Esther’s Space- journey through my life

March 31, 2008

If the world was a perfect place, I would eloquently argue…

Filed under: ENG 576: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 12:06 am

That’s kind of as far as my eloquence goes in terms of articulating what I want to will write about. So, as far as it can be organized, here is what I have:

Topic: urban fiction

The premise I’m beginning with: The genre of urban fiction (or any of its alternate titles) is hugely popular among a very specific audience, and, for lack of better language, I would describe the audience as not ‘white-‘ or ‘mainstream ideals-‘ identified. There is evidence of both habitual readers and generally reluctant readers reading this genre, voraciously, and, while an urban novel might draw a reader into the habit of reading, it generally does not lead the reader into other genres, though he/she might begin reading much more often, selecting from the urban fiction genre. The urban novel has been a phenomenon that no one really expected to be as successful as it has been, with lots of money being made, and urban novels beginning to invade and overflow the ‘more respectable’ authors of the African American fiction section in bookstores.

The argument to be made:  What I want to discuss is the ability for this genre to so alienate academia and readers who would be described as white-identified or adhering to the hegemony of a traditional American education system that it (the genre) has created a ‘protected space’ around it, protection from appropriation into the language, conventions, and criticism of the (largely white) academia. This isolation allows the authors and publishers to explore variations on the way stories are written, why they’re written, and who they’re written for, and readers are given the opportunity to (and they do) ‘make meaning’ of the text in ways that would be considered unacceptable in a formal educational setting or environment where such criticism or analysis takes place.

Aspects I’m still working on:  Is it that academia just doesn’t want to appropriate this genre?  Is it the same kind of ‘trash’ that romance novels are, making it superfluous or dismissable in the eyes of those who make such decisions?  Or, now that we have postmodern theory, is it placed on some sort of continuum of literacy and reading and meaning-making that makes it important, in at least some way?

Number two, what is it that protects this genre from academic literary study?  Is it the ‘sex, drugs, and drama’ that the genre is built upon?  But none of those themes are alien to the canon.  Is it the largely urban settings?  Well, I’m pretty sure Dr. Rice has taught classes specifically on ‘the city’ in novels, so that can’t be it.  Is the problem then not with what urban novels have, but instead with what they are missing?  And, how could I suggest what they are missing when there is no handbook outlining the rules of what a novel should be in the year 2008.  Is it all about the fact that the urban novel rarely provides ‘solutions’ to the problems of sex, drugs, or drama, but instead tends to  promote those activities? (alternate moral code)

Number three, language to describe those reading and not reading urban novels.  All ethnicities read and do not read the novels, so what separates the readers and not readers?  From what I’ve gathered (though I’m not sure I could prove much of it), education level, socio-economic status, geographic distance to urban centers, and, to a degree, non-white racial status all tend to inform who reads these novels, but none of these characteristics are exclusive of readers or non-readers.  But, not everyone is reading them, and I’m not sure how to indicate the split.

Major problem I’ve run into:  It’s pretty darn hard to find articles discussing the alienation of academia in academic journals.  I’ve found a bit in education circles discussing the challenges of minorities feeling alienated from the  traditional texts used in classrooms, but not so much of literary scholars discussing their feelings about the urban novel.  I’m afraid that this paper might  require a lot of conjecture, which is certainly a dangerous thing that I’m not willing to do.

Any suggestions or help would be greatly appreciated.

March 23, 2008

Hypertext, Filmtext, Futuretext?

Filed under: ENG 576: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 9:28 pm

Both Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl and Mark Amerika’s Filmtext provide interesting postmodern formats for the future of narrative. They embody the fragmentation of the self like none other I’ve seen. Beyond that ability to prove themselves new, different, and unique, both authors quickly lose me.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re both smart, and they worked very hard to be super-special. On the MIT communications forum website, Shelley Jackson writes:

The project of writing, the project of life, even, is to dissolve that tumor. To dismantle the project is the project. That is, to interrupt, unhinge, disable the processes by which the mind, glorying in its own firm grip on what it wishes to include in reality, gradually shuts out more and more of it, and substitutes an effigy for that complicated machine for inclusion and effusion that is the self.

Yes, she does this. She takes apart the narrative and frees it for nearly random navigation by the reader, ensuring that every reader will have a unique experience, and, perhaps, a different reading of the text. Once I figured out the system (much like Nell and her Turing Machines), navigation got much easier, and I lost interest in the subject. I feel like I already knew the point of the entire project before I began interacting with it, and it didn’t reveal anything new to me. Largely, I felt like it was a new way to read a standard novel. I guess, according to the above quote, she was being a little more revolutionary than I found her to be.

I was much more surprised at how difficult it was for me to gain access to Mark Amerika’s project. Maybe it was the lack of recognizable narrative, but I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to ‘work’ the tools. I read the things, watched the videos, listened to the strange flying digital role of parchment, but I couldn’t really find an entry point, or any point beyond the frustration of trying to figure out how to navigate. The closest I came to what I would traditionally recognize as success in a game such as this would be the last couple of chapters, where he begins to introduce ‘music’ or more appropriately, sounds as part of the reader-generated experience of writing/reading. If I’m not being clear, I’m referring to the one where there is the bar of light that strikes a note every time you pass the mouse over that. For some reason, I found it incredibly entertaining.  It did make me think of the writing of music and music as a narrative, so I found the interpolation of music or the idea of sound into both written and visual language/concepts to be an important aspect of the future of text or the experience of reading a text.

My big hangup with both of these is access.  I think that in our lovely little postmodern life postmodern fiction needs to be accessible to a variety of levels of readers; everyone should be able to get something out of it.  While Jackson’s doesn’t fail so much in this area, Amerika’s completely does.  Readers need to be able to find some way, any way, of identifying with the text, or they won’t care.  Another potential issue if this genre is the fact that there is no definitive middle or end of the project.  It is possible to ‘finish’ Patchwork Girl without reading the entire thing.   This makes me wonder about what level of committed interaction the creator is getting from his/her readers.  We’ve all had that novel that wasn’t very good, but we still felt like we should continue reading it, just to see if it gets any  better.  That impetus is much shorter-lived with these fragmented hypertexts, where it is apparently possible to enter or leave at any moment easily.  If this really is the future of narrative, it seems like it will only appeal to a select population, and it will alienate many others.

March 19, 2008

Final Response to The Diamond Age

Filed under: ENG 576: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 9:12 pm

This has been niggling me (if that’ s an acceptable way to use that word) throughout the book, and I might have found a way to finally articulate it: Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is concerned with the question, “if we live in a world where anything is possible, what do we want?

Looking back over the book with this question in mind, a number of Stephenson’s (since, yes, I am going to attribute the ideas to him) ideals or notions of what a functionable society needs are revealed. In a world that he could have created to be anything, he chooses very specific items and themes to incorporate.

For example, the Primer itself is an enormous part of the narrative. It represents both The Book, and education. Through it’s functioning with Nell, it could indicate to us, the reader, that books and education, in the correct framework and support network, can enact massive social and individual change in a positive way.

More generally speaking, look at the example of the Victorians. They exist at the highest level of society, because they (or originally, the first neo-Victorians) (may/must have) asked my question of themselves, and decided to pursue authenticity as their primary achievement in a seemingly limitless world.

As Katie commented on in her post, it would seem like the future world of any possibilities would break down, culturally and geographically, the things that separates cultures, races, or just groups of people. But, in this novel, Stephenson does not. The next appropriate question to ask is ‘why?’ I will not purport to have the answer, but it seems like the answer might be connected to ideas of culture and race as more than just socially constructed, and Kim discussed in class, as well as something to do with the human need to ‘other’ in order to maintain a strong sense of ‘self’. Stephenson is suggesting that there is a natural tendency for people to group with those of a similar race, and the human investment in maintaining those dividing boundaries and groupings.

Another, probably related, item that Stephenson incorporates into his world is a fairly rigid (patriarchal) hierarchy that society is built upon. Where is the egalitarian view of the future? Not here. Why? I don’t know. But, I do know that even a revolution isn’t capable of doing away with heirarchies of power. Except, after the revolution, the power is in the hands of a woman, one woman, to be exact, and she is followed by large population of ‘faceless, nameless’ (as Kim put it) females that work completely as a community, not as individuals interested in achieving a higher status. This makes for a fairly frightening world that Stephenson ends the book with. The future is full of………..? Is it the power of love that Nell has realized? Probably not, since she will run her part of the world using ‘faceless, nameless’ girls that have never learned the concept of thinking of their own best interests above those of the community, or needing something that cannot be shared with the entire community.

Again, I’ve run into the same problem I’ve had through the second half of the book; every time I try to mentally work my way through something, I continually run up against a wall.  I never thought I’d say this, but I am actually really looking forward to the prospect of being able to write my next post on a close reading of myself in the act of reading.  What has become of me?

March 17, 2008

Umm, yeah, so the ending

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 8:38 am

The ending of The Diamond Age, Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer was both surprising and appropriate. Stephenson didn’t present any new plot twists that were unbelievable based on the background that he gave us (all 350 pages of it), but wasn’t what I was expecting, either.

There was serious re-affirmation of the importance and usefulness of human interaction and nurturing above any level of education. Stephenson, excuse me, the narrator does not even attempt subtlety in his/her emphatic suggestion of such. Nell goes into the Drummers’ lair to save her mother, and the mouse army is an obvious illustration of the failure of a computer (or basic Turing machine, or a television, for that matter) to raise a child.

Is there anything positive about technology or the future in this novel?

This question has been plaguing me throughout the novel.  While there is a great deal of technology in Stephenson’s depiction of the future, it all comes with it’s own, very real, failings and drawbacks.

It seems that we end the novel on the image of the triumph of human emotion.  Nell has battled her way across a number of obstacles and outsmarted every computer she has come across.  But her final, and most difficult task, is saving the person that she loves most in the world, her ‘mother.’  In saving Miranda, Nell is overcoming the power of the information network that the Drummers create through sharing nanobytes through copulation.  It seems that much of this could have been avoided if the nanobytes never existed, but, if the Drummers and their information network didn’t exist, I don’t know that Nell would really have had the primer, or at least been able to find Miranda.  So, Stephenson doesn’t seem to be passing judgment on the goodness or badness of technology in relation to other ways of living.  So what is he commenting on?  There is much to be said about ethnic relations and humanity.  But both of those seem odd as the main focus of a futuristic novel.  Perhaps this is representative of the fact that the future will be so different, that we cannot even comprehend it yet.

I’m sorry this post doesn’t seem to have much of a point.  I simply don’t know what to do with the end of the novel.  What does it all mean?  It all gets very fanciful and science-fiction-esque as the novel wraps up, but in the end affirms the power of humanity over any sort of technology.  But it doesn’t perform this affirmation subtlety or ‘by accident,’ it is  a very calculated and didactic theme.   Argh, this is so frustrating.

I guess that I can comment on the Turing Machine.  I enjoyed Eva’s interactions with one so much that I was inspired to seek out my own Turing Machine.  The conversation got old very quickly, however, especially after I told the machine that it ‘wasn’t making very much sense’ and it responded by saying, “I’m not supposed to, I’m a woman.”  It is clear to me that Turing Machines, as they were developed are a failure.  They never reach the level of consciousness that Helen does in Galatea 2.2.   According to this website, Turing Machines were first described in 1937.  And, if my understanding holds, they have pretty much been proven handy-dandy for things like computing numbers, but not as conversation partners.  So, this makes me wonder why, why, why, why does Stephenson use them so heavily in his novel?  He pairs them, basic computing functions, with innovative and fore-thinking advances in technology.  Perhaps their relative antiquity is meant to reduce all of technology to a basic Turing Machine, making it conquerable?  It hurts my brain.

March 12, 2008

Paper, paper…the only thing that rhymes is caper?

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 10:26 pm

I am sorry to be putting you through my musings, but, hey, I read yours, too. As you all know, I am currently interested in the concept and realization of the “urban novel” (aka ghetto fiction, black books, urban tales, hood books, gangsta lit, hip-hop fiction). I want to know who’s reading these books, what attracts them to them, why they continue to read them (because one tends to lead directly to another), who writes them, why are they written, who has a problem with them, what problems they have, and what impact they are having on society/academia/the Book. I think I could go on. Obviously, I’ve got a lot to chew through here. I already began thinking about the intentions of one particular novel, and the urban novel’s position as a dessiminator of literature to previously alienated social/cultural audiences (perhaps) here, if you need to review.

As for the list we were compiling yesterday, I’ve narrowed it down to a few categories that I would like to address, namely:

  1. role of the reader
  2. alienated readership
  3. role of literature
  4. quality
  5. multiplicity of literatures
  6. role/responsibilities of The Book
  7. who owns/controls The Book
  8. reader response theory

Obviously, since I’m not working on my Ph.D., I have an overabundance of interests problem. I can’t figure out how to narrow this field while still doing justice to my topic (as in, I don’t want to leave anything out).

I do know that I want to work specifically with Sister Souljah’s novel, The Coldest Winter Ever. I’ve read it, and, since Sister Souljah is a black activist, there is a good amount of information re: her impetus for writing the book, which is not as available with novels such as Sheisty or G-Spot: An Urban Erotic Tale (all of which are available at your local public library, if you are so inclined). Admittedly, I do not read a lot of urban fiction. Honestly, TCWE is as close as ‘urban fiction’ can come to ‘general fiction’ without being classified as such. I recognize my own valuing system at work here, and I am concerned that it will have an undue influence on my reading of the novel.

With TCWE, I noticed that, based on Amazon reviews of the book (great site to cite, right?), the way many readers read the book is not necessarily along the lines of the intentions that Souljah had for the book. Souljah is a college-educated girl from the projects, and according to her website, she has spent a great deal of time travelling through Europe (which the very act of will ‘culture’ you, right?), and “Today, Souljah is a 21st Century multidimensional woman.” My point is, perhaps she is asking her readers to read in the academic way she has been trained to read, but they have not been educated in, causing them to focus largely on the plot, rather than implications the text may be making.

Any suggestions about which of the above-listed topics would be most appropriate (and interesting) for a study of the place of the urban novel in whichever cultural/social/environmental/ideological world you choose?

And now, since you’ve been such good readers, here is the music video (I guess that’s what you would call it) for “The Final Solution; Slavery’s Back in Effect” from Souljah’s hip-hop days. This video alone makes me want to go into race studies. If that’s a field.

If the above link doesn’t access the video directly, the website is: http://youtube.com/watch?v=1HpiD5H3KCE

(and I know that it still works there, despite what lies the above link tells you)

March 5, 2008

Nell- just a thete girl living in a nano world

So, how ’bout that Diamond Age? This book is not my cup of tea. But, it is also strangely arresting.

I’m having difficulty putting all of the pieces of Stephenson’s story together while trying to focus solely on the role of literature in this future age, since he is commenting on so many different aspects of society. I think Stephenson is making some pretty brash assertions about the necessity, power, and cultural value of books. However, while he has a largely traditionalist view of the purpose of books, he begins to combine the traditional form with nanotechnology-inspired content, thereby complicating the situation.

The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is meant to represent the traditional book that both Hackworth and Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw see as the only way to give children a ‘real’ education. When they first discuss the problem with education, Finkle-Mcgraw says:

in order to raise a generation of children who can reach their full potential, we must find a way to make their lives interesting….My three children were raised in those schools, and I know them well. I am determined that Elizabeth shall be raised differently. (24)

Here he is implying that the current state of the education system is inferior, and referring to the common neo-Victorian’s mindset, that “there was little in the previous century worthy of emulation, and that we must look to the nineteenth century instead for stable social models” (24). However, The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer works in a a strikingly non-traditional way. It does not simply educate in the same way that a book, as we know it, would. Instead, it looks like a book, but functions much like any other ractive available, except on a more complicated level, allowing it to understand the nuances of Nell’s situation and emotions.

However, at the same time, beyond the experience of interacting with the book, there is the ractor, Miranda, who is behind much of Nell’s learning. Without her skilled and involved participation, the book would never have been as effective as it had been. At one point Miranda also admits that she is raising someone else’s child through her work. So, this puts more of the responsibility on her, thereby reducing the power of both the book and the technology by themselves.

So, here I am. I thought that the power of the book was supposed to be primary, but then the success of the book format lies in its nanotechnological advances, but then the true utilization of that lies in the work of a person, Miranda. So, basically, the fact that it looks like a book is related only to the nostalgia of the neo-Victorians who are remembering a past that never really happened. I believe Baudrillard would be in on this conversation.

Is Stephenson’s true message that we are like the neo-Victorians in our nostalgia for the role of the book, when in truth nothing can replace the one-on-one interaction of a parent with his/her child when it comes to education?  I am curious to find out how successful Nell becomes in comparison to the Chinese girls who are not provided with expensive ractors and must make do with computer-generated ones.

But, again, I’ve gotten totally off the topic of the book, yet again.  Maybe Stephenson isn’t all about the book.  Maybe that me imposing a level of importance that the text cannot fully support.  I’m curious to see how the rest of you read the situation.

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