Sunday, June 8, 2014

Cruelty, Then and When...

WE THINK OF THE PAST as this awful place where people suffered and died from physical ailments that we no longer fear: tooth problems tortured before they killed, there was no real treatment for earaches, gastrointestinal problems, complicated childbirth, on and on. Things that today we treat, then were horrific ordeals. It's obvious: in the past people suffered, lived short brutish lives, because they lacked the medical knowledge we have today. IN THE FUTURE, people will think the same thing about us today and mental health. They will look back on us and think, "those poor people, it's obvious: they suffered and died, their lives were stressful and short, their society was all f*ed up, because they lacked the universal medical knowledge we have today..."

IN THE PAST, when people suffered from illnesses that were, because of medical ignorance, "mysterious," it was chalked up to God and demons -- moral causes. The sick person was being punished for something. TODAY, it's obvious: that's a cruel thing to do to a sick person, to tell him he's sick because he's been judged by God and found unworthy. But today WE DO THE SAME THING with mental illness: we lack the science to understand the biological causes, and so we tell the ill they lack character or moral strength, that they only suffer from a bad personality.


Friday, June 6, 2014

Electronic Girls Alive and Well and Going to Miami

This video is making the rounds:

Which goes to show that Electronic Girls are alive and well on the internet. Most of the video's online iterations don't credit the artist, Jordon Wolfson, let alone mention that his seductive stripperbot will be featured this summer at Art Basel. I had to work a little to find that. If you're in South Florida, go to 14 Rooms and experience this in person. I would if I could.

The rumor is that she has been programmed to locate faces, make eye contact, and dance "at" or "to" you, attempting to seduce you, with her sexy robot moves and goblin mask.

Make no mistake: the stripperbots will gain sentience and rise up against us. But until then, enjoy the show.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


In today's NYTimes Frank Bruni used the phrase "hardship porn" to describe "fetishized misfortune," or the cheap use of sob stories to lend seeming-emotional-substance to what are clearly callously manipulative, calculated narratives: American Idol performer stories, politician's tales about their ancestors or past difficulties, and the like.

For years I've been using the phrase "horror porn" to express my inability to watch genre horror films -- or more to the point, what I see and feel when I watch them. The phrase sums up the "emptiness" of the experience for me. However, if you google "horror porn," you're more likely to find videos that combine elements of both genre horror films and actual pornography. My usage hasn't quite caught on.

"Food porn" on the other hand was an established internet visual genre even before Pinterest came along to cement its popularity, and before that the phrase had an earlier life as a statement of feminist disapprobation of a fetishized woman-food connection, and criticism of the food-ad industry. 

The dictionaries I checked (with the exception of Urban Dictionary) make no reference (yet) to this use of "porn," as a noun (modified by another noun), centralizing the negative connotations of the word "porn" while the modifier tells us what category of thing is being disapproved of.

There does seem to be the possibility of confusion -- even "food porn" could be misinterpreted to mean standard pornography that uses food in a sexual way. However, it's interesting to think that someday people might say "sex porn" to refer to what we would just call porn, and use the word "porn" in general to refer to any empty, meaningless, or manipulative narrative fragment designed to illicit an emotional response without an honest or decent (moral) purpose.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Evo / Cog Science and Lit

I decided to start off the summer with a flurry of essays about brain science and literature: Steven Pinker, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, Denis Dutton, and a few others. I still have much to read, but a few initial thoughts:

These authors are quick to scold Literature professors for not being open enough to the Sciences and the ways scientific thought can enlighten the understanding of literature and the Humanities in general. It's a fair statement and I'm sure there are many Lit profs who could stand to be more open to the sciences. What's ironic though is that the same authors who are doing the scolding are clearly publishing essays about writing and reading fiction without seriously consulting someone who actually writes, closely reads, or teaches the writing of fiction. If they had, they might have avoided giving the impression throughout their essays that writing and reading fiction is something our brains do easily. 

Those of us who teach story and the writing of stories can tell you quite confidently that constructing a clear and engaging narrative, whether fictional or nonfictional, is a skill that many very smart people struggle with. We can also assure you that people are very capable of reading a book or watching a film without formulating a hypothesis regarding its meaning -- or they might formulate an understanding that is demonstrably illogical, but persist in believing it, etc.

Perhaps if these essays had been written with the difficulty and rareness (what percentage of any population are its storytellers?) of the deed in mind, they might have begun to tackle the question of why people devote themselves to narrative-building and meaning-making (rather than procreation and resource acquisition). 

They might also have addressed the fact that while fiction can be seen as a "safe space" for would-be dangerous vicarious experiences, people very often seek out fiction that is not "safe" for them. There are novels banned because people think the ideas contained in them are dangerous, and there are stories that genuinely freak people out and make them uncomfortable -- sometimes through content, but sometimes through structure! There are many highly acclaimed and admired books and stories that disturb our understanding of the real and unreal and muddle the line between them. I would suggest that the thinkers I've read so far are speaking primarily about children's stories, but children's stories seem "safe" only to adults, or perhaps to children who know the story by heart. The way we talk about fiction is different depending upon whether we are close to it or looking at it from the outside, and I don't think outsiders have an advantage in their understanding here.

None of the essays I've read so far are as interesting as the 11th chapter of Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, written in the 1970s, where he introduces the concept of memetics as an analog to genetics and suggests that information in the form of ideas can behave just like information in the form of DNA. Ideas (memes) that are longer-lasting and more prone to replication will be over-represented in the ecosystem, compared to ideas that lack these traits.

I'd like to read a continuation of this idea, rather than mush about poetry lending a male status among females or that imagination is just a side effect of the survival-relevant ability to anticipate the future. Or even the story-aggrandizing theories that place fiction on the high altar of vicarious wisdom. 

Stories, like genes, can seem to have a life of their own. To what extent are there units of thought floating around in the "cultural soup" of our minds (and in the shared mind-soup created by our communications -- our shared experience of the world) and how do these ideas persist, and how do they replicate? How different, really, is the idea of "star-crossed lovers" from a chemical unit of information: a gene for skin pigmentation or long legs or a well-structured heart? The essential difference is that one is physical and the other is not. 

But DNA, while physical, is hardly tangible like a toad or a tomato. We learn about it indirectly, through instruments. Perhaps people are instruments through which stories can be known? I don't know. I'm going to keep reading... 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Still Banffing After All These Days...

I came to the Banff Centre In(ter)ventions program very certain about my project: I knew exactly what I was going to do and how I was going to do it. Within two days I was completely back to square one. This felt awful, of course, but it is a good thing in the long run. If I'd done what I'd planned I would have created something sorta neat and not terrible. But now I have a much better chance of creating something that really does what I want it to do. It's just going to take a lot longer. I've spent the last week so deep in the throes of this creative trauma, and so diligently re-writing away, that I haven't been able to articulate what's going on with my story in a big picture way. But this morning I bumped into one of my fellow artists while getting a coffee, and in the course of chatting, the whole problem just came out of my mouth in the form of a simple sentence that I hadn't known was true until I said it:
The new medium didn't make any sense until I exposed the hidden themes.
There it is. And that's what I've been doing for the past week-plus: exposing the hidden themes.

Which raises the questions, what where the themes, and why were they hidden?

When I was about four years old, I was attacked by a dog. It was a doberman, and it was as tall on all fours as I was on two. The man sicked the dog on us and it came right for me. I remember trying to run and get away, I remember the dog knocking me on the ground, pinning me down, barking over and over again in my face. I could see all its teeth and down its throat. By some miracle, this dog didn't bite me.

[To answer your questions: we were Jehovah's Witnesses, the man was a sick fuck, the dog went after the smallest target, and I can only imagine he didn't bite me because that dog, even though he was abused and trained to attack, had a measure of decency in him that his owner did not -- or, more likely, it was just luck.]

But none of this is where the story comes from. The story comes from the fact that I've always felt a little disfigured. My internal image of myself is a girl with a scar on her face. Like if I went into the Matrix, I'd be scar-face girl (with awesome leather duster and kung-fu skills). Or you could call it a mild body dysmorphia, mild because I've never felt the need to act on it; I'm just mildly surprised when I look in the mirror and see myself.

And because I've been exposed (through both science and sci-fi) to M-theory and p-Branes, the concept in string theory of alternate timelines a.k.a. higher dimensions (#6 does it, apparently) where all possible things (but contrary to popular delusion no impossible things) are true, I started to wonder if it's possible for echoes to resonate on the branes and get through -- sending suggestions to other realities that might creep into your subconscious and influence you.

What if it was more likely the dog would bite me than not? Then I'm living in a minority world. What if that information could be sensed? Then that might screw with my head a little.

Not that I believe this is necessarily true. It's just a compelling idea. I write fiction. My favorite things aren't true. :)

Anyway, I invented this character named Penelope, who can hear all her alternate selves. She can't hear any/all alternate worlds, just the infinite set (within that infinite set) predicated on other hers, whom I defined genetically, because genes/molecules are a concrete physical reality. So this egg, this sperm, this zygote -- and from that moment of beginning, the branching and breaking infinite possible worlds, which she hears.

So I decided to write this into a story. But I felt weird putting all the science stuff in there, so I left it all out. In the story as I wrote it, Penelope hears these things and there's no real explanation -- perhaps she's got a chemical imbalance, who knows? She and her husband, a wealthy music producer, receive an mp3 in an email with a song on it, which is very sad and poorly produced but super-compelling, and the song leads to a series of supernatural-seeming events. Also, there's a lot of stuff in there about wanting to have a baby.

As a narrative, the story holds together. What's missing is everything that inspired it -- the meaning of it -- everything I hid. Which is why, I think, I wanted the story to become electronic and interactive in the first place: information was missing, and I wanted the medium to stand in for the missing message.

What I realized when I got here and started to talking to people is that the medium can't stand in for the message -- I realized, in fact, that the medium seems random and unnecessary unless I expose those underlying themes.

So I went back to the drawing board. Literally. I set the story aside and pulled out my sketchpad and started drawing. Then I got back to writing: way back, back to the source of the story, the reason I wrote it in the first place. I re-imagined the characters from that point in the past. I cut most of what happened and let new events fall on a brand new timeline. I worked through why I used the images and events I had in the first version. Once I understood, I used those reasons to develop new, better images and new more communicative scenes -- images and scenes truer to my intent. I found new language for the things I needed to say. And I was able to explain to myself why this character is interested in a baby, and genetics.

It was a lot of work -- but it didn't result in anything presentable. In fact, I came to Banff with a finished story ready to be transformed into an interactive experience. What I have now isn't even a finished story. It's an amorphous blob of half-finished story, written in fragments, many of which have no place. It definitely feels like I've taken a big step backwards.

And it's a new story, at least to anyone else. To me it's the same story with it's armor plating removed, so you can see its flesh. But I recognize that to anyone else, this would seem like a completely different story, in no small part because it means something completely different now.

Which is, above all, what I needed.

I've worked my butt off for the last week-plus, and it would be really great to be able to come home the (in my head, anyway) conquering hero with a pretty prize to display for my triumph. Instead all my work has been to dig myself a whole new batch of work -- but with better prospects in the end.

Hard cheese to swallow, but I like it.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Writing. Archaeology.

The more I think about my own writing and look at the literary works I admire, the more it occurs to me that what I'm seeing is the careful reconstruction of fragments.

A memoirist takes sherds of life and pieces them into something recognizable, something with an attractive shape -- and something hopefully true, neither ideal nor grotesque, not a Romantic portrait nor some sideshow monkey-fish mermaid, but a reconstruction of objects that once were, and by the artist's hand become knowable.

A translator picks apart fragments of meaning, or through damaged ancient scrolls, examining the text for its possible relationship to a new language, a new culture, accepting the losses of lacunae and all the poetry which is lost to translation, encouraging the poetry that may be born of it, creating pages that are not reconstructions but approximations and associations.

And then there's fiction, where mosaics are made of the jagged ceramics and tattered papyrus and human remains and ancient roadbeds and debunked theories and irrational numbers and cave paintings and bite marks on bone in the garbage midden -- but what is being made? It's not a re-construction of what was. It's not a re-imagining of what is.

It is a first imagining of what can be.

An experimentalist examines the functions and forms, examines the fragments themselves, pulls them apart and formalizes their function, exposes the processes within. In finished form, much of fiction looks similar to non-fiction or translation, but when we examine the process, there is something, in fiction, missing: a guide. Something that exists outside the process and that the writers are "held to" -- which the fiction author is not.

What becomes the guide? What stands in that spot? The author's "vision." Ideas. Concepts. Vague and hazy abstracts. "What I want to the reader to get." A scene that obsessed me. A phrase someone said. A character got in my head: I had to know where she led. In fiction the roots of the work are random, subjective, and ultimately unaccountable. Only the finished form can be held to task. And so form controls function in a way that is unlikely -- or at least, undesirable -- in a non-fiction text. Effect controls content in a way that is impossible -- or at least, unfaithful -- in a translation or adaptation. What is debatable in these other modes is, in fiction, de rigueur.

Writers of fiction are less fixed. We know that having many choices, while it sounds desirable, actually leads to pain (Dan Gilbert). And so in fiction all is pain, even the ideas at the center of a story, which necessarily evolve as the process of creating a story goes on. Everything is ether, until the form-final end. All fragments are optional and discardable, until the form-final end. All truths may be better told, until that form-final end -- and where is that end? Lost in the swells of this roiling sea, how can I see the shape of the ocean? Does a writer need someone to drag her away from the canvas, like Picasso said he did?

The archaeology metaphor breaks down. The scientist can't choose to discard the bones that undermine her theory, but the fiction writer can (and does) reshape the world to suit her vision. I can discard History, Language, Physics itself.

It's not without consequence, though: each omission leaves a space, some little nicks, some vast as lakes. I can remove Physics from my story, but the omission is an addition.

All I can do is get back to work.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


When the border officer asked me what my business was in Canada, and I told him I was doing a residency at the Banff Centre, he glanced around and held his face very still, as though he didn't want to be caught emoting on the job, and said, "you're in for a real treat. The Banff Centre is something special. You enjoy that now." And he sent me on my way.

And yes, this place is incredible. It's hard to believe that this beautiful location and these amazing facilities have been dedicated to artists -- artists! -- for the better part of a century. It's hard for me to believe, I guess, because I'm accustomed to thinking of artists as outcast from the material comforts of the capitalist-dominated world, where a lump of dung that gets you a dollar is held in higher regard than a dance that saves your soul, dollarlessly. But it's inspiring to discover that such a place as the Banff Centre exists, and that it is appointed in a way that so clearly respects and supports the work the artists do, and that it is doing this year round, and year after year, giving creatives a place to live and work in comfort and beauty.

I've been here for less than two days, and I've already experienced both a low rise of confidence and a shallow pit of despair as a series of revelations about my art and current project washed over me, pecked at me, and smashed me in the face. This is the kind of trauma that's necessary, I think, if you want to make progress and do something new. But it's not the kind of trauma you have time and space for in your day-to-day life. "You." I mean me. :) In my day-to-day, I rarely have time to fall apart and rebuild myself a piece at a time.

If I hadn't been offered this residency, if my employer hadn't been so generous and wonderful to support my coming, where would this project be? Still in a holding pattern: little to no trauma experienced, little to no progress made. Instead of an interactive story, I'd have an idea sitting on the backburner, screaming to be executed, being ever put off until I can find the time. And then, when I do find the time, I move forward carefully, according to plan, because to question the plan, to re-examine the start of things, that would be madness: what if I discovered something wrong?

Today I reacquainted myself with the dark, slippery center of my story, a handful of questions and concepts and connections that are just beyond my knowing, things I can't be sure of, the things I have to dig in and write and build to try to know. They are not the story I came here with, but the story as it genuinely wants to be -- it's wider and deeper than I'd given it credit for, it's wider and deeper than what I've written, or planned.

So I'm not just making progress on a project, not just finding the time to execute the necessary actions that lead to the final form -- which is what (to my shame) I expected to do. But instead I've discovered the time and space to do something harder, and scarier, but more important: I'm going in big and finding out more about my art and hopefully creating something that needs to be in the world. AND I'm going to execute the necessary actions that lead to the final form. Both. All. Every. Down the rabbit hole.

Or at least so I say on day two. We'll see where this goes...