Esther’s Space- journey through my life

April 13, 2008

Pattern Recognition

Boy, am I glad I decided to power through the last one hundred pages of Pattern Recognition before attempting to post on it! I somehow didn’t really see Russia coming, but it totally changes what I want to talk about.

In an attempt to corral some of my thoughts- here are things I wanted to highlight about the novel. We’ll see where it goes.

  • advertising– of course! the perfect way of bridging media and culture. Judging by Scott‘s post, there’s much to be learned in terms of the power of the image from Fitzpatrick’s article, but since I haven’t read it yet, I’ll have to keep quiet about that
  • location– like in Diamond Age, we’re set up in this Great Britain-as-old-stable-order versus Asia, here Japan-as-new-mode-of-thinking. With the U.S. referred to only in passing, as if it was a hegemony that has out-lived its purpose. Hopefully more on this.
  • temporal– as far as I can tell, this book is set in ~2002, in a world that looks very much like certain segments of the world as it was in 2002. This effectively brings the abstract ‘future’ to now.
  • references– throughout the novel Gibson continues to intersperse references that are completely alien to me, especially names of individuals who once were celebrities, or simply cultural references that are outside my scope of experience, such as Frank Geary (p 67)
  • black/grey clothes and fake military gear– all the cool people wear them, and the people that want to affect coolness. Revert back to simplicity blah blah, I know, but it also has to be embedded in some sense of nostalgia and the existence of a ‘simpler, clearer’ past. In the glut of postmodern fiction, this concept seems to have become largely a cliche, so why does Gibson even ‘go there’?

Location- I had it all mapped out- ‘there is something very specific that authors are trying to say about the future of life and technology as being the future, coming from Asia, but these ideas are forced to war with the cultural stability that England seems to represent.’ But Russia complicates this polarity a bit.  While this preivous statement still seems to be true. Especially if we want to think about how the literary canon (in English) is built upon the British classics, but as global technology invades the readers’ lives, there is increasing distance between the classic ‘literary’ way of reading life and the new way that ideas and ideals are moved across culture. I guess I’m trying to point toward the increasing love of animated cartoons in America, and not just anime, but Simpsons, Family Guy, Futurama, American Dad. Didn’t I hear something about The Simpsons actually being animated in [I want to say] Korea? But, more relevantly, with the increase in popularity of animated cartoons television shows, there has been more widespread interest in reading manga and graphic novels. Coincidence? I think not. (who said that first?)

But back to Russia. This is Genius on Gibson’s part, and something that I’m only becoming aware of now, though the insight to recognize it in 2002 is pretty impressive. (though maybe it’s just particularly impressive to me, who was much less aware of such things in 2002)  Russia is striving to re-establish itself as an international force of its own. It does not want to be “Asian” “Eur-Asian” or “European.” The nation wants to be identified culturally and politically as “Russian.” They (whomever they might be) are striving to become the independent world force they were ‘before.’ But, as the novel explores, it’s a tough thing to restructure an entire nation’s (and a big one at that) modus operandi. One of my favorite lines from the book speaks to this:

There have always been two security operations around Stella and Nora. One is a branch, or subsidiary, of the group that protects Volkov himself. The flavor is ex-KGB, but in the sense that Putin is ex-KGB: lawyers first, then spies. (338)

This makes me think about the current relationship that Bush has with Putin.  And Putin’s new position in the government.  And the tension over the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia re-joining the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia and recognizing the Patriarchate.  Utterly delicious, though probably just for me.

Temporality- I’m not entirely sure how I want to talk about this, but it seems very important that Gibson is not trying to represent some future-world of technology, technological espionage, human vulgarity, and the “whole problem, with most of the dot-com people” of it being “all about money” (348).  Instead, these are problems of today, or at least the the today of the novel being published.  It’s striking, but I’m not sure how to carry the thought through to fruitful conclusion.  It’s that time of the semester.

In terms of references- they were frustrating because there were so many. And I refuse to try to use my laptop to search these unfamiliar names in order to figure out the reference and fit it into the narrative and read a novel at the same time, it is highly inefficient, and makes the novel lose its momentum. Interestingly, I found this site. It looks to be Joe Clark’s conversation with the novel. As far as I can tell, it is the online equivalent of my underlinings and margin notes. Seems like an awful lot of extra effort. But, while it proved some parallels with my own underlinings, points of interest, and points of confusion, I found his annotating largely useless to me. I have read the book, and, obviously, interacted with it differently than Joe did. But, his notes are too specific and abstract to be of use to an individual who has not read the book. So, this leaves the annotation logging as useful primarily as a personal documentation of reading response. I don’t think I’ll say more about that.

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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.

February 27, 2008

No way I’m betting on that horse

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 9:47 am

I’ve decided that I cannot buy the idea that Richard Powers is commenting on the ethics of transcribing people you know into characters in one’s fiction. This issue seems to break into a number of pieces. Here’s what I aim to prove:

  1. Historically, there is precedence for the transcription of real individuals into fictional characters.
  2. The characterization of an individual does not have the power to destroy that individual or to control the choices that individual makes
  3. Readers generally do not care about who the character is based on
  4. Rather than being concerned about the ethics of writing, Powers is actually concerned about the existence of writers skilled enough to record characters in order to preserve some aspect of society that is being lost, or the readers skilled enough to utilize such writing.

The first issue- creating characters based on real individuals is not a new phenomenon. We have The Iliad and The Aeneid. We have the Bible, for goodness sake. In my opinion, all fiction is a transcription of reality into entertaining, cohesive storytelling. A writer cannot create a new and unique character without some level of modelling from things that he/she has seen before.

Secondly, how can a characterization of an individual destroy that individual? I’m not talking about public libel here, but situations where the character created might be based on an individual, but does not claim to be that individual. For example, in Power’s Galatea 2.2, C. is C., not “my ex-girlfriend Christine Carpenter.” The characterization of an individual, as soon as it is created, becomes separate from the individual. Because characters cannot possess the depth of individuality and are created and represented from one individuals perspective, they begin to exist in their own space, the space of the fiction that they have been employed for.

This leads into the third point, readers don’t necessarily care who the character is based on. I just read Emma by Jane Austen. I don’t care who Emma is based on, I only care about Emma to the extent of her position in the novel. As time passes, the importance of the model decreases significantly, especially after the original model has passed away and all that is left is pieces of their life that can be put together into a story. Powers suggests as much when he contemplates Taylor’s place in the world upon his death. He writes, “I could give back nothing to Taylor, I, who couldn’t even find a way to tell him what he had given me. All I could do for Taylor now was to turn him into character.” (204) This suggests that when the individual is gone, it is almost like a gift of the writer to turn him into a character, so that he might live on through literature. For us as readers, who Taylor ‘really’ was is a mild point of interest, but ultimately his importance for us lies in his role in the novel.

Earlier, Powers stated:

That book was no more than a structured pastiche of every report I’d ever heard, from C. or abroad. All a patchwork to delight and distract her. One that by accident ate her alive….The lens does not have the last word, nor does the glance of the viewer, nor does the look of those boys, out over the shoulder of the photographer, back behind the lens. The dominant tense was now. The point of stories was what you did with them. (108)

With this statement, Powers is illustrating his awareness that no matter how he as a writer tries to control a story, it is ultimately out of his power to control how an individual reader gives meaning to it. He wrote C.’s stories in order to preserve them (and therefore her), but also to give her the gift of representation that she could not achieve by herself. He did not give meaning to those stories, instead it is the readers that read the characters however they want. By relinquishing this control, Powers is relinquishing responsibility for C.’s accidental consumption by the stories.

While I don’t particularly like the way the relationship between C. and Powers operates, they both have made the choice to maintain those power dynamics.  C. could have been A.  She could have refused to let Powers characterize her in the way he wanted to.  But she did not.

In an attempt to touch on the last point I wanted to make, Powers sees himself as almost morally compelled to write, as if it is his duty to record these stories before they are lost.  It is the ego of the writer, an ego that must naturally occur in order to have writing.  The world will always have fodder for characters, but, I think the point that Powers is making is that without writers capable of transcribing these characters, they will be lost forever, with no way to live on without stories.  A necessary aspect to this, as well, is the readers.  Books cannot live in an eternal present if they’re not being read.  If the canon is not read, it is effectively dead, because those characters can only live when they’re being consumed.  With this reading, I can have a little bit of sympathy for Powers’s position on the importance of the canon.  But, by focusing solely on the canon, he is already excluding those diverse voices that also deserve to be heard.  I’m just saying.

February 25, 2008

The Quixotic Quest of the Writer

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 8:40 am

While many critics compare writing to a quixotic quest, both Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Richard Powers have explicitly drawn the connections between the the text and concepts of Don Quixote and the role or position of the novelist.

In the Introduction to her book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence, Fitpatrick writes:

The book and its main champion, the writer, are repeatedly represented as latter-day Quixotes, tilting at the windmills of mind-numbing, dehumanizing, overpoweringly visual forms of entertainment and communication. (“Introduction” can be accessed here)

And later, in Chapter 1, she makes a comparison between modern novelists and the quixotic ambition, specifically a Don Delillo novel, saying:

We follow Gray on his delirious reenactment of the Quixotic quest, stepping into the light of day in a world he has not lived in for thirty years, attempting to save a political prisoner, and the connections in our minds are almost laughably absurd: Thomas Pynchon riding to the rescue of Salman Rushdie. But ridiculous as this quest may sound, translated into the terms of our own literary figures, it appears to be the only way for Gray, and thus for the novelist as novelist, to reassert his own preeminence in the age of television. (from”The Postmodern Writer,” which can be accessed here)

Both statements allude to the enormous task novelists face in their attempts to fight against the windmills of revolutionary technology and new forms of media. And, Don Quixote is a universally loved literary character, with numerous other characters being modeled after him. What is not addressed, but must be brought into the discussion, is the fact that after his delirious chivalric quest, Don Quixote is returned home, melancholicly sane, to die unhappy.

Fitzpatrick is suggesting that, despite the almost certain failure, the only way that novelists can advocate for their culturally valuable position as novelists is by engaging in a written battle with those giants/windmills that are new media. In Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers (character and author) is involved in such an engagement.

In a world where educated individuals ask, “who is this Milton fellow to me, anyway?” (45), and “science looked a lot like literary criticism, from across the room” (38), there is still engagement with Don Quixote.  But, even Powers, a man well-versed in the particulars of an English literature education, is thrown by Don Quixote:

Diana pulled out her Portable Cervantes and read aloud the random sentence that fell under her bookmark.  An illustration of the futility that this abrasive man and I were about to embark on.  I can’t remember the sentence.  Out of context, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. (Powers 48)

Through using comparisons such as the act of reading Don Quixote and Lentz’s nickname for Powers, Marcel, perhaps referring to Marcel Proust, Richard Powers the author begins to reveal his absolute terror at his loss of cultural value as a novelist.  When he compares the humanities department to the science Center, the differences become clear.

However, at the end of the novel, through a series of backflips and other gymnastic endeavors, Powers (the author and the character) seem to suggest that he is able to be successful even in a world that is hostile to the written word.  In the last few pages of the novel, Powers has created a machine that is, apparently, in love with him, therefore illustrating “the quality of cognition we’d shot for from the start” (326), and Powers discovers “Each metaphor already modeled the modeler who pasted it together.  It seemed I might have another fiction in my after all” (328).   Because of his ability to write, Lentz needs Powers to tell the story that he cannot tell, thereby validating Powers position as a writer, as well as his own as a scientist.

In a number of ways, the conclusion to this novel is a prime example of Fitzpatrick’s argument against the death of the novel and the need or reality of the novel and technology co-existing, though with some retained level of anxiety.   Where it all falls apart for me, however, is the interdisciplinary training that characters seem to need in order to be successful in this world.  Without a very healthy knowledge of what the other does, neither Lentz nor Powers would have the respect for the other’s disciplines in order to respect the individual carrying out his particular intellectual endeavors.  In contemporary novels, I see an increasing level of anxiety of obsolescence that forces writers to hold even more tightly to their humanities ties (such as Special Topics in Calamity Physics), rather than explore new avenues in incorporating fiction and technology.  Granted, the science fiction genre does take on such a task, but it is not generally what I would consider mainstream fiction.  Perhaps things will change in the future, and Galatea 2.2 is Richard Powers’s happy fiction of a interdisciplinary world where he, as novelist, is still essential.

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