30 March 2011

Attending the Narrative Convention

Filed under: Culture, Fiction — ktismatics @ 8:14 am

1975: The 8:45 a.m. Pan American to Honolulu this morning was delayed half an hour before takeoff from Los Angeles. During this delay the stewardesses served orange juice and coffee and two children played tag in the aisles and, somewhere behind me, a man began screaming at a woman who seemed to be his wife. I say that the woman seemed to be his wife only because the tone of his invective sounded practiced, although the only words I heard clearly were these: ‘You are driving me to murder.’ After a moment I was aware of the door to the plane being opened a few rows behind me, and of the man rushing off. There were many Pan American employees rushing on and off then, and considerable confusion. I do not know whether the man reboarded the plane before takeoff or whether the woman came on to Honolulu alone, but I thought about it all the way across the Pacific. I thought about it while I was drinking a sherry-on-the-rocks and I thought about it during lunch and I was still thinking about it when the first of the Hawaiian Islands appeared off the left wing tip. It was not until we had passed Diamond Head and were coming in low over the reef for landing at Honolulu, however, that I realized what I most disliked about this incident: I disliked it because it had the aspect of a short story, one of those ‘little epiphany’ stories in which the main character glimpses a crisis in a stranger’s life—a woman weeping in a tearoom, often, or an accident seen from the window of a train, ‘tearooms’ and ‘trains’ still being fixtures of short stories although not of real life—and is moved to see his or her own life in a new light. I was not going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life reduced to a short story. I was going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life expanded to a novel, and I still do. I wanted room for flowers, and reef fish, and people who may or may not be driving one another to murder but in any case are not impelled, by the demands of narrative convention, to say so out loud on the 8:45 a.m. Pan American to Honolulu.

– from Joan Didion’s “In the Islands,” included in her 1979 edited compilation The White Album

24 March 2011

Reasons Why v. Reasons For

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:59 am

In this video Daniel Dennett compares a termite mound with Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona to illustrate the distinction between the reason why a creature does something and a creature having a reason for doing something.

There is a good reason why termite colonies build mounds: the mound gives the colony an edge in the struggle for survival. However, the termites don’t necessarily understand the reasons for their mound-building activities. Says Dennett:

“Natural selection is an automatic reason-finder which ‘discovers,’ ‘endorses,’ and ‘focuses’ reasons over many generations… Natural selection tracks reasons, creating things that have purposes but don’t need to know them. Natural selection itself doesn’t need to know what it’s doing.”

Dennett says that termite behavior exemplifies “competence without comprehension.” Humans make the mistake of attributing more competence to agents, more awareness of the reasons why they do things, than is justified by the nature of the behavior or of the agent. That’s because so much of human competence derives from and is produced by comprehension. Gaudí spent a long time planning his cathedral, thinking about theological symbolism, drawing diagrams, raising money, etc. before anybody actually started digging the foundation. People are competent to solve specific math problems because they have acquired a general mathematical comprehension. In contrast, says Dennett, a computer has competency without comprehension — an intelligence that’s more like that of a termite mound than that of a human.

So what about chimpanzees: are they more like termites or humans? Dennett thinks that they’re somewhere in between: apes “sorta” understand what they’re doing, “sorta” have reasons for what they do. In short, apes have “semi-understood, quasi-representations” of their own behaviors. What’s important to remember, says Dennett, is that humans’ ability to have reasons for what they do evolved from creatures who didn’t. In Dennett’s words, “comprehension is constructed out of competence.” There is a good reason for having comprehension: it gives humans greater and more flexible competence to do adaptive behaviors, thereby enhancing the survival possibilities of the individual, the “colony,” and the species. Comprehension is a product of an evolutionary process that discovers, endorses, and focuses competence.

What distinguishes humans from ape comprehension from human comprehension? Language, says Dennett. But then he runs out of time before elaborating on the language distinction.

[Grâce à Enemy Industry for posting the Dennett video.]

20 March 2011

Getting Full

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:52 pm

Continuing on Reality Hunger

238.  The contemporary vogue of not tucking in your shirttail (which I dutifully follow): a purposeful confusion of the realms.

I started this vogue decades ago.

242.  Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any.

This quote comes from Andrew O’Hehir’s 2005 “lyric essay” on Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Here’s the quote in context:

“Most of the response to this book is not in fact a response to the book but to the life situation that occasioned it, and perhaps to the fact that it exists at all. A cynical, and not entirely wrongheaded, thing to say here is that our culture is obsessed with “real” events because we hardly experience any, and that the private deaths of Didion’s husband and daughter, along with her own private suffering, are in danger of being transformed by endless publicity into spectacles or pseudo-events. There’s more to it than that…”

253.  People like you are in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality (judiciously, as you will) we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors, and you — all of you — will be left to just study what we do.

I first read this quote (from one of GWBush’s aides) when I googled “hyperstition.” In Shields’  context, the implication is that creators of fictional realities are neocons. Seriously?

318.  Resolution and conclusion are inherent in a plot-driven narrative.

Why “inherent,” rather than “traditional” or “expected”?

321.  Story seems to say that everything happens for a reason, and I want to say, No it doesn’t.

The preceding sentence is a short-short story authored by David Shields.

322. If I’m reading a book and it seems truly interesting, I tend to start reading back to front in order not to be  too deeply under the sway of progress.

Admit it: you just want to skip to the end to see how it turns out.

324.  The absence of a plot leaves the reader free to think about other things.

So does the absence of a book.

325.  Plots are for dead people.

This quote comes from a short story written by Lorrie Moore.

347.  I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters’ names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that’s focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels.

To a considerable extent I share what seems to be Shields’s central complaint about fiction. A lot of fiction writers really do seem to care about the stories they’re writing, for the story’s own sake. I rarely read that sort of novel, though I will watch the movie. Novels in which the author uses story and characters serve as props for elaborating his big ideas? I’m with Shields: boring, contrived. But why should I be expected to care more about reality-based prose, be it fiction or essay or poetry? Mostly what’s needed is good writing, not a particular kind of writing.

361.  You don’t need a story. The question is: How long do you not need a story?

If you don’t need a story, don’t write a story. If the need arises, why is it better to hold out against this need for as long as you can?

371.  Nonfiction, qua label, is nothing more or less than a very flexible (easily breakable) frame that allows you to pull the thing away from narrative and toward contemplation, which is all I’ve ever wanted.

Why not contemplate the narrative?

376.  The merit of style exists precisely in that it delivers the greatest number of ideas in the fewest number of words.

Blah blah blah… This quote comes from somebody named Shklovsky, who according to Wikipedia wrote Theory of Prose in 1925. Wikipedia offers this quote from the book: “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” So first he wants to condense style, and now he wants to prolong it? I guess you have to read his book to know what he wants when.

19 March 2011

Reality Hunger Artists 2

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:55 am

Continuing from the prior post…

133.  I’ve always had a hard time writing fiction. It feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You’re going somewhere, but you’re in costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody. You’re the guy in costume, and everybody’s supposed to forget that and go along with you.

Dude, just drive the car and watch the road as if nobody is watching you, since almost surely they’re not. But now I see in the appendix that the guy who wrote this remark, Dave Eggers, “no longer subscribes to the sentiment expressed here.”

140.  Plot, like erected scaffolding, is torn down, and what remains is the thing itself.

Elitist. I like plots myself, both as reader and writer. Plot is part of the experiment: it sets things in motion. You set the characters down somewhere in the universe, give them the keys to the car,  and let them drive. Otherwise the thing itself just sits there.

142.  There isn’t any story. It’s not the story. It’s just this breathtaking world — that’s the point. The story’s not important; what’s important is the way the world looks. That’s what makes you feel stuff. That’s what puts you there.

This quote comes from Donald Barthelme. I agree to an extent: the world is the road and the terrain that the characters drive through, the place where the stories unfold. But what world?

154.  Life isn’t about saying the right thing; life is about failing.

Speak for yourself, Jonathan Goldstein, whoever you are.

165.  Remembering and fiction-making are virtually indistinguishable.

Maybe fiction-making is remembering things that never really happened or that happened in an alternate reality. It is an odd tradition to write fiction in the past tense, especially if the writer is making it up as he goes along. My memory is terrible; I find it easier to make things up.

180.  Nonfiction writers imagine. Fiction writers invent. These are fundamentally different acts, performed to different ends.


185.  Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —

A great line from an Emily Dickinson poem.

195.  You adulterate the truth as you write. There isn’t any pretense that you try to arrive at the literal truth. And the only consolation when you confess to this flaw is that you are seeking to arrive at poetic truth, which can be reached only through fabrication, imagination, stylization. What I’m striving for is authenticity; none of it is real.

A quote from WG Sebald. He would have made an excellent Biblical author.

199.  You can’t even call my documentaries “documentary,” though; I fabricate, I invent, I write dialogue. The borderline between documentaries and feature films is blurred; in fact, it doesn’t exist.

Werner Herzog quote.

203.  Since to live is to make fiction, what need to disguise the world as another, alternate one?

This is not my experience of how life works. If it were, I’d think that part of making my fictional life would include remaking the world into a fiction as well.

210.  Genre is a minimum-security prison.

Maybe that’s what Stephen King was thinking when he wrote Shawshank Redemption. How many great stories involve characters dealing with some form of imprisonment? Revisiting paragraph 203, maybe to live is to make fiction inside a minimum-security prison.


18 March 2011

Reality Hunger Artists (Part 1?)

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:38 am

“I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels.”

That’s Amazon’s teaser for Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010). Now seems the perfect time for me to consider author David Shields’ position, which he presents in 618 numbered paragraphs, many of them quotes from other writers and artists. It strikes me that this book might have worked better as 618 blog posts with comments, so I’ll do that here, commenting on any of the paragraphs that happen to grab me as they’re passing by.

1.  Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.

That’s the opening sentence of the book, and already I don’t agree. But I’m not in the mood for the big universal concepts; I want to think about whether I personally am wasting my time writing novels.

50.  The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe.

Did the creators ever believe that the characters were anything more than puppets? Oh, but now I see that it’s Robbe-Grillet who made this statement — he wrote novels, did he not? In a sense R-G’s characters are puppets, no more animate than the lampposts against which they lean. Maybe he regarded real humans as puppet-like.

57.  Increasingly, the novel goes had in hand with a straightjacketing of the material’s expressive potential. One gets so weary of watching writers’ sensations and thoughts get set into the concrete of fiction that perhaps it’s best to avoid the form as a medium of expression.

Is the straightjacket built into the form? Is the medium intrinsically concrete? But I see the point: it’s hard to evade or dismantle one’s own and others’ expectations about what a novel is supposed to be. Maybe migrate to other forms that are either so new that they’re not yet burdened by tradition, or so old that the traditions no longer exert any real force on the contemporary practitioner.

63.  …memoirs really can claim to be modern novels, all the way down to the presence of an unreliable narrator.

Shields wants to blur the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, between author and character. In this context he commends Proust and Exley and Sebald. Shields I think wants to argue that, since every novel’s main characters are stand-ins for the writer, the writer should do away with the artifice and write in the first person. In so doing, the writer need not feel bound to tell the factual truth about himself and his life, inasmuch as memory is so distorted as to be nearly indistinguishable from imagination. Fine: that’s one way to go. The question I have to ask myself is whether the invention of fictional characters does anything I couldn’t do more directly with imaginative memoir. Of the cuff, I’d say that I’m more interested in writing about the fictional characters than about myself.

65.  The lyric essayist seems to enjoy all the liberties of the fiction writer, with none of the fiction writer’s burden of unreality, the nasty fact that none of this ever really happened — which a fiction writer daily wakes to.

Shields goes on to commend the lyric essay throughout his book, but he never really says what it is. But why should the fictional aspect of the novel be deemed a “nasty fact” that both the author and the reader must overcome in order to take the writing seriously? This goes back to Shields’ opening salvo about smuggling reality into the art.

65a. The implied secret is that one of the smartest ways to write fiction today is to say that you’re not, and then to do whatever you very well please. Some of the best fiction is now being written as nonfiction.

This is precisely my reaction to much of the speculative metaphysics I’ve read on the blogs, as well pretty much all the religion. My instinct is to go the other way: call it fiction.

67. Biography and autobiography are the lifeblood of art right now. We have claimed them the way earlier generations claimed the novel, the well-made play, the language of abstraction.

So now Shields is going to talk about reality TV and the memoirists who get exposed on Oprah as having made up parts of their stories. This sort of reality-so-called fascinates me not at all. I’m way more interested in True Blood than in Survivor. I am interested in the Making-Of, but only if I like the movie that was made.

68.  I’m interested in knowing the secrets that connect human beings. At the very deepest level, all our secrets are the same.

Why be interested if they’re all the same? Maybe Shields should try discovering or inventing some beings whose secrets aren’t the same.

71.  Truth, uncompromisingly told, will always have its ragged edges.

Well said! Oh, but now I look in the Appendix and see that it’s Herman Melville who wrote this, in Billy Budd.

72.  The lyric essay asks what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem. What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank pages, or leaving the blanks blank?

Okay, now I’m starting to get the lyric essay idea. Sure, that’s cool. Why not stick a lyric essay or two into your novel? Wait: that’s been done already. Maybe this is the straightjacketing imposed on the contemporary novelist: maybe readers don’t like essays built into novels, distracting them from plot and character development.

82.  Art is not truth; art is a lie that enables us to recognize truth.

So said Picasso. I don’t think that Picasso was bent on smuggling reality into his paintings.

105.  Proust said that he had no imagination; what he wanted was reality, infused with something else… The book, by being about Marcel, a writer, is as much about the writing as it is about anything that “happens.”

When I read Proust’s book, I’m not thinking about how these characters were real people, or how the events in which they participate in Proust’s narrative once really happened. Maybe I’d like the book better if I did. Certainly A La Recherche is about the writing, and it’s indicative of  of my lowbrow literary tendencies that the writing doesn’t captivate me enough to distract me from the tedium of what “happens.” But I keep trying…


So now I’m one-fifth of the way through Shields’ paragraphs. Maybe later I’ll pick up where I left off.


16 March 2011

Draft One Done

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:36 am

My love to Wendy and the boys.

– the last line of the first draft

Once I started thinking about the fifth and final part of this novel, I realized that not much more needed to be said. So now the book is pretty much finished. I’ll let it rest for a week or so, then go back to the top and edit. I don’t believe that the editing will involve much rewrite though, since the current draft is already in pretty good shape from editing each of the parts separately.

My idea when I began this novel was that it would be the first in a sequence of some as-yet-undetermined number of installments — sort of like the first season in a television series. So now I’ll have to see if I’m intrigued enough with this fictional space and this set of central characters to move them on to the second season. As of now I think it will be a go. I expect to insert a gap between the books, with the center of action jumping geographically from someplace like Boulder to someplace like Nice and the stories jumping temporally maybe a year forward from the end of the first book.

15 March 2011


Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 2:05 pm

Objects I found outdoors yesterday:

11 March 2011

Artificial Tears

Filed under: Fiction, Language — ktismatics @ 4:13 pm

Sometimes it’s tough being a fiction writer. Today at staff meeting I had to tell my characters that, as of this morning, they are no longer real. They are in denial, refusing to return to work until their full ontological status has been restored. Also, they have renounced Levi Bryant as a vampire.

6 March 2011

Norms as Mutual Intentionality

Filed under: Culture, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 12:37 pm

According to experimental psychologist Michael Tomasello, human language, learning, culture, and cooperation are all built on a common foundation of shared intentionality. Humans are like other animals in that they act with intent: they seek food, flee from predators, pursue mating opportunities, and so on. Humans differ from other animals in recognizing that other humans also act with intent. In Tomasello’s paradigmatic exemplar, a 12-month-old (pre-linguistic) human infant points to an object that someone else is seeking. By pointing, the infant simultaneously demonstrates that he understands the other’s intentions with respect to the pointed-at object, and he expects the other to understand the pointing gesture as an intentional act of information-sharing.

In Why We Cooperate (2009), Tomasello proposes that shared intentionality serves also as the basis for norms. Norms of cooperation make sense in this context: if each of us wants food, and each of us knows that the other wants food, then we are both functioning within a joint intentional frame. Establishing a norm for sharing food is useful for avoiding a fight, during which some third individual might sneak up and steal the food from both of us or a predator might eat us both for lunch.

But what about norms of conformity? If no one is actually harmed by violating a social convention, why do humans both follow and enforce the convention? The preschool teacher tells a kid to put the coat over there in the corner: why does the kid do it, rather than just tossing her coat wherever she feels like it? Piaget claimed that social rule-following is motivated initially by authority: if I toss my coat the teacher will punish me. Piaget asserted that only later, after kids have internalized authority-driven conformity, lose their thoroughgoing egocentricity, and start seeing one another as autonomous agents, do kids start enforcing the coats-go-over-there rule on one another.

So here’s a study that Tomasello conducted to evaluate the Piagetian theory of developmental acquisition of norm-based behavior:

“Three-year-old children were shown how to play a one-person game. When a puppet later entered and announced that it, too, would play the game, but then did so in a different way, most of the children objected, sometimes vociferously. The children’s language when they objected demonstrated clearly that they were not just expressing their personal displeasure at a deviation. They made generic, normative declarations like, ‘It doesn’t work like that,’ ‘One can’t do that,’ and so forth. They do not merely disapprove of the puppet playing the game differently; he is playing it improperly. This behavior is of critical importance, as it is one thing to follow a norm — perhaps to avoid the negative consequences of not following it — and it is quite another to legislate the norm when not involved oneself.”

In this study the rules don’t regulate the players’ cooperative social interaction within the game; rather, the rules are the game — they define the game — and playing the game is not a social activity but a solitary one. In learning the game the kids in this study were not subjected either to reward for following the rules or to punishment for breaking them. The puppet doesn’t play the game less effectively by not following the rules, since changing the rules changes the game. The puppet isn’t cheating an opponent or keeping a teammate from succeeding — isn’t violating mutual cooperative expectations — by not playing properly. In learning from the adult how the game is “supposed” to be played, the adult doesn’t have to describe the rules or make a mistake and then correct herself. Merely demonstrating how the game is played is enough to activate expectations in the observing kids about how the game should be played.

According to Tomasello, results of this study demonstrate that

“even young children already have some sense of shared intentionality, that is to say, that they are part of some larger ‘we’ intentionality. I contend that without this added dimension of some kind of ‘we’ identity and rationality, it is impossible to explain why children take it upon themselves to actively enforce social norms on others from a third-party stance, expecially those norms that are not based on cooperation but rather on constitutive rules that are, in an important sense, arbitrary.”

Tomasello contends that this sense of collective intentionality witnessed in three-year-olds is a generalized manifestation of the “he is me” identification with the other that is already manifest in the joint intentional behavior of those 12-month-old pointing infants he previously told us about. Conforming to the arbitrary rules of a game and enforcing them on others is not that different from participating in “language games,” in which specific meanings are arbitrarily assigned to specific sounds or physical markings — a game that can be played by oneself as well as with other people.


For readers with a philosophical orientation to normativity as it relates to human cognition and society, you might want to check in with bloggers Duncan Law, Deontologistics, Planomenology, and Minds and Brains.

4 March 2011

Fiction Update

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:05 am

“Then she walked into the bathroom, looked at herself in the mirror, and vomited into the toilet.”

Thus ends part four of the novel that I’ve been writing since mid-November. One more part to go.

2 March 2011

Empirical Theater

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:51 am

Reading Michael Tomasello’s monograph Why We Cooperate (2009), I’m struck by the cleverness of the studies that he and his colleagues run in evaluating theories empirically. The experiments are staged like very short one-act plays, with scripts and actors and props and multiple showings. There’s always a stooge in these plays, someone who doesn’t realize that it is a play, who is immersed in the mise-en-scene and who extemporizes. It’s the spontaneous performance of the stooge that generates the data, but it’s the staged and scripted part that embeds data in theory. Experimental design is part of the art of science.

Tomasello briefly describes a number of experiments for investigating the possibility that something like altruism is an innately human capability. In several of these experiments an adult human faces some sort of problem, and the stooge — usually either a human infant or a chimpanzee — is in a position to help. Here’s one study which the stooge has access to information that could help one of the actors.

“Researchers set up a situation in which twelve-month-old, pre-linguistic infants watched while an adult engaged in some adult-centered task such as stapling papers. The adult also manipulated another object during the same period of time. Then she left the room, and another adult came in and moved the two objects to some shelves. The original adult then came back in, papers in hand, ready to continue stapling. But there was no stapler on her table, as she searched for it gesturing quizzically but not talking at all.”

How do the infant human stooges respond to this scenario? Here are some of the features in the stooge’s performance that the experimenters looked for:

  • Did the stooge help the adult locate the stapler by pointing or otherwise indicating its presence on the shelf?
  • In providing this information, did the stooge discriminate between the stapler and the other extraneous object that would not be useful in performing the stapling task?
  • Did the stooge demand the stapler for him/herself (e.g., by whining or reaching), or was s/he content for the adult to use it for stapling the papers?

This little bit of theater incorporates a number of scientifically salient features. The infant stooges can’t use language, but they can point — a competency that first emerges in human development at around 11-12 months of age. Similarly, chimps can point but they cannot use language — which means that this sort of experiment can provide ethologically comparative findings. The stooges have to infer the adult’s intentions in order to provide her with helpful information. And the stooges must want the adult to achieve her own intentions rather than usurping the missing piece of equipment for their own use.

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