After years of trying to play the Hollywood game, Shane Carruth is finally back with a new film. That news on its own is enough to send cinema nerds scrambling for seats. Upstream Color, which Brian Rafferty at WIRED aptly calls, “beautifully baffling,” and about which Steven Shaviro tweeted, “wrenching, nearly impalpable. Left me dazzled, tongue-tied. Sort of the Martian riposte to Terence Malick? I don’t even..,” is definitely worth the wait. Carruth, who previously dazzled us with the self-produced, garage sci-fi thriller, Primer (2004), spent the years since trying to get a script called A Topiary made, which, even with the support of no less than Steven Soderbergh, never received the funding it needed. He was on hand at the Music Box Theater in Chicago last night and answered questions between screenings of his two films. Reluctant to offer up spoilers and background on the underlying elements of the story, he was additionally thwarted by the audience from doing so. Carruth did say that after all the time he wasted on A Topiary, he’s sold on the independent route he’s been following.
Where Blade Runner (1982) uses memory as the basis for identity, gifting its android Replicants with an implanted past thereby giving them a sense of self, Upstream Color manipulates its characters’ lack thereof. Not knowing exactly what happened to you means not knowing exactly who you are. Both Kris (Amy Seimetz, who, among other things, was previously in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture; 2010) and Jeff (Shane Carruth, who also co-starred in Primer) have experienced a trauma they don’t recall, and their spotless minds do not yield eternal sunshine. Their missing memory strips them of their subjectivity, which is then built back up again in incomplete layers, juxtaposed with suspicion, worry, and paranoia. It’s an allegory and a love story, but don’t go in trying to figure it out.
The hollow, breathless feeling I always choke down at the climax of Primer was evident throughout Upstream Color. If the grammar of Primer is mechanical, spurred on by engineers spending their off hours tinkering in the garage, then Upstream Color is organic, revealing itself through rote ritual, hypnotic motion, and passages from Walden. Where Primer was wordy, stacked with dialogue and guided by Aaron’s answering-machine voiceover, Upstream Color is primarily nonverbal, a collage of scenes, snatches of dialog, subtle sounds, and spacious music. As a composer, Carruth gave props to my favorite score of all time, Cliff Martinez’s Solaris (2002). Though both are beautifully sparse yet eerily unnerving, his own soundtrack for Upstream Color owes little to Martinez (Clint Mansell’s 2009 Moon score has cornered that debt).
Carruth promised not to keep us waiting another nine years for his next film, saying he’s hoping to start production on his next project, called The Modern Ocean, this summer.
Here’s the official trailer for Upstream Color [runtime: 2:10]:
“A few decades ago, it became permissible for families to emigrate from the unincorporated areas of ‘reality’ into the science fictional zones,” reads the manual in Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Vintage, 2010), and lately it’s been feeling more and more like we’re slipping into an adjacently possible dimension. Consider the following scenarios:
A man is imprisoned, accused of encouraging and enabling the digital distribution of audio and video amusements. All of his property is confiscated, his assets are frozen, and before his arrest, his house is raided by armed and jack-booted storm-troopers.
A man ends his own life, having been accused of distributing information he garnered from a source that didn’t care if he freely spread their knowledge.
A man is disgraced after winning a contest that tests athletic prowess through extreme endurance on bicycles. The competitors having been fed on-the-go with concoctions made to enhance their stamina. The winner of such a race also endures side-effects that include extreme self-absorption and hubris.
The latter of these is the premise of The Supermale, a novel set in the its own future (see Raunig, 2010), by author, poet, playwright, and cyclist, Alfred Jarry. Long one of my favorite eccentrics, his passion for cycling and pistols was matched only by his appetite for alcohol and absurdity.
Unlike his contemporaries (e.g., Proust, Gide, Valéry, et al.), Jarry’s work hasn’t lent itself to widespread study in the same way that it has widespread influence. Among his admirers were Andre Breton, Antonin Artaud, Marcel Duchamp, and Pablo Picasso. He is most widely recognized for writing the absurdist Ubu plays and inventing the science of Pataphysics.
Simply put, Pataphysics is to metaphysics what metaphysics is to physics: It’s one level up. “Pataphysics… is the science of that which is superinduced upon metaphysics,” writes Jarry (1965), “whether within or beyond the latter’s limitations, extending as far beyond metaphysics as the latter extends beyond physics” (p. 21). He adds, “Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments” (p. 22). In what is perhaps the best example of the science applied, Dr. Faustroll, the pataphysician, even put together plans for the construction of a time machine (see Jarry, 2001, pp. 211-218). If there’s ever a scientific discovery that proves pataphysical, it’s sure to be time travel.
Inhabitants of Universe 31 are separated into two categories, protagonist and back office.
— How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Alastair Brotchie’s Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life (MIT Press, 2011) goes a long way to explore his life and lingering influence. Its alternating chapters — odd-numbered chapters covering anecdotal tales of Jarry’s twisted times, even-numbered ones documenting his biography proper — play on one of Jarry’s favorite tropes: the mirror or double. His life was his work was his life, and as Regent of the Collége de ‘Pataphysique, Brotchie has studied both very closely. And it shows: This bulky biography is the most complete chronicle of Jarry’s life available.
This proud picture of human grandeur is unfortunately an illusion and is counterbalanced by a reality that is very different.
— C.G. Jung
Bringing together Jarry’s life-long loves of alcohol, bicycles, and sex, The Supermale is an allegory of extremes. As Bettina Knapp (1989) writes, “The bicycle, the Perpetual Motion Food Machine, the dynameter, and the Machine to Inspire Love suggest a takeover by the very instruments designed to alleviate pain and suffering and facilitate daily living,” At the center of this collusion of bodies and machines lies the 10,000-mile race, an analogue to the real race of similar lengthy proportions — and to the extremes winners will go to win. Knapp adds, “Even more dangerous, perhaps, is the fact that machines increasingly cut people off from nature in general and from their own nature, in particular” (p. 28). If this story and its lessons haven’t damn near come true recently, then I’m reading it all wrong.
Brotchie, Alastair. (2011). Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Jarry, Alfred. (1965). Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician. Cambridge, MA: Exact Change.
Jarry, Alfred. (2001). Adventures in ‘Pataphysics: Collected Works I. London: Atlas Press.
Jung, C. G., 1957/1990. The Undiscovered Self. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Knapp, Bettina L. (1989). Machine, Metaphor, and the Writer: A Jungian View. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Raunig, Gerald. (2010). A Thousand Machines: A Concise Philosophy of the Machine as Social Movement. New York: Semiotext(e).
Yu, Charles. (2010). How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. New York: Vintage.
Steampunk, that excitingly innovative yet alienatingly weird subculture, possesses hints of nostalgia, punk-rock attitude, and a love for self-styled, homemade gadgets. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling provided an easy touchstone with their 1990 book The Difference Engine (Bantam Spectra), a revisionist history of the world in which Charles Babbage actually finished a steam-powered calculating machine and the information age preceded the industrial revolution. Another great example is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). The movie’s ontology operates atop what Barry Brummett (1999) points out is a machine metaphor. He writes, “Several references within the film make it clear that the characters regard their society as if it were a machine” (p. 122). Certainly Babbage aimed at divining this universal machine or at least harnessing its hidden power (see Spufford & Uglow, 1996; as well as Babbage’s memoirs, 1864; 1994), and so it goes with steampunk as a whole.
This strange machinery is keeping you from seeing me.
— Ride, “Leave Them All Behind”
After applying a twisted version of media archeology in his last book, Jussi Parikka has come to explicate the approach proper. Under the playful guise of legitimizing a steampunk approach to media studies, What is Media Archeology? (Polity, 2012) introduces the field with just as much fun and fervor. It makes way more sense that it seems to at first. Steampunk, so named to contrast it with cyberpunk, looks to the past as well as the future and wonders whether certain initial conditions could change the outcome of our machinic media-madness. Digging up pieces of the past, media archeology seeks the same. So, beyond the weak tie to a sci-fi subgenre, what is media archeology? Parikka breaks it down on his website like this:
If you ask Erkki Huhtamo or Siegfried Zielinski, you might get a different answer than from asking me. For Huhtamo, it is the recurring topoi/topics of media culture; for Zielinski, a poetic exploration of deep times and variantology; and so forth. For me, it is an exciting theoretical opening to think about material media cultures in a historical perspective. However, it expands into an experimental set of questioning about time, obsolescence, and alternative histories as well. In one way, it is about analyzing the conditions of existence of media cultural objects, processes and phenomena. It picks up on some strands of ‘German media theory’, but connects that to other debates in cultural theory too. I like what Bernhard Siegert has said about the early ethos of media archaeology being that of Nietzschean gay science — experimental, exploratory, radical. Perhaps in this vein, media archaeology is one answer to the need to think transdiscplinary questions of art, science, philosophy, and technology.
Following Michel Foucault, Friedrich Kittler, Paul Virilio, Katherine Hayles, Geert Lovink and Jeffrey Sconce, among others, the field has a pedigree, and Parrika’s book is the first to align its lineage. Further afield, Media Archeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, edited by Parikka and his colleague Erkki Huhtamo (University of California Press, 2011), samples the many flavors of media archeology. In many ways, the field offers an alternative to simply historical views of media (see Wolfgang Ernst, this volume). It is “first and foremost a methodology,” as Geert Lovink (2004) put it, “a hermeneutic reading of the ‘new’ against the grain of the past, rather than telling the histories of technologies from past to present” (p. 11). For example, citing Howard Rheingold‘s discussions of the development of Apple’s Smalltalk (primarily by Alan Kay; see Tools for Thought, 1985), and Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, 1977) via the germinal book Design Patterns (Addison-Wesley, 1994), Casey Alt illustrates how object-orientation pushed programmers from mere computer programming to media-making. By allowing them to see the machine as many machines, each with access to all of the machine’s resources, they could see potential past its place as one big computing device.
Also consider the indexing of dead media. Media are “dead” based on their manufacture, adoption, business viability, etc. (or lacks thereof rather), but all of these aspects vary, overlap, and waver in and out of relevance. “Radio didn’t kill newspapers, TV didn’t kill radio or movies, video and cable didn’t kill broadcast network TV;” writes Bruce Sterling, “they just all jostled around seeking a more perfect app.” From the onset of the digital and imaginary media to dead devices and the world of sound, finding these (non)lineages as such and predicting the present is what media archeology is all about. As Manuel De Landa (2000) wrote, “Human history is a narrative of contingencies, not necessities, of missed opportunities to follow different routes of development, not of a unilinear succession of ways to convert energy, matter, and information into cultural products” (p. 99). Indeed.
So, what if Charles Babbage had finished the Difference Engine? What if one cog in the universal machine were different? What happens when dead media come back to life? Outside of the speculations of steampunk and science fiction, media archeology provides a method for finding out. If you’re interested in a finding a new way to how we got to today, these two books are the place to start.
Babbage, Charles. (1864; 1994). Passages from the Life of a Philosopher. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press
Brummett, Barry. (1999). Rhetoric of Machine Aesthetics. Westport, CT: Praeger.
De Landa, Manuel. (2000). A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. New York: Zone Books.
Gardener, Mark. (1992). Leave Them All Behind [Recorded by Ride]. On Going Blank Again [Record]. United Kingdom: Creation Records.
Huhtamo, Erkki & Parikka, Jussi (Eds.). (2011). Media Archeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Lovink, Geert. (2004). My First Recession: Critical Internet Culture in Transition. Rotterdam, Netherlands: NAi/V2.
Milchan, Arnon (Producer), & Gilliam, Terry. (Writer/Director). (1985). Brazil [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Universal Studios.
Parikka, Jussi. (2012). What is Media Archeology? Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Rheingold, Howard. (1985). Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Spufford, Francis & Uglow, Jenny. (1996). Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time, and Invention. London: faber & faber.
It’s time once again for the annual Summer Reading List. This is my tenth year of compiling reading recommendations from fellow scholars, musicians, artists, and other bookish friends. This year that includes regulars like Howard Rheingold, Douglas Rushkoff, Dave Allen, Paul Saffo, Zizi Papacharissi, Steven Shaviro, Ashley Crawford, McKenzie Wark, Alex Burns, Peter Lunenfeld, Brian Tunney, and myself, as well as newcomers Nick Harkaway, Lance Strate, Mark Amerika, Tricia Wang, Dominic Pettman, Jussi Parikka, Eduardo Navas, David Preston, and Barry Brummett. There’s a wide-ranging, far-reaching pile of books below to be sure. My own list has doubled since I read through all of these.
I’m stoked on publishers I love and who have been very supportive being in the list multiple times. Among them are Red Lemonade, HiLo Books, Zer0 Books, The MIT Press, and The University of Minnesota Press. Many thanks to everyone who provides us reading material and everyone who contributed to the list — this time and for the past ten years. I’m just a guy who loves to read and the support is mad appreciated.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that as the shift to e-books gains further adoption, there are insights from both sides of the new digital divide in the following list. As always, the book links on this page will lead you to Powell’s Books, the best bookstore on the planet. Read on for various thoughts on many current and classic reads.
George Dyson Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (Pantheon, 2012): It is a little slow and overly detailed at the beginning but becomes extremely rich when it gets to Johnny von Neumann, a man who is as little known as he was important, and the end is a truly grand and perhaps frightening broad vision of the state and future of digital life.
I’ll be kicking off with Evening in the Palace of Reason (Harper Perennial, 2006), James Gaines’ extraordinary history of J S Bach’s encounters with Frederick the Great and what they mean. It’s the clash between two radically different perceptions of the world. The book is an amazing lens through which to understand a fragment of history and various threads which run through to the present day. Plus it’s crackingly dramatic.
Then there’s Ned Beauman’s Boxer Beetle: A Novel (Bloomsbury, 2011), which everyone raved about a while ago but I never got to. I’ve just been sent his new book, The Teleportation Accident, which is superb. Boxer Beetle sounds like something Borges might have written if he’d been a drunken Irish libertine. It is apparently a crazed romp featuring riots, sex, murder, Darwinism, and invented languages. Now you know as much as I do.
William Gibson‘s Distrust That Particular Flavor (Putnam Adult, 2011) has been burning a hole in my pocket for a month. I’ve dipped into it, and I already know it’s fascinating, but I haven’t really had time to sit down with it and get to know it. The early sections tell me that we have different ways of working and thinking about writing, but that somehow the differences are complementary rather than oppositional, and I just feel he broadens my mind.
I have an advanced reading copy of Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son (Flux, 2012). Tom has turned out something which may end up as the next His Dark Materials. It’s not always easy reading work by people you like, but having read the first couple of chapters I’m feeling pretty confident that he won’t let me down.
I don’t have a lot of reading time over the summer. Actually, less than I normally do. But I plan to read Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, whatever draft of Cintra Wilson’s upcoming masterwork she’ll let me look at, Howard Rheingold’s new book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (MIT Press, 2012), and a radium-age sci- fi novel by Edward Shanks called The People of the Ruins that HiLo Books will be releasing this year, and that I hope to blurb. I’m also finally learning Python from a big O’Reilly book by Mark Lutz appropriately titled Learning Python that Mark Pesce bought me for my 50th birthday. Never too late to learn a new programming language!
I have spent the last few months teaching in Paris, so my summer reading list has a Gallic flavor this year. Francoise Mallet-Joris’ The Illusionist (Cleis Press, 2006) does not get the attention that her near-namesake Francoise Sagan gets for her sexually precocious bon-bons of the same era, but it seems to be more evocative, gender-blurring, and intriguing. Irina Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (Vintage, 2007) renders the Nazi occupation of France with an absolutely singular and unsentimental voice (and the letters from her husband, included in the appendix, desperately soliciting the authorities for information of her whereabouts and condition are among the most wrenching things I’ve ever read). Also, I’m told Elizabeth Bowen’s A House in Paris (Anchor, 2002) is an over-looked classic of English modernist literature, and stands as one of the most subtle melodramas ever written; so that’s definitely on the list. Then, as a palate-cleansing chaser, I will read part three of Henri de Montherlant’s amusingly astringent (and let’s face it, misogynist) series of books collected as The Girls (Picador, 1987).
Finally, I hope to find the time to read John Crowley’s eccentrically fantastical tale Little, Big (William Morrow, 2006), since I’m intrigued by Harold Bloom’s blurb: “A neglected masterpiece. The closest achievement we have to the Alice stories of Lewis Carroll.” Seems like perfect upstate New York hammock reading . . . if I am lucky enough to find such a thing.
Every now and then I will read something because I need to read it. The book, journal or article will usually have some relation to my research which will then feed into my own writing and art projects. The vast majority of these sources come from writers who I have no personal connection to but who I am very grateful for having uncovered some data points that I can sample from and remix into my own creations.
But then there are other works that are made by artists, writers, theorists, and others whom I personally know, have met in the best of circumstances, or have simply met online while conducting my daily social media rituals.
It’s these latter works that I generally save for summer reading. This summer I have truly lucked out as there are quite a few titles that I eagerly anticipate digging into while simultaneously finishing my Museum of Glitch Aesthetics project. As you will soon see, even the titles of the books are enough to warrant a closer inspection of the writing therein:
I have just finished two books. Novels that have enthralled me like no others in quite some time. Both debuts from two gifted writers – one Irish one French. City of Bohaneby Kevin Barry (Greywolf Press, 2012) and HHhH from Laurent Binet (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012) are so startlingly original it seems unfair to compare them to other literary endeavors, yet in literature as in digital actually, the new new thing is rarely completely new.
Page 5, City of Bohane:
‘Did he have it coming, Jen?’
‘Don’t they always, Cusacks?’
Logan shaped his lips thinly in agreement.
‘The Cusacks have always been crooked, girl.’
Jenni was seventeen that year but wise beyond it. Careful she was, and a saucy little ticket in her lowriders and wedge heels, her streaked hair pineappled in a high bun. She took the butt of a stogie from the tit pocket of her white vinyl zip-up, and lit it.
‘Get enough on me plate now ‘cross the footbridge, Mr H.’
‘I know that.’
‘Cusacks gonna sulk up a welt o’ vengeance by ‘n’ by and if yer asking me, like? A rake o’ them tossers bullin’ down off the Rises is the las’ thing Smoketown need.’
‘Cusacks are always great for the old talk, Jenni.’
‘More ‘n talks what I gots a fear on, H. Is said they gots three flatblocks marked Cusacks ‘bove on the Rises this las’ while an’ that’s three flatblocks fulla headjobs with a grá on ‘em for rowin’, y’check me?’
‘All too well Jenni.’
That conversation takes place 50 years in the future in a city in the Southwest of Ireland. Things have not improved economically. Being Irish, Barry clearly has an ear for the cadence and lilt of Ireland’s working class phrasing and further deconstructs it as if everything now, here in the future is only spoken, where words are no longer pressed to paper. The palpable violence that ghost-shades the entire book reminds me of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962).
Page 1, A Clockwork Orange:
‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither.
And as I consider the language and grammar deconstructions of both those chapters, the upending of rules as if rules in literature ever mattered, I’m reminded of Russell Hoban’s classic post-apocalypse novel, Riddley Walker(Indiana University Press, 1998), a telling of history by the survivors that couldn’t be written – it was an oral history.
Hoban went beyond Burgess and Barry by taking the grammar deconstruction to its obvious place in a post-apocalyptic world, a place where there were no longer written words. Language then became free of grammatical constraint, where punctuation in oral history was not mandatory- it was personal. The speaker or narrator decided whether to pause or exclaim for effect, or not..
Page 1, Riddley Walker:
On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyert he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and ther we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, ‘Your tern now my tern later.’ The other spears gon in then and he wer dead and the steam coming up off him in the rain and we all yelt, ‘Offert!’
In all three of these books the central characters are “telling” not writing. The only narrative they’re left with is oral history.
In future the digital version of this will be known as Twitter.
In HHhH (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012), Laurent Betin goes back into history to the period in Nazi Germany just prior to World War 2. It is, ostensibly, a historical novel, one that follows the rise through the ranks of the SS and SA, of the cruel Nazi, Rienhard Heydrich, who became too well known as the sinister figure “the Butcher of Prague.”
Yet is it? Heydrich did exist and he did commit atrocities across Europe during the war, but Betin is not satisfied with the genre. He wrestles openly in the book with his fear of memory polluting his attempts, as Brett Easton Ellis puts it, at “neutral, journalistic honesty.” Or as Wells Tower says “HHhH is an astonishing book – absorbing, moving, for the agony and acuity with which its author engages the problem of making literary art from unbearable historical fact.”
Here’s an example. Betin is describing how fighters had slipped out of Czechoslovakia and into France where they joined with the French army to battle the Germans:
…a few months later it will be practically a whole division and it will fight alongside the French army during the war. I could write quite a lot about the Czechs in the French army: the 11,000 soldiers, made up of 3,000 volunteers and 8,000 expatriate Czech conscripts, along with the brave pilots, trained at Chartres, who will shoot down or help to shoot down more than 130 enemy planes during the Battle of France.. But I’ve said that I don’t want to write a historical handbook. This story is personal. That’s why my visions sometimes get mixed up with known facts. It’s just how it is.
Actually, no: that’s not how it is. That would be too simple. Rereading one of the books that make up the foundation of my research – a collection of witness accounts assembled by a Czech historian, Miraslav Ivanov, under the title The Attack on Heydrich – I become aware to my horror, of the mistakes I’ve made concerning Gabcik.
Remember this a novel about a true story. We know from history much of the story. Yet does the book by Miraslav Ivanov mentioned above even exist? Does/did Ivanov?
As David Lodge points out “Binet has given a new dimension to the nonfiction novel by weaving his writerly anxieties about the genre into the narrative, but his story is no less compelling for that…”
It is truly a work of art. And I believe that now I’ve read it, it deserves its place on my bookshelf as a future classic, where someone else can pick it up and consider its heft, both literally and figuratively.
Something that an e-reader cannot provide.
Recently I bought two books by Hans Keilson, of which Comedy in a Minor Key: A Novel (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011) is the first that I have read. Keilson was born in Berlin in 1909 and during World War II he joined the Dutch resistance. It too is a short novel and is the story of a young Dutch couple who during the war take in and hide a Jew they know as Nico, then when he dies of pneumonia they must dispose of his body. It was written in 1947, so just after the war ended, and one gets the sense when reading it, that no it is semi-autobiographical.
As I note above that book was written in 1947 and recently I’ve been picking up books from the past rather than the present: Essays In Disguise (Knopf, 1990) by Wifrid Sheed (Read – amazing!), In the Next Galaxy (Cooper Canyon Press, 2004) by Ruth Stone (Poetry) (Reading now), and X20: A Novel of (not) Smoking (Harper Perennial, 1999) by Richard Beard (Up next).
To segue to fiction, I’ll be reading Thomas Malone’s Watergate: A Novel (Pantheon, 2012), because the ‘70s still fascinate, J.G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come (Liverlight, 2012), because even late Ballard is better than no Ballard, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (Orbit, 2012), because people who imagine interesting futures are more necessary than ever. Last year, I claimed I’d start and finish David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (Back Bay Books, 2006) over the summer. This year, I’ll just claim to finish it. But you never know…
This summer I am reading material that I started earlier in the year. I tend to read various books at the same time.
In terms of fiction, I am finishing Kicking, a novel by Leslie Dick (City Lights, 2001). I ran into a copy of this book quite a few years ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but never got around to it. Leslie Dick is a former teacher of mine from Cal Arts who often lectured on psychoanalysis. She clearly makes use of her knowledge of Freud in this novel for key moments. The novel takes place in the seventies between New York and London. It is a third person narrative of the coming of age of Connie, a middle class kid who finds herself in a love triangle that moves between the two cities. It is interesting to wonder how some of the content in the novel may be inspired by Dick’s personal experiences in the respective cities. It’s a good read, though at times it feels a bit too “bourgeois” in the struggle the hip kids are having with the burden to live with no clear direction, and indulging occasionally in drugs.
I am also finishing The Difference Engine (Bantam Spectra, 1991), a joint collaboration of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. I love used book shops, and one of my favorites is in San Diego’s 5th street and University, where they have a large collection of sci-fi. In one of my last stays in San Diego, I bought the book and did not get to read it until recently. I’m almost done with it. It’s really great to see how the styles of the two sci-fi writers blend into one. It’s a story of an alternate reality, a what-if scenario, in which the United States did not shape out to be as it is now: Texas is independent, The Confederate States have an association, and the territory on the North-West is unclaimed. In this scenario England became a major global power in part because Charles Babbage got to actually develop his difference engine, thus starting the informational revolution much earlier. It’s a bit tedious at times, but very good to read. Well researched too.
I am also reading Capote: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 1988) by Gerald Clarke. The film Capote is actually based on this biography. I decided to read it after I saw the film years ago. But first I read other works by Truman Capote, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Signet, 1959) and In Cold Blood (Random House, 1966). Reading Capote’s biography is fascinating. It’s actually written like a novel. Gerald Clarke is a very good researcher. Admittedly, this book finds itself at the crux of my research because in part I read literature and related creative material to develop my own art projects. I guess this book is my transition to work-related reading.
I often cite Adorno in my own research, but have to admit that one must spend extreme in-depth time with his writing to realize that he arguably was the ultimate optimist about the quality of life. The books are not easy reads if one is impatient, but that is the point of his writing: One must slow down to understand things in life. Reading these books leads me to hope that one day academics who try to sound hip will not be so dismissive during conferences about Adorno’s misunderstood position on the possibilities of culture.
This year I started a new job as creative director at Timber Press. Among other things, this opportunity has lit the fire under a long-smoldering interest in electronic publishing: what it is, how it works, what the future holds. I’ve been spending a lot of time comparing e-book “design” and e-reader function, reading about new ways to present words and pictures, and trying to avoid saying “content” too often.
So far the thing I like the most is reading magazines and newspapers, particularly the New Yorker and the New York Times, on a tablet like the Kindle Fire or iPad. I’ve subscribed to the New Yorker for as long as I can remember, and my grandmother, who got me hooked on it, was a subscriber since the 1930s. And now, after a stretch of mostly collecting New Yorkers by my bedside rather than reading them, I have access to all of the magazines on a little device that I can mostly carry wherever I want to go. So I’m catching up, for the first time in a long time. And I love the way the magazine reads on these medium-sized screens. The apps for the Fire and the iPad are both good; the iPad is better, but both offer very good typography and, occasionally, wonderful extras, like excerpts from books or bonus photos.
I like how magazines are using tablet versions to expand the reach of their graphic design. For example, WIRED has some beautiful and striking animated photo illustrations in their recent issues, and they’ve taken full advantage of the tablet environment for things like gear reviews, where flipping through a series of reviews of headphones, for example, is an interesting and interactive experience. They’re moving past skeuomorphism, breaking free of the page, and making publishing work in the tablet space.
Then there are magazines like Katachi, which is as much a demonstration of the possibilities of digital-publishing as it is a magazine. While the copy and editing is somewhat vapid or amateurish, the design and construction is fun to play with, and makes me imagine incredibly cool digital versions of some of the craft, design, and how-to books that we produce at work.
It’ll be a long while before e-books get to be that cool, though. In the few months that I’ve had this position, I’ve watched as my fabulous ideas about e-publishing are deflated by simple facts: e-books need to be marketed with other e-books, not as apps or special publications (or they won’t sell); there’s virtually no money in selling them (yet), so we can’t put any money into their development, really; creating some kind of beautifully functioning app is way, way, way out of our budget; and yes, it really is like www.1994.com, where the reader gets to “choose the font” — and a sack of other things that, from this graying book designer’s perspective, are just wrong about e-books.
As I mentioned, I like the tablets because of their access to periodicals, which seems like one of the highest purposes of a little minicomputer. I like all the other stuff, like email and Google docs (which I’m using to write this), that I can also get on my phone, but that feel much more comfortable on a tablet.
But books? I borrow an e-book from the library, load it on one tablet or another, read a few pages, forget the tablet in the drawer at work, and end up reading the rest of the book on my phone. Until e-readers (and e-books) offer a design or user experience that justifies carrying around the little minicomputer, I have a hard time seeing an advantage over reading on my phone, since most of my reading is done in transit. The disadvantages of reading on one’s phone are compensated, for me, by how much access I have to the device. I can pull it out on a crowded bus without so much as elbowing my neighbor. I can read in the bathroom, at the coffee shop, while walking down the street (but not crossing! i swear!), even while waiting for coffee or, um, whatever else one waits for.
Maile Meloy, everything she’s written — I got on a Meloy kick earlier this year. Her Young Adult novel The Apothecary (Putnam Juvenile, 2011) was especially enjoyable, as was her book of short stories, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It (Riverhead, 2010).
Some books I’m looking forward to reading this summer, in whatever form ends up being the most convenient or pleasant:
This is a list of what I am reading, what I want to read and what I hope to read — these three do not always meet, but one of the best things about summer (and other non-teaching time) is that one can plan. Planning is part of the fun.
Bernhard Siegert Passage des Digitalen (Brinkman U. Bose, 2003): Siegert is perhaps the most interesting of the current German media theorists, and one of the key people behind the concept of “cultural technique.” Passage des Digitalen is a massive work of cultural history, media theory and insight into a sort of a media archaeology of digital culture. This is approached through its “sign practices”; the visual, textual, spatial and design arrangements which articulate the longer history of media as cultural technique. Siegert has fascination with such non-obvious “media” objects, or design, as water/the ocean (relates also to information theory). He is one of the “culprits” in the past 20-30 years of media theory expanding to the fields of historians, linguists and other humanities – much before talk of “digital humanities” tried to grab the field. Ok, I am cheating a bit as I just finished reading this one, but I had to include it as it deserves an immediate reread!
A lot of the stuff on my to be read list are funnily enough about diagrams, lines and design – but part of media and cultural theory. A good example is the just published Gary Genosko book Remodelling Communication (University of Toronto Press, 2012) that I am reading now. Besides being an expert on Guattari, Genosko is also a communication and media philosopher and in this book his background as a meticulous and focused writer on communications theory comes clearest. He is able to find refreshing ideas from classical theories of communication such as Shannon and Weaver, as well as develop his Guattarian-influenced ideas of transmission as transformation. As such, there is a curious link to Siegert’s approach; Genosko’s focus on models of communication could be seen to emphasize this visual, diagrammatic side to how we think the most abstract events of communication in the age of technical media. Of course, Genosko is not so much a German media theorist than someone who is keen to elaborate the mixed semiotics (Guattari) of network communications environments. Hence, no wonder that he brings back old things, like Jakobson’s phatic aspect of communications, but in a fresh way.
Besides German media theory, Guattarian influenced diagrammatics, I will definitely try to read Tim Ingold’s Lines (Routledge, 2007) – finally. In addition, I never have enough time to focus on fiction, but the one that I am going to pick up any day now is Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House (Pyr, 2011). What pushed me to it was a tip from Nick Dyer-Witheford. Now, I cannot resist anymore. I’ve been more and more interested in Turkey and Istanbul since my first visit there last November. An articulation of European politics through the nanolevel as significant agent; cannot go wrong with that!
Besides planning possibles, I want to flag what is left out (because they will be published only after summer!): I wish I could add Ken Wark, Rosi Braidotti and Alex Galloway’s to the list, but that is post-summer reading list and another story….
This will be my first summer where I am not doing fieldwork in China, Mexico or some where in the US. So I’ll be soaking up sun in Brooklyn and feeding my heart lots of brain food in the form of a wonderful summer reading list. I haven’t read any books over one year because I’ve been in fieldwork, so there are many books that I want to read. But I managed to narrow down my list into two themes: 1.) ethnographic monographs written by ethnographers and 2.) creative non-fiction written by journalists & writers.
I’ve chosen several ethnographic monographs about how people learn capitalism. Coming from a sociology department, I’ve been heavily trained in Marxist theory. Marxism helps me understand how labor is a commodity and how people become alienated from their own work. But Marxism doesn’t help me understand why consumers want commodities, how financial markets work, and why capitalism continuously mutates. I’ve found three monographs that addresses the questions that Marxist theory doesn’t address.
Douglas E. Foley’s Learning Capitalist Culture: Deep in the Heart of Tejas (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), is a 36-year ethnographic study on how a Mexican-American community negotiates racial tensions with the dominant white population. Foley gives a biting account of how the very attempt for Mexcian youth to learn traditional American values can often reproduce class inequalities and exacerbate racial tensions. I’m really excited to read Foley’s response to Paul Willis’s argument about class reproduction in his seminal book, Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (Columbia University Press, 1981). I chose Foley’s book because his work is super relevant and will help me process what I’m watching in China – the arrival of rural migrants in cities and their consumption of games, clothes ,and entertainment in malls and online, often times mimicking elites but other times inventing new rituals. Foley’s book also brings up questions around the dominance of cultural markers that Pierre Bourideu brought up in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Harvard University Press, 1987).
Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Duke University Press, 2009), is an insider’s ethnographic account of the banking world on Wall Street. Her research reveals that macro market volatility is an ingrained part of corporate culture. Ho’s research provides so much insight into how banker’s ideas about their own self-worth reproduce our current financial system. In their world, volatility and liquidity are part and parcel to an “efficient” market and they believe in this so much that they hold themselves to the same standard. The everyday experience of job insecurity is normalized and valorized under the belief that only the best workers survive. I am quite obsessed with learning about financial history because I don’t think I can understand our world and China without a strong grasp of the ascent of financial capitalism. I am fascinated by why so many middle-class in China invest in the stock market and how they define “transparency.” And for investors outside of China, the question at the end of day is, how do I make money in a market with such little transparency. It’s so interesting to hear them ask this question when I think the US banking system is incredibly un-transparent. I want to understand how bankers define transparency in a profit-making context.
Emil A. Royrvik’s The Allure of Capitalism: An Ethnography of Management and the Global Economy in Crisis, is a view on our financial world from an organizational perspective. Royrvik’s several years of experience inside a transnational corporation reveals how managers create techniques to deal with financial crises, investments, and knowledge workers. I am excited to read Royrvik’s work because he took the time to document and understand modern corporate culture without shying away from political economy. I’m seeing this book as the academic version of The Office. I’ve been spending a lot of time with CEOs and managers in China so this book is super relevant to my fieldwork.
While ethnographers are known for capturing great stories, we aren’t necessarily known for storytelling. Why is that? Just as much as ethnography is an art in itself. so is storytelling. And like any other form of art, one can be trained into an art form and/or have some innate skills.
Ethnographers aren’t taught the methods of storytelling, such as tone, narrative arc, voice, and character development. We are taught the methods of ethnography. Depending on your academic discipline, ethnographers learn to report observations with as little interference from theory as possible or to marry observations to theories. I love ethnographies of both kinds, but sometimes they can be a bit dry.
Thought, it’s a bit unfair to except for ethnographers to become “writers.” Ethnographers have to dedicate so much time to explaining how they got their data and then contextualize it all within research questions, sampling biases, outliers, data interference, methodological decisions, theoretical arguments, and reflections. After addressing all these factors, the creative voice can be dampened. I’ve realized over the last few years that I’m not so sure I want to always write like an academic ethnographer. I don’t find writing ethnography for an academic audience to be very liberating or creative. And that’s ok. I see the value in it and I still want to write up my ethnographic fieldwork, but journal articles don’t accomplish what I believe is one of ethnography’s public projects — to engage a wide audience in universes that they may not have had a chance to witness — writers and journalists do a really good job at doing this. So my second list is comprised of non-fictional books from writers and journalists. (And there must be ethnographers who are great storytellers. Do you know of any? If so, please suggest!)
I’m re-reading Philip P. Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadows: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China (Simon & Schuster, 2009) because it’s so well-written, insightful, and relevant. He tells us about China told through the lens of several primary characters, which highly compliments of a character driven ethnographic work (the kind that I’ve been doing).
Philip P. Pan also suggested that I read Ted Conover’s Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders With America’s Illegal Migrants (Vintage, 1987). I’m super excited to read this because I research Mexican migration, so it’ll be fascinating to read a journalist’s recounting of migration after all these years of reading academic analysis of migration.
I’m re-reading Anand Giridharadas’s India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012) and Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (Penguin, 2003). Giridharadas’s and Chatwin’s book were the only books that I read cover to cover when I was in fieldwork last year. I want to re-read them again to analyze their storytelling techniques. Giridharadas splits his chapters up by themes, like Ambition and Love, and then in each chapter his characters appear, disappear, and re-appear. Chatwin writes in 3-5 pages sections and his sparse style brings his subject of interest to life – a geographic region that is known more for being cold than a goldmine of myths.
I have to sneak in one more book that doesn’t fit on my list at all! My colleague, Jenna Burrell, who I blog with on Ethnography Matters, has just published Invisible Users: Acting With TechnologyYouth in the Internet cafe of Ghana (MIT Press, 2012). There unfortunately is a shortage of ethnographic monographs, much less any that address technology use and Africa, so this is a very important contribution to the literature. I can’t wait to dive into this book over the summer.
And since I’m already sneaking a book in, let me also tell you about three other books. Whenever I read, I always have Manuel de Landa‘s One Thousand Years of Non-Linear History (Zone Books, 2000) within reach. de Landa’s book is my theory bible and every time I feel lost or need inspiration, I return to his book.
I often dream of what I read, so I have to douse myself with plenty of gossip magazines and something more spiritual to prepare myself for non-terrorizing dreams. I’m going to add Brian Eno’s A Year with Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno’s Diary (faber & faber, 1996) to my stack of gossip magazines that I need to catch up on.
And lastly, I love reading in other languages. I particularly love the way Spanish captures feelings — everything just feels softer, deeper, and meltier. I always return to Eduardo Galeano’s El Libro de Los Abrazos (English: Book of Embraces; W. W. Norton & Company, 1992) for inspiration, love, and peace. Galeano abandoned the long and linear historical essays for 3 to 20 lines of poetry to tell the stories of colonialism and everyday life in South America. His style of writing reminds us that writing can be in any shape.
Daniel Suarez Kill Decision (Dutton, 2012): It releases July 19th (I just read the galleys). It is an edge-of-one’s-chair, high-tech thriller that orbits around autonomous weaponized drones. Scarily, real, and plausible. Suarez is the author of New York Times bestsellers Daemon (Signet, 2009) and Freedom™ (Signet, 2011).
Samuel R. Delany Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (Magnus Books, 2012): Delany’s latest novel — his longest ever (over 800 pages) — skirts the boundaries between pornography, science fiction, and mainstream literary fiction. The book contains lots of explicit gay sex, but it also includes poignant meditations on memory and mortality. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders tracks the life of its protagonist, Eric Jeffers, from the age of 16 (in the present) right through until he is in his 1990s (in the late 21st century — this is what makes the book science fiction). Nothing dramatic happens in Eric’s life, even as he lives through a period of immense social and technological change. But that is precisely the point: Delany is interested in the textures of lived experience, even at its most humble. He offers us a history of human bodies, and their pleasures and pains. He also offers us a vision of community, as a widening circle of friendships and affiliations, cemented with acts of generosity and kindness. The novel’s sexual extravagance will shock some readers, while rocking the world of others. But in any case, the book offers us a humane vision of personal fulfillment and social justice, in spite of the terrors that surround us today.
Ian Bogost Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (University of Minnesota Press, 2011): Ian Bogost is best known as a designer, historian, and theoretician of computer games. But in this book, he discusses a wide range of “weird objects,” in order to answer the question of “what it’s like to be a thing.” Bogost encourages us to step beyond our anthropocentrism, and instead seek to comprehend other points of view: not only the points of view of animals, or other living things, but of inanimate objects as well. We do not live in a unified world, or in one that is organized around our own needs and interests; rather, we live amidst a cacaphonous multiplicity of things and processes — or what Bogost calls “unit operations” — each of which has its own features and its own set of possibilities. Bogost approaches this multifarious world as a philosopher, seeking to decipher the inner logic that makes things tick; but also as an engineer, not afraid to get his hands dirty as he explores, and dismantles, the strange contours and inner workings of nonhuman entities.
Adam Kotsko Why We Love Sociopaths (Zer0 Books, 2012): This short book offers us “a guide to late capitalist television.” Adam Kotsko considers why and how so many of the most compelling characters in television of the past decade (from Cartman to Dan Draper to Jack Bauer to Dexter) are sociopaths: figures who seem both to lack an understanding of social norms (they are devoid of human sympathy and any sense of guilt) and yet to be able to manipulate those norms masterfully for their own benefit. These figures seem to encapsulate everything that is horrible about social life in America today; and yet they are also figures of our own sympathetic identification, as if they offered the hope of overcoming the very ills of which they are the symptoms. Kotsko is a superb cultural critic, who deftly analyzes contemporary popular culture, with a keen eye toward his own (and our own) implication within the emotional currents that he describes.
Carl Freedman The Age of Nixon: A Study in Cultural Power (Zer0 Books, 2012): A definitive analysis of the strangely twisted life, personality, and political policies of our 37th President, Richard Milhous Nixon; together with some cogent discussion of why Nixon’s career is still (unfortunately) relevant to us today, 38 years after he toppled from power, and 18 years after his death.
Kieron Gillen Journey into Mystery (Marvel, trade paperbacks & ongoing comics series): The strangest and most interesting series in either the Marvel or the DC universes at the moment has to be Kieron Gillen’s take on the adventures and entanglements of Kid Loki.
Matt Fraction Casanova 3: Avarita (Marvel, 2012): Matt Fraction’s ongoing creator-owned comics series Casanova is a heady metafictional and pulp-fictional brew. I’ve recommended previous volumes in earlier summer reading lists, in one of which I wrote: “Imagine a 1960s spy-movie hero (James Bond, Matt Helm, Derek Flint) as reimagined by some crazed combination of Jorge Luis Borges, Groucho Marx, and Quentin Tarantino.” The same holds for the all-new volume 3, with individual issues on sale now, and available as a graphic novel in late July.
Sergio De La Pava A Naked Singularity: A Novel (University of Chicago Press, 2012): Comparisons to Wallace’s Infinite Jest (Back Bay Books, 2006) are inevitable. At 689 pages it is a sprawling maelstrom of ideas that bullets along with a narrative that has more in common with a Neal Stephenson epic such as Cryptonomicon(Goldmann, 2003). Like Infinite Jest and Don DeLillo’s Underworld (Scribner, 1998), De La Pava’s tale has a sport motif. But Wallace’s tennis fixation, and DeLillo’s powerful baseball setting, pale beside De La Pava’s orgasmic boxing tableaux.
On the surface A Naked Singularity could be described as a legal thriller, but one injected with musings about the nature of Television (always capitalized), recent discoveries in physics and pure courtroom slapstick that recalls Pynchon at his best (and a truly laugh out loud moment of scatological grotesqurie). There are musings on the Human Genome Project and a moment of correspondence between our protagonist, the long suffering Casi, and a death row inmate that is as moving as Wallace at his best. There’s enough paranoia for one to be reminded of a Philip K. Dick story and enough surrealism to keep a David Lynch fan content. It is both preposterous and profound, a philosophical thriller if you will set in a very gritty and very cold New York City haunted by a Golem-like creature that is depicted as a black void which could only be defeated by a naked singularity.
Ben Marcus’ stunning fourth book, The Flame Alphabet (Knopf, 2012). This is a tome that stuns at every turn, not the least because, for Marcus fans, it takes a twist into almost mainstream narrative. To be sure the obsessions remain intact; language, flesh, rubber, hair, wire, but unlike the disturbingly fractured nature of his previous works, Marcus holds the reins on an equally disturbing linear narrative.
It is intriguing how strongly family (especially children) feature in the recent wave of sub-apocalyptic North American fiction. Steve Erickson’s Our Ecstatic Days (Simon & Schuster, 2005), Jack O’Connell’s The Resurrectionist (Algonquin Books, 2008), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (Vintage, 2007), and Blake Butler’s There is No Year (Harper Perennial, 2011) all feature the shattered remnants of family and, in each, notions of communication are central. The real apocalypse is the one of loss. Not the loss of luxury items and creature comforts but the loss of true communication. Of Language itself.
If there is a resonating tonality to The Flame Alphabet it is the dangerously dulcet tones of the Surrealist master, J.G. Ballard who, like Marcus, masterfully draws one into a truly psychologically hallucinogenic world.
There are dark hints at the Holocaust, tickles of pop culture (the children render their parents into something very much like zombies after “eating” their brains with language). And there are border-line scholarly forays into the history of Hermeneutics. Marcus hasn’t lost his experimentalist edge so much as mutated it, morphed it into something slightly more digestible. But I emphasize slightly; one should adorn a mouth guard and sound-deadening gear before opening this book. And you should read this book in silence, alone. Very alone.
Brian Evenson Immobility (Tor Books, 2012): It’s not hard to imagine Evenson’s latest as a sequel to McCarthy’s The Road set several decades further into the future. The landscape is certainly as blasted, the noxious dust is almost as pervasive. Evenson isn’t as subtle as McCarthy; it is fairly apparent that this was nuclear Armageddon – the flashing light and the bizarre mutations. This is not Evenson’s first foray into the wasteland – in his 2002 Dark Property (Thunder’s Mouth) a woman carries a dying baby across a desert waste, in a devastatingly bleak book that pre-dates The Road by five years.
Evenson shares with Ben Marcus a fascination for both language and the hazards of structured belief systems. Both question the delusions of structured religiosity and they both question notions of self-perception. Immobility and The Flame Alphabet prove that a dark canvas can still illuminate.
Colson Whitehead Zone One: A Novel (Doubleday, 2011): Whitehead is by no means a genre writer. He is what is known as an award-winning “literary” writer with five previous books under his belt, thus a foray into the Zombie zone came as a surprise for many.
But Zone One is far more than just another zombie thriller. The book carries a burden of nostalgia for an older New York City, a far more multi-textured habitat, a place where “the city itself was as bewitched by the past as the little creatures who skittered on its back. The city refused to let them go.” This is not just a post-9/11 response (as Don DeLillo’s Falling Man clearly is), however the residents do suffer from PASD: “Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder.” It is just as much a knee-jerk reaction to a city embroiled in bureaucracy and a Kafkian labyrinth of miniscule rules, a city that once prided itself on bridled anarchy and smoke-filled bars with dim lights and solid camaraderie. (Ironically, given the life expectancy in Zone One, one of characters chain smokes pilfered cigarettes while being harangued about the habits’ dangers by another.) In what is no doubt a nod to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, what are left of the major corporations ‘sponsor’ the war effort. Looting regulations protect only the corporate brands that actively sponsor the fledgling government’s tactics.
It is, poignantly, the very minions of bureaucracy that suffer the worst fate, those who fill out pointless forms and photocopy meaningless documents ad nauseum. In Whitehead’s world there are different zombies – he never uses the term ‘zombie’ specifically, they are ‘the dead,’ ‘stragglers’ or ‘skels’ – short for skeletons. What Whitehead makes abundantly and chillingly clear is that the zombies are already here, toiling mindlessly in an office near you.
A fair percentage of the rest of the year shall be consumed by wallowing in Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), which, thus far, appears to be as mind-bendingly fabulous as I had hoped it would be.
I’m looking forward to reading Howard Rheingold’s latest book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (MIT Press, 2012). Howard’s books combine accessibility with media ecological insight, and in this book, Howard brings a practical, media literacy oriented approach to the great concern of finding balance among the services and disservices of new media.
I’ve been hearing really good things about Terrence Deacon’s recent work, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (W. W. Norton, 2011), as it relates contemporary thinking in systems theory (e.g., complexity, autopoiesis) to the question of consciousness, so I just recently added it to my list.
As a media ecology scholar, Elena Lamberti’s new contribution to McLuhan Studies, Marshall McLuhan’s Mosaic: Probing the Literary Origins of Media Studies (University of Toronto Press, 2012), is a must read, and her discussion of McLuhan’s relationship to Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Wyndham Lewis speaks very much to the question of methodology in our field. Christine M. Tracy’s The Newsphere (Peter Lang, 2012), which follows up on some of Neil Postman’s insights about news in the television age, is also on my list.
Speaking of Postman, I will be giving Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin, 1985) a close rereading for a new book project I’m working on, and along with it I’ll be rereading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1932) and Brave New World Revisited (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1952), and his later novel, Ape and Essence (Dee, 1948), another dystopian vision set in the aftermath of global warfare and destruction.
One book I’ve been meaning to get around to reading is The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath by Joe Lieberman and David Klinghoffer (Howard, 2011). I’m not sure if our 24/7/365.25 culture is quite ready to reverse its accelerated pace or retrieve the concept of the day of rest, but the Technology Shabbat movement is a response to our overheated media environment, and I’m interested in the topic as a media ecological practice, as well as a spiritual one.
Aaron C. Brown Red-Blooded Risk: The Secret History of Wall Street (John Wiley & Sons, 2012). Brown is risk manager at AQR Capital Management and a high-profile rocket scientist. Red-Blooded Risk introduced me to risk ignition: using “an optimal amount of risk” for “exponentially growing success” (p. 35). I had encountered this idea in the early trading careers of Bruce Kovner and Paul Tudor Jones II in the currency markets, and in the film Limitless: Brown provides a conceptual framework to understand their success. Brown has different views on the Dutch Tulipmania bubble; the Kelly Criterion; Harry Markowitz’s Modern Portfolio Theory, and Value at Risk. For how to use these insights, also read Dylan Evans’ Risk Intelligence: How to Live With Uncertainty (The Free Press, 2012). Brown’s previous book The Poker Face of Wall Street (John Wiley & Sons, 2006) persuasively argues that Wall Street’s roots lie in gambling and speculation.
Michael T. Klare The Race For What’s Left: The Global Scramble For the World’s Last Resources (Metropolitan Books, 2012). Klare is director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies at Amherst’s Hampshire College. Race focuses on the collision of resources scarcity, investment, international security, and geopolitical crises and flashpoints. Klare brings clear analysis to the Arctic, deep-offshore oil and gas drilling, mining, rare earths, hydrocarbons, and food production. As with Klare’s earlier books, Race is a primer to understand the volatility in global commodities markets, and the recent speculative bubble in rare earths.
John Lewis Gaddis George F. Kennan: An American Life (The Penguin Press, 2011). Kennan (1904-2005) was a United States diplomat, grand strategist and public intellectual credited with formulating the Cold War strategy of containment against the Soviet Union. The Yale historian Gaddis spent almost 30 years researching and 5 years writing this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. The sections on Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ (1946), ‘X’ article (1947), and stint at the US State Department (1947-50) are insightful about how advisers can influence policymakers, how deep knowledge and experience can shape leaders, and the challenges of navigating organizational politics. Kennan emerges as a complex, ambivalent figure who became a realist critic of US foreign policy and an award-winning diplomatic historian. Gaddis’s in-depth research takes the reader deep into Kennan’s mind. For a contrasting view, check out Marc Trachtenberg’s The Cold War and After: History, Theory, and the Logic of International Politics (Princeton University Press, 2012).
John Gerring Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework(second edition, Cambridge University Press, 2012). Gerring is a professor of political science at Boston University. A major insight of undertaking a political science PhD is how methodology is central to social sciences research. Gerring provides an integrative approach to conceptualizing research problems; descriptive arguments and measurements; causation; and pluralistic, inclusive ways to use different methodological traditions. Familiarity with research design and methods will give you the frameworks and tools to critically evaluate and synthesize information.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful (Riverhead, 2012): A year ago, for this very same list, I was knee deep in Paul Theroux travelogues beneath the depths of the Hudson River en route from Jersey City to Manhattan and back. With real books in my backpack, somewhere between half-eaten Clif Bars and that unopened can of Red Bull that lingers as a reminder that I aspire to be energetic but remain energy-less at the end of a typical day.
Years can be dynamic.
The Red Bull is gone (exchanged at a corner store in Jersey City for a bottle of seltzer), and suddenly I’m driving a car down Century Boulevard next to Los Angeles International Airport, listening to NPR because you can’t read and drive legally, even in Los Angeles. Last week just happened to be their own version of a Summer Reading List, and I listened contently, glad that for once, it didn’t involve politics.
A bookstore, I can’t remember whom, mentioned A Sense of Direction in passing. I heard the words “pilgrimage” and “writer” and that was enough for me to take a mental note of the book and download it later on the weird contraption that advertises diapers and lets me read books without going to a book store or library.
I am only a chapter or so into the pilgrimage. The dedicated pilgrimage has just started for that matter. But I’m taken by Lewis-Kraus’ sense of existential malaise and his attempts to come to terms with the fact that he should be writing, and living, but can’t get past the lives he’s started thus far.
He begins in San Francisco, blissfully living on the cheap with his engineer younger brother, after a relationship has crumbled. This works, for a time, but both decide to move on. (Gideon to Berlin, Micah to Shanghai.) While in Berlin, the author falls in with a crowd that does what Berlin asks of them: live for cheap, enjoy the now, smoke cigarettes and attend art openings.
Lewis-Kraus does all this and more, but never rises above the situation to cast judgment on his friends for simply being in Berlin. He sleeps with women in relationships, doesn’t read the books he’s committed to reading and debates the position of Jews in modern Germany. He casts doubt on himself, wonders what and where he “should” be going, and escapes, for a weekend, to Estonia.
There, he commits to a pilgrimage with a friend across the northern tip of Spain. And that is as far as I’ve gotten so far. But I’ve been hooked the past few hours on it. Lewis-Kraus’ writing is self-deprecating without reaching for a laugh button. He is honestly lost, searching for something to give purpose to his life, and openly inviting the reader on a journey that questions the past, embraces the idiosyncrasies of the present and wonders how to make sense of the future.
Nick Harkaway Angelmaker: A Novel (Knopf, 2012) and The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World (John Murray, 2012): Finally decided to order these after seeing them mentioned by people I respect a lot (e.g., Steven Shaviro, Charles Yu, William Gibson, et al.). The former is a surrealist noir novel like no other. The latter is an exploration of our device-riddled times (à la Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital), and may very well outmode my new book. Angelmaker is heady and heavy, but Harkaway’s prose is giddy in its grasp (see his recommendations above). This, Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Vintage, 2011), and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (Night Shade, 2010) are my selection of current-ish novels.
Matthew Battles The Sovereignties of Invention (Red Lemonade, 2012): These short stories baffle and bewilder even as they entice and engross. Matthew Battles is able to achieve in just a few pages what most writers can’t do in a whole book. Where some build machines, Battles sharpens blades. This tiny tome and its tiny tales betray his position as a Harvard librarian: His subject matter(s) and mastery thereof are seemingly limitless.
George Dyson Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (Pantheon, 2012): I ordered this on Howard Rheingold’s recommendation (see above). It’s as dense as he says it is, but it also rewards the patient read. It’s obvious early on that Dyson set out for this to be the definitive history of the birth of the digital.
As ever, I’m also reading and re-reading several older books. Among them are,
Bettina Knapp Machine, Metaphor, and the Writer: A Jungian View (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989): I’ve been dragging this book around for years since finding it at A Capella Books in Atlanta. I picked it up not only because it has “metaphor” in the title but also because the first chapter is about Alfred Jarry. I’ve read most of it once and a lot of it several times. Knapp’s approach is unique and generative, I revisit it regularly, and am planning to do so again in the coming weeks.
Anthony Wilden System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange (Tavistock, 1972): Josh Gunn recommended System and Structure to me during my comprehensive exams defense, and I wish I’d come across it sooner. Wilden’s bird’s-eye approach makes this a meta-book that ties all sorts of areas together, from systems theory and semiotics to psychoanalysis and structuralism. To say that Wilden’s work has been slept-on is a gross understatement.
Victor Turner Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Cornell University Press, 1974): Again with the metaphors… I’ve found my recent research drifting across the line into anthropology, and Victor Turner has become one of my favorites. His extensive ethnographic studies of ritual and rites of passage are illuminating and provide homologies galore. This and his The Ritual Process (Aldine de Gruyter, 1969), as well as Arnold van Gennep’s The Rites of Passage (University of Chicago Press, 1960) are my current sources. The same can be said for Mary Douglas, whose work I’ve also been devouring, especially Purity and Danger (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966) and Risk and Culture with Aaron Wildavsky (University of California Press, 1982). It’s good to cross the lines sometimes.
What are you reading this summer? Let us know below.
If bricolage is the major creative form of the twenty-fist century, then the archive is its standing reserves. Socrates famously worried about the stability of our memories as we moved from an oral to a written culture, and his concerns have been echoed in the move to digital archives. The pedigree of this technological Socratic shift is deep. When Thomas Edison first recorded the human voice onto a tin foil roll on December 6, 1877, he externalized and disembodied a piece of humanity. Jonathan Sterne writes that “media are forever setting free little parts of the human body, mind, and soul” (p. 289). By the time Edison patented the phonograph in 1878, the public was familiar and comfortable with the idea of preserved foods. As a cultural practice, “canned music” in John Philip Sousa’s phrase, was ripe for mass consumption. Envisioning a world without such “canned” media is difficult to do now. We preserve everything. The problem is not so much the authenticity of our entertainment and information, but how to parse the sheer expanse of it. Andreas Huyssen (2003) mused, “Could it be that the surfeit of memory in this media-saturated culture creates such an overload that the memory system itself is in constant danger of imploding, thus triggering fear of forgetting?” (p. 17).
Condense fact from the vapor of nuance.
— Juanita Marquez in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash
Alongside library science and other information archiving skills, forensics is a contemporary growth field. If we are to use our media as a sort of technological “Funes the Memorious,” what do we do when technological change outpaces its retrieval compatibility? You likely have (or have had) mass storage containers (e.g., cassettes, VHS tapes, floppy discs, etc.) that lack a device capable of reading them, ghosts of information past trapped in a black box forever. We’re all archivists whether we notice or admit it, but the gates to our archives have expiration dates. A recent trip to UT’s Harry Ransom Center revealed stacks of media unreadable by any technology on-site. William Gibson‘s electronic work Agrippa: Book of the Dead plays on this very trope of archival decay. The piece, set for a one-time reading, consists of a 300-line poem on a 3.5″ disc encased in a box made to look like a hard drive, is set to scroll once through and erase itself forever, a textual spectre set free from the archive after its single haunting episode. The pages of the included book version were treated with photosensitive chemicals which fade with exposure to light.
According to Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (The MIT Press, 2008; now available in paperback), There was one public performance of Agrippa. On December 9, 1992, at the Americas Society in uptown New York City, Penn Jillette read the poem aloud, which was projected on a big screen, exacerbating its scroll into oblivion. The event is fraught with rumor and lie, as the full text of the intentionally ephemeral Agrippa was posted online the next morning. The conditions of its hacking are detailed in full in Kirschenbaum’s book, and a collection of documents surrounding the work is available online. Another interesting artifact sprung from this event: Re:Agrippa, a choppy remix of videotaped footage from the single Agrippa public event, test patterns, and haunting voiceovers kludged together by the NYU students who “hacked” Agrippa‘s text for online consumption [runtime: 5:44]:
Our archive fever needs feeding. With its flickering signifiers and configurable nature, we consider the things on the screen temporary. But, as Kirschenbaum notes, in lieu of hard drives and other external devices (the main concern of his book), the visual display of the computer was originally considered a storage device. Now, crashed drives and outmoded media hide their secrets from everyone except those closest to the machine. Forensic scientists, not unlike those seen on that other screen, are more important than ever to our unstable memories. They can condense fact from the vapor of hidden nuance and open the gates to the archival entrails of dead media.
It should be noted that my conception of the archive and the haunting thereof owes a large debt to the teachings of Josh Gunn. Oh, there’s some unacknowledged Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Dick Hebdige, Bruce Sterling, and Kate Hayles in there as well.
Borges, Jorge Luis. (1964). Funes the Memorious. In Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. New York: New Directions.
Huyssen, Andreas. (2003). Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. (2008). Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Stephenson, Neal. (1993). Snow Crash. New York: Spectra.
Sterne, J. (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.