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20 May 2013

A democracy of writing: Twitter criticism, Tumblr’s sale and deep thoughts from Robert Silvers

(image via the New York Review of Books, credit: Dominique Nabokov)

In the past three months I’ve been to Australia and Brazil and Quebec and Los Angeles, touched Tasmanian soil and wandered endlessly around São Paulo. On these travels, I’ve sponged up a wide variety of local color and remained hellbent on encountering the people available to me only in those specific physical spaces. While I’ve appreciated the time away from the cold New York winter, I’ll admit it’s felt like an overtraveled season.

But it wasn’t the travel that’s been overwhelming, really. It’s been the return.

All the movement and physical stimulus has made my time at home feel mostly like a return to the internet, the medium (the place?) to which I’m balled & chained. It’s not that the physical life and culture of New York City no longer interests me; it’s that when I return here, I’m confronted with a river of prose* that’s piled up in various mailboxes, physical and digital, in my absence. [Regarding that * I have more to say about “prose” in a footnote at the end of this post. – ed] To return to the sponge metaphor, I’m confronted with a flooded mess. I don’t so much absorb it, as try valiantly to sop up what I can.

After my latest triage session with the paper pile, the article that stuck with me most was this New York Magazine interview with Robert Silvers, long-time editor of the New York Review of Books. The excerpt I’ll share with you was unexpected. Silvers is a man often photographed as if beset by an affliction of paper piles.

In this interview, however, his most interesting thoughts are devoted to the conundrum of digital writing. He begins triangulating a viewpoint that mirrors my own — that the rise of a (seemingly) limitless well of internet “content” presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Pick your metaphor: Pearls among swine. Flowers in the dustbin. Needles in haystacks. He’s optimistic that there must be signs of life amidst the digital ash heaps. The real problem is that no one has quite figured out how to properly nurture the new digital organisms, organisms growing like mushrooms on burnt treestumps, thriving in the rain.

(image via Google Image Search and Sabrina & Company)

An excerpt of a Q and Silvers’s A:

To tweet or not to tweet. And not to tweet is to be left behind.
And that raises a question: What is this? What are the kinds of prose, and the kinds of thinking, that result from the imposition of the tweet form and other such brief reactions to extremely complex realities? My feeling is that there are millions and millions if not billions of words in tweets and blogs, and that they are not getting and will not get the critical attention that prose anywhere should have unless we find a new form of criticism.

If a novel is published, we have a novel review. If poetry is produced, if a play or a movie or a TV show is produced, there are the forms of criticism we know. With the new social media, with much of the content of the Internet, there are very few if any critical forms that are appropriate. They are thought to be somewhere partially in a private world. Facebook is a medium in which privacy is, or at least is thought to be, in some way crucial. The premise, at least, is that of belonging to a family, a circle of friends. And there’s another premise, that any voice should have its moment. And so there seems a resistance to intrusive criticism.

But this means that billions of words go without the faintest sign of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, clarity—then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence.

(Photo via Facebook, credit: Annie Schlechter)

If you disagree with Silvers — that there is a future in digital commentary — consider one of the biggest media stories of this past weekend. A rapidly emerging social network for digital content, Tumblr, was purchased by Yahoo for one-point-one-billion dollars (aka $1,100,000,000).

Tumblr has rightfully been likened to a curatorial exercise. On my own Tumblr — which is devoted to (my) photos and live music (by others) — I use the About page  to highlight two views of curation in the digital age. First a sketchily attributed quote from David Foster Wallace:

“In 1996, David Foster Wallace described the Internet as a place where ‘there are four trillion bits coming at you, 99 percent of them are shit, and it’s too much work to do triage to decide. So it’s very clear, very soon there’s gonna be an economic niche opening up for gatekeepers… . Because otherwise we’re gonna spend 95 percent of our time body-surfing through shit.'”

Second, a thought from the Canadian rapper Drake which directly addresses Tumblr’s place in surfing the digital tide:

“I’m really scared for my generation, you know. The thing that scares me most is Tumblr. I hate what Tumblr has become. Because it like, it reminds me of those clique-y girls in high school that used to make fun of everyone and define what was cool, but in five years, when you all graduate, that shit doesn’t matter. No one gives a fuck about that shit. Instead of kids going out and making their own moments, they’re just taking these images and living vicariously through other people’s moments. It just kills me. Then you’ll meet them and they’re just the biggest turkey in the world. They don’t actually embody any of those things. They just emulate. It’s scary man, simulation life that we’re living. It scares me.”

It’s interesting that among this very heterogeneous assortment of humans, Silvers is the least pessimistic about this new medium. There is a recognizable distance between Drake’s assessment (“It scares me”) and DFW’s (“surfing through shit”) and that of Silvers (“these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism”).

Can we agree it’s interesting to interact with a medium in which finding useful information entails a bit of drowning? Can we agree that the frontier is always filled with both danger and adventure? Read the whole interview with Silvers, or feel free to stop with my excerpt. I like to think that my blog fulfills some kind of editorial function.

* = Maybe “prose” is no longer the best way to discuss writing built of sentences. Maybe writing is no longer built out of sentences. What we’re arriving at, what we’re debating, is something larger than ink vs pixels. How do you explain a swarm? How do we acknowledge that we’re living in a democracy of writing? Maybe we need to start by using terms of reference shared by both the physical and digital worlds of letters. i.e. The words. The pages. Hmmm…better.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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24 January 2013

The Community Function, the Italian Renaissance, Paul Graham’s essays & the impossibility of doing it alone

That is a photo I took on a trip to Italy this past December. While I haven’t traveled widely there, it’s a place that recalls other cities trapped in amber historically and creatively. Like Paris, like Bruges as depicted in the film In Bruges(Acknowledgement: this impression of Italy is mostly hearsay, inspired less from lived experience than from movies and television shows and people ranting about how good the pizza is in Naples. My recent trip touched down in Siena, Florence, Pisa and the Tuscan countryside — not Rome or Milan, cities which I suspect may provide a very different impression of the country.)

Anyhoo, that picture depicts the amber trap. Here’s another snap of a poster I found near the bathroom of a Sienese museum devoted to the city’s history.

While, at first glance, it might seem to disprove my thesis — how modern! marionettes & dildos! — I ask that you consider this picture more deeply: where else on earth could such a poster exist but in a country in denial about a modern consciousness rife as it is with irony, sarcasm, parody, self-parody, all the rest of it.

Moving on — don’t worry, I’ll loop back! — here’s another thing I don’t know all that much about: contemporary essayists. Of the ones I do know, internet entrepreneur, computer programmer and writer Paul Graham strikes me as one of the best, and certainly the one I read with the most unalloyed pleasure. (He inspires the kind of satisfaction one might experience if presented with an intractable lock, then provided a shoebox full of keys to sort through, and then, upon first attempt to match them, you heard that magic click.)

I can explain to you why I like Paul Graham via close reading, but maybe it’s better and easier to show you this diagram grabbed from Wikipedia which someone came up with to illustrate Graham’s essay How to Disagree.

Writing as as someone who has been accused of being, erm…HARSH…at times, it’s the kind of essay (and diagram) which I think anyone could learn something from. But so could all of us. Here is the lovely opening paragraph of Graham’s essay:

The web is turning writing into a conversation. Twenty years ago, writers wrote and readers read. The web lets readers respond, and increasingly they do—in comment threads, on forums, and in their own blog posts.

Essentially, the essay is a guide to navigating conflict and communication in the electronic age. It’s this simple dissembling of emergent manners & business which Graham excels at. He observes, acknowledges, and even offers an implicit titter of respect for the level of popular discourse in our culture — while also trying to elevate said culture. (By the way, if you were wondering, the term “asshat” does not appear in Graham’s original essay, but the phrase “u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!” most certainly does. He isn’t just pointing out the existence of name calling — he shows that he has a personal fluency in txtspk and comment section style.)

Too many folks that call themselves essayists place themselves on high, away from the actual scrum of culture, or so far from it their attempts at engaging fail miserably. (A similar ability to discuss and respect the “low,” while aspiring to the “high” is what makes folks like David Foster WallaceDave Hickey, and John Jeremiah Sullivan some of my other favorite essay writers.)
In any case, to tie tight the two strands of this blog post together, my recent visit to Italy got me thinking a bit about one essay of Graham’s, which provides his take on the amber trapped era Italians look back upon with such justifiable pride.

Good design happens in chunks. The inhabitants of fifteenth century Florence included Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello, Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Verrocchio, Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. Milan at the time was as big as Florence. How many fifteenth century Milanese artists can you name?

Something was happening in Florence in the fifteenth century. And it can’t have been genetic, because it isn’t happening now. You have to assume that whatever inborn ability Leonardo and Michelangelo had, there were people born in Milan with just as much. What happened to the Milanese Leonardo?

There are roughly a thousand times as many people alive in the US right now as lived in Florence during the fifteenth century. A thousand Leonardos and a thousand Michelangelos walk among us. If DNA ruled, we should be greeted daily by artistic marvels. We aren’t, and the reason is that to make Leonardo you need more than his innate ability. You also need Florence in 1450.

Nothing is more powerful than a community of talented people working on related problems. Genes count for little by comparison: being a genetic Leonardo was not enough to compensate for having been born near Milan instead of Florence. Today we move around more, but great work still comes disproportionally from a few hotspots: the Bauhaus, the Manhattan Project, The New Yorker, Lockheed’s Skunk Works, Xerox Parc.

At any given time there are a few hot topics and a few groups doing great work on them, and it’s nearly impossible to do good work yourself if you’re too far removed from one of these centers. You can push or pull these trends to some extent, but you can’t break away from them. (Maybe you can, but the Milanese Leonardo couldn’t.)

This also made me wonder about ambition vs. skill vs. luck as it plays out among the scene I find myself part of, the certainly more modest achievements of the Brooklyn, New York art scene — filled as it is with musicians, graphic designers and artisanal chocolate makers. However, self-consciousness befits an essayist more than it does a cultural producer, so for now I’ll hang up my flannel on that question, and relive a moment of staring out over the crete senesi.

 

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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26 March 2012

The internet wasteland & a museum to ephemeral feeling


The internet deserves to be treated like a wasteland. I am not referring to T. S. Eliot, mind you — more like Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro or, fuck it, Mad Max.

Hell, maybe the internet deserves an even madder Max.

We live in a world which (if the consistently apocalyptic tone of most media reports are to be believed) is quite redolent of Mel Gibson’s breakthrough film — out-of-gas, out-of-hope, ready to abandon our fading settlement upon rumor of a brighter kingdom just past the next ridge. The internet is a perfectly ephemeral medium for this kind of world. By contrast, I remember when I fancied myself more of a proper writer, rather than someone merely capable of writing well & conveying stories and feelings. I treated each word on a screen like letters etched on marble tablets — each one carefully placed, every publication a monument to some kind of pretension. On the ‘net, however, I’ve come to realize words are more like water or, better, something sweeter. Nowadays, I see each new web platform as a honeycomb to be sucked dry until there’s only a husk to leave behind.

And so I’d like to point you toward my latest internet property alechanleybemis.tumblr.com where I’ve gone practically wordless, choosing instead to focus on concerts & photographs. I like to think I’ve opened an online museum to ephemeral feelings, a museum that may close without warning, at any time. But one that’s devoted to featuring some of the more elevating & tipsy-making aspects of our world. Contrast Mad Max with the wild dancing that happens on the edges of darkness.

Two shining examples of the exhibits on display after the jump. Follow me or don’t. If you agree with Drake it’s probably not for you; but if you understand David Foster Wallace’s wiser words, it will make sense to you.

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