resolves that the Christian-side king will meet with one sultan and Calafia in personal combat to resolve the conflict. The losers will become the subjects of the winners. But before that happens, Calafia wants to meet those with whom she will fight. She is quite taken by the beauty of one of the king’s sons and arrives to check him out on a wild beast:

They brought out an animal which she rode, the strangest that ever was seen. It had ears as large as two shields; a broad forehead which had but one eye, like a mirror; the openings of its nostrils were very large, but its nose was short and blunt. From its mouth turned up two tusks, each of them two palms long. Its color was yellow, and it had many violet spots upon its skin, like and ounce. It was larger than a dromedary, had its feet cleft like those of an ox, and ran as swiftly as the wind, and skipped over the rocks as lightly, and held itself erect on any part of them, as do the mountain-goats. Its food was dates and figs and peas, and nothing else.

So the bestiary contained more than just the ravenous, man-eating griffins. But she and the sultan are ultimately beaten in combat. Indeed, it seems inevitable that the Christians must triumph and the man must best the woman. She even gives up her pagan ways in the end and gets married to a random, good-looking member of the ruling class. She gets her sister a husband, too.

What becomes of the island and the women? They convert, take husbands, and help with further adventures we are told. The story and commentary concludes with some interesting notes on Columbus and his beliefs about the New World (Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 1872). Learned men knew Dante and few other things then, so it is not surprising that Hale suggests that Columbus took seriously the cosmic geography that Dante laid out in the Divine Comedy.

The New World, it seems, was named and traversed in equal parts reality and fantasy.

Word Salad Wednesday: Ergodic Cybernetic Textuality and Games

Salad with catsWell the title is a mouthful, yet it relates to an article in The Guardian concerning the literary significance of role-playing games. Norway’s Aarseth coined the term “ergodic” to describe literary systems that evolve according to the choices of the reader/player.

First, this is just incorrect. Ergodic has a very specific meaning in thermodynamics. Ergodic means that the temporal evolution of a system will be random and irreversible. Aarseth takes the Greek meanings too literally choosing to equate the ergo (work) and hodos (path) with the temporal evolution of hypertexts (where one chooses the next step) or RPGs (where players choose the next steps but there may be random decisions dictated by dice roles). He also likes the term “cybernetic” which was literally “pilot” and was given its modern meaning by Norbert Weiner wherein it refers to autonomous control of a system to stabilize against environmental signals.

Neither of these relate to RPGs or hypertext per se, nor to the general class of reader/engager-based control of media access or fiction. The concept of generative art might be more apt, though it should be modified to include the guidance of the reader. Oddly, guided evolution or change might be the best metaphor altogether leading us to something like Lamarkian Literature (though that is too culturally loaded, perhaps).

Or we could just say “games.” After all, these are games, aren’t they?

The Great Crustacean

little-lobster-costumeDavid Foster Wallace’s Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky in Consider the Lobster is worth reading for nothing else than the following two paragraphs:

The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we—here, today—cannot or do not permit ourselves. Joseph Frank does an admirable job of tracing out the interplay of factors that made this engagement possible—[Dostoevsky]’s own beliefs and talents, the ideological and aesthetic climates of his day, etc. Upon his finishing Frank’s books, though, I think that any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes many of the novelists of our own place and time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so morally impoverished, in comparison to Gogol or Dostoevsky (or even to lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev). Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.

Part of the explanation for our own lit’s thematic poverty obviously includes our century and situation. The good old modernists, among their other accomplishments, elevated aesthetics to the level of ethics—maybe even metaphysics—and Serious Novels after Joyce tend to be valued and studied mainly for their formal ingenuity. Such is the modernist legacy that we now presume as a matter of course that “serious” literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life. Add to this the requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism and literary theory, and it’s probably fair to say that Dostoevsky et al. were free of certain cultural expectations that severely constrain our own novelists’ ability to be “serious.”

I miss him when I read him now. But being serious in the age of irony needs moral issues that are worthy of engagement rather than distancing; take Romeo and Juliet—the family rivalries are actually antiquated and quaint. The strangled universality is that love might triumph but people are crappy. Antiquarian moral conundrums may be translatable to our era but there is no guarantee that it will be so. Whale hunting is just dumb and cruel—not a great human drama. And that leaves open the possibility of the conversion of the aesthetic distancing to re-converge with everyday life. Too bad we lost a champion of the cause.


MarshlandsIt is purely by chance that I discovered a remarkable note, penciled in a deliberate cursive, on page one hundred something of a secondhand copy of Borges’ Labyrinths. The Huns were clashing about and trampling books, but one survived—that sort of chance or magical thing—and an arrow crawled up from the text and declared “all great civilizations are built on marshes,” seemingly in praise for the despoiled monastery and its now collapsed civilization, or perhaps referring to the banks of the Danube or the arc of historiography that passed from Athens to Rome later in the page.

Regardless of the minutiae of the referents, the statement remained in my head for days as I shuffled about through my ordinary occupation and preoccupations with information theory, intelligent machines, and some spectral analysis of the statistical distribution of gut bacteria/eukaryotes. Google was fragmentary in its responses to the phrase as a query and I quit before the end of the first page, anyway, distracted by other thoughts about why marshes would be so attractive for building a civilization. The fishing should be good, admittedly, as well as the availability of reeds for various structures, but the shifting nature of land and the threat of mosquito infestation struck me as negatives. And wouldn’t clean, fresh water be better served by a mountain stream? All great cultures should be at the base of a non-volcanic snowpacked mountain.

I returned to Borges later in the week and found myself fanning through the pages like a schoolboy watching a stickfigure animation until, seventy-five pages further, below the tail of an essay on Cervantes and the inversion of authors and characters and readers, there was another brief flash off a curlicue of lead embedded in the page. I hoped for an existence proof for the previous annotation, but instead it was merely the phrase “literature of Exhaustion,” the E looking like an enlarged epsilon prefacing the remainder of the third word, as if to call it to special attention and emphasize the aspiration through the second syllable, exhaust itself onomatopoeic of loss and finalization.

So here was the connection that pulled Borges and some last reader of this copy together, this framing of the future of literature in some upstate New York professorial office, the pepperspray of revolt wafting in over the trucked-in tumulus of infill as intermedia and intertextuality began to break through the sensibility of realism. Exhausting themes, exhausting theses, exhausting all convention, even exhaustingly lifting one leg before another through those sucking marshes as the lilypads sink and re-emerge upon passing.

There was only one remaining pencil stroke I could find, I’m sorry to say, several dozen pages later, imperfectly underlining the final sentence “I do not know which of us has written this page,” but with two lines under “this,” again drawing attention to a part of the whole and emphasizing only the single page which, strangely, was only a quarter of the essay in translation that was splayed across two facing pages in my book.

Novelty and the Novel

stillsuitMy 14-year-old is obsessed with Frank Herbert’s Dune right now, marveling over the complexity and otherworldly ornamentation that Herbert imbued in his strange hyper-future (or past maybe, who knows). Dune might read as an allegory about Middle Eastern oil or about psychotropic drugs or nothing at all, but regardless of any deeper layers in its palimpsest,  it is so surprising to a first reader—especially a young one—that it still has the power to fuel daydreams (I obsessed over building a stillsuit at my son’s age, imagining being able to spend days in the harsh New Mexico summer without the need for water).

So it may be surprising that I found myself agreeing with Ian McEwan in The New Republic where he calls into doubt the validity of fiction, though ultimately he rediscovers his love of fiction in Nabakov’s “Caress [of the] divine details” and in John Updike’s controlled descriptions. He comes back again to fiction but not at the expense of wanting nonfiction that brings him new ideas. We are information harvesting machines and the novelty generation rate of nonfiction (there is always the history you do not know much less the cosmology you can’t understand) is just much greater than that of fiction.

But perhaps there is a détente in the middle where fiction and nonfiction commingle. The historical novel is perhaps the best example. The only fear being that the history is too much bent to the requirements of drama and conflict to be at all accurate. Likewise, there might be modern hard science fiction that provides an accurate and deep glimpse into the hermeneutics of real scientific research, and possible scientific futures. Then, at least, there is information beyond the craft of writing embedded within them.

Mimetic Persuasion

There is a temptation to be dismissive of “genre fiction” as being merely a fantastical diversion while “serious fiction” and, more relevantly, “realism” retain all of the gravitas that we want to ascribe to writing as an art. And realism must be somehow tied to everyday events because it must be realistic. But what if all art is inevitably bound to artifice in that there is no possibility of chaining a symbolic reference to its ostensible referent?

Thus we chain the crumbling infrastructure of logical positivism to postmodern literature. It is all artifice. There is always a black swan. It is all “mimetic persuasion” (Aristotle channeled through James Wood) where storms of metaphor haloed by limns of allusion and imitation conspire together to push the reader into a caricature of reality that “art…is a disproportioning–(i.e., distorting, throwing out of proportions)–of realities, to show more clearly the features that matter in those realities…” (Thomas Hardy). There is no reality in realism, just the font of imagination that tries to crystallize reality into regularized sheer planes of repetition, of character leitmotivs (oh, poor Proust), of voice, of metaphor, and of estrangement (from Dostoevsky to Nabokov).

We have, then, a bad theory in any scientific sense, where the theory has been overridden time and time again, making psychology look comparatively moored in its modest aspirations. At least psychology is converging with biology. But realism remains subdivided across the aesthetics of literary preference. It lives in fiefs and forts, much like architecture or modern art in general. There is not even local predictability to the grammar of aesthetic change. It may be that theory is not even the right word. Literary theory should be replaced with literary analysis and aesthetics should be untied from the dock of rationalism. We should read only for thrills, from “A screaming comes across the sky” to “They rode on into the darkness and the moonblanched waste lay before them cold and pale.” Even the titillation of Fifty Shades of Grey might be as relevantly important (sorry, haven’t read it.)

We just have preferences and tastes. There is no pejorative attached to “just,” however. Universality is a chimera. Deep analysis is a divebombing mockingbird. There are intricacies, sure, but there is no centrality, no essential character to the artistic effort. Just individuals engaged in mimetic persuasion. Art is art, in short.

No Videodrome

I started reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works while on a business trip to the unequivocally nice Orange County or The OC. The trip was less than pleasant for me personally because I apparently tore my rotator cuff earlier in the day while engaged in mildly excessive exercise activities. I say “apparently” because it took me a day or two to figure out what the source of pain really was, living through brief panic waves about what was happening to me while trying to avoid lifting my left arm in a manner that might give away the agony I was experiencing during business meetings.

Note that this is the literary critic, James Wood, not the actor, James Woods; not the guy from Videodrome or any of the dozens of ecclectic roles the actor has been associated with.

James Wood, the critic then, is trying to operationalize the vast, categorical shaping of Roland Barthes or Milan Kundera in their efforts at criticism. Wood is not a pure theorist, but a careful reader who looks intimately at texts, unpacking the intent of the writer while defining the historical perspectives that informed the artistic effort. Looking intimately at Flaubert, Wood sees the flaneur of realism that began modernism and led, in turn, to post-modernism. Characters transform from our acquired fog of beloved personalities into flat extensions of English sensibilities in the Theophrastus of Jane Austen, or lurk behind the Russian tradition of estrangement that assigns extravagant and unlikely terminology to everyday things (Nabakov’s “leggy thing” in Pnin), and everywhere is the transition from description to internal dialog that drops the formality of specifying dialog at all. That is modernism. That is realism.

How does fiction work? By borrowing and overloading time, but imposing conflict on characters like layers of meringue until, as Adam Smith noted so many centuries ago:

As newness is the only merit in a Novel and curiosity the only motive which induces us to read them, the writers are necessitated to make use of this method [i.e., suspense] to keep it up.

By flattening out characters into idiosyncratic totems and caricatures. By imposing cants, lingos, and argots that cast an elaborate penumbra of specialized detail in the texts that requires the reader to presume authenticity sufficient for bourgeois buy-in. By soliloquies and the invention of highbrow cultural choruses that render scenes into a book of cultural semiotics filled with just slightly unpredictable tantrums by the heros and heroines.

It would be impossible to write a novel without human involvement and the artifice introduced by their perpetually intertwined souls. I’ve considered it: the life and times of ten square yards of hillside, riddled with insect and plant life, as detailed as Garcia-Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but destitute of human wants and longings or expectations. It would be impossible by Wood’s fictional calculus because writing is always about people or the writer’s mind observing people.

And there would be no Deborah Harry.

The Comets of Literary Cohesion

Every few years, with the hyperbolic regularity of Kahoutek’s orbit, I return to B.R. Myers’ 2001 Atlantic essay, A Reader’s Manifesto, where he plays the enfant terrible against the titans of serious literature. With savagery Myers tears out the elliptical heart of Annie Proulx and then beats regular holes in Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo in a conscious mockery of the strained repetitiveness of their sentences.

I return to Myers because I currently have four novels in process. I return because I hope to be saved from the delirium of the postmodern novel that wants to be written merely because there is nothing really left to write about, at least not without a self-conscious wink:

But today’s Serious Writers fail even on their own postmodern terms. They urge us to move beyond our old-fashioned preoccupation with content and plot, to focus on form instead—and then they subject us to the least-expressive form, the least-expressive sentences, in the history of the American novel. Time wasted on these books is time that could be spent reading something fun.

Myers’ essay hints at what he sees as good writing, quoting Nabakov, referencing T.S. Eliot, and analyzing the controlled lyricism of Saul Bellow. Evaporating the boundaries between the various “brows” and accepting that action, plot, and invention are acceptable literary conceits also marks Myers’ approach to literary analysis.

It is largely an atheoretic analysis but there is a hint at something more beneath the surface when Myers describes the disdain of European peasants for the transition away from the inscrutable Latin masses and benedictions and into the language of the common man: “Our parson…is a plain honest man… But…he is no Latiner.” Myers counts the fascination with arabesque prose, with labeling it as great even when it lacks content, as derived from the same fascination that gripped the peasants: majesty is inherent in obscurity. Anyone who has struggled with trying to translate foreign prose or tried to transcribe music from one instrument to another rapidly understands why the problems are unassailable cliffs to the outsider. So it is with literary prose. The less I understand, the more I feel it.

But what more is there to this? We break now away from literary criticism and to the psychology of text comprehension itself, bobbing and weaving a bit to avoid falling into the cliché of the postmodern novel. First, we know that reading comprehension is affected by two obvious factors: (a) our background knowledge of the topic, and (b) the cohesion of the text. We intuitively understand (a) when it comes to scientific texts. If we have a degree in the topic we have more background knowledge than if we don’t, for instance. (b) requires defining “cohesion” a bit. Cohesion can be measured by looking at repeated nouns and bridging concepts from one paragraph to another. Highly cohesive texts tie concepts together across sentences and paragraphs, reinforcing the relationships that are expressed in one sentence with those in others, forming semantic bridges to enhance the text. Less cohesive texts are more scatter-shot, leaving the reader to infer the relevant bridging principles.

The interaction between (a) and (b) could hardly be more interesting. When (a) is high, readers learn better and retain more when (b) is low. Repeat: low coherence texts are better for high knowledge learners. If one knows a lot, one gets easily bored by all the carefully chained concepts of high cohesion texts. Or, as a friend once said about software and hardware manuals, “They are for the weak of mind.” The opposite is obviously true. If you know little about a subject, the semantic bridges help get you from knowledge Midgard to Asgard, but they are just road noise for the knowledgeable.

It is aspirational, then, when obscurantist language and metaphors pile up like proton parts in the Large Hadron Collider. The authors are asking their readers to search for the God Participle. They want to be Latiners. They want Cormac McCarthy to transform the bloody mess of westward expansion into Exodus. They want it because they want low cohesion texts and the feeling of sailing through the vaulted ceilings of ancient cathedrals, like Leary on acid, like penitentes against the whip, like gurus stinking of enlightenment. Then the gentle readers can finally bask among the deconstructed mists after the dream has faded, waiting for the next cycle of literary critics to anoint the next round of elaborated prose and, as Kahoutek returns, so the gentle rush of spring will come again to the countryside.

Poetry and Imprecision

But what if the written word is not identifiably personal or about human relations? What if the ideas expressed in the texts don’t bind to any kind of honest analysis of the facts? What if the semantics are so diffuse that they are open to almost any interpretation?

Then we have poetry.

On the Bay Area’s KQED Forum, Elaine Pagels talks about the Book of Revelation and her new book, its influence, misinterpretation, reinterpretation, and the scholarship that surrounds it.

Poetry is hidden and mystical. This makes it great in inspiring interpretation but also great in the breadth of the imaginable interpretations. Imprecision can inspire monumental achievements and horrific human tragedies–likely in about the same proportions. Luckily, we now have the power to parody and deconstruct it all without fear and with the building knowledge that through that deconstruction we can better account for an understanding of the humanity of others.