Notes from New Sodom

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

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Lookee, lookee, how the next issue of Interzone is a special Hal Duncan Issue 25th Anniversary Issue, with a novella by ME and an interview with ME. Hoorah!

And, lookee, lookee, at the nice Agony Column review of INK where some very nice things are said, indeed, like...

Put aside your pre-occupations, and prepare to focus your attention. Hal Duncan's 'Ink' is here to articulate the ineffable, to build with words worlds that cannot otherwise be imagined. It's not simply future this or fantasy that. Duncan operates well beyond the confines of genre fiction even as he skillfully deploys the tools of genre fiction. So you will find future this in 'Ink'. You will see fantasy that. But they're just beads on a string, words in a sentence, even though each "word" itself may consist of thousands of words. So yes, 'Ink' is a big book of Big Thinks. Only in such a form can a writer provide the sort of deep and intense reading pleasures that one will find in 'Ink'.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Hugo Eligibility

Since a few folk have emailed to double-check (or, having double-checked, emailed to suggest I publicise the fact) -- yes, apparently Vellum's April 2006 US release makes it still eligible for the rocket-ship this year. So if ye wanna nominate it, go ahead. And if ye don't, don't. (There's not a hope in hell of it winning, so if it's not on the ballot, hey, I don't have to spend lots of money I probably can't afford going to Tokyo (because there's sod all chance of me missing out on a Worldcon where I was up for a Hugo.))

As you were.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Latest Teacup Tempest

Elitism, escapism, world-building, blah blah blah. I've had my head down in terms of forums and blog-brouhahs, but I finally noticed the latest ripple of ructions via the Lotus Lyceum. There's a lot of, um, passion being thrown about, which is a good thing -- it's nice to know people give a fuck -- but to be honest, I think a lot of the argument involves people talking at cross-purposes, people defending something that they think others are attacking, attacking something that they think others are defending, people saying that they're not attacking / defending something in the way that other people think they are, but actually attacking / defending something else entirely, something which is worth attacking / defending... as opposed to what other people "seem to be" defending / attacking and so on, and on, and on, and on, and ever on, like the last one million pages of climbing up a fucking mountain at the end of Tolkien's Lordy-Lordy-Massuh-Ah's-Ah-Gonna-Carry-You-Massuh-Frodo of the Rings.


Oh, right. Where was I?

Yeah, so in all this teacup tempest, with people attacking / defending, in particular, elitism, escapism and worldbuilding, what comes through loud and clear is that we have a lot of different ideas of what those terms mean. So, in the interest of laying out me own way of thinking about such things, I thought I'd just throw a definition in and follow through the ramifications to see where it takes us.



From the word elite. Question: what's an elite? Answer: a small group of the select few in a certain field, segregated out from their fellows on the basis of superiority and accorded a privileged status. That's pretty straightforward, right? But it begs another set of questions: what kind of an elite do you get in writing? How small is the group? How is the selection made? How is the segregation established? On what basis is superiority judged? What kind of privileged status does membership of that elite confer?

The reality is that there's at least two existing elites in genre -- the "writer's writers" (e.g. M. John Harrison) and the "publisher's writers" (e.g. Anne Rice) -- where superiority is measured in terms of kudos or cash.

Note: Critics and readers, of course, play a large part in defining those elites by distributing kudos and cash respectively; to the extent that we might even talk about "critic's writers" and "reader's writers", but I think to do so would just confuse matters. Here's why:

First off, critics are just a subset of writers, really, and the kudos distribution system of the strange fiction community makes the system more of a network of peers than the hierarchy of the classic literary establishment where kudos is bestowed by academic / journalistic authorities. (Fandom's greatest gift to strange fiction writers, perhaps, is the foundation it provides for a level of contact unknown, I would suggest, in any other art form. SF writers form a global community in a way that, historically, only handfuls of closely located artists in particular movements can match -- the Impressionists, the Beats, groups lke that.) So we're still essentially talking about "writer's writers" when it comes to the "elite" of writers who have generated a high enough level of kudos to be considered the great rather than the good.

Meanwhile "reader's writers" and "publisher's writers" are pretty much identical by definition, since the publisher and the reader are just the two sides of the exchange mechanism whereby the status of a writer is measured in cash. It may seem prejudical to talk of "publisher's writers" rather than "reader's writers", unfairly suggesting hackdom by association with Business versus Art, but since we're talking about a system of selection, segregation and allocation of privileged status, it's the publishing industry that's of more importance here than the fan community, because this is where the actual mechanisms of the systems are. So "publisher's writers" is a better term, I'd say, when it comes to the "elite" of writers who have generated a high enough level of cash to be considered the great rather than the good.

Note finished. Point is, we have a critical elite and a commercial elite, the most respected writers (as signified in kudos) and the most popular (as signified in cash). A writer can, of course, be in both elites but we'll consider them as functionally separate; they work differently.

Yay or Nay?

So, is the existence of these elites a good thing or a bad thing?

That question really breaks down into a number of different questions: Is the limitation (to a small group) fair or unfair? Is the selection just or unjust? Is the segregation legitimate or illegitimate? Is the judgement of superiority founded or unfounded? What privileges come with the higher status? And for all of these, what benefits and what harms accrue?

Most of these have the same answers: any such system of selection and privileging can be unfair because any such system can be played; we see alliances and compromises -- compromises of integrity; favouritism and nepotism are inevitable; cliques and coteries evolve; struggles for status lead to back-stabbing; the deserving can be wrongly excluded for invalid reasons; elevating a few lowers the many in relation to them; it may even lead to the marginalisation of a "negative elite"; and so on.

Sometimes it's fair, however, because the kudos and cash is deserved. In fact, because those are measures of "deservingness", of worth, it's probably fair to a large degree. The process of selection and segregation, the limitation of this to a small group, the judgement of their superiority -- all of that is founded largely on the recognition that there are some who are just on a whole other level when it comes to generating kudos or cash. And there's only so far that system can be played before the unworthy demonstrate they just can't cut it.

The idea that many members of the "elite" don't actually deserve to be there is pretty much unsupportable with the commercial elite. When the bottom line is popularity measured in cash, the proof is in the pudding at the publisher's Christmas party. The same idea persists though in the opinions of many with regard to the critical elite. Where you can't argue with Anne Rice's commercial status, you can easily argue with the critical status of any number of respected writers, and this is quite common with readers who "can't see what the fuss is about".

The kudos distribution system (KDS) is, time and again, accused of corruption on all levels, with writer's blurbs, reviewer's criticisms, every possible avenue of kudos distribution, being interrogated for its integrity. The "intellectual" form of this is a suspicion that there's "a man behind the curtain", that the KDS has been infiltrated by commercial pressures; the kudos is being conferred falsely because a publisher is pulling strings. The "anti-intellectual" form is a suspicion that "the emperor has no clothes", that the KDS has been usurped by social aspirations; the kudos is being conferred falsely because a writer or critic wants to be seen to be conferring kudos on the flavour of the month. Either way, the suspicion is that the kudos conferred on a writer -- or rather on their work -- is largely or even wholly unwarranted hype.

Bribes and Bandwagons

Both suspicions have more than a hint of the conspiracy theory -- which is not to say that they are intrinsically baseless, just that they require conspiracy within the system. It would be naive to imagine that publishers don't do their damnedest to garner kudos for a book -- a feature review, a blurb from a major author, front-of-store placement. And it would be naive to imagine that writers and critics are entirely unmoved by social pressures -- catching the buzz, jumping on the bandwagon, pimping books by friends. However, the idea that the kudos distribution system can be corrupted such that all or even the majority of a work's kudos is actually unwarranted hype born of bribes and bandwagons is just as naive. Publishers are gamblers and they won't put good money on a lame nag. Writers (critics included) are after-dinner speakers and their career rests on having something individual to say.

Let's get real here. For the most part, if that publisher is pulling any strings to get kudos, it's because an editor got a book they thought was fucking good. It's because that editor thought it was good enough to put their ass on the line for. It's because they fought tooth and nail to persuade their superiors it was saleable even though it's not using a shoo-in formula. It's because they got the money men and marketing department on side by persuading them who it could be sold to, maybe even how. Remember, we're talking about kudos here, not cash, critical rather than commercial success. That's not just the usual PR push for the next would-be, could-be blockbuster bestseller. That's the high-risk investment of trying to get the word out about a potential cult classic. That's where PR can get you nowhere at all or, worse still, backfire completely either because it creates a misperception of the book as commercial (i.e. populist) fiction (which leads to disappointed expectations) or because it generates that exact suspicion of the kudos all actually being unwarranted hype (which leads to hostility and high expectations). The sheer risk of that kind of investment says a hell of a lot more for the editor and the publisher than it says against the KDS.

As for the literati, the cognoscenti, the reality is that any blurb on a book that someone, somewhere, deems bad is a notch off your reputation with that reader. Any insult aimed at a writer you consider awful is one less sale of your own book to some avid fan of that writer. Writers share aims and interests, theories on how it should be done and how it shouldn't be done, and, whether it's through magazines or movements, you do get factions emerging where groups of writers, loose or cohesive, advocate this form of story, berate another. But that's the dynamics of passions, where writers are dumb enough to risk pissing off the world because they honestly believe in what they're saying. We know that the deeper we are into the KDS, the more we rant and rave, throwing kudos like blathering fools or throwing shit like screeching monkeys, the more likely we are to make fools of ourselves and enemies as well as friends. And the strange fiction scene is so hostile to the notion of a literary establishment, so devoted to the ghetto guerilla mentality of genre, that to do so in the hope of gaining entry to some elite of SF cogniscenti, well, you'd have to be a fucking loon.

So if the conspiracy theories are unrealistic, where do they come from? Well, what exactly is the conspiracy theory here?

A Conspiracy of Charlatans

When we point at an acclaimed work and say that it's not worthy of acclaim, maybe even that it's worthy of disdain, that's not a conspiracy theory. When we say it's over-rated, hyped even, again that's not a conspiracy theory. But when we start to get into the "man behind the curtain" and the "emperor has no clothes" arguments, we enter into a conspiracy theory in which the KDS is a grand sham we have so cunningly seen through, a theory of how all those publishers and/or writers must be conspiring behind the scenes or in plain view to pull the wool over our eyes.

There is often, I think, a sort of insecure arrogance at the heart of these conspiracy theories, where the integrity of kudos is being challenged largely because one's own judgement of a writer's worth is so at odds with their status that simply not confering kudos oneself is insufficient. Even conferring negative kudos is insufficient. Rather, the disparity is such that one feels the need to challenge the very motivations of those who, by conferring kudos, have elevated a certain writer's work to an unacceptable level of acclaim. The kudos is just hype. There's a man behind the curtain. The emperor has no clothes. The arrogance lies in an assumption that one's own negative opinion is of such obvious and unquestionable validity that no contrary, which is to say positive, opinion could be honest. The insecurity rests in the notion that those contrary opinions are ascribable to a concerted force which constitutes a threat.

Which brings us back to the notion of the elite.

The intellectual projects their conspiracy theory into the Evil Forces of the "publishing industry". The anti-intellectual projects their conspiracy theory into the Evil Forces of the "literary establishment". We'll come back to the intellectuals later, because the anti-intellectual argument is more pertinent here as regards the critical elite. The accusation of elitism goes hand in hand with -- is, in fact, often a way of expressing -- the idea that writers and critics with the highest level of kudos are actually a conspiracy of charlatans, maintaining their status by mutual sycophancy and deceit. The elite that's being referred to here is an unworthy one, one where the process of selection and segregation has been perverted, where the limitation to a small group is for base motives, where the judgement of superiority is invalid.

Leaving aside the unrealistic notion that writers and critics risk careers to hype shit books, leaving aside the insecure arrogance of thinking that any kudos given to a book you thought was shit is really just unwarranted hype, leaving aside reality, and looking at the end results of simply having a critical elite, worthy or unworthy, the obvious question is: what good does it do one to be a member? Which is to say, forget the mechanisms of selection and so on, what great privileges come with the status that would lead one to play the game that way?

Privilege and Power

Actually this opens us up again to discussing the commercial elite too. The privileged status of being a "writer's writer" doesn't mean much more than being listened to when you hold forth about How It Is, on a panel or on the interwebs. The privileged status of being a "publisher's writer" means fuckloads of money and not getting pulled up over turgid prose, rambling plots and just plain bad writing. The former can lead to a lot of hot air while the latter can lead to a lot of crap fiction, but a critical elite can become the hothouse of new approaches while a commercial elite keeps the publishers afloat.

One thing that, I think, feeds into the notion of elitism in terms of SF cogniscenti is an erroneous equation with the cogniscenti of High Art, where the critical and commercial elite rather seem to be, often as not, one and the same. Success in High Art is both kudos and cash, the system of distribution for both -- the gallery -- pretty much ensuring that the most esteemed artists are also the one's earning the most money. It may be unfair of me, after my argument against the accusation of elitism in SF, to damn the art world as elitist in exactly that sense, but I do think the system is one in which hype works. In the high-end market of "connosseurs", Saatchi is an emperor, his every purchase bestowing as much kudos as cash, and with conceptual art his taste in clothing -- a field explicitly predicated on explication rather than execution -- the slick-talking tailor who can sell him his own birthday suit is just an artist who can justify his work at the champagne-soaked opening, with references, perhaps, from other cogniscenti -- creative, critical or commercial -- also deeply embedded in the social circuit of the invited great and good. But I may just be showing my own prejudice here. The point is really that even if this is true with High Art, it's a mistake to think that set-up transfers to the world of strange fiction, where the most acclaimed writer may well be on the midlist (if they have a publisher at all), and where the real power and privilige comes from selling like Dan Brown.

The privileged status of a writer in the critical elite amounts to little more than a right to be obstreporous and opinionated in and of itself. This seems to be generally frowned upon by opponents of "elitism" who are inevitably talking about the critical elite and who, equally inevitably, have little to say on the matter of the commercial elite. Funny enough, this tends to come out when members of the critical elite are obstreporous and opinionated about the works of members of the commercial elite particularly favoured by the opponents of elitism. Writer X refers to writer Y as a derivative hack churning out puerile drivel for the lowest common denominator. Reader Z calls writer X elitist. And probably jealous. Both may well be right. Writer Y is, in all likelihood, a derivative hack churning out puerile drivel for the lowest common denominator. Writer X is, in all likelihood, aware of his place in a critical elite and using the privileged status that gives him to freely express his aesthetic as an implicit (or even explicit) universal imperative (to not be a derivative hack who churns out puerile drivel for the lowest common denominator since this is not the "proper" way to write), to be, in short, elitist. Writer X is probably also, yes, a little irked at writer Y earning vastly more while writing shit.

What reader Z is failing to realise, though, is that they are happily supporting elitism (of the commercial variety) every time they buy a book by writer Y. Thankfully, while many reader Zs don't see this as elitism, they're quite capable of recognising its pernicous effects and posting scathing forum comments or Amazon reviews of writer Y's latest piece of shit when Y's privileged status as member of the commercial elite means their books aren't edited worth a damn and come out as unreadable dreck. Writer X finds this highly amusing. Writer X finds it even more amusing when writer Y replies to those reviews with wild ranting screeds proclaiming that reader Z is a moron who can't handle the cutting edge challenge -- nay, the sheer genius -- of Y's softcore vampire porn, which no editer would DARE to sully with the red pencil.

Sadly though, it seems, there are reader Zs who either continue buying Y's work in the hope of improvement or still inexplicably enjoy its unedited and unmitigated bastardisation of the novelistic art form. Sadly, it seems, there's enough of them to keep the Ys of the world not just in business but right up there in their position of power and privilege, a ruling member of the commercial elite.

One should point out here that where writer X's privileged status gives him the right to express his aesthetic as an imperative, writer X has no power whatsoever to enforce that imperative. Writer Y's privileged status, on the other hand, renders their aesthetic a very real influence on the publishing industry. Writer X's kudos-creation capacity might make an editor pay attention when X is talking on a panel. Writer Y's cash-creation capacity will affect that editor's purchasing decisions, not just with Y but throughout the slush pile -- because if Y sells big time, and A, B and C are doing exactly the same thing, in exactly the same way, to exactly the same ends, then A, B and C might also sell big time. D might be a damn sight better writer but if they're doing something utterly different then that editor may well have no chance persuading the money men that it's D they should go after, not A, B or C. Play this across three publishers and you might have A, B and C all with contracts, all of them derivative hacks churning out puerile drivel for the lowest common denominator, and D, the only decent writer among them, unpublished. Maybe neither A nor B nor C will actually sell at the same level as Y, but that's OK. We can't all be at the top. We can't all be in the select few, can we? That's what elitism is all about.

And who's to blame? Who's keeping that elitism running? Who's ensuring that every publisher is looking for their very own writer Y to churn out the derivative hackwork that sells by the bucketload? Who's giving the realest, most solid and measurable support to the commercial elite?

I'll give you a clue. It comes after Y in the alphabet. Y as in "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? " And it rhymes with "Please put a bullet in my head."

So, yes, it's fair to say that elites can be pernicious things, things we shouldn't support. But in strange fiction, the critical elite is relatively harmless, while that commerical elite is just plain Bad News.

Populism and Elitism

Is elitism just a matter of supporting an elite though? The question of power in the examples of writer X's imperative and writer Y's influence opens up a new question. Is it fair to call someone elitist just for their belief in the actuality of an elite and the legitimacy of according its members a privileged status? Or is elitism all that, but with an added belief that the privileges of the elite rightly include a higher level of power -- whether it's authority in the field of writers and critics or influence in the publishing industry? When we're talking about (critical or commercial) elitism, I'd say, we're actually often talking about more than the recognition of an elite. We're talking about the system of rule by elite.

At this point, I'm going to redefine my terms. The term "populism" is the more common label for commercial elitism, while "elitism" is almost always reserved for critical elitism, so from here on in those are the terms I'll use. Make no mistake however; populism is a form of elitism in its own right, every bit as much as that critical elitism the term is inextricably linked with, invariably narrowed down to.

Populism and elitism have two levels, I'd say, one where being "populist" or "elitist" simply means according higher status to writers who garner more cash or kudos, another where being "populist" or "elitist" means accepting those writers as authorities -- leaders in the field, arbitors of taste. In privileging the techniques and approaches of writers in those elites as How Writing Is Done populism and elitism can and often do become prescriptive, ideological. For the sake of clarity, I'm going to capitalise the prescriptive variants, like all good ideologies, as Populism and Elitism. Even at the lower level, the higher status becomes an aesthetic judgement of how writing can be done. It's not hard to see how populism and elitism become aesthetic judgements on accessability and difficulty, on the delivery of sensational and intellectual satisfaction as an aim in writing. At the lower level populism is about trying to communicate as widely as possible while elitism is about trying to communicate as deeply as possible. We can defend both populism and elitism on that basis. Both are principled approaches, aesthetic judgements of what you can do with writing, where there might be a conflict (when communicating deeply narrows the audience and communicating widely simplifies the writing), and which approach this writer or that wants to implement in this work or that. We need to distinguish this, however, from the prescriptivisms of Populism and Elitism, where wide communication and deep communication respectively are absolute imperatives.

An almost certain marker of this pescriptivism in action is the use of these terms as insults, the dismissal of an opponent's aesthetic as "populist" or "elitist" implicitly asserting the illegitimacy of that aesthetic, which is to say the exclusive legitimacy of one's own contrary Elitist or Populist ideology.

This is another factor, I think, in those accusations that there's a "man behind the curtain" or that the "emperor has no clothes". What is surfacing in both cases may be, I think, a certain anti-populism on the one hand, anti-elitism on the other, resulting from the ideological antagonism of Elitism and Populism. Maybe we need to review that off-hand dismissal of these conspiracy theories. While those theories are unrealistic, maybe it's not simply insecure arrogance at play but rather the factionalism of Elitists and Populists each deeply suspicious of the other faction's aesthetic and projecting their conflict into the domain of writing.

Which is to say, what Elitists are really worried about is that the arbitration of taste on pure grounds of quality might be sullied by Populism (or even just populism). People might actually be fooled into thinking that something which doesn't fit those standards is good just because a lot of plebs like it. People might think that How Writing Is Done is open to debate. What Populists are really worried about is that the arbitration of taste on obvious grounds of common sense might be sullied by Elitism (or even just elitism). People might actually be fooled into thinking that something which doesn't fit those standards is good just because a few ponces like it. People might think that How Writing Is Done is open to debate.

How Writing Is Done

For the prescriptivist in both camps How Writing Is Done is definitely not open to debate. What we have here, I think, are philosophers and philistines, each suspecting the evil influence, the pernicious powers, of the other, viewing them as ponce or pleb. What we have here, I think, is in fact the philosophers and philistines each attempting to assert their own personal aesthetic ideology of How Writing Is Done, justifying it with appeals to the authority of kudos or cash. Each becomes, at worst, the very thing their opponent is criticising.

The Elitist who cries out about the "man behind the curtain" is essentially asserting a valid hierarchy of right and wrong kudos distribution with them implicitly positioned in the upper tier. They are seeking to claim the legitimacy of the Elitists to dispense kudos "properly" in asserting the illegitimacy of kudos dispensed by others. The opinions of those plebs is deeply suspect, such that their hype must be validated by those in the upper tier, those who know How Writing Is Done.

The Populist who cries that "the emperor has no clothes" is essentially asserting an invalid hierarchy of right and wrong kudos distribution with them implicitly positioned in the lower tier but with values reversed. They are seeking to claim the legitimacy of the Populists to dispense kudos "properly" in asserting the illegitimacy of kudos dispensed by the critical elite. The opinion of those ponces is deeply suspect, such that their hype must be validated by those in the lower tier, those who know How Writing Is Done.

Populists and Elitists are both, here, claiming the objectivity of the judgement of superiority which selects and segregates the great from the good. In writing, craft is the basis of any judgment of superiority, craft being simply a matter of achieving an effect with one's writing,of being able to write a piece of text which carries out its function successfully. Where success or failure are not arbitrary judgements on the part of an illogically forgiving or demanding reader, there is, arguably, a level of objectivity to this judgement. A bad sentence is a bad sentence whether we forgive it or not. A tight plot is a tight plot whether it bores us or not. Sloppiness is sloppiness.

Since different writers often approach the same form of writing aiming to achieve different effects, and different readers often approach the same forms looking to find different effects, however, there is often disagreement between writers and writers, readers and readers, and writers and readers, with one person seeing another's judgement as arbitrary and illogical, and vice versa. Contrary judgements must then be argued with theories of function as justfification, theories of what effects are valid or invalid as identifiers of a particular form, of what effects are valid or invalid as aims for writers, valid or invalid as expectations of readers. In strange fiction this results in endless tired arguments over what an "SF" story should and shouldn't do.

These could be resolved simply by recognising and accepting different sets of standards as different forms, with the writers who want to do X writing for the readers who want to see X, and the writiers who want to do Y writing for the readers who want to see Y. It's hardly difficult. But loyalty to and dependence on the genre label seems to lead to a pont blank refusal to recognise strange fiction as a diverse collection of aesthetic forms, and an adversarial attitude to all forms that do not fit one's own standards. Which is to say, this is an incursion of politics into aesthetics, an attempt to assert one's own standards as authoritative.

This assertion of authority is usually based on an argument from authority, referencing one of two recognisable features -- commercial success or critical success. With the first, you get the argument that X sells, so X is what readers really want to see, so X is what "good" writers really ought to be writing. With the latter, you get the argument that Y is acclaimed, so Y is what "good" writers want to write, so Y is what readers really ought to want. The ideologies of Populism and Elitism are rife with such arguments from authority.

Complexity and Immediacy

In the teacup tempests of most debates about populism versus elitism, the general assumption is that one cannot be both populist and elitist. The truth is that one can be both populist and elitist; it's just that one cannot be both Populist and Elitist. If accessability and complexity are different aims, if communicating widely and communicating deeply are different imperatives, this does not mean one must simply choose one or the other. One can compromise, seeking a balance between the two. Better still, one can be audacious as fuck and try and pull them both off. Not, however, if one is a Populist or an Elitist.

With Populists this is because their aesthetic is fundamentally anti-intellectual, rejecting complexity for the "inaccessability" it generates. With Elitists this is because their aesthetic is fundamentally anti-sensationalist, rejecting immediacy for the "superficiality" it generates. For one complex equals impenetrable equals bad. For the other immediate equals shallow equals bad. This places the philistine and the philosopher in direct opposition to each other's aesthetic.

It also makes them both quite tedious.

The whole debate has pretty much degenerated to the point where populism and elitism are so widely assumed to be prescriptive and oppositional that to defend them as non-imperative aesthetics is largely futile. Any argument for more populist or elitist values in writing will inevitably be (mis)read as an argument for the most extreme positions of Populism and Elitism and against the mildest of contrary positions. An argument for more complexity will be read as a dismissal of immediacy as "shallow", while an argument for more immediacy will be read as a dismissal of complexity as "impenetrable". The philistines and the philosophers seem to have taken over the debate.

This may be, in part, simply down to the fact that complexity and immediacy do often work against each other. The complexity of the reading experience must be developed through complexity of plot, character and theme, in the complexity of the symbolic and structural construction of these, from the level of story down through acts, chapters, scenes and paragraphs to the level of sentences. Such complexity requires attention on the reader's part. Immediacy of theme must be developed through immediacy of plot, character and theme, in the immediacy of the symbolic and structural construction of these, from the level of story down through acts, chapters, scenes and paragraphs to the level of sentences. Such immediacy requires immersion on the reader's part.

Note: This is where escapism and worldbuilding become points of contention. The latter is interesting because it involves a sort of complexity that is viewed as false by many (c.f. M John Harrison's "clomping foot of nerdism") because it's often in the service of immersion, of immediacy rather than complexity in terms of the reading experience -- the complexity of affective and intellectual engagement. It's window-dressing. Escapism, meanwhile, is used as a derogatory term because it sets up the immediacy of the text, the reader's immersion in it, as a disengagement with reality. It characterises reality as something we can and should disengage from, something we are imprisoned within. This is to deny that level of complexity in the reading experience where the reader is being asked to extend that affective and intellectual engagement beyond the text, to reality itself. Again, the conflict is really between immediacy and complexity.

With worldbuilding I personally tend to side with Harrison but would use the term "window-dressing" to distinguish the fussy obsession with detail he's berating as opposed to the rich layering of versimilitude as an aesthetic effect. This is largely however because I'm more interested in the eploitative approach to strange fiction than the explicatory or excusatory approach. (For an explanation of that distinction, I'm afraid you'll have to go read my previous entries on strange fiction and the three different techniques of dealing with conceits.)

With escapism I simply can't disassociate this from its implicit opposition to reality. While I can happily accept immersion as an end in its own right, books as temporary suspensions of reality, as diversions, I baulk at the idea of them as rejection of reality. It's one thing to step to one side for a moment, another thing to turn one's back entirely. Even seeing books as escapes is not so bad; it's the -ism that renders this a systematic approach and, perhaps, another aesthetic ideology -- Escapism rather than escapism, so to speak.

The point is, it's all about the conflict between complexity and immediacy, active engagement and passive immersion.

The Best of Both Worlds

It is a difficult task to write a book that achieves both. Personally though, as I've said many times before, I take CATCH-22 as evidence that it can be done, that complexity and immediacy are not completely incompatible. I would argue that it's not just possible to find an optimum compromise between the two, sacrificing a little of each in order to gain a little of the other. Actually I think a work can be open to both approaches by a reader, sacrificing neither. Ramp up both and what you can end up with is a book that can be enjoyed both as a roller-coaster ride, with complete passive immersion, and as a personal walking tour, with complete active engagement. Do it really well and you can satisfy readers who are only looking for one or the other. Do it really really well and I wonder if a reader who has developed hostility to one or the other from past experiences might be persuaded to re-evaluate their assumptions about certain types of books being "not for them".

As long as we persist in reducing any debate about immediacy and complexity to an argument over populism and elitism, though, that debate will continue to degenerate from a discussion of aesthetics to a political struggle between Populists and Elitists, each seeking to impose their view on How Writing Is Done. The philistines and philosophers will continue to call each other plebs and ponces. The teacup tempests will rage on, with exactly the same things being said over and over again.

But the glory of strange fiction, the very power of it, rests precisely in its capacity to fuse complexity and immediacy. It may even be the tension between populism and elitism that generates this power. Our peculiar brand of fiction is a sort of Pulp Modernism, as far as I'm concerned. It is innately populist in its focus on commerciality and innately elitist in its focus on conceptuality. It is a fiction which, at its best, is both unashamedly sensational and unashamedly intellectual. If the extremists are tiresome they may at least serve a function as counter-forces to each other, a tension of aesthetics which, in union, push writers to attempt the seemingly impossible, to achieve the best of both worlds.

I want both complexity and immediacy in my own work. I want readers who don't have a clue what's going on to be swept along by the visceral gut-punches. I want readers who don't give a fuck about exploding airships to be up to their elbows in the machinery of meaning. I want readers like the fourteen year old girl in New Hampshire who wrote me a fan letter about Vellum, gushing with praise, admitting she didn't understand it all but telling how she'd go back and re-read, and figure it out, and go on. I want readers like the guy who emailed to say he read it in a single sitting. I want it all, goddamnit. I want kudos and cash, cause I'm greedy that way. I want my cake and I damn well want to eat it too. Because I want my writing to be all it can be, regardless of what any Populist or Elitist says about How Writing Is Done. Bollocks to that. This is strange fiction, motherfucker. We don't need no steenking aesthetic ideology. We gots our own.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Well, it looks like my long posts have now become notorious even in the world of webcomics. Heh. With that in mind, I shall keep this post teeny-tiny, with just a few things to say.


I missed this when it first came out, but it seems Lisa Tuttle had some nice words to say in the Times (yay!):

... Duncan has real linguistic flair and The Book of All Hours has the aura of a cult classic, to be argued about for years


If you haven't already read Vol. 1 of OCTAVIAN NOTHING by M.T. Anderson, go read it now. Just do it. It's fucking excellent.

And just for a bit of randomness, a cut-up-and-fold-in of a Bjork song:

venus as a boy

he's a venus,
he believes, the
wicked beauty
of her humour.
he's a venus,
he believes. the
boy suggests they
taste her beauty
on his fingers.
he's a venus,
so exciting
in his touches
of her beauty
he sets sense as
accurate in focus as a
boy off in arousal, as a
boy exploring sex. he's venus.

as a boy, he's venus.


See? Now, that was dead short.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Art of Life

To Fight or Fuck

As a branch of philosophy, aesthetics gets a bum deal. You have screeds upon screeds written on ethics and politics. Epistemology even sounds important with a name like that. But poor old aesthetics, that's just about... you know... art, beauty, shit like that, right? A person's aesthetic is just a set of standards by which they decide whether they think something is beautiful, or the set of standards they apply in creating art. Right? No big deal. Trying to figure out what's beautiful. It's not like we're trying to figure out what's valid or invalid, true or false, good or evil, how to make society work best, whether God exists or not. Come on, we're hardly talking the propositional calculus here, or categorical moral imperatives, or first-level predicates, or ontological arguments, or any of that proper philosophy.

An aesthetic is just a "set of principles of good taste and appreciation of beauty", according to the OED. So aesthetics as a field of study, a philosophical domain -- that can't be of much interest to anyone other than poncy artists and their poncy critics. And, hell, how fucking fusty is that definition? "Good taste"? "Appreciation of beauty"? Doesn't it just reek of privilege and pageantry, in the hierarchy of tastes, the authority of assumed superiority, and in the superficiality of spectacle, the skin-deep splendours of the picturesque or the sublime? Feh. Even the artists and critics aren't interested in that shit any more.

But that definition is too narrow. Sorry, OED, but you're wrong. An aesthetic is a set of principles of tastes which cover both good and bad, high and low, the charmingly refined and the gloriously vulgar. And these principles don't just underpin our appreciation of beauty; they underpin our appreciation and disappreciation of all artistic effects, the horrific, tragic, epic, comic, pathetic, sublime, absurd, intriguing, disgusting, shocking, thrilling, and wonderful. Whether we relish these or recoil from them, our reaction is an aesthetic judgement. Where our reactions are stabilised as preferences, rationalised as principles, what we have is an aesthetic. Those of us with an appreciation for genre can happily talk about a "pulp aesthetic", and we know fine well we're not talking about "good taste" and "beauty".

Now look again at that list of effects -- horrific, tragic, epic, comic, pathetic, sublime, absurd, intriguing, disgusting, shocking, thrilling, and wonderful -- a list that's not even a fraction complete. When we're talking about these effects achieved by the art we are talking about affects manifested in the audience, emotional responses of horror, awe, pity, amusement, intrigue and so on. When we're talking about an aesthetic as the set of principles underpinning these responses we're talking about a system which evaluates experience itself. We're talking about our tastes and distates, desires and fears, prejudices and perversions, the basic rules and relationships which shape our affective response to not just art but life itself. Our aesthetic sits at the very heart of our personality. When we respond with horror to a car crash, real or imaginary, it is an aesthetic reaction. When we respond with awe to a sweeping vista of canyons and mountains, it is an aesthetic judgement. When we respond to the image of two men kissing with appetence or abhorrence, that evaluation is defined by and defines our personal aesthetic. Good taste and appreciation of beauty? Screw that. An aesthetic is the set of principles that make you want to fight or fuck.

Senses and Sensibilities

As a domain analogous to the domains of pragmatics, ethics, politics, etc., then, as the study of how and why we construct our personal and individual aesthetics, of whether or not there are universal principles underlying the process of construction, the field of aesthetics is not simply asking the questions "What is art?" and "What is beauty?". Aesthetics is the study of affect itself and the sensations which produce it, of how these relate, how those relationships are systematised into a value-system, how that value-system shapes our responses. It is, in essence, the study of our senses and our sensibilities.

The word aesthetic comes from the Greek, aisthanomai, meaning "to perceive, to sense".

Aesthetics, then, is the study of sentience, of how we make sense of the world, make sense of our sensations. It is the study of consciousness itself.

At the heart of my own (perhaps idiosyncratic) theory of aesthetics is a fairly simple idea. It might be bollocks or it might be banal, but it strikes me as a fairly straightforward solution for the age-old questions about what consciousness is, why we have it -- one which doesn't rely on metaphysical mysteries like the "soul" or computational complexities like "intelligence", the two historic head-fucks which have, I think, sent us down the wrong tracks for centuries, in our search for the nature of consciousness.

One Angry Motherfucking Chimp

See, there's an experiment I remember hearing about once. We have two chimps, Chimp A and Chimp B, in separate cages but within sight of each other. Two bowls of sweets are offered to Chimp A, one with more sweets, the other with fewer. Chimp A reaches automatically for the bowl with more, which is then given to Chimp B in full sight of Chimp A, Chimp A being given instead the bowl with fewer sweets. There's a simple "inversion rule" at play here: whichever bowl Chimp A reaches for he gets the other.

Repeat this experiment and -- contrary to what we might expect in terms of trial-and-error, reward-and-punishment, learning and conditioning, which is to say intelligence -- Chimp A will never reach for the bowl with fewer in order to get the bowl with more. He'll grow increasingly frustrated, even downright irate, at the bad outcome, but he just can't stop himself from reaching for the bowl with more, every time, every fucking time. He's one angry motherfucking chimp afterwards, but he still does it the next time.

One might, if one is overly anthrocentric and committed to a Cartesian distinction between "thinking" humans and "unthinking" animals, attempt to dismiss the interpretation of his agitation as frustration, declaring this "anthropomorphism". But this is pseudo-skepticism based on a spurious assumption of a qualitative difference in ability to feel based on a quantitative difference in ability to reason, a baseless assumption that human consciousness is some sort of special case. This is less scientific than the assumption that the tantrums thrown by Chimp A are as much an indication that he's well and truly pissed as they would be coming from a human, and that he's well and truly pissed because he knows exactly what he's doing wrong. It's not that he doesn't understand the inversion rule. He just can't interrupt the automatic reflex to try and grab the best bowl.

Any tosh about this interpretation being anthropomorphic projection is blown out of the water when you teach Chimp A the numbers zero to nine.

By the Power of Numbers I Defeat You

Now run the experiment again but with a card in each bowl instead of sweets, numbers on these cards representing the number of sweets that will be given. Chimp A will reach for the lower number every time, knowing that if he does so he'll get the larger number that he didn't reach for. Assuming Chimp A has been through the first form of the experiment, he will immediately implement the inversion rule, demonstrating that he understands it full well. Ha! says Chimp A. By the power of numbers I defeat you! Revert to sweets instead of numbered cards and he'll revert to the automatic response, once again reaching for ythe bowl with more and pissing himself right off. Bollocks, says Chimp A. By the lack of numbers I am once again defeated! The point is, this demonstrates that it's not about understanding the rule; it's about implementing it.

The purpose of this experiment is actually just to show, by running through the combinations of numbers, that Chimp A can and has acquired basic numerical skills, that he understands these numbers as a sequence; eight is higher than five, four is lower than seven, and so on for every permutation. It can also be taken as a demonstration of reason, of foresight in reaching for the smaller number to get the larger, and of hindsight in throwing a tantrum when the automatic response has brought about the bad outcome. However, it strikes me as an illustration of a far more important principle too: it's only in having a symbol to react to rather than the thing itself that the innate response, the automatic grab for the bowl with more sweets, is circumvented.

So what? Well, imagine another situation, where the sight is not a bowl full of sweets but a threat -- another chimp, say, Chimp B, challenging for status -- and the automatic response of Chimp A is not to grab but to attack or run. We can imagine a simple automatic reflex based on size: if Chimp B is smaller, attack; if Chimp B is larger, run. To be able to circumvent this innate response, in a situation where the basic rule doesn't work, where Chimp A is able to reason that he'd be better to do the opposite -- say, for example, where Chimp B is larger but older and weaker -- what would be very handy indeed is if Chimp A had a symbol that worked like the numbers on the cards, if he had an abstract evaluation of the threat that he can not respond to rather than the threat itself. The problem is that sometimes we really need to fight when our automatic analysis of the situation tells us to run, to reach for the smaller bowl to get the larger.

That simple idea, perhaps bollocks, perhaps banal, at the heart of my theory of aesthetics? That idea is just that this is where anger and fear come in, as the numbers on the cards, written in our bodies rather than placed in bowls, but still abstractions. This is where pleasure and pain come, joy and sorrow, disgust and shock. This is where all our affects come in, as the surrogate, as the substitute, as the symbol we don't have to respond to. This is where sentience comes in.

Interpretors, Assistants and Observers

Sentience, the awareness of one's external stimuli and one's own responses to them, is the big mystery of the human mind. It's often thought of as a middle-man between stimuli and a control system of responses organised by logic, innate or learned. With automatic behaviour there's no sentience; the reception of situational data from the firing of receptor cells is simply processed into the inception of response actions. Sentience only comes in with conscious behaviour, where the reception of data is experienced as perception, that perception is processed into concepts, and the interactions of those concepts results in the inception of actions. In the classical model of Enlightenment philosophy, sensation and ideation were pretty much seen as distinct processes in this system of transforming data into deeds. Sensations and ideas were seen as distinct types of experiential unit, quite different basic elements of this system, though you do have philosophers like Hume playing with the theory that ideas are constructed out of sensations. Whatever. Generally a strong distinction was made between what we sense and what we think, and that distinction persists in everyday use of the terms. We'll call this the Interpreter Model, where sensation serves simply as a direct translator of data into a form that can be ideated, processed into ideas and from that into actions.

The evidence of overlap between sensation and ideation makes this model dubious though. Perception is an artificial construct to a large extent, we now know, often shaped as much by unconscious invention as by reality. Concepts, meanwhile, are themselves experienced as perceptions; we are aware of our ideas -- we sense them -- which means they are, to all intents and purposes, sensations in their own right. So the distinction in the classical model breaks down: we can't really seperate the system into two distinct processes; we can't really distinguish sensations and ideas as basic units. This is OK, because what we can do is revise the model to distinguish two complementary aspects of the system and the processes and units that constitute it -- sentience as the awareness of the system-in-action, and sapience as the intelligence of the system-in-action. The element of unconscious invention, of ideation, that goes into constructing perceptions, analysing raw data into sense -- that's intelligence at work, sapient behaviour in the system. The raw quality of experiencing, of perceiving this whole complex system of sensations-and-ideas -- that's sentience. We'll call this the Assistant Model, where sensation serves to translate data, but also largely to filter it, add to it or reshape it in accordance with ideation's instructions, and serves also in the actual processing, recording and replaying ideas so that ideation can review and revise before finally deciding.

Isolating out awareness and intelligence from each other in this manner allows us to focus on the key mystery of consciousness, which is not intelligence at all but awareness, not sapience but sentience. The former is not much of a mystery, in truth. If we're looking at the mind as a system, that system's goal is to transform data into deeds, and intelligence is simply the process(es) developed to achieve that goal, the success of the system, its capacity to do what it is meant to, viewed as a key feature. We may not (and largely do not) understand quite how the intelligence of the system functions, the actual system of pragmatics applied, but we understand why it exists, that it is a system of pragmatics. With sentience, however, there is a far deeper enigma: why does the transformation of data into deed involve this strange feature of awareness? What is the purpose of this aesthetic level in a system of pragmatics?

One alternative view that's not terribly comforting to most of us -- being rather attached to the idea that we're the drivers of our own destinies -- is that sentience is actually only a side-effect, a by-product. In this more recent model, the control system of the mind has already processed reception into inception by the time we become aware of the process in the form of sensations and ideas. Here the intelligence of the mind is basically pre-sentient, seated in the unconscious, with what we call ideation being really just the sensation of deeper processes, long after the fact, the minutes of a meeting we've already missed. Between reception and inception is this automaton intelligence, analysing the data as it comes in, processing it, and firing off response actions. We'll call this the Observer Model, sensation here no more than a transcript of the data and how it was processed, perhaps even a shorthand synopsis of it rather than a full record. Awareness is sidelined in this model, irrelevant to the basic functioning of the system. Of course, this only increases the enigma of why it would exist at all.

Extra Sprinkles of Awareness

In many ways this model makes sense. Fear is a waste of time when it's imperative that we run. Anger is a waste of time when it's imperative that we fight. The fight-or-flight response could simply kick in as a direct signal to the control system, that control system could tell us what to do, and we could do it, without ever having to be aware of what we're doing. And it's not just innate responses this applies to. We learn new responses from pleasure and pain, from their association with behaviour and its results, as positive and negative reinforcements; but even here there is no need for us to be aware of what's going on, no need for the actual sensations of pleasure and pain. All we need is for the control system to register the positive and negative stimuli and apply them to the behaviour options, assess the relative weights the next time the behaviour option is to be computed. What I'm saying here is that we can make a distinction between a compulsion -- as a drive to do something -- and an impulse -- as a compulsion with extra sprinkles of awareness. I'm saying we don't need to want to do something; we only need to need to do it. The cold calculus of survival does not require that we know our own compulsions as impulses, only that we have them. An ice cream is still an ice cream that can do all an ice cream is supposed to do, even if it doesn't have those extra sprinkles on top.

This is the theory, anyway, if it's intelligence we want in the mind, if the system is based purely on pragmatics, on the transformation of data into deeds. We might think that novel and flexible behaviours would cause problems, but we could theoretically complexify that control system as much as is required by evolution or learning, develop capacity for novel and flexible behaviours as a result of intricacy. We could generate strategies for generating strategies, develop intelligence as a complex processing of known and unknown factors, the sum of stimuli past and present analysed into goals and tactics for achieving them. We might well imagine ourselves as distinct from Chimp A in this respect, as simply having a more complex control system which allows us to reach for the smaller bowl because this is what the situation requires. Whether we see it as mechanistic, dynamic or heuristic, however, at no point in such a control system is sentience necessary. At no point is there any real need for us to be aware of the system-in-action.

Indeed, when we look at the level of automation, the lack of awareness, involved in many behaviours, innate or learned -- riding a bicycle, driving a car -- we often see sentience being cut out of the loop. Awareness interferes, gets in the way; it's more trouble than it's worth. Too many sprinkles and you have to get through them all before you even taste the ice cream, and if the only thing you're looking for is ice cream, why bother with the sprinkles at all. So it's not at all unusual for the system to bypass it -- or neglect to produce it as a side-effect, depending on your point of view.

In terms of the Interpreter Model, what we're saying is that intelligence can do its own interpretation, so why bother having a translator telling you what you already know. In terms of the Assistant Model, what we're saying is that intelligence can do what sentience does and faster, so why have this layer of bureaucracy to slow you down? In terms of the Observer Model, what we're saying is the transcript is irrelevant, so why bother having someone making minutes of the meeting just to throw them out straight afterwards?

A Weird Fucker Called Sentience

To put it another way, intelligence is a straightforward and smart guy. He knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. What's more he has this neat trick of compartmentalisation; if there's a distinct task to be taken care of, well, intelligence just pops out a clone of himself and sets him on it, to specialise in doing that one thing. Tasks like interpretation, processing or transcription of data -- those are tasks that suit intelligence down to the ground, so if intelligence needs an Interpreter, an Assistant or an Observer to carry out those tasks, it seems sensible for him to just pop out a clone to take on that role. If anyone can do that shit, it's intelligence.

But instead he brings in a weird fucker called sentience. We're not quite sure of what his actual role is -- Interpretor, Assistant or Observer -- but we do know that he does it in a way entirely distinct from how intelligence would; because whether he's translating, transforming or transcribing, whether he's rendering a communication in a form intelligence can deal with, responding to a query, running through outstanding messages, repeating back dictation, or just reading aloud the minutes as he writes them down, sentience doesn't just speak the words he needs to say what must be said. He sings them.

That's the point of distinction between sentience and intelligence, that extra dimension of awareness, the unique quality of sensation. An idea or unit of perceptual data being utilised, processed, is like a word being spoken, and this is what intelligence does -- this is its manner of articulation -- but that same idea or unit of perceptual data being experienced is like that word being sung -- articulated in a quite distinct and seemingly unncessary manner.

So why does sentience sing?

Of Morphologies and Media

The essential question seems to me to hinge on morphological forms and the media in which they're manifest. Intelligence is the morphology of the system-in-action in its most abstract sense. Whatever media its goals, strategies and tactics are modelled in, processed in, whatever mechanisms, dynamics and heuristics are employed in transforming data into deeds, the rules and behaviours, the intensions of the system, can be viewed as morphemes, morphological forms, components of a grand morphology. An intelligent system is one in which this morphology is manifested, articulated.

With sentience that morphology is inscribed into a strange media, the abstract morphemes becoming concretised, manifest as what I'll call aesthemes -- units of experience, units of sense. A weird property suddenly becomes obvious here though, in the distinction between pragmatics and aesthetics, between sapient use and sentient experience, between recitation and song. The enigma of sentience comes down to the question of how this property comes into being, whether a) a certain type of media into which the morphology is transcribed has this weird property, b) a certain type of morphology which can be transcribed into any media has this weird property, or c) the transcription of a certain type of morphology into a certain type of media invests the transcript itself -- the aesthemes from which it is constructed -- with this weird property.

Option A is basically a theory of the soul, that intelligence is written upon a substrate which is intrinsically aware, the human spirit. It is saying that sentience sings because we're all performers in a cosmic opera; the media in which we exist is musical, so to exist in that media is to sing. Option B is basically a theory of Hard AI, that no matter what the media it is manifest in, a morphology of a certain form will be aware. It is saying that sentience sings because we're each a song being played; the morphology which shapes us is musical, so to exist as instantiations of that morphology is to sing. Option C is a theory of sentience as life, that it's only in the fusion of physiological substrate and abstract system that we can expect to find sentience, that sentience is somehow a property of aesthemes rather than medium or morphology alone. It is saying that sentience sings because we're singers who sing songs, partly due to the medium of our flesh, partly due to the morphology of our mind, and wholly due to the relationship between them.

Options A and B for the theologian and the scientist respectively. I'm neither, so I'm going to approach this from the viewpoint of an amateur philosopher, professional scribbler and natural born seed-spiller, as a question of aesthetics, working on the premise that sentience is indeed a product of both concrete substrate and abstract system, physiological media and morphological form. To me sentience is an aesthetic system, a mode of artificing, the process and the products of that process, the materials and methods of creation, the acts of creation, and the resultant creations themselves, simultaneously and inextricably abstract and concrete. Sentience is not so much a property of living beings, so much as it's the art of being alive. Sentience sings, metaphorically speaking, because that musicality is the basis of the art-form, which is life. To be alive is to sing, to make sense-as-song.

There Are No Shadows In Your World

To take it right back to where we started, with Chimp A and Chimp B, my thesis is that aesthetics -- which is to say sentience -- comes into existence because the alternative is to be governed by pragmatics. Whether the intelligence we're born with, develop and apply is innate or learned, such intelligence seems quite capable of governing us by pragmatics alone, with no call for sentience, simply by stepping up the complexity. We could breed a chimp with a less compulsive instinct to grab for the bowl with more sweets. We could make the experiment more complex, with rules more elaborate than the basic inversion rule, and the chimp could learn to figure out those rules.

We could -- and some would -- argue that evolutionary pressure has actually led to us, as humans, developing that higher level of intelligence, that far more complex pragmatic system, that this is why we'd very quickly learn to reach for the bowl with fewer sweets. But maybe this level of complexity is needless. Maybe there's an evolutionary shortcut that renders such an elaborate system of pragmatics, such a complicated form of intelligence, a higher overhead in comparison. Maybe it's easier, cheaper, more efficient, simply to bring in the equivalent of numbers on cards -- sentience as a quick-fix, as a work-around.

What exactly are those numbers on cards? Simply arbitrary symbols allocated a meaning, abstract signifiers of a set of numerical relationships which map to the real-world relationships of two bowls of sweets. All of our aesthemes, all of our sensations are similarly abstract. Red is an arbitrary symbol, as are yellow and blue, light and dark. There is no such thing as red in the real world, the physical world. There is no yellow, no blue. Energy is not white, and the absence of it is not black. There are no shadows in your world. These are invention of the human mind, letters in the limited alphabet of vision. The sensations of sight are articulations in a semantic system which functions quite differently from mathematics or language, but which is just as abstract, just as much a construct of semes related by syntax.

Hearing and smell, taste and touch -- our senses are not direct connections to the world, direct analyses of light frequencies, vibrations in the air around us, chemical composition, the distribution of mass in space. They do not directly connect us to the world as streams of data we can process into deeds through the pragmatics system of intelligence. Rather they form a barrier of abstract symbolisation which, like the numbers on the cards, separates us from the stimulus that would otherwise invoke an automatic response. Aesthetics exists to interfere with pragmatics, and I would hazard a guess that it does so because this is, in itself, pragmatic.

The Paint of Our Affect, the Canvas of Our Flesh

This argument may seem less than persuasive if we're merely looking at the basic senses. Chimp A, we presume, is seeing the bowls of sweets in much the same way we do, with the same sentience, with a sense of sight, making sense of that bowl -- and the rest of the world -- as aesthemes of colour and shape. That barrier of abstract symbolisation doesn't help him stop himself from reaching for the larger bowl. But it's more complex aesthemes I'm talking about. In the fight-or-flight example I posited anger and fear as the symbols required in order to overcome an innate response of attack-the-little-guy, run-from-the-big-guy. In the original example, with the bowls of sweets, I'd posit that desire is what Chimp A needs, an impulse of wanting that can be acted against, rather than a compulsive need that is automatically acted upon.

Even here it may seem utterly counter-intuitive, the idea that affect, such an obvious motivater, such a crystal clear signal that we should carry out an action -- desire urging us to seize, anger urging us to fight, fear urging us to flee -- should exist precisely so that we can ignore the impulse. We might immediately think of countless cases where that very affect is the thing that made us act, rashly and without control, because that affect was all that mattered at the time. But if Chimp A doesn't have the nous to figure out the rules of the game, he's likely to still reach for the bowl with more sweets, because that would seem the obvious answer. Our daily life is a far more complicated game to figure out, and given that our equivalent of reaching for the bowl with more is usually not just the obvious answer but the right one, we should expect to see people acting on impulse. I don't deny that affect functions as an impulse; what I'm arguing is that being an impulse makes answering it an option rather than a requirement.

We can set against those instances of loss of control, I think, every instance of behaviour born of "unconscious desire", every act of habit or instinct, unthinking selfishness, neurotic compulsion, every passive-aggressive deed carried out in complete denial of hostile intent. With all those points of incomprehension -- where we don't realise that we want something until we've taken it, where we don't realise we're angry until we're in a shouting-match -- we act on motives we ourselves are unaware of.

A psychologist might speak of unconscious desire, repressed rage, but to do so is to speak of these non-aesthetic motives in the language of impulses, of affects, of sentience, of aesthetics. To unsense desire or sublimate rage is to drive the affect from awareness, render it imperceptible and thus uncontrolled, no longer an affect at all but rather the sort of unarticulated and inarticulable compulsion that drives Chimp A to reach for the bowl with more. It seems to me that what I'm talking about is just this process in reverse, affects as expressions of compulsion rather than compulsions as repressions of affect. Those of you who write or paint or make music may know that feeling of a work of art emerging from fuck knows where, of finding out what it is you want to say through the act of saying it. And of finding out that, no, that's not what you want to say, going back and revising, scoring out that word, painting out that image, changing that note. This is the freedom you get with art, and it's why sentience is aesthetic, working with these arbitrary symbols it can fuck around with, making sense of what it does not even know it's trying to make sense of until it has made sense of it in the paint of our affect, on the canvas of our flesh.

Making Sense

An aesthetic judgement, because it is based on arbitrary symbols, can be illogical in terms of the obvious pragmatics of the situation. We might like a painting simply because it's a nice shade of red, buy it despite the fact that it's outside our budget. In the obvious pragmatics of the situation we should buy the cheaper one, but... unfortunately we like the one we can afford less because it's a gaudy purple. We get more pleasure from the more expensive one, a better return, but this is still illogical; pragmatically speaking we'd be better off simply liking the cheaper, gaudy, purple one more. Aesthetics don't work that way though.

Aesthetics might be shaped by pragmatics, both in terms of evolution and in terms of learning. Once we have affect it only makes sense for us to develop innate aesthetics that make us like this particular image, dislike that particular sound, where those likes and dislikes stand us in good stead for survival and reproduction. And once we have affect it only makes sense for us to acquire tastes that make us relish the scent of whisky or feel sick at the smell of vodka through processes of aversion or acclimatisation, or by association with pleasant or unpleasant experiences. But the pragmatics of drinking poison with the flavour, the inebriation, or both, as goal only points up the willful anti-pragmatism of aesthetics, where the experience is an end in its own right, and damn the consequences.

Aesthetics can adopt pragmatics as an aesthetic. We might find logic quite fascinating, heuristics quite intriguing. Our senses are structurings of symbols, symbolisations of structures, our attention drawn to raw material that comes with ready-made symbols or structures to make sense of, or that is ripe with perhaps random relationships that can be teased into pattern. When order and complexity in and of itself inspires affects of joy, when disorder disturbs us and making sense of it is satisfying, it's no surprise these tastes develop into principles, into an aesthetic where what we care about most is those systems of ordering the world with the modalities of must and must not, should and should not, could and could not, the informal logic of a suppositional calculus. Still, it is the fact that we care about this that really matters, the fact that it is an aesthetic judgement. At heart, with all our attempts to make sense of the world in this manner, the goal is still to make sense. The valuation of pragmatics is an aesthetic valuation.

In the end it's all about making sense, in all meanings of the term. We make sense of the world with sentience -- or rather, we should say, sentience is the act of making sense of the world. And the world, of course, includes ourselves, as beings living and breathing in it, so we make sense of ourselves also, with affect -- or rather, we should say, affect is the act of making sense of ourselves. And our sentience and our affect, being also features of the world, must also be made sense of. Like any art form, sentience works by creating patterns, points of tension and moments of release. Every sentient being is a composition of affects, its elements in conflict or balance, a fragmented unity. Making sense of that composition is like finding a title for a book, a story, or a section of an essay, finding a phrase or even just a word that can stand in for it, not summarizing it but symbolising it. That's where sentience becomes identity, in the sense of all that sensation being a whole, in the aestheme of self. And this, to me, is why aesthetic(s) means far more than just a "set of principles of good taste and appreciation of beauty" or the branch of philosophy which concerns itself with the questions of what constitutes art and beauty. Bullshit. What we're dealing with here is the very nature of identity, the self, what it means to be human. And the tools for investigating that from the ground up are right there in front of us, in our affect as aesthemes and the relationships between them. Not so much in front of us, actually, as within us.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


And in all the Tiggerishness of the last post, I forgot to mention that, of course, the UK edition of INK is out officially this Friday. Apparently it's already in the shops (though I haven't popped in to take a look). Anyway, that means I shall very probably be celebrating -- which means a few drinks in Stravaigin from 8:00 onwards tomorrow night. All welcome.

And just to put the cherry on the top, I got me first review link through, from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, and it's rather a positive reaction. :)

The Book of All Hours is a mind-blowing feat of ambition and imagination, written by a master storyteller with a "take no prisoners" attitude who's not afraid to experiment.

Life is Sweeeeeeet, dude...

... cause the whole Ballad of the Books album of collaborations between writers and musicians thing just got me onto fuckin Newsnight Scotland! Which is pretty fuckin cool.

Yes, events are now conspiring to inform me in no uncertain terms that, you're proper famous, you are. I mean, I was out on Friday night with some mates, and we headed into the Variety. I head to the bar to get a round in, and as I'm standing there, I feel a tap on the shoulder and hear a voice saying, you're Hal Duncan, aren't you? I, of course, do my befuddled meerkat impression -- um, yeah? -- so he then tells me he's read the book, and asks when the next one's coming out, and, well, you know, all the stuff you really really want a complete stranger to come up to you in a cool bar in your home town and say but you don't actually ever expect, being just a poxy writer and not actually a rock star or anything like that. Yes, OK, so I'm easily pleased, but fuck it. This was in the fuckin Variety. I know that's completely meaningless to non-Weegees, but the Variety is probably one of Glasgow's coolest pubs, and in a non-trendy, indie, muso, alternative-but-no-fuckin-posers, unused-set-from-Trainspotting sorta way; it's where you go to drink when Nice and Sleazy has too many kiddies in it and you're damned if you'll go to a pub that doesn't play the fuckin highest quality sounds. The Variety is to Glasgow pubs as the Barralands is to gig venues, far as I'm concerned. Hmmm, that probably doesn't help either, does it? Ah, fuck it; it was neat as fuck; that's all I'll say.

Karmic balance did reassert itself the next morning when I came down with a stinking man-flu, missed a party on Saturday night, and spent the weekend basically curled up and whimpering, hoping that it would clear up by last night, which it thankfully did. Why last night? Well, last night -- as part of the Celtic Connections festival -- was the launch gig for the Ballads of the Book album, and Aereogramme were frickin playing our frickin track live so there was no fucking chance I was going to miss that. I mean, there was other stuff on the line-up as well, other artists, each of them doing their album track and a few of their own songs, but most important of all (as far as this sad egomaniac is concerned, that is) was the fact that Aereogramme were FRICKIN PLAYING OUR FRICKIN TRACK LIVE!

I would say the night started out good, but fuck it, the day started out good. See, I crawled out of bed feeling pretty much recovered from the man-flu, checked me email and found an invite to come down to the sound-check at the Royal Concert Hall where the gig was to take place. Seems a Newsnight Scotland crew were floating about and looking to interview some of the performers and/or contributors. Needless to say, hell or high water or the fading remnants of the stinking man-flu were not going to keep me -- media-slut that I am -- from a possible appearance on, like, BBC2's, fuckin big-ass news programme. We're talking, Jeremy Paxman, man! OK, so it's the Scottish segment which doesn't actually have Paxman, but it's still the fuckin Beeb! And, hey, BBC2 Scotland is still national television, far as I'm concerned. So there's a little matter of not actually being independent; I don't care. Scotland's a nation. La la la. I can't hear you.

Anyhoo, so I crawled out of me sick-bed, fortified meself with Crunchy Nut Cornflakes (with the highest fat milk available, natch -- none of that watered down shit for me, mate, no, I'm poorly) and headed down to the sound-check, arriving just as Aereogramme were finishing up and so catching just a little snippet of the sound of the song on a big stage. Like, a few-piano-chords-size little snippet. It was still easily enough to make me rather Tiggerish, it must be said. Ooh! Ooh! That's my song! Ahem, yes, sorry, our song. Ooh! Ooh! He played the intro again!

Said hi to me mates Mags, Claire and Julie who were there filming for the expanded version of the documentary they're doing on the whole project, and hung around at the back of the hall for a bit amongst a bunch of people also hanging around at the back of the hall. Apparently sound-checks for big gigs like this involve lots of people hanging around at the back of the hall. Said hi also to a few of the guys from Aereogramme after they'd finished up, but wasn't actually sure of who was there from Chemikal Underground or what they look like, so I was basically floating around and looking glaikit until Mags pointed out the Newsnight crew, and the nice interviewer man figured out who I was. I would probably still have been floating around in the background otherwise. Hey, I said I'm a media slut; I didn't say I was good at it. Anyway, we did a wee interview, and the interviewer seemed happy, but I went away with the pessimistic assumption that anything I said would probably end up on the cutting room floor. Just cause... well... expecting disappointment just makes the childlike glee better if it works out.

After heading back home for a quick bite, I jumped the subway back to the concert hall and met up with Andy, Olly and Dougie, and (as we grabbed our seats) Mike Gallagher from the GSFWC. We all settled down, beer in hand, of course, and the show started with Mags, Claire & Julie's documentary, which they were showing on a big screen at the back of the stage. (They were filming the gig to cut in to a longer version, ye see; the shorter one airs properly next week, I think.) The doc looked really cool, although the hall was a bit noisy with the crowd still shuffling in, so I'll have to tape it when it goes out on ITV to watch it properly. Though it is, of course, deeply flawed by the absence of ME. I mean, just because they had literary giants like Edwin Morgan and Alasdair Gray to interview, or Roddy Woomble who just happened to come up with the idea in the first place... I mean... just cause it was only half an hour and there wasn't actually time to give every single contributor air time... just cause it was Mags who told me about the project in the first place, and got me in touch with the guys at Chemikal Underground... I mean, still! They couldn't find space in their documentary to fit in their good friend, their buddy, their pal, their amigo... harrumph! Best they could manage was a shot of the back of me head as I wander into the Chem 19 recording studio! The back of me fuckin head! Oh, and a still photo in a sodding montage! They'll never hear the back of it, ye know. I shall wind them up mercilessly with mock dischuffedness until they hang their heads in shame. (Actually, it was quite funny the other week when Mags so meekly told me that, uh, see, there's only really space to cover three of the songs, and well, STV definitely want this person and that one, and I'm so sorry, don't hate me! It's like, dude, you got me onto the project in the first place; enough with the crazy talk. Don't tell her I said that though; I reckon there's a good few beers to be guilt-tripped out of her Catholic upbringing. Bwah hah hah!)

Anyhoo, the gig proper kicked off with an acoustic set from Idlewild, whose album track lyrics were from Edwin Morgan. I'd only really heard the band rocking out on their albums, so this was well cool to hear. Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band followed with his set, including the track with words by John Burnside (which featured Heron's daughter accompanying with a stonking Spanish/North African beat on the doumbek which I was rather envious of). Then we had James Yorkston, with his track lyricked by Bill Duncan. After the intermission, Alasdair Roberts, who worked with Robin Robertson for their album track, kicked off the second half, his set including a different version of a sea shanty I've got on the Depp/Gorbinsky pirate album and therefore recognised (which was neat). Karine Polwart gave us her set, including her collaboration with Edwin Morgan, which I have to say was the highlight of the gig... barring Aereogramme, that is, which I'm obviously rather prejudiced about.

Last on the bill was Aereogramme, who opened their set with our track and made it sound fucking immense. Since the studio, I'd only heard it through me laptop's dodgy speakers, so to hear it played live was just fucking awesome. Being a bear of very little brain but very big ego, I might have been disappointed that they didn't finish with it (cause, you know, this is all about ME!), except that they finished with a cover of a Slayer song called "God Hates Us All", played in their own inimitable "odd-rock" style... and how can you not love that. Celtic Connections folk festival. Every other band on the bill playing acoustic. Aereogramme say, fuck it, we're finishing with a Slayer cover. And it was frickin great too.

I even got to go backstage after the gig, chat with the guys for a bit over a beer, before heading down with me mates to the aftershow party at the Holiday Inn, where Mags introduced us to Alan Bissett and Rodge Glass, two of the other contributors on the album, and Rodge's mate, Ross. We talked lots, both of them being well cool guys, and not at all averse to a bit of weird-ass fantasy (Alan qute happily talking up Clive Barker, for example, while Rodge is working on a biography of Alasdair Gray). I forgot to mention to them that when I was checking out the other contributors on the record I noticed that they'd both read in the KGB bar in New York as part of some Scottish festival -- which seemed like a neat wee synchronicity -- but it was mainly because we were busy talking about other stuff. Hell, we were still talking at chucking out time, in fact, whereupon Rodge and Ross headed home, while meself, Alan and a few other reprobates all adjourned back to mine. Turned out that Alan stays just round the corner... which was rather handy for the 2:00 am drinks run round to his flat for whisky and wine. We all sat up chinwagging and listening to a promo copy of the CD (and, yes, we pretty much played it over and over again, but it wasn't just me insisting on hearing my song again, honest) till the wee hours of the morning became not so very wee at all.

Having exchanged the man-flu for a hangover, then, I managed to haul meself out of bed this afternoon to pop down to Neil Williamson's; and fuck me if I'm not walking to his flat when the sodding interviewer from Newsnight Scotland comes down the street towards me. I shit you not. I mean, Glasgow is not that small a city, so it was a fuckin bizarre coincidence. First words he says after "hi" are, "I've just been watching you on the telly"! I couldn't help but ask, of course, if they'd done the editing on the item (not that I was fishing to find out if they were using my interview, no, no, not at all, honest, guv), so when he told me he was just heading off to do the editing then, I was still half-convinced my piece would be cut (yeah, OK, so I was fishing; sue me).

Bless his little cotton socks, though. They actually used it. In terms of musicians, they had Roddy Woomble, natch, James Yorkston and Craig from Aereogramme. In terms of writers, they had Edwin Morgan and me. On Newsnight Scotland. How fuckin cool is that?

So, yeah, in the space of four/five days, I've been recognised by a stranger in one of Glasgow's coolest pubs, seen my collaboration with Aereogramme played live to a packed house, gone back-stage with me "Artist" pass in the Royal Concert Hall to have a beer with the band, got pissed with some new Glasgow writer mates, and appeared on the BBC.

I don't know whose life I've got, but I'm fucked if I'm giving it back.