Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

More Aesthetics

So, this is a response to the responses to the Aesthetics of Fat post, posted up front because, yes, it grew stupidly long. Again.

OK

Jonathan:

When you say that "fantasy" has no Modernist elements, that it could be classed a Romantic genre, and so on, this is precisely the reference slippage and aesthetic-form / marketing-category / commercially-branded-product error I'm talking about at the start of that post. It's a common error amongst SF-oriented readers to think fantasy = Fantasy = High Fantasy, but it's as baseless as the same category error applied to SF by those who, despite not reading it, are quite sure they know exactly what it is: science fiction (aesthetic form) = Science Fiction (marketing category) = Sci-Fi (commercially branded product).

I could throw names of writers at you but I'll simply refer you to me own Vellum here, which is consciously and deliberately constructed as a "Cubist" narrative. If I were to detail the Modernist elements in it we'd be here all day. You could, of course, turn around and say, "That's not really fantasy. See the Modernist elements in it? Why that's patently SF!" I'm sure many do. My dad, meanwhile, would turn around and say, "That's not really SF."

The desire for authenticity *is* a Modernist element, so saying it's not found in fantasy, that fantasy is a Romantic form is simply to narrow the definition of "fantasy" to include Romantic works and techniques but exclude Modernist techniqes. This is as bogus as narrowing the definition of SF to any one of the subsets of (combinable) modes at play in the field. For a pretty detailed breakdown of these modes as I see them, read the "SF as a Subset of SF" post, linked under "Scribblings on Scribbling" to the left there.

OK, so now apply that to "fantasy". Many of my playful variants of what "SF" stands for (So Fuck, Soul Fiction, Scientific Fancy, Symbolic Formulation) are equally applicable to works sold as "Fantasy" or identified as "fantasy". Fantasy is as much of a bastard hybrid as SF. Where does the desire for authenticity spring from? From the process of hybridisation, the interaction of Romantic, Rationalist and Modernist aesthetics in the diverse field of strange fiction we call "fantasy".

So rather than say...

Is this [aesthetic of authenticity] really a value of the genre...?

... we should be asking: Which subset of the modes of (combinable) fiction that add up to what we call "fantasy" implement this aesthetic, and how does that affect our notion of fantasy as a "genre"?

My own notion of strange fiction is a sort of Grand Unified Field Theory of the works that we label SF, Fantasy, Horror, Slipstream, Magic Realism and so on. The full theory is laid out more fully in the posts linked (to the left again) as "Strange Fiction"; again it's pretty detailed and pretty damn long, but you might find it interesting if you've got a spare day or two :). The important point is that it provides (I think, anyway) a basis for addressing exactly the sort of issues you raise as regards authenticity.

Question:

[H]ow does the desire for a world to be geographically, socially and technologically authentic sit with the presence of magics and elves?

Answer: Same way the desire for a world to be geographically, socially and technologically authentic sits with the presence of FTL and aliens. Elves, as a biological conceit, an invented species, are no more problematic than aliens (except in so far as they're presented as having magic powers). Magic is the big sticking point, but it's essentially just a metaphysical conceit, equivalent to the counterfactual and hypothetical conceits of Alt-History and SF. And such conceits are almost as notable in "SF" as they are in "Fantasy". FTL is actually a metaphysical conceit as much as magic is. The jaunting in Bester's The Stars My Destination is even more of a blatant metaphysical. It is, to all intents and puposes, a conceit of teleportation as a magical ability to wish oneself from A to B.

It's only in Hard SF that metaphysicals sit uncomfortably with hypotheticals and counterfactuals. Which is to say it's only Hard SF writers and readers who make a clear-cut distinction between acceptable hypotheticals and counterfactuals and unacceptable metaphysicals. Note that many readers who reject strange fiction entirely consider the counterfactuals and hypotheticals equally ludicrous. They might well ask, with arched eyebrow:

...how does the desire for a world to be geographically, socially and technologically authentic sit with the presence of space travel and aliens?

So, yes, we are talking about different sets of fans, but in adopting the strange fiction model, ditching the marketing tags of "Fantasy" and "Science Fiction" in favour of more precise modal differentiations, accepting that multiple modes are often implemented in any one work, we're able to look at the value of authenticity, for example, as a value of the mode, and therefore as a value of the "genre" constructed from those modes.

Your third point is totally in tune with what I'm saying in terms of how some writers and readers question authenticity generated from explication. We could make a (subtle but relelvant) distinction between authenticity and the illusion of authenticity. As in SF where the scientifically savvy may differentiate between rigorous extrapolation and technobabble, so in Fantasy the historically savvy may differentiate between rigorous historification and specious windowdressing. Or may not.

The cardinal point I'm making is that while some (or much) of the "fantasy" we label "fat fantasy" can be considered as basically symbolic formulation, much of it will be better understood as, say, "Strictured Fantasy" or "Soul Fiction". Which is to say, it adds extra aesthetic values like authenticity, implementing another literary mode (explication versus excuse) in order to achieve this. Or it goes further in inverting the primary aesthetics partially or entirely, radically altering the modality. Some will maintain the primary aesthetics of accessibility, immersion and conventionality but place a complementary aesthetics of complexity, introspection and innovation (or subversion) into direct conflict with this. Some will perform a balancing act between the two sets of aesthetics, while some will capitalise on the tension between them.

In the context of this particular discussion, I'd say the notion of Strictured Fantasy is a good starting point for talking about Epic / High / Heroic Fantasy. What I'd seek to do is identify the aesthetic values inherent in this mode that distinguish it from symbolic formulation. At a very basic level, I've tried to begin this by pointing to authenticity as an extra aesthetic value, an evident stricture that is foreign to symbolic formulation. I'd say the next step in the right direction might be subversion. While the "cult of innovation" as Scott puts it, might have little effect on the aesthetic of -- let's invent another name, just for the fun of it -- Spectaculist Fantasy (much of it capitalises on conventionality, so full-on innovation would involve ditching a useful tool from the kit, so to speak), Scott's valuation of "subversion as subversion, fiction that is truly disturbing, thought-provoking, what have you, simply because of the kinds of readers it reaches" points to, I think, an aesthetic focused on reconfiguration of symbols and formula in subtle but highly pointed ways (i.e. keeping the tool of conventionality but using it in an unconventional way).

The aesthetic of Soul Fiction, I think, also offers scope for exploration. The resonance of the symbols we're dealing with in SF-as-Spectaculist-Fantasy, their archetypal effect opens up a whole new set of questions with regards to the psychology of immersion and identification. I don't think there's any question that much of the Monomythic import of this mode is geared towards consolation and compensation, but I also don't think there's any question that the collisions and collaborations of symbols of persona, id, self, anima/animus, shadow, ego and mana can serve more complex purposes such as individuation. Spectacularist Fantasy is psychodrama with the metaphors concretised. To a large extent I think the technique of exploitation comes into play here, with the incredible not being resolved by explication or excuse, not completely at least. Many of Scott's "adventure junkies" are, I'd say, actually looking for an exploitative effect here, the unresolved incredibility being at the heart of the "fantastic" quality of the backdrop, the "kickass" quality of the characters, the "cool" quality of the storytelling -- the effect of psychodramatic rapture. The "high" of High Fantasy can be more, I think, than the "buzz" of symbolic formulation.

If I was to put a name to this as an aesthetic value I'd call it articulation. This is where complexity is valued in the experience of immersion and identification, where a work "speaks to" a reader because in articulating (combinatorially structuring) the symbols it articulates (expresses) relationships recognised by the reader as internal relationships between different resonant metaphors of identity, perhaps to the point of rearticulating (combinatorially restructuring) those internal relationships -- manifesting and resolving conflicts. The profound affect that results from effective articulation is part of what makes Spectaculist Fantasy so inspiring of loyalty. While sometimes, yes, the reiterations of the Monomyth can seem rather retarding, simply putting the reader through one Coming-of-Age after another, these are often the kind of books that readers consider life-changing. The book "spoke" to them at a particular point in life, articulated their identity to them in a way they might not have been able to themselves, and that experience was transformative.

Anyway, this is where the aesthetics of symbolic formulation becomes insufficient -- important, yes, but inadequate on its own -- as a toolkit for analysis of Spectaculist Fantasy.

Scott:

Maybe the above will give you a better idea of how I'm not trying to set up a distinction between types of readers that sets up one group as "getting it" while the others don't. But I'll try and lay out my intent more clearly.

I call those whose interests tend toward the exploration of soft-world alternatives, 'possibility junkies,' those whose interests tend toward character and narrative, 'adventure junkies,' and those whose interests tend toward hard-world alternatives, 'world junkies.'

I don't think our categorisations quite map. I'm not trying to distinguish readers here, nor even (strictly speaking) types of fiction (in the "groups of books" sense), so much as modes of writing and their relationship to variant and contradictory aesthetics applied by the writers and readers, any of which can be applied simultaneously in, or to, one work. I probably didn't foreground it enough in the post but as textual techniques exploitation, explication and excuse can be and are combined in (probably most) strange fiction. Many readers and writers like a bit of everything and apply multiple contradictory aesthetics at once.

Way I'd put it is we're all "incredibility junkies", getting off on the buzz of reading something that Could Not Possibly Be. Mostly, I reckon, we want adventure-in-a-world-of-(im)possibility. We want worlds and dreams built and broken and we want that process to consitute an adventure for us on whatever level. The three types of reader you're talking about should then theoretically be quite happy with reading the same story if it delivers on all three counts... and I think a lot of strange fiction aims to do exactly this. What I'm calling Spectaculist Fantasy above is a good example of this more rounded approach.

However I think it's evident that there are readers whose tastes are as much defined by a dislike of X as by a tendency of interests towards Y. If the aesthetics are contradictory that's to be expected, of course. You're going to get those who subscribe to one aesthetic absolutely and react against works based on conflicting aesthetics. For the purposes of the post, to explore the idea of an aesthetic based on accessibility, immersion and conventionality, I was focusing in on the extreme case of symbolic formulation, as the form where those values are adopted to the exclusion of -- or at least above -- all others.

The point being:

Where the [possibility junkies] tend to fetishize language's ability to defect from the real, and the [world junkies] tend to fetishize language's ability to replace the real, the adventure junkies simply like fantastic backdrops to their kickass characters and cool storytelling.

... but some are also deeply antagonistic to any defection from or replacement of reality which makes the story harder to parse. If they're real bona fide "junkies", that is. See, the "simply" is the keyword in that sentence. It's hiding a whole world of "merely" and "only" and "just", where that "simply" doesn't signify "this is all we require"; it signifies "this is all we accept". Because the adventure junkies of symbolic formulation can be seen as just as much fetishists.

Thing is, I doubt there's many of the other two types who dislike fantastic backdrops, kickass characters and cool storytelling, so that taxonomy as it stands is like a distinction between beef, pork and meat. Or, to bring it closer to home, Hard SF fans, High Fantasy fans and, well, readers who "just like a good story". When you say "fetishizing" that narrows the other two sets to readers who take a particular aesthetic (exploitative or explicatory) to its max, so defining adventure junkies in a wider sense is kinda like saying there's these two junkies and this, well, occasional dabbler in drugs. If we're going to talk about the other two type as narrow sets of "fetishists", shouldn't we be defining the adventure junkies as those who are fetishizing language's ability to X the real, whatever X may be?

Alternatively we could take the opposite approach. We could say that the "possibility junkies" simply like stories where language defects from the real, while the "world junkies"
simply
like stories where language replaces the real. This places their aesthetics on the same non-fetishistic -- i.e. non-extremist -- level as that of "adventure junkies". I think this is less useful though, largely because I'm more interested in the extreme cases here -- because I'm more interested in the aesthetics, and these become more clearly defined amongst the fetishizing readers. Still, that's actually what I'm building towards in terms of Spectaculist Fantasy, where exploitation and explication are not ruled out. Coming more from the "possibility junky" perspective myself, I'd describe my own aesthetic in a similarly non-exclusive way, as one where explication and excuse are not ruled out. I daresay there's many "world junkies" whose interest in explication doesn't rule out (i.e. over-ride completely) a liking for exploitative and excusatory modes and their results.

Anyway, to tweak your taxonomy a bit, if the first group maps to an aesthetic of exploitation, I'd tend to call them "impossibility junkies". Where they're looking for language to "defect from the real", it's the non-possibility of the narrative that achieves this. The second group, in so far as they map to an aesthetic of explication, are so concerned with restoring a sense of possibility they almost seem to better fit the first label. Way I see it, they're more about language's ability to replicate the real; it's the simulation of reality they're seeking, versimilitude. The third group seem to me to be the ones who're actually concerned with language's ability to "replace the real" -- to substitute story for reality.

To me this sounds like a split into Modernist, Realist and Romantic aesthetics. You got (im)possibility junkies who are all about the defection from reality (c.f. Cubist fragmentation, Abstract non-representation, Surrealist symbolisation). Then you got world junkies who are all about the replication of reality (versimilitude, authenticity, representation). And you got adventure junkies who are all about the replacement of reality (with something bigger, better, bolder -- story). Given that we're talking about aesthetic forms of fiction that came together properly in the 20th Century, this tripartite distinction makes a lot of sense to me.

In those terms there probably is a fair mapping to my own model of exploitation, explication and excuse. But again, bear in mind that we're jumping whole levels to a high degree of abstraction and generalisation. What I'm talking about is textual techniques of dealing with the strange by flipping subjunctivity -- i.e. functioning on the sentence level. Factoring that up to the levels of story and aesthetic form, I see them as generally working together, except in specific forms where the focus is largely or wholly on one as an application of a particular aesthetic. Factoring that up to a taxonomy of reader types defined by one particular aesthetic... well, I'm willing to go with the idea, but only if we include a "none of the above" option or an ability to tick more than one box, cause I don't think all readers can be fitted neatly into those categories. As I say, we're all really incredibility junkies, far as I'm concerned.

I do, however, think you can factor those techniques up and get specific aesthetic forms with dedicated readerships, definable by their loyalty to one aesthetic over all others. I mean, I'm sure there are dyed-in-the-wool fans of symbolic formulation (and nothing but symbolic formulation). And this type of fan could be classified as an adventure junky if that's your preferred term. But I suspect what you mean by adventure junkies is readers primarily (or solely) interested in the heroic genres within strange fiction -- readers of Space Opera or Epic Fantasy -- rather than readers primarily (or solely) interested in the symbolic formulation sold within those genres. Which is to say, the adventure junky you're talking about is, I suspect, someone who's bringing an aesthetic based on more than accessibility, immersion and conventionality to the table. Something like I'm broaching in applying the values of subversion and articulation to Spectaculist Fantasy.

In practical terms, though, if we're talking only about the aesthetics of symbolic formulation we're talking about a reader for whom "the interest in character and narrative" is entirely proscribed by accessibility and conventionality. This is the kind of reader, I'm arguing, for whom complex character and complex narrative equals "difficult" equals "impenetrable" equals "inaccessibile" equals "no story". Which is simply to say, constructing a story from characters and narratives which are unconventional and / or complicated makes the story harder to parse, just as constructing a sentence from words and clauses which are unconventional and / or complicated makes the sentence harder to parse. The aesthetic of accessibility is one which values the minimal complexity of an easily parseable story. Valuing simplicity in the construction of characters and narratives doesn't say much for one's interest in character and narrative as things in and of themselves.

However, as implied above, I do think a lot of your "adventure junkies" value complexity in character and narrative; it's a requisite feature of subversion and articulation. A lot of them value complexity full stop. And even if some prefer a good solid riff to a twiddly-wank guitar solo in character or narrative terms, well, you can still do new and interesting things with just three chords. You can see the aesthetic of symbolic formulation coming into play though, where you run into hostility to this complexity: "Four chords?! None of that fucking prog shite, mate!"

To be frank, I think that aspect of hostility to complexity is not limited to symbolic formulation but can be found in all the genres that symbolic formulation subsists within. I have next to no time for it because it's generally phrased as an ignorant and arrogant refusal to recognise the very existence of a narrative in the face of complexity, or as a not-quite-so-ignorant but equally arrogant denial that the work in question is "proper" Fantasy or "proper" SF or "proper" whatever. And it pisses me the fuck off. It's the bleating idiocy of a moron who runs into a sentence with a semi-colon and a few polysyllabic words, and declares it to be nonsense.

That's by no means a characteristic I'm applying to all "adventure junkies" though. I know personally, from responses to Vellum, that many "adventure junkies" take complexity in their stride. They've written to say how much they enjoyed it simply on the level of kickass characters, fantastic backdrops and cool storytelling despite being utterly lost in terms of what story they're meant to be constructing. This makes me a very happy puppy, because I believe firmly that readers have a capacity to parse stories on an unconscious level, to make sense of them on a quite abstract level, so that they come out of a story thinking, "yes, that makes sense", even when they can't quite explain how it made sense. I think these responses indicate that while they couldn't explain what the plot is, how it works, they were able to parse it satisfactorily in terms of situations, conflicts and resolution(s).

So...

Now on this scheme, if I understand you aright, the possibility junkies are really the only people who 'get it.' Having made a fetish of innovation, they dwell in the aporetic interstices between language's performative and representational functions. The world junkies, on the other, almost get it - they have an appreciation for the way language can perform realities, but in the end they go running back to the representational function, to the 'explicated world' as you call it - the fat. The poor adventure junkies, however, are left even further in the lurch, since they have no real appreciation for either function, and as a result are satisfied with hackneyed versions of the represented - fatuous fat.

No, no, no, no, no! I don't even think in terms of a distinction between performative and representational functions. That sounds hideously pomo for my liking. I much prefer the old-fashioned breakdown of linguistic functions as referential, poetic, expressive, connative, phatic and such. And as for "aporetic interstices" and " the way language can perform realities"... to me that feels like looking at fiction on a level of abstraction which becomes metaphor more than anything. I am, I admit, quite interested in the way langage in fiction doesn't just perform a referential function but also poetic, expressive and connative functions, which -- if I read you right -- would be "performative" in opposition to "representational", but I'd argue that the aesthetic of Spectaculist Fantasy is as much concerned with these as my own brand of strange fiction. The expressive and connative functions in particular are, I think, particularly appreciated by adventure junkies.

I might well, partly from a personal appreciation of the poetic function, be a little judgemental when it comes to the type of adventure junky or world junky who rejects the poetic wholesale. I think having a "tin ear" for poetic features means missing out on a lot of the scope of strange fiction. But my real value-judgement is focused on those for whom the rejection becomes animosity rather than obliviousness, and it's largely reserved for those who go on to advocate the expunging of any poetic function in the name of accessibility, with or without the additional imperative of referential explanation to resolve the implausibility of the incredible.

This doesn't mean that I'm raising (im)possibility junkies over them as the ones that actually "get it", with "it" being a sort of all-encompassing "point of strangeness in strange fiction", a "what fantasy is all about". Rather I'm saying that within the diverse spectrum of incredibility junkies there are those who don't "get" the specific "it" of poetic function and for whom a resultant hostility-to-complexity becomes advocacy of a deeply limited and limiting view of what strange fiction can and should be. The point I was making in suggesting that, hey, if anything is to be called "real" fantasy maybe it should be the stuff that exploits the incredible -- that's meant to be read as a devil's advocate position. It's not a statement that only the exploitation purists are "right" in liking what they like; it's a usurpation of the concept of "proper fantasy" in an antitethetical stance, a turning of that prescriptivism back on itself. Were I facing up to the relevant analogue of an (im)possibility junky applying a similarly ignorant hostility, a pomo experimentalist prescriptivism which derided the referential function of language, say -- the literary equivalent of a Conceptual Artist dismissing figurative painting -- I'd adopt a quite different stance and it would be equally oppositional. Indeed, the whole point of my theorisation of strange fiction is largely to develop a vocabulary through which the incredibility junkies can reclaim the field as an innately diverse territory of aesthetic forms. One battle at a time, though. One battle at a time.

Now let me make clear here that I do not believe in posterity. Literature dies with our generation - I think that this is an incontrovertible fact. Technologically mediated social change, as drastic as it has been, is just beginning, and when it really gets rolling, our culture is going to need as much conceptual versatility as it can get. As a result, I think any writer who wants to make a positive difference needs to look at the apparatus of commercial publishing as an opportunity, and to adopt those forms that reach the most diverse readers possible. Those who don't simply aren't making a difference, aside from appeasing those who already share the bulk of their values - literally turning thoughtfulness into another socially inert consumer good.

This is a social and political aesthetic of relevance and reach, of writing as a tool for social change. I may not entirely agree with the futurology of the prediction, and I'm not sure how you get from "the death of literature" to the "importance of commercial publishing" (unless by literature you mean not "writing" but "particular aesthetic forms of writing privileged by society with the term literary"). But that's another discussion entirely. I do agree with the core aesthetic of relevance and reach.

So, when it comes to the "cult of innovation" and postmodernism, I think you're reading my priorities wrong. I'm far from postmodernist. Actually I've argued quite strongly on many occassions that postmodernism is a defensive reaction to a 20th Century backlash against Modernism, that in the wake of that backlash there was a wholesale retreat of those who couldn't take the heat into the safety of the ivory tower of irony, that the players left on the field, or those who came after, were forced to (or willingly and defiantly decided to) assume a marginalised position in the fields of genre and stand up to the onslaught of Contemporary Realism from there. The result, in both SF and Fantasy -- and I include Spectaculist Fantasy here -- was a vigorous hybrid of Romanticism, Rationalism and Modernism. The sensationalism of "novelty" and the intellectualism of pomo "cleverness" are both results of that hybridisation, and both, I agree, aesthetics to be wary of in so far as they push us away from relevance. Compare my critique of Populist and Elitist prescriptivisms and you should be able to see (I hope) that I'm no fan of either.

In terms of "performative tension" and "representational comfort", then, actually I see this as a false dichotomy which comes out of the pomo refusal of the integrity of the text. The sentences with which we construct strange fiction, as I see it, perform representation. It's a crucial feature of the generation of a subjunctivity of "this could not be happening" that there is a "this" being represented. The exploitation of that subjunctivity, the tension, is actually a feature of the representation, of this imaginary construct of a thing which cannot be. The tension requires an acceptance that what is being performed is representation.

That division into performance and representation seems to me to come from the postmodernist refusal to accept the responsibilty inherent in a text as an act of representation. It's the quotation marks of irony, in which the text is to be understood not as true representation (which would imply import, which would imply intent, which would imply authority) but as an inherently artificial performance which represents nothing, as being said "only for effect". I deny the very possibilty of this. The quotation marks simply become a part of the text, so to speak, rendering the text a representation of performance. The text can never actually represent nothing and simply "be" the sum of its performative effects, not when the basic and fundamental effect is that of representation.

I could go into this in more depth in terms of my own work as anti-pomo, as representing performance in a deliberate attempt to refuse the escape clause of "it's all just a game" (cop-out!), as using metafiction, for example, not in an attempt to foreground the story as an artifice (cop-out! COP-OUT!) but rather in an attempt to immerse the reader in representations of representations of representations so as to blur the boundaries between their own reality and the representation of it, to make the representation more immediate and compelling. In many ways I want to steal the tools the postmodernists have been hogging and put them to good use where, I think, it matters, and metafiction's probably a good example of this. Breaking the fourth wall can be a way of distancing the reader from the representation, but I think it can also serve as a way of opening up the story so the reader gets dragged in, becoming utterly engulfed in the representation. And what rocks for me is that a lot of "adventure junkies" seem to have no problem whatsoever getting that; they really rather dig it.

In terms of that socio-political aesthetic of relevance and reach, my personal belief is also that epic fantasy is a great avenue for reaching a wide audience. Otherwise I wouldn't have written two stonking big fantasy books, the first of which verily shouts its adoption of the epic form in the opening lines. I just happen to be thrawn when it comes to limiting prescriptions of what you can and can't do in the form, so these epic fantasies also happen to be Pop Modernist, Cubist Pulp, Indie Fiction -- pick your name. My own "manifesto" might also differ from yours in that personal history makes it very much about certain specific socio-political and psychological subjects for me rather than a wider struggle against cultural vacuity.

I'm happy to sacrifice accessibility -- which is to say, I'm happy to lose "adventure junkies" hostile to complexity -- if it means a novel that more profoundly articulates the emotional realities of, to put it bluntly, being queer and losing a brother, of isolation and the sort of grief that can hit you like a monster-truck, shattering your world and your very identity. I'm happy to sacrfice "accessibility" if it means more profoundly articulating that kind of reality to even one single solitary reader somewhere who's dealing with that shit and for whom that articulation is helpful in making sense of it all. If that requires a complexity of fragmented character and narrative that renders it "inaccessible" to some who can't parse that kind of story and won't try, well, fuck 'em; I'm not going to compromise the work by offering a representational comfort that, in failing to represent honestly, ceases to provide true comfort. Hell, that part of my manifesto is stated about as clearly as it could be in Sonnet VII of my Sonnets For Orpheus, in the whole "I sing for death..." proclamation. I make no bones about it.

So if I scorn symbolic formulation and its more outspoken champions it's because I reject their (frequent and loud) attempts to impose limitations on the aesthetics applicable in the field. For a writer like myself that hostility is a very real force that I can either submit to or stand up against. Submission would mean surrendering genre to that aesthetic, letting the philistines define the field in terms utterly opposed to the values I hold to most strongly. I'm not willing to do that, though it surprises me very little when writers are, given that they can publish in the mainstream, still have their work bought by the same huge market of incredibility junkies who would have bought it as genre, and add to that the huge market of readers hip to strange fiction but coming from an "indie" rather than commercial attitude. So, if I'm going to stick around in genre for the duration of a career rather than be the Next Evil Turncoat, I'm damn well going to hold my corner, stand up to that aesthetic of symbolic formulation, and call it as I see it -- an aesthetics of fat. Fat is tasty. Fat is not an evil scourge to be eradicated from the menu. I just don't see why we should let someone with a taste for fatty fat fat with fat on top dictate the menu.

All our grandiose proclamations about genre being where the action's at will become worthless bluster if we can't acknowledge that aesthetics of fat, analyse its effect on the field and criticise it as Populist and philistine without being automatically assumed a paid-up member of the opposing camp of Elitist philosophers with their aesthetics of...what... celery, maybe? Frankly, I think the half-arsed critical vocabulary of "genre", where, over half a century since the emergence of the field, we still can barely distinguish a marketing category and an aesthetic form, is largely to blame for the incessant eruptions of snobbery and inverse snobbery that drive those divisions, the inferiority complexes and compensatory arrogance that lead us to deny the actualities of the aesthetics while simultaneously advocating them as absolutes. And I think those divisions are the overwhelming reason why "genre" loses good writers to the "mainstream" where they can publish their strange fiction in peace without any of the bullshit about whether it's "proper" Fantasy or "proper" SF. As long as that process carries on, "genre" will become increasingly less where the action's at and more where the action could have been... if it wasn't for the philsophers and the philistines.

31 Comments:

Anonymous JonathanM said...

Hal --

Referring me to Vellum is fair enough as I didn't write my pieces with you in mind at all. I don't not consider you fantasy but I certainly don't consider what you do fat fantasy.

For example, I don't consider Stross' Merchant Princes to fall under my aesthetic in the least. I read those novels and I "get" them. Similarly, when I read the later Discworld novels I "get" them because the modernism just drips off the page. In fact, they're both series that are arguably all about the confrontation between contemporary views of the world and "medieval" ones, but not seen through the lens of symbolic formulation.

If you talk to me about fantasy that has a desire for historical, social and scientific authenticity I'm happy to admit that it exist, I read some of it myself but I wonder if you're not falling into the same mistake I made by blurring the boundaries between fantasy and "this stuff over here I want to talk about", because I can walk into a bookshop now and pick out a dozen books that have questionable relationships with authenticity.

I suspect that fantasy is a wide enough church to accommodate both approaches (and the spectrum inbetween) and indeed, this is what lies behind your desire for a grand unified field theory. In fact, I don't think we're at very much of a disagreement... it's just that you're building a theory of personality and I wrote something about introverts and you're pointing out that there are extroverts. Fine... I'm quite happy with that idea. In fact, a glance at the major fantasy awards proves that the christ-child-on-a-dragon approach to fantasy is no more representative of all fantasy than Star Wars novels are of SF.

In this case, Scott presented me with a line in the sand and I was happy to step back across it. If Scott's correct about fantasy's pre-modernism then fantasy loses out on all the cool stuff that does interest me and which I do read.

But I think the fact remains that there's a sizeable chunk of the fantasy corpus (over-represented in the fat fantasy neighbourhood) that isn't interested in authenticity or subversion but in, as you put it, consolation.

11:36 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

In fact, a glance at the major fantasy awards proves that the christ-child-on-a-dragon approach to fantasy is no more representative of all fantasy than Star Wars novels are of SF.

Yup; that's pretty much my main point about it. I think you're own point about technobabble shows another mirror with authenticity in SF. I'm all about cutting through the assumptions about what Fantasy or SF "are".

Funny enough, as an aside, I only just read the later discussion between you and Scott after posting the above. So when I offered "Spetaculist Fantasy" as a causually invented name for that epic form I hadn't yet seen Scott's post about the importance of spectacle.

If Scott's correct about fantasy's pre-modernism then fantasy loses out on all the cool stuff that does interest me and which I do read.

I'm not so sure even Spectaculist Fantasy is entirely Romantic and in direct opposition to Modernism. In opposition to Rationalism, yes, but I think Modernism is a blend of the two (an attempt to recomcile the whole Reason versus Passion thing) which includes, for example, an aesthetic focus on the sublime. Look at the transition between Yeats's Celtic Twilight period, where he's clearly Romantic, and his later works (Byzantium, Sailing to Byzantium, The Second Coming) which are Modernist in many respects, and you see, I think, where Modernism actually carries over many elements of the Romantic aesthetic.

The Molly Bloom soliloquy at the end of Ulysses reads to me as deeply Romantic.

Wallace Stevens is an even more clear-cut case of Modernism and he's full of anti-Rationalist Romanticism:

Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark

That it is this, or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.


Edward Whittemore's JERUSALEM QUARTET, for me, captures the sense of Modernism as a conflict/balance of Romaticism and Rationalism beautifully.

Anyhoo, I'll have to blog about this at some point.

7:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating as always, Hal, but Jeezus! You make me feel like the very soul of brevity!

I can't remember whether I mentioned that the 'Three Junkies' scheme was meant to characterize tendencies. I certainly didn't mean to overstate, though I'm sure I did at this or that turn.

I'm not sure I agree with your diagnosis of post-modernism (I don't think there's much you say by way of criticizing post-modernism that a post-modernist would disagree with, save the negative emphasis), but the fact that our conclusions are pretty much the same is more than enough for me. I can now see that I misread you, plain and simple. I often see po-mo bogeymen where there are none.

I also agree that crap is crap, and should be called such whenever stepped in. My concerns are political in the cynical (as opposed to the ideological) sense of managing perceptions for effect. I don't think people - you, me, and everyone else - are particularly good at maintaining fine distinctions. Our brains constantly take short cuts in order to economize processing power, whether we want them to or not. As a result, I think discussion of crap should be restricted to individual works, or carefully delineated kinds, to avoid any guilt-by-association. This makes me particularly sensitive to considerations such as yours, over and above the fact that I happen to write what you and Jonathan problematically call, 'fat fantasy.'

I'm more evangelical than you, I think. A 'writer' is a social role defined by a haze of implicit and explicit norms like any other. If you grant me that we live in times of unprecedented crisis, where it's a real question whether the plasticity of our institutions can cope with the accelerating pace of technologically mediated change, then given a generalized commitment to 'make a positive difference,' several norms jump out at the aspiring writer. One maxim might be, 'the more the better.' Another might be, 'effect over honesty, unless you can have it both ways.'

My position on this has been strongly influenced by the years I spent researching cognitive science for my last book (still pre-press). I've learned too much about how stupid we all are to trust that we will make the right decisions in a timely manner. I've read too much regarding neuroscience and the ways in which technology is redrawing the lines between what is manipulable and what is to not think the transhumanists et al - despite their unwarranted optimism - are onto something when it comes to the ways experience itself will fall into our monkey-nimble hands. Humans without fear. Humans without suffering. These 'descendents' are literally around the corner. What sense could they make of our scribblings?

The default assumption, thanks to our stone-age noggins, is to assume continuity between past and present, but such will not be the case: we've already started to innovate our way out of our humanity. Neuroplasty is not only inevitable, it's already started. And without our humanity as it stands, literature as it stands will become little more than a curiosity - crayon stick-figures taped to semi-sentient fridges.

A storm is coming. When the hail starts falling, arguments as to who deserves to hold onto the umbrella are self-defeating. Commercial publishing owns all the bullhorns, which is why we need to infiltrate and start squawking. Anything that could persuade 'screwheads' to preach for the gratification of the choir rather than mess with the masses just makes us a little more vulnerable, a little less likely to survive... whatever it is that awaits.

Our conception of the 'man of letters' was formed in an age where posterity still existed. In the collapse of posterity, we should expect that conception to require some serious revision. I'm not saying I got it right, and I'm more than willing to discuss/debate what the 'Post-Posterity Writer' should look like, but this is the best I've been able to come up with so far.

11:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When defining 'SF, don't forget 'Synaptic Fornication'.

9:45 am  
Blogger meika said...

"And it pisses me the fuck off. It's the bleating idiocy of a moron who runs into a sentence with a semi-colon and a few polysyllabic words, and declares it to be nonsense."

Of course, these days they'll call you a postmodernist if you admit to enjoying said semi-colons and polysyllabic word, even if youre not.

hmmmh, do you think we should spell semi-colon 'semi;colon'?

anyone?

I do love your blog, even the long posts, I've wasted the entire morning here now.

(please shift to the new blogger, commenting is really hard otherwise)

12:53 am  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

Fascinating post (is that Scott Bakker there? and hi miekal) A few random responses, which I hope make some sense and have some pertinence:

As another "fat fantasy" writer who unashamedly wants to use those epic tropes - which in my case are absolutely laced with Romanticism - and then has come up bang against some of the snobberies/problems of categorisation you elucidate here, it's been a refreshing read. (In my case, complicated by my books being marketed as YA, a category I'm quite happy to be labelled as, because it sidesteps a few things. Though that has its own problems). My fans would be of the character/narrative kind, that's the attraction of the books, that's why people buy them. But for me as writer, with - it has to be said - a minimal interest in plotting, but a more than glancing interest in drama, I place my subversions in certain ways. Enactments, I guess, which then generate their own meanings in the minds of the putative readers: I don't think of myself as wanting to convey certain messages through the medium of fantasy, so much as wanting to enact certain complex realities to some degree of their complexity, to dramatise them - in a real sense - so those complexities become evident and remain honestly unresolved, no matter what resolutions appear to take place in the writing. No doubt it will make sense that my fantasy writing is the most realistic writing I do: in my other work, a kind of ostranie is probably the effect I most value, but in fantasy that is taken care of by the fact that it is, upfront, fantasy. I don't think they are consolatory texts, although they can be read that way. There are certain realities, certain griefs and difficulties and obduracies, that interest me, and those things inevitably find their way into my work. I guess I'm working with certain shapes and seeing what I can do with them (the jury's out until I finish), rather than attempting to work outside those shapes (that would be a different kind of story) and so for me everything exists in the texture of the writing. Those who miss the texture and only see the surface, or those who become impatient with the texture as getting in the way of the surface (hanging grimly onto this metaphor here) aren't going to have a lot of time for those books. Anyway, so much for a statement of intent, which is of course always questionable coming from the writer herself.

Anyway, from this end of the new century, it seems to me that the break between Modernism and Romanticism, Eliot notwithstanding, are not nearly so clearcut as they seemed at the time (given that generalisations about such complex movements can make any real sense). Modernism looks much more like an evolution of Romanticism, and whatever people call Post Modernism - certainly the most interesting aspects of it - are an evolution of Modernism. Coleridge's criticism, for example - via Empson and then Nietzsche - is absolutely formative of modernist criticism - or if you think of Beckett, who is variously hauled into both Modernist and Post Modernist camps as exemplary, you might get what I mean. If I were to classify myself as a writer (not just a fantasy writer), I'd probably think of myself as "post-Romantic". Or post post modernist. I don't think the ideas and problems thrown up by Romanticism have played themselves out yet and some of them have come back to haunt us, as in the environmental movement, for instance; they're questions about the self in the world, the self as the world, the world as other, technology and our relationship to it, what "nature" or "human" is, etc etc etc. The philosopher who most excites me at present is Giorgio Agamben; he's a little gender blind, but his explication of the concept of homo sacer, naked life, seems to me incredibly useful, in terms of thinking a way into a post-ideological world. But now I'm rambling.


And Scott, are you serious that a fear-free, suffering-free world is just around the corner? Doesn't that depend on most of the population still continuing to glean their very basic living from rubbish dumps?

1:28 am  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

And a PS - it strikes me that a post posterity writer might look something like a contemporary playwright...

1:44 am  
Blogger Brian Malone said...

Hate mail? LOL, seriously . . . the internet :-?

I have a question, an actual question, and not my usual sarcasm: (I'm going to cross post this at the Displomat because I want Jona's opinion too): Why does fantasy, or even SF/F in general, need or require (whatever) an evaluative scheme any different from any other type of literature? Is what makes an SF/F book good (or bad, or indifferent) any different from what makes any other kind of book good? Why?

4:40 pm  
Blogger Brian Malone said...

Umm, ignore that first sentence, not relevant here . .

4:41 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Scott:

As a result, I think discussion of crap should be restricted to individual works, or carefully delineated kinds, to avoid any guilt-by-association. This makes me particularly sensitive to considerations such as yours, over and above the fact that I happen to write what you and Jonathan problematically call, 'fat fantasy.'

Really I'm trying to set up exactly that sort of delineation, using the term "fat fantasy" only long enough to crack it apart into "fat" and "fantasy", to distinguish Symbolic Formulation from Spectaculist Fantasy. I'm interested in defining Symbolic Formulation over here and then building up a picture of what Spectaculist Fantasy over there is doing in contradistinction, overthrowing the sort of bogus content-based definitions that lump distinct aesthetic forms together as "fat fantasy".

I'm pushing for a framework in which Spectaculist Fantasy is no more intrinsically "fat" than its analogues in Space Opera or Alt History, the difference being (largely? wholly?) in the nature of the conceit -- metaphysical as opposed to hypothetical or counterfactual -- rather than in how (or whether?) the strangeness is resolved (largely? wholly?) by excuse, with or without explication. Actually, I think there's a lot of scope for investigation in the whether and the largely or wholly there.

More thoughts, in that respect:

I've argued in those strange fiction posts that tragic and comic narratives are companions to strange fiction in so far as they exploit the unheimlich and the absurd (building to crises of horror or hilarity) the way strange fiction exploits the incredible. The epic narrative seems an obvious colleague to these, and it seems to me it could be considered as exploiting the incredible in terms of spectacle (building to a crisis of awe). I think the distinction I'm trying to make maybe lies in the structural importance of spectacle in terms of building towards crisis:

In Symbolic Formulation drawing on the extensible chivalric romance tradition (Amadis de Gaul?), the dramatic climax may be spectacular but doesn't really seem like a crisis of spectacle; the action builds against fantastic backdrops, but those backdrops are separable, CGI grandiosities of castles, mountains and battles against which the human-level drama takes place. The extensibility of the episodic form predicates against spectacularity as structural component.

In Spectaculist Fantasy drawing on a less extensible epic narrative tradition, the dramatic climax seems much more of a crisis of spectacle, the incredibility not just fantastic backdrop but actually structural. The images that come immediately to mind are Spartacus on his cross at the head of that long road of crucifixions, or El Cid on his horse, riding into battle even in death. These are the ultimate crises of spectacle in the sense that you can't play a bigger card than the hero's death.

The first two Star Wars movies are Spectaculist Fantasy in that respect, the attack on the Death Star and Luke's showdown with Vader serving as crises of spectacle for each, and as seeming steps towards a supreme crisis in the final installment. The Luke-Vader showdown is on a smaller scale than the Death Star attack, but its symbology is arguably a ramping up of spectacle, raising the stakes with revelations, mutilations and virtual annihilation of the hero (both physically and mentally) in a good old-fashioned Fall into the abyss. The third movie fails though, collapsing towards Symbolic Formulation in its regurgitation of the previous two crises together, with the introduction of the Emperor into the showdown failing to provide any substantial raising of the stakes. With the spectacularity levelled off, we're left with a dramatic climax but not the crisis of spectacle we actually wanted, like raising a foot to take a step and finding that the step isn't there.

The fourth movie, Episode None: The Phantom Plot, collapses completely into Symbolic Formulation in its failure to provide anything even remotely resembing a crisis of spectacle. It has no sense whatsoever of spectacularity building, as I recall -- in so far as I can recall, that is, something so instantly forgettable. It's just action against fantastic backdrops, CGI grandiosities of little import in dramatic terms.

Anyway, enough such musings for now.

Humans without fear. Humans without suffering. These 'descendents' are literally around the corner. What sense could they make of our scribblings?

I don't buy it, to be honest. To me transhumanist futurology feels like a latter-day equivalent of the 50s notion of an Atomic Age full of jetpacks and hoverboards, or the 60s dream of a New Neolithic of communes and mother goddesses. I look ahead and I see too many possible spanners in the works: oil crisis; climate change; Christianity and Islam, Islam and Judaism, all going head to head in the Middle East; Fundamentalism and Secularism going head to head in the Western world; the political effects of China's growth; the End of Empire for the USA; Africa's continued poverty; Russia's return to totalitarianism; South America and Central Asia as unknown factors. I'm not a catastrophist about these, but it's certainly not that I trust us to make the right decisions; I just think we're going to see some radical upheavals that make the transhuman cybertopia look unlikely at more than a temporary subcultural level among a group limited by class and location. And I don't really see that subculture lasting longer than the first transhuman Manson Family. That's my outlook, anyway. Hey ho.

Alison:

What you say makes a lot of sense to me. I like your distinction between plot and drama, the idea of enacting complex realities without resolving them, the link between that and "texture" in writing. A lot of it fits with my own sensibilities; in fact, the idea of "those who become impatient with the texture as getting in the way of the surface" feels quite in synch with an essay I wrote a while back for Emerald City, where I wittered on about the fallacy (to my mind) of the style/content distinction, where "content" is seen as plot or theme that the texture, or "style", "gets in the way of".

To me plot and theme are simplifications, summaries, abstractions of the text, while style is a matter of compositional choices, of symbols and structures articulated at all levels, from the sentence up to the story as a whole -- which makes style the real, actual "content". It would be foolish to look at "The Raft of the Medusa" and say it would be easier to "get at" the content if it wasn't for the wild brushstrokes, if you peeled away the texture to a Neo-Classical formality. Similarly, I think it's wrong to look at a story or a novel and say it would be easier to "get at" the content if it wasn't for the style.

So it makes sense for me to look at the style/content in terms of texture -- the words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters as enactions. I haven't applied the term "drama" to that before, but it fits as the scaleable feature of writing that I'm most interested in, and that isn't necessarily about resolving the composition into a glossable plot or theme (in the "conveying a message" sense) but rather about how the symbols and structures, as your say, "enact certain complex realities to some degree of their complexity... so those complexities become evident and remain honestly unresolved, no matter what resolutions appear to take place in the writing".

That also strikes me as a good way to approach an aesthetics of what I'm labelling Spectaculist Fantasy, steering us away from the assumptions that use of conventional epic tropes equals conventional use of epic tropes or that subversion of conventionality is necessarily about introducing atypicalities of character, plot or theme -- which strikes me as potentially quite superficial (I wonder if you can talk about a "cult of subversion" on a par with Scott's "cult of innovation"). It makes me think of Greek Tragedy in a lot of ways -- deeply conventional, deeply tropic, complete with miasma as an Evil Influence, and very much "working within certain shapes" but hardly the worse for that. And, funny enough, when you think about it, the earliest form of the "fantasy trilogy".

Hmmm... crises of spectacle... evil as miasma... shit, I think I want to do The Oresteia as a stonking big Spectaculist Fantasy trilogy now.

7:44 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Brian:

I reckon it's like tragic and comic narratives, or sonnets and free verse. There's an overlap of values by which different books in different aesthetic forms can be evaluated as good, bad or indifferent, but I think there are also specific formal features that generate their own criteria.

The "sealing of fate" turning point in tragedy is distinct enough to be evaluated as a "sealing of fate". John Proctor's "leave me my name" speech in the Crucible isn't just great writing, to my mind; it's great tragedy. A judgement of "God, that made me laugh" of a book that isn't comic is, well, probably the last thing a writer wants to hear. A well-turned volte is part of what constitutes a good sonnet.

Strange fiction, I think, has similar (multiple sets of) aesthetics that define the form(s) and should probably come into play when we're evaluating a work.

7:56 pm  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

The Oresteia as a stonking big Spectaculist Fantasy sounds like a great idea to me. (How much did Dune really draw on it? Its years since I read it). And oddly, since you mention The Crucible: I have a term for certain climactic moments, a "God's Icy Wind" moment. From the end of Act II, when Proctor cries: "We are only what we always were, but naked now. And God's icy wind will blow!" and then BLACKOUT. Just brilliant stuff, the shivers go down your neck. Hugely manipulative of course like all drama, but it works: and it works because Miller (when he's at his best, anyway) writes with such disciplined passion. So easy for such attempts just to be honky, but one should not be too precious to take the risk.

I guess when I started writing fantasy, it seemed like a logical evolution to me as a writer (I am a poet): maybe 300 years ago it would have been a poem, but the popular form now is novels. Back in the 1500s, Dante appropriated a popular and vulgar text about St Paul visiting Hell and wrote in the vulgate because he wanted to reach ordinary people who didn't speak Latin. Part of the tradition I look back to is epic poetry - not only the ancients (Homer, Beowulf, the Kalevala etc) but more particularly Dante's Comedy and Milton's Paradise Lost, even Blake's crazy cosmologies. (I can't help thinking that Milton is so bloody formative of modern epic fantasy, whether modern epic fantasy knows it or not. Certainly Tolkien knew it. I mean, how big can you get? And surely Satan is the archetypal bad guy, and has hardly been bettered since Milton wrote him? That wonderful passage when he's approaching Eden, and considers its beauty, and regrets the necessity of destroying it...)

I can't pretend I'm doing anything as amazing as that, mind you, nor am I writing tragedy but, more properly speaking, comedy. But these things are in my head when I'm trying to write, consciously part of the tradition in which I place myself.

Maybe in your distinctions there's a clue, aside from questions of style, in how spectacle can become an analogue for less expressible inner conflicts, and that when it is not (as in the phantom Star Wars, of which, like you, I remember almost nothing) it becomes, as you say, simply CGI backdrops and therefore has no resonance. To take Paradise Lost, for example: there's a way in which it's a startlingly personal poem. A moment when Milton suddenly switches to speaking about his own blindness, for example, which I've always found especially moving. Or that suspicion I've always had that Satan is so compelling because he's a self portrait. Which I guess is simply the obvious point that epic is a huge metaphor, not just a hinge for a colourful plot, and that maybe if the metaphor is to live, it has to generate some kind of emotional coherency.

(And also it has to be written in the first place, so I had better stop procrastinating.)

9:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Really I'm trying to set up exactly that sort of delineation, using the term "fat fantasy" only long enough to crack it apart into "fat" and "fantasy", to distinguish Symbolic Formulation from Spectaculist Fantasy. I'm interested in defining Symbolic Formulation over here and then building up a picture of what Spectaculist Fantasy over there is doing in contradistinction, overthrowing the sort of bogus content-based definitions that lump distinct aesthetic forms together as 'fat fantasy.'"

I understood this. My point was that people have a hard time maintaining the kinds of distinctions you're trading in here, and that as a result, the effect might prove contrary to your intention. Like I say, my disbelief in literary posterity makes me sensitive to more strategic considerations. It's no longer good enough that people mean what they say - other people also have to get it.

I love your reading of Star Wars and spectacle, by the way. But for me, the primary concern isn't so much the aesthetics involved, as the cultural impact. People are moved by crap, plain and simple. If you can move them with something better than crap, say butter, then so much the better. But the important thing is moving people the right way. And again, this all comes down to the question of whether we are indeed on the cusp of crisis. Anything that helps come to grips with our own cognitive shortcomings, anything that critiques or discredits interpretative monism, anything that undermines certainty. There's memes in our society that need to be stamped out.

"I don't buy it, to be honest. To me transhumanist futurology feels like a latter-day equivalent of the 50s notion of an Atomic Age full of jetpacks and hoverboards, or the 60s dream of a New Neolithic of communes and mother goddesses. I look ahead and I see too many possible spanners in the works: oil crisis; climate change; Christianity and Islam, Islam and Judaism, all going head to head in the Middle East; Fundamentalism and Secularism going head to head in the Western world; the political effects of China's growth; the End of Empire for the USA; Africa's continued poverty; Russia's return to totalitarianism; South America and Central Asia as unknown factors. I'm not a catastrophist about these, but it's certainly not that I trust us to make the right decisions; I just think we're going to see some radical upheavals that make the transhuman cybertopia look unlikely at more than a temporary subcultural level among a group limited by class and location. And I don't really see that subculture lasting longer than the first transhuman Manson Family. That's my outlook, anyway. Hey ho."

A couple of years back, I would have agreed with your sense of transhumanism whole-heartedly. Now, I'm every bit as troubled by it, but for far different reasons. First, though, Alison's (long time no see!) comment regarding rooting through rubbish dumps and your list of present and possible topical crises makes me think you're both misconstruing the point. In Alison's case, I would simply say that it's very well possible - even probable - that we'll rooting through rubbish heaps for some time to come, but there's a good chance that we'll experience none of the misery we presently attribute to it. In your case, Hal, I'm not saying that the transhumanist vision of the future is correct - I actually think it's painfully naive - only that they're right about the collapsing boundaries between humans and technology. Sure, some crisis can intervene, slow things down, or even one of the Horsemen might come flying off the carousel, pasting us with an environmental, nuclear, or biological apocalypse - in which case my point regarding the death of posterity still holds.

Like I say, humans suffer from continuity bias: we have a hardwired tendency to expect that the future will resemble the past. We have stone-age brains, and in the stone-age, what Reinhart Kosselleck calls the 'space of experience' pretty much exhausts the 'horizon of expectation.' A boy could expect to live his father's life. Now, thanks to science, capital, and technological innovation, our horizon of expectation has all but collapsed, so much so that 'old' equals out and out obsolescence instead of wisdom - and we pack our parents away in self-storage units. We're literally the first generation in the history of the human species who cannot reliably predict whether boilerplate institutions will be around in recognizable form in a generation's time, let alone what kind of lives our children will leave. But still, thanks to continuity bias, the gut assumption is that things will be the same.

This means my argument cuts against the psychological grain, and since people always use the yardstick they already have to take the measure of new arguments, my task is doubly difficult. But consider the following facts...

The sciences are undergoing what might be called a 'full-spectrum revolution,' multiple breakthroughs across a variety of fields whose implications are incalculable, both in terms of technological consequences, and the ways in which those technologies will transform social relationships.

Late capitalism has almost attained global closure. Despite economically insignificant pockets of traditionalism, instrumentality rules the world.

Now both of these facts not only portend rapid transformation, they pretty much legislate it. So in a sense, my crisis argument is pretty much a gimme. On this basis alone, I think I could make a powerful case for the post-posterity writer. Technological innovation leverages social change. We are entering a period of unprecedented technological innovation, which means we can expect unprecedented social change. Adaptability will become ever more crucial, which means that cognitive versatility, the ability to adjust our beliefs (and therefore our actions), will become paramount as well. For writers of social conscience, this has many of the implications I enumerated earlier - among them, write for the different-minded, write to shake the tree, and so on.

What spikes this situation, what makes the future, even the near future, out and out perilous with uncertainty, is the rise of neuroscience.

Remember what binds Romanticism and Modernism: subjectivity. The world was yielded to science, and what was human, what was meaningful, retreated to the fortress of our skulls, and thanks to the complexity of the brain, we were safe, but just for a couple of centuries. Now the walls have been scaled, and the therapeutic benefits are so miraculous - blind people restored to sight, life-long suicide attempters made happy, deaf people given new computer ears - that hordes more researchers and investors are raising their ladders. Do you really think a post-human Manson (which is the subject of my last book, btw) will change this trend? Thousands of breast-implants gone awry haven't done much to blunt that business. Neuroplasty is inevitable, so long as capital is the central organizing principle of our society. Cognitive enhancement. Personality makeovers. Look at what Tibetan Buddhists are willing to do to rewire their brains for happiness! When shy Sally is suddenly the life of the party, or dim Dave is suddenly pulling down all the big sales, do you think 'your-brain-is-your-temple arguments' will keep people from making a trip to the neuroclinic? When a button allows you to experience Jesus, do you think people will vote for pure-brain politicians? When cognitively enhanced weapon researchers give China the military edge, do you think the US will throw itself on this or that sword of principle? People and corporations and governments will open their wallets, and the gulf between the haves and the have-nots will be written into the meat of things. The normative post-modern will become the material.

Not only will the relations between us be changed more than we can predict, we will be remade ourselves as well. The more we reverse engineer the brain, the more we'll do what we always do when we figure out mechanisms - fiddle with it. Our shared human experience, the great frame of literary reference, will become obsolete. What we're writing now will become museum curiosities, because the subjectivity we spit and strain to represent will either seem childlike to our descendents, or it will be incomprehensible.

No matter how you look at it, even if the technological optimists are right, we're encircled by the end of humanity as we know it.

scott/

10:26 pm  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

God, I need another life to keep up with this blog...it's totally and fatally seductive. I might allow myself a look at Enkidu tomorrow.

(And I thought there was only one Scott who wrote that way. Hi Scott!)

You know, Scott, I'm not very frightened by the thought of the end of humanity as we know it: frankly, humanity as we know it could do with a lot of improving. But I just don't see the utopias you're painting. Take the deafness question - it's a lot more complicated than it appears, and the restoration or even the sudden gift of hearing isn't always considered an unalloyed good. Among deaf people, I mean, who might have one or two things to say about the normative desires behind a lot of this technology. And for all the botoxed bimbos who blank out their faces for some idealised idea of beauty, there are always the difficult people who prefer wrinkles and expression, the ladies who proudly wear their beards. Which is simply to say, people are incorrigible and recalcitrant. There will always be Rilkes refusing the exorcism of demons in case they lose their angels. Subjectivity links Sappho to Keats as much as Keats to Eliot: it's not subjectivity, it's individualism. I guess genetic splicing could introduce whole generations of clones, but I think there's a way to go before we actually get to that Brave New World. In the meantime, people continue messy and contradictory, and usually other than they are represented: in which fact I probably place the little optimism I actually possess.

11:58 am  
Blogger Brian Malone said...

Remember what binds Romanticism and Modernism: subjectivity. The world was yielded to science, and what was human, what was meaningful, retreated to the fortress of our skulls, and thanks to the complexity of the brain, we were safe, but just for a couple of centuries. Now the walls have been scaled, and the therapeutic benefits are so miraculous - blind people restored to sight, life-long suicide attempters made happy, deaf people given new computer ears - that hordes more researchers and investors are raising their ladders. Do you really think a post-human Manson (which is the subject of my last book, btw) will change this trend? Thousands of breast-implants gone awry haven't done much to blunt that business. Neuroplasty is inevitable, so long as capital is the central organizing principle of our society. Cognitive enhancement. Personality makeovers. Look at what Tibetan Buddhists are willing to do to rewire their brains for happiness! When shy Sally is suddenly the life of the party, or dim Dave is suddenly pulling down all the big sales, do you think 'your-brain-is-your-temple arguments' will keep people from making a trip to the neuroclinic? When a button allows you to experience Jesus, do you think people will vote for pure-brain politicians? When cognitively enhanced weapon researchers give China the military edge, do you think the US will throw itself on this or that sword of principle? People and corporations and governments will open their wallets, and the gulf between the haves and the have-nots will be written into the meat of things. The normative post-modern will become the material.

I clench when I read this, and I suffer visions of H.G. Wells, the eloi and the morlocks.

1:46 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Neuroplasty as weaponry doesn't scare me any more or less than biological warfare. Neuroplasty as psychological control doesn't scare me any more or less than the institutional control systems in place at the moment. Neuroplasty as medicine doesn't scare me any more or less than the "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" culture of Medication Time; prozac, ritalin, valium, viagra, or a chip in the head -- all we're talking about is suppressing or stimulating existing emotions to achieve a rubber ceiling / rubber floor of affect which might succeed in stopping people from slitting their wrists, but which comes with its own problems of disocciation, ahedonism, because the artificiality of the artificially maintained homeostatic balance of affect is ultimately like closing your eyes so the light doesn't hurt them. It's a disengagement from problematic sensations.

Affect is a way of evaluating the world, and it's clearly an integrated system, as far as I'm concerned -- kinaesthetic, psychophysiological, a homeostatic system, a highly cohesive sense of attitudinal orientation. Meddling with it is like meddling with our 3D sense of balance; you can compensate for a deficient sense of yaw, inhibit a sense of pitch that makes you nauseous, stimulate a sense of roll to make you feel dizzy, feel like you're moving when you're not, but adding an entirely new sense of motion requires a dimension of motion for that sense to map to. If affect is an awareness of basic psychophysiological state -- as I'd argue it is -- meddling with it doesn't mean creating new emotions; it just means fiddling with how our existing ones work -- stimulating, inhibiting, compensating for deficient or excessive sensitivities.

If neuroplasty is better at curing pathological affective disorders than drugs, fair enough, but I doubt it'll actually be any less dissociating than the drug equivalents, where it focuses on inhibiting or compensating for chronic or acute conditions. You'll see, I think, a similar, pattern of success and failure in neuroplasty as genuine medicine, and you'll see a similar pattern of quackery and dependence, with "treatment" creating problems where there were none before. And you'll see a whole lot of bio-ethics debates opening up a la cloning, stem cell research, gene line therapy and suchlike. When neuroplasty offers ex-gay therapy and kids can be put through it against their will by their parents, just as they can, right now, be sent off to brainwashing boot camps, then it'll become a token in the larger game of the ideological clash between fundamentalism and secularism, between reactionaries and radicals, conservatives and liberals. It's the complexities of that larger game, as I see it, that will decide how neuroplasty becomes a feature of society.

But on whatever level it integrates, as I see it, it will be dealing with existing affects, not creating new ones. You can inhibit fear, stimulate joy, and so on, but I don't believe you can replace them with yamma and gooble. The symphonaesthesia (as I like to call it) of the psychoactive experience, where sensation is decoupled from reality and freely reinterpreted, affectively as well as in terms of the outward senses, doesn't generate new "aesthemes" of colour, sound qualities, scent or affect. Even the cross-wiring of synaesthesia doesn't do this. A man can mistake his wife for a hat, but he doesn't mistake her for the emotion of flooposity.

So... neuroplasty as capitalist culture-creation, a runaway process of supply and demand, generating (addictive) desire in order to feed it, exploit it? As an extension of gadget materialism, focused on the (re)definition of identity and culture, who you are, what you are, what you can do, with this neat new technology?

We already have that sort of recreational neuroplasty as a mechanism for individual and social redefinition.

Cognitive enhancements? Smart drugs. Personality makeovers? Acid. Sally wants to be the life and soul of the party? Alcohol. Dave wants to pull down all the big sales? Coke. You want to nix fear? PCP. Make a life-long suicider happy? MDMA. Speed, hash, mushrooms, smack, crack, ecstasy, ketamine, peyote, coffee, nicotine, alcohol, sugar -- neuroplasty is already here, and in pretty much the way Huxley predicted, with all the uppers and downers we need to rewrite our affect. We do the same with it as we've always done, ever since we, as monkeys, discovered the neuroplasty of fermented fruit -- we party. We incorporate it into our existing social structures. It can lead to the creation of entirely new forms of social structure -- the coffee house or the commune -- but these have to be adopted by individuals, consolidated into subcultures, and able to survive a reactionary mainstream that is innately antagonistic to subcultures of alternativity.

Would or could such a subculture catch on with the transhumanist geeks, but eventually become mainstreamed and all-pervasive a la the internet? Commodifed?

I don't think so. The picture you're painting of a humanity so alien that Joe Bloggs is emotionally incomprehensible to them... well, seems to me we're talking autism or psychopathy or both in the undermining of capacity to relate to others rationally or empathy. Either you have social beings who become dysfunctional because they can't relate to society at large or you have social beings who become dangerous because again they can't relate but here they remain functional; they can get by in our world while utterly devoid of any empathic relationship with those around them. Start building that up to a subculture and you have transhumans as crackpot cults. I can see this happening to some extent but these drop-outs from the human race will be regarded as fools and madmen for their inabiity to relate to normal human beings; they'll be treated as self-made pod people and lobotomy victims.

It happened with the 60s dream of rewiring the psyche. At the point where people realised that psychoactivity was making as many brain-fried fuck-ups as boddhisatvas, the dream started to crumble from within. And at the point where the dissociation from humanity at large started to result in Bad Shit the false glamour just peeled away.

It's not a transhuman Manson who'd the problem; he was just a nut, a schizoid murderer. It's the transhuman Manson *Family* that I see as the likely Bad Shit that would poison the ideal, peel away the glamour. The threat to social control posed by a subculture of those who are, to all intents and purposes, psychopathic, autistic, schizoid in their relationship to society -- the authorities will treat radical neuroplasty in the same way they treat drugs, and your recreational user will be as scared of it as they are of acid.

Sure, capitalism will seek to commodify it, but this will lead to an extreme dilution, just as it does with drugs, a co-option of an aesthetic of redefinition into one of recreation and addiction, neuroplasty as a weekend of wastrely or a lifetime of abuse, a new way to get high, get out of your head, fuck with your senses, but carrying on within existing social mechanisms (including those which involve disengagement from society). As long as capital is the central organizing principle of our society, neuroplasty will just be another deeply mediated, deeply limited part of the leisure industry, legitimate or illicit. So the end of humanity you envision seems no more realistic to me than the Age of Aquarius. What I think you'll see is a tiny minority of those deeply dedicated to radical self-revision, for good or ill, in sustainable or unsustainable subcultures (the Tibetan Monks and Manson Families -- attempts to find an "enlightened" homeostatic balance of affect or a pathological immersion in schizoid affects of rapture & apophenia), a larger minority of those for whom it's a means to deliberate self-destruction (the addicts), and a vast majority of dabblers who'll play with more radical forms in party circumstances but generally use it in a deeply diluted form -- a jolt of joy like a coffee in the morning, a draw of relaxation like a cigarette for dealing with stress.

That will come with its own bread and circuses problems, I'm sure, but I think in overstating the likely effects as a doomsday scenario, you risk defeating your own purpose, invoking the cynical apathy that prevents most deeply dystopian views from being treated seriously, to be honest.

7:24 pm  
Anonymous Scott Bakker said...

Great stuff! I don't agree with a lick of it, but man, it was fun to read!

"If affect is an awareness of basic psychophysiological state -- as I'd argue it is -- meddling with it doesn't mean creating new emotions; it just means fiddling with how our existing ones work -- stimulating, inhibiting, compensating for deficient or excessive sensitivities."

I'm not sure what the antecedent to your conditional means here, but otherwise there seems to be a kind of humanistic essentialism lurking through your reply. If it is the case that experience turns on neurophysiology, then transformations of neurophysiology will amount to transformations of experience. We know this to be case, and personally experience it whenever we take an aspirin or snort a line. So tell me, what is it that makes yamma or gooble impossible? Where are the 'essential boundaries'?

"Cognitive enhancements? Smart drugs. Personality makeovers? Acid. Sally wants to be the life and soul of the party? Alcohol. Dave wants to pull down all the big sales? Coke. You want to nix fear? PCP. Make a life-long suicider happy? MDMA. Speed, hash, mushrooms, smack, crack, ecstasy, ketamine, peyote, coffee, nicotine, alcohol, sugar -- neuroplasty is already here, and in pretty much the way Huxley predicted, with all the uppers and downers we need to rewrite our affect. We do the same with it as we've always done, ever since we, as monkeys, discovered the neuroplasty of fermented fruit -- we party. We incorporate it into our existing social structures. It can lead to the creation of entirely new forms of social structure -- the coffee house or the commune -- but these have to be adopted by individuals, consolidated into subcultures, and able to survive a reactionary mainstream that is innately antagonistic to subcultures of alternativity."

You do realize this actually supports the case I'm making: that these things will entrench themselves. Otherwise, you seem to be suggesting that there's 'nothing alarmingly new' in the spectre of neuroplasty - which couldn't be farther from the case. Comparing drugs (and pre-pharmacological revolution ones at that) with neuroplasty is like comparing eye-liner to reconstructive surgery. It's rewiring the foundation of experience we're talking about here - what is arguably the most profound transformation empirically conceiveable. You gotta do a lot more work to make this analogy stick.

"I don't think so. The picture you're painting of a humanity so alien that Joe Bloggs is emotionally incomprehensible to them... well, seems to me we're talking autism or psychopathy or both in the undermining of capacity to relate to others rationally or empathy."

Not at all. You're assuming that what results will fit into categories we already possess, which will certainly not be the case. We can't say what the transformation will be, only that the transformation itself is likely inevitable.

"Either you have social beings who become dysfunctional because they can't relate to society at large or you have social beings who become dangerous because again they can't relate but here they remain functional; they can get by in our world while utterly devoid of any empathic relationship with those around them."

False dilemma. There really is no limit to the possibilities.

"Start building that up to a subculture and you have transhumans as crackpot cults. I can see this happening to some extent but these drop-outs from the human race will be regarded as fools and madmen for their inabiity to relate to normal human beings; they'll be treated as self-made pod people and lobotomy victims."

I seem to recall reading similar things written by people who thought 'horseless carriages' were a fad!

"As long as capital is the central organizing principle of our society, neuroplasty will just be another deeply mediated, deeply limited part of the leisure industry, legitimate or illicit."

Again, why so? Aside from your argument by analogy (neuroplasty = drugs) you really offer nothing else to suggest that this will be the operative mechanism. I don't even think this mechanism does justice to your analogue, drugs, let alone to what amounts to rewriting the human soul. Drugs, pharmaceutical or otherwise, are far, far more pervasive and influential, and the picture is far more complicated than the one you provide here.

The constants I'm relying on in my prognostication are pretty basic: markets and science. As science renders more and more of the natural world manipulable, markets move in and begin to manipulate - they technologize according to myriad perceived benefits, often contradictory and usually short term. Now, at long last, that tiny corner of the natural world called the human brain is passing into manipulability, and I'm simply suggesting that the process will repeat itself.

The argument really is quite straightforward - the only thing that makes it seem so over-the-top is the particular little corner of the world at issue: the human brain. Since we depend on the human brain AS IT STANDS for our categories, we literally cannot conceptualize what the technologization of the human brain will result in. If people at the beginning of the 20th century couldn't predict what the world would look like at the beginning of the 21st, we aren't able to predict what WE will look like at the beginning of the 22nd.

All I'm suggesting is that the resulting differences likely will be so profound as to make what we're writing today irrelevant to our descendents. And that writers of social conscience, as a result, should forget about posterity.
It seems to me that you're presuming a lot more with this 'containment thesis' you're offering. Do you really think neuroplasty will end up being socially processed like another drug sub-culture? That strikes me as horribly specific, given the unknowns involved. It suggests that you really think we can know what we'll look like at the beginning of the 22nd century.

To sum up, then. You imply that they're essential limits to the neuroplastic transformation of experience, then use this declawed version of neuroplasty to build an analogy with drugs and then use the social dynamics of drugs in contemporary society as a model for the likely way neuroplasty will be taken up in future society.

I don't understand your argument for the essential limits, but I do understand the reasons why it seems ill-advised: if it is the case that experience turns on neurophysiology (and it is), then transformations of neurophysiology will amount to transformations of experience. Since there's no in-principle limit on the former, how could there be on the latter?

If there are no essential limits on the neuroplastic transformation of experience, then your entire argument collapses with your analogy to drugs. So it seems to me that your entire case hangs on answering the above question.

scott/

10:20 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I seem to recall reading similar things written by people who thought 'horseless carriages' were a fad!

Oh, pish posh! I'm not the one prophecying DOOOOOOOOM!!! here. I believe a better comparison might be drawn to those who thought trains would KILL US ALL!!! Why, you can't go faster than 25 miles an hour! We won't be able to breathe!!!!

;P

OK, so being serious... what this turns on, far as I can see, is 2 assumptions on your part versus 2 assumptions on mine. Yours: affect as an extensible set of discrete emotions; inevitability of all-pervasive take-up of technologies for remodelling that set. Mine: affect as an integrated system of sensation; inevitability of limitations in take-up of technologies for remodelling that system.

Does that sound fair in terms of your own basis for argument?

OK, I'll assume your answer is "yes".

So, with my assumption 1, this isn't humanist essentialism any more than phonetics is, but it is rooted in a more physical approach to affect which takes it away from pure neuroscience and grounds it in psychophysiology. The theory's too lengthy to expound here, but what I'll do is work it up into a separate blog post.

A quick way to sum it up would be that I think affect qualifies as a sense, like sight or smell.

Smell is pure symbolisation, as I understand -- discrete "aesthemes" as signifiers of discrete chemicals. It's like logogrammatical writing where you have a large set of symbols each related to a specific word or morpheme (ignoring the issue of one symbol having more than one possible referent). You can add logograms and take them away, substitute one for another, to the extent that you have an entirely different system than you started with... to the extent that users of each system would find the other system uninterpretable. Similarly with scent, you could add an aestheme for nitrogen, take away the one for sulphuorous oxide, substitute others, leading to two entirely different senses of scent. This seems to me to map to your idea of affect. Drop wonder and horror. Add yamma and gooble. What you end up with is two logogrammatic systems referencing entirely different (sets of) things from each other.

Sight, in contrast, is a systematised sense which uses a very small set of symbols for colour (red, yellow, blue, light intensity, depth of saturation) and a co-ordinate system (up-down, left-right) to construct a spatial model. It's cartography rather than logogrammatic writing (complexified by the stereoscopic capacity -- by the fact we cross-reference two maps to reconstruct the third dimension of near-far -- but you get the picture). Any aestheme in this system is not a discrete symbol, but a dimensionally defined point in both 5D colour-space and 2(and a bit) space-space. Playing around with the symbol set here is an entirely different proposition. And this is "how" I think affect works, as a cartographic system rather than a logogrammatic one.

I think there's a systematic aspect to affect that means what we think of as discrete "emotions" -- pride, horror, wonder -- are actually composite; they're best understood as points in a sort of affect-space, with our words for the emotions as mere nominative markers. You could drop horror and wonder and add yamma and gooble as nominative markers, but this would be like dropping azure and adding cerulean, dropping jade and adding emerald. Although jade is not the same shade as emerald, and azure is not the same shade as cerulean, we can negotiate or navigate our way to an understanding of the area of colour-space an entirely unknown nominative marker represents in terms of "lighter", "darker", "more blue", "less yellow", "more saturated". We can imagine Hume's Missing Shade of Blue because it's simply a point in colour-space we haven't seen instantiated, smack-dab in the middle of a whole bundle points we have. Yamma and gooble are just points in affect-space previously lacking nominative markers.

Or, OK, here's a typically Glaswegian metaphor: Glaswegians navigate the city by pubs. Ye've got Hubbards over here, Stravaigin over there, Nice & Sleazy's, the Variety, and so on. So my internal map of Glasgow has these as benchmarks and if I'm giving a mate directions I'm as likely to say "it's just down from Hubbards". They may have an entirely different set of benchmarks. "Hubbards?" they say. "Just across from Coopers," I say. Those benchmarks may change over time. "Coopers?" they say. "Used to be Bar Oz, Chimmi Chungas before that," I say. "Right!" they say.

The point is, adding and subtracting affect at the nominative level of "wonder" or "horror" is just like adding and subtracting pubs as navigational benchmarks:

"I feel yamma today"
"Yamma?"
"Just down from gooble."
"Gooble?"
"Where wonder used to be."
"Down from wonder then? Beside horror? Right?"
"No, that's much too far down."

Changing the set of benchmarks by which we informally navigate doesn't change the terrain we're navigating through. To take the metaphor further and get into more fundamental changes to the "city" itself: Say the city is blitzed and rebuilt in an entirely different road layout, with new pubs entirely. You can still navigate in terms of "City Centre", "West End", "East End", "South Side", "North Side". I'd argue that some of our emotional vocabulary is as much directional as it as locatory -- joy, sorrow, anger, disgust, fear, surprise. In cartographic terms they're not just points on the map, they're dimensions of the map itself.

The level you seem to be looking at it -- humans without fear, without suffering -- I think is a level of fiddling which amounts to little more than shifting nominative markers, at most blocking off one direction, one area (no fear = never going to the South Side). This is why I use the drug analogy, as I think a commercial neuroplasty focused on "no fear" is equivalently superficial. The level at which, I think, we need to be looking to actually get into the territory of one person's affect being entirely uninterpretable by another is way deeper. And this is where, to my mind, the market forces argument falls to pieces, because the actual market forces you talk about (wanting rid of fear, cognitive weaponry, personality upgrades, *all* of that stuff) require no more than fiddling at the superficial level. These are valid market forces, I agree, but the superficiality of the neuroplasty doesn't provide the required transformation of identity and culture. The deeper level of neuroplasty is left as a functionless technology. This is not to say that a function will not be found for it, that this function will not create a market, simply that the prediction of universal up-take on this basis as a doomsday scenario for humanity as we know it is, well, it's like a caveman looking at a wolf, predicting the domestication of wolves, but then going on to prophecy a wolf in every cave, human adoption of lupine social structures, a change in the way we are so fundamental as to result in "The Planet of the Wolves!!!", when the market forces of utility and pleasure actually push for dogs. When all the reasons we would have for bringing the wolf into the living room can be satisfied by dogs rendering wolves a "functionless technology". We *have* found a function for wolves, of course; as I understand huskies are bred with them to maintain characteristics. Finding that function has not resulted in "PLANET OF THE WOLVES!!!!" Neither can we assume that finding a function for radical, extreme neuroplasty (which you're conflating with the superficial dabbling we actually need (or want, rather) to achieve the sort of goals you base your argument on) will result in "PLANET OF THE TRANSHUMANS!!!"

But I'm going to stop here for now, as my point isn't to argue the case here, just to establish where I'm coming from. I'll try and articulate this more fully, in a separate post probably.

4:10 pm  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

Neuroplasty doesn't either address the complex system of bio-feedback which neurologists like Antonio Damasio argue constitute consciousness, that consciousness itself as we understand it - defined by him as awareness that we are aware - is a function of emotional body states. Which is to say crudely, that without emotions, rationality is not possible. And that a state of consciousness is a physical state of immense complexity and sometimes counter-intuitive mechanisms (say, smiling makes you happy, rather than the other way around).

So in order to change human consciousness in the ways you suggest, Scott, you would have to change not only the brain but the entire body. And it seems to me that some of the changes might have different effects: an attempt to make a person "more intelligent" by inhibiting certain emotional centres might in fact have totally the opposite effect. And so on.

12:59 am  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

Just a PS, after doing the vacuuming. I'm thinking of things like how Prozac can have wildly counterproductive effects, like homicidal anger or suicidal anxiety. Or, to put the problem another another way: say you zap out bits of the anterior cingulate cortex and so people no longer suffer from conditioned fear. Or even manage to zap out innate fear. Isn't that going to have a significant counter-effect on intelligence? People without fear tend to be stupid. (If you have dealt with someone with no concept of fear, such as a mentally disabled adult or a small, active and suicidal child, you will know what I mean). People who are brave are those who experience fear and then deal with it: it might also be a function of a functioning intelligence. If you are no longer able to experience fear, what does that mean about the rest of the psyche? (This might be your point, maybe, about post-humanity: but a bunch of zombies, Paris Hilton notwithstanding, might not play so well in the capitalist desirelines. Ditto the non-suffering: even Paris has to make gestures towards empathy to keep her franchise going.)

Anyway, I'm aware I'm going off on tangents here, and several at that: I'm not denying that technologies are present and have impact, but I do doubt pace Hal that they will have the impacts Scott predicts. And I am highly dubious of metaphors like "hard wiring", and things like strong AI, which are based in my view on a very limited model of consciousness, one I'd say that was ultimately comfortingly predictive in a way that isn't borne out in how things like consciousness actually operate.

3:47 am  
Anonymous Scott Bakker said...

You sense the force of my argument, Hal, I can tell. Fess up. I know you want to!

Actually, I'm not assuming that emotions are discrete at all.

The kind of nominalism you're talking about is actually what many psychologists think is going on with some forms of affect: we seem have some kind of generalized sense of 'arousal' (their term, not mine) which we then transform into anger, romantic excitement, fear, and so on with post hoc explanatory narratives. When a couple, for instance, has a blind date on a suspension bridge as opposed to a park bench, they tend to rate each other as much more romantically exciting. It seems we humans have a devil of a time assessing the origins of our feelings - and there's a good chance that most of what we tell ourselves is bullshit.

But the fact that experience is differential actually doesn't imply any of the conclusions you're trying to squeeze from it. Why are you assuming that 'experience space' (this spatial metaphor, by the way, is what some transhumanists use to illustrate the exact opposite point!) is somehow 'already there,' constrained by the possibilities of the experience we already have? This simply does not follow, and kind of smacks of the genetic fallacy. Neuropathology definitely shows there's no fixed space out there - you have no idea how bizarre they can get... There will be path dependancy, to be sure, but those constraints in no way assure the continued intelligibility of anything, let alone literature, no more than our primate ancestry assures that we can take tea and gossip with chimpanzees. Yamma and gooble could very well be as unintelligible to us as language is to chimpanzees (which is to say, almost completely). It's simply isn't a matter of shifting 'nominative gears' (same experience-space, different names). It's a transformed experience-space we're talking about here, one that technology has rendered plastic. And as I keep saying, given that it's the creation of new subjectivities here, no transformation could more drastic.

(I rather like arguing in couplets).

I know I'm the bum wearing the sandwich board crying the 'End is Nigh,' and I accept that makes me an easy rhetorical target. But my argument is actually very straightforward, enough, I think, for us to peg our differences quite clearly.

We argee that a generally shared psychology is required for literary communication. I've been assuming this...

We agree that the technological revolution is just warming up. If not, I have no doubt a year's subscription to Scientific American will change your mind. Even if Vinge and Kurzweil and all their talk of the 'singularity' is likely inflated, the fact remains we really do stand on the cusp of something unprecedented.

We agree that the technologization of the brain is likely inevitable. If not, you need to explain why the brain would be the magical exception to the rule: whatever science drags into manipulability... As I mentioned earlier, wherever there's desire, there's markets, and there's few things people pin more desires on than themselves.

We agree that the technologization of the brain will lead to drastically transformed psychologies. Since there's no such thing as a fixed 'experience space,' and since path dependancy does not guarantee psychological continuity (how could it?) you need another argument here.

We agree that there's likely no such thing as literary posterity. Do we? Finally?

There's no escaping my Jedi logic...

Alison, I almost entirely certain that Damasio would have no problem with anything I'm saying here in terms of his theory of consciousness - which I think you're mis-stating. In The Feeling of What Happens, for instance, he's not saying that consciousness inheres in the body, but that emotions and the way the body inheres in the brain are crucial components of consciousness. This actually reinforces my point about yamma and gooble.

Otherwise, I'm not sure why you would have a problem with a term like 'hardwiring' (though I understand your misgivings regarding strong AI). It's just a shorthand way of referring to the fact - and it is now a fact - that the brain consists of many modular domain-specific inference systems.

scott/

3:12 pm  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

I quite possibly misunderstood the book, and my two sentence summary isn't going to get anything of how Damasio argues about how the self represents itself to itself (or any of the difficulties with that, either). But even so, when Damasio speaks of a "core self" and how the "extended self" is generated from that, it suggests a continuity that you seem yourself to say is going to be swept away by this new technology. I can't see how that is going to happen. I've some idea of what those technologies are - by no means as much as you - and I can't see the inevitable follow-on of what you're arguing. In any case, I'm on much surer ground arguing culturally...

And it strikes me that perhaps we're speaking from different assumptions. You seem to think that priior to this, human society has all been stasis, the expectation that things will remain as they always have. I'm not speaking from that place at all, but more from an assumption that in fact the past few hundred years have seen revolutionary changes which have already destablised a whole bunch of assumptions about how culture operates. Especially since around 1914.

I just can't help thinking that what you're presaging has already happened, and it happened culturally, with the fall of religion in the West as a common cultural language. David Jones and other modernists wrestles with that in particular (and with doom) in the introduction to Anathemata...with the collapse of that in-common system of symbology, so ran the argument, literature was no longer possible. And yet there's more of it than ever.

I would say we're in the middle of a slow collapse of a certain idea of culture, which by no means means the end of culture itself. Certainly it's fair to say that there's been a splintering of potential readerships/audiences (which at the same time are larger than they're ever been, or at least, no smaller). And what has emerged is not the end of unifying culture (which was always a myth anyway - the people lamenting the end of unifying culture were those who more or less wanted monks speaking Latin) but a whole bunch of different literacies. And what I'd would call a post-psychological literature (I'm thinking here of things like Psychosis 4:48 by Sarah Kane or the theatre of Howard Barker or magnificent books like Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, in which culture and self are already past tense).

2:06 am  
Anonymous Scott Bakker said...

And it strikes me that perhaps we're speaking from different assumptions. You seem to think that priior to this, human society has all been stasis, the expectation that things will remain as they always have. I'm not speaking from that place at all, but more from an assumption that in fact the past few hundred years have seen revolutionary changes which have already destablised a whole bunch of assumptions about how culture operates. Especially since around 1914.

Assuming cultural stasis? Not sure where you got this idea. If you go back I think you'll see I explicitly state the precise opposite - several times.

Otherwise, the question is whether shared psychologies are a necessary condition for the continued relevance of our literature. In a sense, these considerations you're raising simply strengthen the case against posterity. The type of cultural transformation we've seen since the Enlightenment is likely nothing compared to what we'll see in the next 100 years.

1:35 pm  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

Hey Scott, I hope this isn't boring you. I'm deeply interested...I guess part of the problem here, from my point of view, is that rather than your rhetorical stance making you an easy attack, arguing against the certainty (and it's the certainty I'm arguing with) of technological progress towards - well, you've named it now, Singularity - seem to be inevitably placing myself in a kind of nostalgic conservatism, a kind of blind Ludditism. And that's not quite where I mean to be. I think our differences come from different readings of the present, and where you see historical inevitabilities, huge forces, I see those too - and a bunch of other much less bruited subtextual forces that seem to me equally important in the shaping of events or evolutions, and that which your futurology isn't taking into account.

You've talked about cultural stasis several times - eg where you say "We're literally the first generation in the history of the human species who cannot reliably predict whether boilerplate institutions will be around in recognizable form in a generation's time, let alone what kind of lives our children will leave. But still, thanks to continuity bias, the gut assumption is that things will be the same." Which seems pretty unambiguous to me.

Personally, I think the Singularity unlikely, but I don't think that changes to human beings are unlikely. I also think human beings have been changing all the time, and are much more diverse than they are generally given credit for. Personally, I think the change from rural to metropolitan creatures is probably the most signficant over the past couple of hundred years. Should hyperintelligent human beings - whatever that means - invent themselves, I can't see the entire human race changing in one sharp whoosh. Unless one of the prospects you're suggesting is genocide of the unevolved which is, of course, a possibility. I'm thinking that any process of change will be a lot messier and a lot more complex than something like Singularity suggests, and involve a lot more continuity than you predict. (Continuity of what is a different question, but the fact remains that human beings get a lot of pleasure from their simply sensual lives, things like eating, bearing and raising children, chatting to friends over wine, etc). I look at the human world and what I see is a place of astounding diversity. Conversations can still exist, all the same, between people who are still living effectively Stone Age lifstyles (Aborigines in the Central Desert) and urban habitues. They might be conversations that are based almost wholly on misunderstanding, but they are conversations all the same.

I simply don't understand this thing about "posterity". Does any contemporary writer really write for posterity? Seriously? Even a poet like me, writing for a tiny audience, has no idea if s/he will be read half a century hence. But the truth is that no one knows, and no one has ever known. Any writer writing for posterity is kidding him or herself. They're writing for now. Maybe Shakespeare could do it in his sonnets, but I don't know any serious writer who thinks about posterity. Seriously. Knowing one only has the present focuses the mind wonderfully. It's certainly not a motivation for me, I'm closer to Celan's "message in a bottle". Maybe someone out there might understand...or maybe not. It's got nothing to do with time.

The other thing I wonder about is your basic assumption that one has to have psychology in common in order to communicate. I actually don't know what that means. One needs a language in common, and that's a different kettle of fish. Literature, and especially the most interesting literature, is about confronting the strange and the unknown. It's one of the best technologies we possess for evolving the consciousness for that very reason, because it's been a way in which we can encounter psychologies very different from our own, experience which has nothing to do with our personal lives. I guess human beings might upload themselves and start talking in binaries, but not everyone is going to do that. They might end up being the locus of power, but then I look towards the disempowered. Which is why, if you're predicting the end of psychology or the end of humanity, I'm wondering if you mean a kind of genocide to consciously stamp out all the messy humanness that I can't see disappearing.

2:08 am  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

PS You'd also have to posit a hyper intelligent post human that is completely uninterested in its own history. Possibly, of course, as everything is possible, but it also seems unlikely - how are these immortal beings going to spend their consciousness? Or is incuriosity going to be a post-human trait? (unlikely, given those who might want to experiment in that direction). And as soon as they start investigating their history, they're going to be grappling with the conditioning effect of all those human linguistic expressions of experience. Which is one of the major ways we condition and shape our humanity and our senses of self, society etc. The only way to prevent that would be a wholesale destruction of all past culture, literature, songs, histories, etc. Again, I can't see why that would happen.

2:54 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

You sense the force of my argument, Hal, I can tell.

No, I think you're making grand claims with no real foundation.

We agree that the technological revolution is just warming up.

Nope. The Singularity scenario you posit requires a continuity you yourself reject, a continuous upward progress and, indeed, a continuous upturn in the gradient, a continuous acceleration of technological development. I see, as I've said, any number of factors that challenge the likelihood of science continuing its snowball's roll and turning into the avalanche you foresee. I make no predictions, no assumptions, of the requisite continuity. I simply don't think it requires apocalyptic catastrophe to derail the process

We agree that the technologization of the brain is likely inevitable.

No, I agree that it's, at most, likely. The only thing that's certain is death. Even taxes can be cheated (by death). The death of the human race is inevitable. The death of Western civilsation is inevitable. The death of Star Trek as a viable franchise is, I hope, inevitable. Technologization of the brain is highly contingent on the the death of a lot of things being not quite so inevitable as the doomsday prophets would have us believe. It's also contingent on theoretical and cultural constraints on possibility and desireability.

Why are you assuming that 'experience space' (this spatial metaphor, by the way, is what some transhumanists use to illustrate the exact opposite point!) is somehow 'already there,' constrained by the possibilities of the experience we already have?

Because it is. Not that I'm saying it's essentially constrained as some eternal Platonic form, simply that it's as much "already there" as is our skeleton. Were it not, then footering with the system via psychoactive chemicals or electrodes-in-the-brain, as has been going on for decades, would result in the generation of entirely new sensations rather than the recombination of existing ones. As it is, poke an electrode in the brain and we taste peanut butter, smell wet dog fur, remember last Tuesday. It's recombination that we find, rearticulation.

But I'm not assuming those constraints on possibilities are "essential" in a theoretical sense; I'm assuming they're functional in a pragmatic sense. I mean, the idea that joy and sorrow might be as functional as, oh, your arms and legs, say, doesn't strike me as terribly radical. So you have three types of neuroplasty, as I see it: 1) neuroplasty which assumes serious functionality (i.e. in medicine designed to correct malfunction, or in weaponry designed to create malfunction) 2) neuroplasty which applies trivial functionality (i.e. in individual and social experimentation designed to exploit the system for aesthetically valued pay-offs) and 3) neuroplasty which disregards that "already there" functionality and chooses to reconstruct the whole framework.

Look at it in terms of bioplasty. We fuck with the body for medical and military reasons through prosthetics, amputations, surgery and drugs, and, of course, bombs and bullets. Prozac is bioplasty. A landmine is bioplasty. Cultural bioplasty takes the form of drugs, body-mods like tattoos or piercings, and suchlike. These are the biological analogues of the applications you claim will drive neuroplasty. Only with cultural bioplasty do we see "fiddling", and the focus here is on recreation (drugs), ornamentation (body-mods) or "perfection" (cosmetic surgery). Notably, more people take-up this technology in order to conform to social norms and aesthetic standards than to differentiate themselves from other humans. Bioplasty is a coke habit, nose-jobs, boob-jobs and tummy-tucks; the people who file their teeth, get leopard-skin tattoos all over their body and live their life on acid are few and far between.

Our bioplastic technologies are equally as likely to go OTT in the posthuman Snowball of Science scenario, but the cultural applications of bioplasty (recreation, ornamentation and "perfection") offer no reason to assume we'll all be rushing out to get a badger for a hand, lemurs for feet and sock-puppets where our heads once were. Now that we have pens we could all walk around with them stuffed up our nostrils. We don't. A technology that can give us tentacles instead of arms, snake-tongues we can't speak with, beaks and compound eyes, whatever, will have limited take-up as long as it's market forces driving that take-up. The market forces driving bioplasty in the culture at large have remained firmly grounded in cultural processes constructed within the framework of functionality, the aesthetic values that underly them being part of that framework.

Similarly, your scenario offers no reason to assume we'll all rush out to replace our wonder with yamma and our horror with gooble. The cultural applications of neuroplasty you found your argument on are all bound up in that self-same framework. No fear. No suffering. Being the life and soul of the party. Pulling down sales. That's neuroplasty utterly commodified as a means to pleasure and power, utterly integrated into existing cultural processes, utterly proscribed by social function. You're talking specifically about removing capacities (for fear or suffering), compensating for defects (in social skills) -- recreation, ornamentation and "perfection" as goals defined by the very psychology you see it transforming, and achievable with no requirement for the radical alterations of "Level 3" radical neuroplasty.

You're missing the core point of my distinction between trivial and radical neuroplasty, which is not to say such radical neuroplasty is essentially impossible, but rather to say that it is intrinsically functionless. What, if any, function(s) might be found for yamma and gooble? On what basis do you predict these to be ineviatably recognised universally as more important than wonder and horror? In a world where people want to have fun, look pretty and stand out from the crowd (but not too much), I'm not seeing the business potential in selling them the neurological equivalent of a badger for a hand.

Even suppose we assume that new technologies create their own function, what function will be so universally imperative as to drive us all to add yamma and gooble, like adding a dorsal arm and a pair of eyes in the back of your head, both additions that would have some use but which don't exactly strike me as The Shape of Things to Come? What market forces will drive us all to reconfigure our existing, functional affective framework so as to become as unrecogniseable, as nonhuman, as if we lopped off our limbs and had an arachnid exoskeleton fitted? Why would we all deconstruct and reconstruct our bodies and/or our psyches so completely as to become crab-monkey-flipper-things feeling crab-monkey-flipper-affects of yamma and gooble?

I see little intrinsic function to your radical neuroplasty other than novelty and shock value. Hence I see no likelihood of universal take-up on the basis of intrinsic function. What new functions might arise out of the impact of technology on culture are entirely unpredictable, rendering the likely extent of take-up equally unpredictable. History is strewn with technologies like the Sinclair C5 which were simply discarded as stupid and pointless.

Moreover, I see factors which actively work against universal take-up.

See...

We agree that a generally shared psychology is required for literary communication

And given that your argument is founded on a situation of utter uninterpretability between us and posthumans -- indeed that posthumans will be unable to interpret us rather than simply vice versa -- you must agree then that posthumans will be socially dysfunctional in terms of human society. If we're fiddling with an affective system which is an emotional skeleton (an underlying system of articulation, of attitude), then there are only two real options -- extension or substitution. With extension we would remain entirely interpretable to posthumans; it would just be us that didn't understand their extra dimensions of experience space. The shared psychology would remain, with bolted-on yamma and gooble as little more than superficial differences -- like the dorsal arm or eyes in the back of your head. Your scenario is one of substitution, however, in which joy and sorrow, anger and fear, disgust and surprise are entirely meaningless terms to a posthuman, since that posthuman has replaced this affective skeleton wholesale with yamma, gooble, et al..

I describe this as autism and psychopathy not in the sense that posthumans will fit the exact profile of these pathologies, but rather because we're talking about an inability to relate, about incomprehension of and obliviousness to normal social mechanisms of communication, about the inability to relate empathically to human beings. This is pretty definitional in your argument, it seems to me. If the posthumans don't become alienated from us to the point of not being able to apply Theory of Mind and empathy to us, then they'll still be able to appreciate our literature. If the posthumans can't appreciate our literature because they can't relate to us, they will be by definition dissociated. And either they can get by without a concept of empathy because they can play by our rules without actually "getting" them (like the majority of psychopaths whose lack of empathy makes them good businessmen rather than murderous monsters) or they work by their own rules, with ours incomprehensible to them (basically autistic to a greater or lesser extent, in terms of how dysfunctional the clash of rules renders them)

A transhuman who doesn't get our obsolete affect is hardly going to be the life and soul of the party. In the infinite malleability of neuroplasty you envision, they wouldn't even be the life and soul of a transhuman party. Why should Sally, with her yamma and gooble, be able to relate to Dave, with his freck and guyter, any more than she can relate to us, with our wonder and horror? And won't Dave's customers, human and transhuman, just start edging towards the door after he starts frubbling at them every time they try to tell him how yutfich he makes them feel, what with the badger for a hand and all?

So...

We agree that the technologization of the brain will lead to drastically transformed psychologies.

No. You offer no real reason why one would be motivated to transform oneself so drastically as to become an autistic psychopath, simply asserting that we'll all do so because it will be possible. Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! Get your gooble and your yamma right here in a two-for-one deal! And every customer gets a free lobotomy! Yes, sir, we'll rip everything you care about right out of you and put you back together with a whole new set of entirely new affects! Will they mean anything to you? We don't know! Will you be able to relate to anyone areound you? Not a chance! But you know it's inevitable, don't you? And hey, while we're at it, how about a badger for a hand?

If you're going to predict a worldwide age of people with badgers for hands, it's not on me to prove the negative, that, no, in fact, badgers for hands aren't inevitable, or badgers for hands aren't possible; it's your grandiose proclamation, your wild speculation. You're the one who needs to justify the plausibility of this mass lemming-like leap into transhumanity with potential motivations for uptake -- universal uptake no less. And every example you use of potential motivations behind uptake, in fact, requires the ongoing existence of a psychology of desire and power that remains deeply human. The whole scenario just doesn't hold together. I mean, this:

... wherever there's desire, there's markets, and there's few things people pin more desires on than themselves.

... utterly contradicts with the end of desire as we know it in the end of affect as we know it in the end of humanity as we know it. If we keep desire, we're back to extension rather than subsititution, back to posthumans who understand what it is to want, to need and all the integrated affect system that goes with desire. If we lose desire though, you lose all the market forces that drive the end of humanity.

You posit aversion to fear and suffering, desire for attention, desire fro religious rapture, greed for status, even military and political power-hunger as driving factors in the uptake of a technology which renders such market forces unexploitable, a technology which makes itself functionless, instantly obsolete. As long as the market is commodifying neuroplasty it's not going to be writing desire out of the equation. The market needs desire. It needs demand. It needs need. And I sincerely doubt that it could actually function without the rest of the affective buttons that go along with it. You really think the market's going to lose its grip on pleasure as we all trot merrily off to get our brains rewired? The pleasure industry is where the action's at, as any good criminal knows -- drugs, prostitution, gambling, pornography. And neuroplasty will be next on that list, because joy and suffering are immensely lucrative.

And you can lay odds that the illicit neuroplasty will go hand-in-hand with sanitised, diluted and commodified legal forms. The media, religion, politics -- all of these systems trade in affect, exploit it, buy and sell it in the Big Market; they'll want their fingers in the pie. I'll give you even money that one of the first instances of neuroplasty will be ex-gay therapy by Christian quacks, that it'll be used to treat "normalise" people in the wider culture far more than it will ever be used to "transcend humanity". Affect is the power base of every institution worth shit in this world, and they're not going to let it slip out of their hands. I think any scenario which blithely assumes a Promethean firestorm that will engulf the world in that way is as naive as thinking freedom of information "inevitable" in China because, yeah, like, information wants to be free.

So...

We agree that there's likely no such thing as literary posterity.

No. No, we don't. Like Alison, mind you, I don't really much think of my own posterity, cause I'm going to be dust. What do I care? But like Alison, I see no reason why we'd all excise curiosity, interest, in our selves, our identities, our histories, our cultural heritage. For what? The neurological equivalent of a badger for a hand?

3:37 am  
Anonymous Scott Bakker said...

We'll have to have this conversation again when we're old, senescent men.

In the meantime, I'm having a hard time seeing your arguments beyond the straw you're stuffing into mine! I've explicitly stated what kinds of continuity I'm assuming - science and markets - so its not really cricket to suggest I'm contradicting myself. I've never suggested that anything I've mentioned is certain - I've been at pains to qualify, in fact. I've never posited total incommensurability between us and our 22nd century descendents. That's certainly a possibility, but I think it far more likely our literary insights will just seem primitive, childish, and/or irrelevant. And lastly, you seem to be drawing an awful lot of water from the 'you're-just-another-alarmist' trough. Are you really denying that our species is entering some absolutely unprecedented (and therefore perilous) phase of its history? If not, then shouldn't you welcome these kinds of arguments, if only because they get people thinking about the future?

It's simply a fact that the sciences are undergoing what I earlier called a 'full-spectrum revolution.' It's simply a fact that what the sciences render manipulable, the markets manipulate if there's profit to be had. Otherwise, emotions aren't the skeleton, our neurophysiology is, and as neuropathology shows us, minor changes at that level generate profound, profound changes in experience: path dependency in no way entails the kind of continuity you suggest when it comes to the brain and experience.

As for the 'socio-cultural functionality' of yamma and gooble, like I said earlier, that strikes me as a 'horseless carriage' argument - "I don't see a role for it now, so there's likely no role for it in the future." And yet, you know as well as I do that "more-more-more!" is the mantra of the market, and what's functional and what isn't can never be settled beforehand - look at the Arpanet. I'm just saying that odds are some 'yamma or gooble' will likely prove functional, even if others will not. Your claim that they are ' intrinsically functionless ' is implausibly strong, given that functionality is always... er, a function of contexts, which is to say, out and out extrinsic ), and the radical transformation of contexts is the very thing at issue. Again, all I'm assuming is the market: the law of averages implies that some yammas and goobles will find their way to functionality, and that this will compound over time. My argument for this is amply reinforced by all the myriad ways in which our stone-age brains are maladapted for modern mass social environments. This suggests the strong likelihood of near universal take-up, because, once again, of the competitive nature of markets. We're not talking about 'badgers for hands,' but computers for brains - you really don't think the latter will confer competitive advantages?

As for potential cultural prohibitions, they're entirely possible - hell, they're precisely what I'm lobbying for - but when it comes to markets and their ability to rewrite norms, I'm guessing I'm much more pessimistic than you.

As for "shared psychology would remain, with bolted-on yamma and gooble as little more than superficial differences" - this seems to presume that emotions are discrete, doesn't it? I had thought we agreed that they were differential. If experience is differential...

But to come back to the nub - the question of posterity and the socially conscientious writer - the thing I'm most interested in discussing with you! The stuff above, I've been thinking about and haphazardly amending and researching for quite some time, but with this question vexes me... Consider: right now I'm reading Updike's Rabbit novels, and loving it actually, even though I'm convinced that the aesthetic sensibilities underwriting it - I'm thinking of the tyranny of the mundane in particular - have had disastrous cultural consequences.

The thing is, no one, aside from the insane perhaps, ever writes 'for the page,' as DeLillo puts it. First, because everything we think or do is socially mediated. Second, because words without readers aren't words at all, simply marks of paper. Pages have no perspectives, people do. So if all writing is for people, which people should be written to? (1) The people who pay the bills? (2) The people who write reviews? (3) The people who preach to classrooms? (4) People who need to be written to?

(Keep in mind I don't see any of these as monlithic, let alone essential, categories, but rather as pragmatic schematizations)

Go to most online writing workshops and (1) will likely be the most common answer. Go to a literary book festival, and (2) and (3) may not be the most common answer, but there's grounds to suspect it's the honest one. Go to places like Zimbabwe and (4) will likely be the answer (I was actually accosted by a women when I was in London this summer who pleaded with me to start writing about Mugabe).

Now I think that people who claim to be writing about 'eternal human truths' are actually writing for (2) and (3) in the guise of writing for (4), using posterity to accomodate the fact that most of those who are socialized enough to appreciate their aesthetic values are unlikely to be challenged by their social, political, or philosophical values.

I say this cautiously because of the conflagration that erupted when I suggested this on Jeff's blog a ways back. This is simply something I'm interested in exploring. For me, it's a dilemma because although I'm overjoyed at the success of The Prince of Nothing and the crazed assortment of readers it has garnered, I think I failed by making it too 'literary' - and so alienating many of the very readers who I most want to reach. I'm quite serious about doing my bit to undo the damage the 20th century literary establishment has done to our culture, and the anti-intellectualism that is its inheritance. And I see the tensions between the paraliterati and commercial readers in genre as a microcosmic example of this.

Even if you grant me half of my 'alarmist' argument, you have to admit that so many people actually believing in the possibility of univocal interpretations of anything, let alone campaign messages or ancient scriptural texts, is nothing short of terrifying.

It is a psychological fact that we become more fascistic in our outlook when we feel threatened. It's also a psychological fact that we are generally threatened by change. It's an empirical fact that we are entering a period of radical transformation (we may not agree with how radical, but we agree it will be radical). Since the future has become Other to us, we need more than ever to write for the Other, if only to blunt our own fascistic reflexes.

I know this isn't horribly clear, but like I say, I'm still trying to sort it all out.

scott/

2:56 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Fair enough. I was reading your argument as a syllogism of "inevitabilities" which sounded pretty absolute, so we can probably agree to disagree over the likelihood of various contingencies and, yes, come back to this when we're old, sensecent men, one of us muttering "I told you so," to the other, or both of us being completely wrong. I'm more interested in the issue of the socially conscious writer myself, anyway, rather than a back-and-forth of predictions.

So... I'm not sure that posterity will end, but I'm not sure that matters in terms of the discussion. Way, I'd put it is, when you say:

...our literary insights will just seem primitive, childish, and/or irrelevant.

I'm not sure "insights" are actually what it's all about. I think this is a sort of "philosopher's" way of reading, reading-for-theme, the complement of the "philistine's" way of reading, reading-for-plot, both of which I'm actually quite suspicious of. (My "Strange Sentences" essay deals largely with this dubiety as regards reading aimed at gleaning for content.)

See, I tend to believe that all the real "human truths" are banal. They are primitive, childish and/or irrelevant. They boil down to statements as simple as "people die". So I see writing as far more focused on the sort of enactment Alison talks about. To that extent, we're looking at drama, complexities of tensions, and I think those complexities don't have to be parsed to be interesting as complexities. There's some ancient myth which is all but unparseable, I think.

Still, I think those complexities can be and are constantly remapped. The drama we get reading The Oresteia is not the same drama its viewers got watching it first performed, because there's a level of incommensurability due to cultural differences (we don't think in terms of miasma). The warrior ethic of The Iliad is as alien to us as Bushido in many ways (not knowing the tradition of the victor taking spoils, we might well see Hektor's stripping of the armour from Patroklus as a shockingly dishonourable act). That's partly why I'm interested in combinations of strict translation and free adaptation, because I think we actually have layer upon layer of projected meaning which is more interesting than any original "insight", long-since palimpsested by time.

In a way this is as much in line with your denial of posterity as it is an inversion of it. I think our scribblings have the potential to survive and be meaningful in their complexity, but theme is an artefact the reader constructs from that complexity, so any particular "insight" we think we're coding into that text is likely to be lost in the shift of context -- with likelihood of loss increasing over time with the distance of the shift. I'm willing to suppose for the sake of argument an unprecedented and unpredictable extreme cultural shift that would render our "insights" all but meaningless.

But... I think the mere complexities will still make them interesting. There will pre-postanthropologists, I suspect, who'll be as interested as some of us are in cave-paintings or bonobo social behaviour. And, of course, in the age of extreme neuroplasty shouldn't they be able to get their brains tweaked for a day or two into the obsolete mode, run a pre-posthuman emulator subself in their psyche so as to understand where we were coming from? Seems to me like the archaeologists of the future might well be in a better position with our work than we are with regards to, say, the cave-paintings of Lascaux. And who's to say that the artists with access to the same information as the archaeologists won't value the "primitive" and "childish" scrawls of the ancients, responding to them as Picasso responded to Lascaux?

Computers for brains but no megasquilliongoogleplex storage, no wikipedian data-access, no decryption/translation software for the way other minds work? Surely all that will be at your badgertips (sorry) in the age of neuroplasty?

What I think you'll find is the survival of enough information that some terribly famous (or entirely obscure) contemporary might well become the future equivalent of Enheduanna, forgotten utterly for millennia, the subject of interest for a few archaeologists, and certainly not by any means with a "posterity" like Homer's, but nevertheless rediscovered and rediscoverable for any who care to grub about in the dust of the past. And I'm not convinced we won't care to grub about in the past in an age of extreme neuroplasty, where we can care about anything we decide to.

But so what? I don't see posterity dying, but does it matter if it does or not? We're gonna be dead and dust ourselves, so we won't know and we won't care. But the real issue you seem to be wanting to tackle is posterity as a motivation for writing, yes? Which is to say, respect. Is this really about whether the text will survive and be interpretable, or is it about posterity as a smokescreen for status, and therefore a question of the socio-political writer here and now?

I think it's the latter, and don't worry -- I'm up for discussion on this matter. I happen to disagree on your "end of posterity" argument, but I think the issue of who or what one is writing for is worth exploring in its own right.

I'll come back to you with my thoughts on writing "for the page" or "for people", though. Gotta sign off for now.

6:23 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

OK, so:

So if all writing is for people, which people should be written to? (1) The people who pay the bills? (2) The people who write reviews? (3) The people who preach to classrooms? (4) People who need to be written to?

I think there's some tweaking we need to do to reshape that question. Firstly, I think there's a separate issue of purpose of writing and target audience, which comes clear when you think of one possibility you've missed: (0) Yourself? I'm not going to argue this as who we should be writing for, but I think it's important to consider writing as a way to read an unwritten story you'd really like to read. Many writers start off writing for the fun of it, as kids, I'd suspect, as a hobby, as an imaginative escape. I know my first "writing" was stories I used to make up as I lay in bed trying to get to sleep. They used to start with "Once upon a time there was a boy called Jack," I shit you not, then transformed through various names cribbed from favourite works to "Once upon a time there was a boy called Flash" (I was a huge fan of those old Flash Gordon serials) . Apply that as you will to my present writing, with its recurrent character of Jack Flash.

Through adolescent or simply early writing, I think, this is a basic underlying purpose, driven by the same desire for narrative that drives our reading. It develops into a love of writing as writing, a pleasure in the pay-offs available in writing, shaped by and shaping our taste in reading, as we grow our own aesthetics, our own tastes. I think it's possible to honestly, sincerely hold to this as a purpose. I understand Delany says something along those lines, that he basically writes the sort of stories he wants to read but can't find on the shelves. I get that attitude and I identify with it pretty strongly.

A follow-on from that gives us, I think, the source of that "writing for the page" idea, which I don't think is as meaningless as you paint it. Maybe it's a metaphor, like Michelangelo talking about "uncovering" the statue already in the stone, but I think it's a good metaphor, one that we can unpack. The way I see it, the "writing for yourself" purpose can lead to a dissociative, explorative state, one where you're trying to discover exactly what it is you want to say in the act of saying it. For me, with TBoAH it was actually rather like the book itself was some sort of entity lodged in the back of my head and demanding access to reality. That's where the theme of living language in the form of the Cant and bitmites comes from. I feel like my writing process involves a lot of unconscious evolution, the parallel processing of a splintered-off submind going about its business of figuring things out while I can just be sitting staring at the white screen of despair.

I think this relates to all those airy notions of inspiration or art for art's sake. They may sound pretentious but I think that's just a bad rep that comes from too many ponces playing the poet badly. Hell, I find myself appealling to the Muses in a lot of poetry, invoking Apollo or Dionysus, talking of (or even for) Death, treating stories like those of Tammuz or Inanna in VELLUM as being written for those forgotten gods. The "page" is, I think, a symbolic placeholder for the subject, so "writing for the page" becomes about being true to that subject, as if one were to write a biography of someone history had done disservice to, deeply conscientious of one's responsibility to do justice to the material.

In my use of Matthew Shepard's murder in VELLUM, that imperative, having a very real person as its subject, had to over-ride any other, to my mind, had to be a predominant purpose privileged over all others. Ethically, it's deeply important to me not to treat such material as mere means to an end, writing for (0) my own enjoyment, (1) commercial success, (2) critical kudos, (3) academic kudos, or (4) socio-political effect. Even with the last option, for all that I think the political possibilities of fiction are profound and persuasive -- because, Christ knows, even if confronting prejudice in that way doesn't have much effect in the big scheme of things, at least it might give some gay kid, somewhere out there, a story that they can fucking relate to, a glimmer of light in the fact that they're not entirely and utterly alone -- I felt it was essential not to allow myself to exploit Shepard's death simply to preach my own message. I'm distinctly conscious of the fact that his parents might resent my use, find it objectionable, especially given the anti-religious drive. Somewhere upthread you mention a possible maxim of "effect over honesty, unless you can have both." For me, in that faerie chapter, that must be reversed. My ethics utterly rebel against the idea of anything less than the total commitment required to do one's best in not letting sensationalism or intellectualism render the work a cheap and shallow insult to a very real individual.

Anyway, even where the subject is fictional, where the material is complete invention, I think a similar purpose can come into play. In terms of target, you get a fifth possibility: (5) writing for anyone who will read the stories that want to be told. That's my personal take on it. It's a notion of writing as, I suppose, a channelling of sorts. There's a risk of it sounding horribly self-important, and given the posturing of poets and preachers through the ages we're probably quite right to distrust anyone who claims success in this approach. And, you know, there probably is a little bit of insanity to it, a schizoid sundering of the writer from the work, the latter viewed as this demanding, uncompromising entity with its own intent. Given what you've said elsewhere about our imputing intent where it doesn't exist, this should make sense to you though -- writing "for the page" as a projection of agency onto the work itself.

Of course, the risk you run with this approach is simply not connecting with anyone, being met with blank incomprehension. You focus on writing the stories that "want" to be told, for anyone who will read them, and you may well find that anyone equals no one. That doesn't mean it's not a valid choice, and it doesn't mean there's not anyone who takes that choice. And, of course, if you do take that choice, there's a common response that often goes hand-in-hand with blank comprehension, that you're really writing for a mixture of (2) and (3), that you really just want the approval of the literati. The implication of that, that you're being dishonest or self-deluding, a liar or a fool, as regards your own motivations and that, further, your motivations are basically venal self-gratification is a profound insult, and highly presumptious in its projection of "true" intent.

The insult is compounded by the fact that a self-aware writer who takes this approach will often be deeply conscious of the fact that anyone could equal no one. In making that choice, they may well have made a quite serious decision that they don't give a flying fuck about either the Populists or the Elitists. They may well expect those critics and academics to not "get it", because they recognise all too well the ivory towers are full to the rafters with intellectualist horseshit. And so they've been working away for years, decades, expecting zero kudos and zero cash, but carrying on because this bloody idea just won't let go, only to be derided as shallow egoists, sycophants crawling to their lords and masters for approval. At least, so it seems in the blogosphere of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Boom! Spark in a powderkeg, that is.

But, OK, that's an extension of your schema focusing on purpose. Where does that leave us with respect to targeting, if you're also conscious of a socio-political role, aware of the fact that anyone might be no one, but also aware that you'd really rather like it to be more than that, that even with a "channelling" approach of writing "for the page" you can maybe at least direct the output?

I'll mull over this a bit more and, again, get back to you.

9:55 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

OK... from purpose to targeting.

As I see it, we've got the six (as you say, non-monolithic) targets you can have in terms of who you're writing for, basically: (0) yourself; (1) the commercial audience; (2) the critics; (3) the academics; (4) "the people who need to be written to"; (5) "anyone who will read the story that wants to be told".

We can, I think, make a rough association of purposes, where (0) is about pleasure, (1) is about cash (though I'll bring in a caveat in a second here), (2) and (3) are about kudos, (4) is about ethics, and (5) is about aesthetics. We're writing for fun, for money, for acclaim, for socio-political reasons, or for aesthetic reasons.

I'd suggest we can break (4) down a little more, look at how the "why" of the need defines the "who" of the audience. In the example you give of being urged to write about Zimbabwe there's an idea that an untold story has to be made clear to, I'd guess, "the Western world" or "the public". That those who don't know and don't care need to be targeted so they do know, do care. There's also a certain unconscious focus on the privileged here, I think, because naturally it's those nice, educated, middle-class folks who one should target, emblematic as they are of enlightened liberalism. That seems to me to have a reflection in your approach -- if I'm reading you right -- in the criticism that it's no good preaching to the choir, who already know and already care, and for whom, therefore, this approach can be little more than vanity. What you want to be doing is reaching out to the widest possible market, hitting the readers who're outside the choir, the Other as you call it.

Where you see (4) as potentially a smokescreen for a combination of (2) and (3), though, I wonder if there isn't also a wider audience that's not "literati" in that contributing, writing, officiating sense, but rather "intelligentsia" in terms of what they read and how they read it? Could we talk of a "literary class" here? Or, in a similar terminology to (1), the "literary audience"? Cause I reckon there's an aspect of the choir that's as much about the readership's age and class as it is about literary "authorities".

This is where the caveat comes in, because writing for a commercial audience as a target doesn't mean you're simply writing for "the people who pay the bills" with the money as a purpose. Hell, writing for a literary audience doesn't mean you're not writing for the people who're paying the bills -- it's just that you're tapping a "high-end" niche to do so. Further, writing for that commercial audience, it might well be the acclaim of the fans that really thrills you, the money being an appreciated by-product but not the primary motivator. More importantly, why should it be about cash or kudos at all? Writing for the commercial market could be an ethical decision -- about consciously trying to reach beyond the choir. I'll come back to this.

I think this notion of the choir can also be taken apart a bit. You bring up online writing workshops as focusing on (1). From my own experience at the GSFWC, (a face-to-face workshopping group) I think this is true. The GSFWC is very much focused on getting work up to a standard for professional publication, and one of the things I've always liked about it is there's little hierarchisation of form. If a work is deeply generic, solidly commercial to the extent of utter conventionality, well, you critique it on that basis. You try and make it achieve its intent the best it can, not change its intent.

But there's also an element of writing-for-kudos that comes into play. In such circumstances, over time, approval becomes a factor. The respect of others acts as positive reinforcement, an influence on what you write and how you write it. As I say, I reckon most people start out just writing for the fun of it, writing as a hobby, basically, and that develops into writing for the work as a thing in its own right, writing as a craft. I think there's also a transition along the way, where you start actually thinking about it properly as communication. Good marks for some composition in school might lead you to show an English teacher some story. Maybe you show your work to friends or family, or post it online. Maybe you just start submitting to magazines. Sooner or later, as you get more into the idea of writing, the fact that writing is meant to be read is likely to add an extra layer of motivation to those initial simple purposes. So sooner or later the glamour of fame and fortune, cash and kudos, is likely to have some effect on you. If you think you're good enough at your craft to get payback for it, damn right you're going to want it.

To my mind neither of these motives are Terrible Evils. It's only natural to want cash and kudos, foolish to imagine that desire doesn't influence your writing. As sole motives they both seem pretty shallow to me, though, the extremes I label as "philistine" and "philosopher", Populism and Elitism in their worst senses. Mostly, I reckon, the truth is they play off against each other and the underlying hobby/craft motivation tends to result in a variant of (0), writing for a wider "you" in terms of social group (defined by class, gender, sexuality, politics, subculture, and so on). Again this is only natural. If you're writing the type of fiction you'd like to read, of course you're going to be writing for the people who share your aesthetics. And ethics is just, I'd say, the aesthetics of social interaction and politics the ethics of power, so that wider you is going to tend to be simpatico on those levels too -- hence you end up writing for the choir.

I suspect that (4) is more commonly a smokescreen for this than it is for (2) and (3). Or not so much a smokescreen as a well-meaning but blinkered idea, that one is acting ethically in using writing as a socio-political arena, which fails to take into account the insubtantiality of effect when your audience is already simpatico. That's the real problem with "preaching to the choir" as I see it. I mean, the dilemma you identify with your own work -- if you reckon you alienated some of the readers you wanted most to reach by making PoN too "literary"... isn't that just your own aesthetics pushing it more towards the book you (and, by extension, your "choir") want to read... rather than a hunger for kudos from the critics and academics pushing it towards the book you think they want to read?

I think many of those "tensions between the paraliterati and commercial readers in genre" are actually part of a wider set of tensions between subgenres and aesthetics as separate "choirs" each battling for territory but using different rhetorical weapons. Think of the tensions between "Hard SF" and "Science Fantasy", "Genre SF" and "Fantasy", "Mundane SF" and "Space Opera", "Epic Fantasy" and "New Weird", "Science Fiction" and "Slipstream". Each of these has its own choir. There's big overlaps though and a shared territory, so what you end up with is the old argument about what's "real" SF or "real" Fantasy, what's "good" and what's "bad". I see the critical-versus-commercial tension as coming out of two different choirs trying to outsing each other in the same church, so to speak.

My outlook is pretty much (5) more than anything else but I have no problem with those who apply other outlooks... unless they're wankers about it. If you're just writing for the fun or the craft, I'm not going to rain on your parade. If you're writing for a small choir of kindred spirits -- as you see in, say, fanfiction -- fair enough. If you're writing junk fiction for cold hard cash or haute literature for high-end kudos, that's your choice. I can't be doing with the prescriptivist "philistines and philosophers", the Populists and the Elitists as idealogues, but generally speaking it's each to their own.

But I'm not unlike yourself in the sense that ethics comes into play in terms of targeting. There's a strong socio-political component to the work, so there's an element of (4) that goes along with that, an easy step from "the story that wants to be told" to the "people that need to be written to". And I'm aware that the default state is to write for the choir, which in my case is likely to be the educated, liberal "literary audience" who read the same poncy stuff I do. But where you're looking to reach beyond, revise the notion of who actually matters, I come at it from a different angle. I'm more interested in the people that need to be written, period, and it's them I want to reach more than that choir of intelligentsia who'll appreciate the earnest ethics of tackling this or that issue, and more, for that matter, than the wider commercial audience outside that choir. Where you're trying to write for the Other, I'm trying to write for the Othered, to give them a story that has them in it and central to it, as more than a marginalised and stereotyped token.

To do so does mean reaching beyond the choir for me as well, though, in terms of class and age, education and "intelligence" -- to the queer teenager, for example, living on a housing scheme, dogging off school, whose literary horizons, you might think, are not going to extend to my "poncy literary Cubist malarkey". A good solid bit of pulp though -- angels and demons, ancient mysteries, exploding airships -- who doesn't like that? That's where I'm big on trying to make my work as immediate and engaging as possible, a real fucking trip, riffing off movies and comics. I suppose my version of your dilemma would be whether I can use that sort of "cool shit" to draw in readers beyond the choir without losing the complexity that risks alienating those readers. Because I think losing that complexity can and does prevent you from properly writing for the Othered.

(I just finished The Darkness That Comes Before and, knowing some of how the rest of the story plays out, one way you could have been less "literary" would have been to simplify Cnaiur's sexuality. I'm sure losing the complexity would have meant less alienated readers, but I'm glad you had the cojones to go for the more subtle, the more "literary" approach, cause to excise the complexities would have meant yet another popular fantasy book with no place for the Othered. And with the approach you took I think it's impossible not to alienate a certain portion of your potential audience.)

Anyway, so my take on my own version of the dilemma is I think it's possible to keep the complexity and not narrow your audience too much. While The Book of All Hours is pretty fucking crazy in terms of style and structure it seems that's not been as alienating as I expected. I had one reader who told me he was reading it outside one day when a ned came up to him -- "ned" being Scots for... um... think as disenfranchised as you can get -- the juvenile delinquents from our equivalent of the projects, shell-suited gangs into Buckfast and hard drugs, petty theft and hassling strangers, the type of person that is to your average SF/Fantasy reader as a hyena is to a gazelle. But rather than hassle, this ned is just coming over to say, "Haw, a'right rere, big man, by ra way. Ah'm fuckin readin that juss now!" or words to that effect. If I remember right, there was some appreciation expressed for how "fucked up" the book was. The ned wasn't put-off by the fucked-upness as "poncy literary shit"; he just saw it as a head-fuck, a trip. Which works for me. Point is, there are plenty of "couldn't get past page 100" Amazon reviews for Vellum, but judging from emails and letters I've got it's actually reached much further beyond the choir than I hoped.

Even in terms of the choir, as a bolshie trouble-maker who identifies more as queer ("yeah, I'm abnormal; fucking deal with it") than as gay ("homosexuality is normal; let's all be friends") a choir which is predominantly straight might well be less in harmony with me than they think they are. There's plenty of complacency and complicity and just plain idiocy among the educated, liberal "literary audience" who read the same poncy stuff I do. Not much in the way of bona fide bigotry, of course, but you get the platitudinous PCisms and the sympathetic stereotypes and the ignorant fetishisations. I might be preaching to the choir, but it's as a heathen by definition, being queer, as one of the Othered (by my own stubborn volition, of course; I'm just thrawn).

So that's I guess, my take on the whole question of who one should be writing for. It's entirely personal and shaped partly by my own identification as queer. It's even similarly "ideological" to your own in some ways, I suspect, but with a different set of goals and strategies.

Anyhoo, I'll leave it there, as this is already, once again, ridiculously long.

6:33 am  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

Actually, in The Prince of Nothing, Achamian is also somewhat sexually ambiguous, at least in terms of affection. The strength of his reaction to Inrau's death, apart from his guilt, comes from his love for him. It is entirely possible to read it as though there were an unspoken physical relationship (I know, because I've read it several times with that interpretation).

Kind of an easter egg for gay geeks. (Thanks, Scott!) :)

Continuing with gratuitous sex talk, can I just say as a reader and neophyte writer, watching Hal and Scott (the two smartest writers I've read) argue is the equivalent to me of a wet dream (okay, without the whip-wielding prison guards that normally feature in my unconscious nocturnal fantasies) and it should be repeated, as often and as soon as possible.

11:11 am  

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