14 May 2013

Tuesday Morning Walk

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:37 am

17 MAY UPDATE — Yesterday afternoon I finished writing the first draft of the book.


Almost as soon as I began walking I realized that yesterday I’d gone too fast. I’d been rushing into the Apocalypse, fourteen catastrophes strung end to end: global warming, a massive meteor strike event, zones of zero gravity, the Yankees winning their sixteenth consecutive World Series… There is nothing left to be done: that was the last bead on the string. But I was going too fast, trying to finish by Thursday, behind a bit now because last Friday’s task had extended through the weekend all the way till noon yesterday. Afterward I’d had lunch, dawdled awhile trying to clear my head, gone for a run along the trail, watching the prairie dogs watching me, weaving through the cattle to the creek and back again. Then I had tried to do a whole day’s work starting at three in the afternoon. I didn’t give myself time to sink into it, just hurtled into the Apocalypse like there was no tomorrow. Or actually, like tomorrow I had to do tomorrow’s work, not the rest of today’s, if I was going to finish the whole project by Thursday.

I woke up at two this morning, something that doesn’t happen very often any more. Maybe it was the heat, the first really warm night of the spring. Maybe the afternoon’s rushed Apocalypse was coming back at me, letting me know that I’d cheated it. In that day, the prophet would warn, craggy finger pointing toward the end. And who are you, O son of man, to give it a scant three hours, just because you had to drink your glass of beer, had to fry the porterhouse and the potatoes and make the salad, just because you were fully booked for each of the three post-Apocalyptic days?

What did I read when I got up at two? The chapter in the brain science book just didn’t register. A chapter of DeLillo: I felt like I’d been there too recently, or no: that I was there most of the day every day. In Pynchon the brigadier was subjecting himself to the dominatrix: that proved best for a hot mid-May four in the morning; I could go back to sleep after that. I wrote something too, between the brain science and the DeLillo. As an ordinary Joe I don’t harbor ambitions to become something other than human — not posthuman, or transhuman, or post-traumatic zombie, or non-conscious swarm drive, or schizophrenic rhizome, or theotic transcender. I think that ordinary language does describe real things in the world rather than separating humans from the Real. I don’t see any point in accelerating into sociopathy as the expression of a protean will to power. I don’t believe that bioengineering merged with AI will spawn a new hybrid post-human species. That’s what I wrote at three a.m.

At seven I woke up for real, the Tuesday before the Thursday. While drinking my first coffee and eating a donut I came across a video of a debate between Foucault and Chomsky. This must have been in the seventies: Chomsky looked like a prototypical seventies MIT prof, a slightly nerdy corporate engineer type, while Foucault, with his shaved head and stern disposition, appeared menacing and severe. This was no debate: the headliners were talking past each other, addressing the audience in different languages about different topics, barely grazing each other. I wondered, not for the first time, if Foucault’s and Deleuze’s and Lacan’s paranoia about being boxed in by language was an artifact of being French, having been taught to write French by French teachers in French schools. In her early American years our daughter had attended what might be deemed a Chomskyan school: express yourself creatively, and the rules of grammar and spelling will take care of themselves. In France we immersed her in structure: formal instruction in parts of speech and conjugations, recitation of poems par cœur, get creative once you’ve grown accustomed to the apparatus. Some of the American parents couldn’t stand it: they had to take their kids back home, or enroll them in American international schools. Happily for our daughter the French primaire proved to be good cross-training. Now she writes Paradise Lost fan fiction.

That’s one reason why I want to be finished by Thursday: we leave on Friday to pick her up from school for the summer. Last week my wife found a poem called “Iowa City to Boulder,” by William Matthews. With that poem Matthews marked off the route, 80 to 76, as a pilgrimage trail for his readers to follow. But of course Kerouac had already made that run years before. I take most of the drive by night, Matthews wrote: I wonder if it’s true, or if the poem is a kind of short story, a flash fiction they might call it these days, semi-constrained in the poetic structure. Maybe he drove it in the daytime but decided that night driving would be more poetic. It’s free verse as far as I can tell, no predefined rhyme or meter or line length to constrain the drive. A Chomskyan poem.

But now it’s eight o’clock Tuesday morning and I’m walking past the upper pasture, watching the bull as he begins his workday, paying his morning visits to the ladies, and I’m thinking post-Apocalyptically. If I go back in time can I stage it differently? The Book of Revelation is a kind of linguistic apocalypse, a description of something that’s beyond description, signifiers flying off the signifieds, the whole structure of the language being pulled apart in the cosmic upheaval. In his ecstasy John points his craggy finger beyond that day, past the end to the new heavens and new earth. He’s left his body, left the earth, surging beyond structural constraints, embarking upon a visitation to a Deleuzian linguistic afterlife, one among perhaps a multitude of afterlives, where language is free to do whatever on earth or in heaven it desires.

So I’m thinking about going back to yesterday and sketching out an alternative end of the world. a linguistic Apocalypse that does not point beyond itself to the linguistic Millennium. A report comes in from one of the time-traveling reconnaissance agents: there’s been a catastrophic and widespread rupture between signifiers and signifieds. Now – that is in the Apocalyptic future – whenever anyone tells you anything, you have no idea what the speaker intends to convey. You can no longer assume that what people are saying corresponds in any way to events in the world, or even in the imagination – events that they’re purporting to describe in language. Plus you, the listener – you too have lost the connections. You hear the words and you understand them, but you can’t find the correspondences anymore between the nouns and the things to which they point with their craggy fingers, between the verbs and the actions. And of course in that day the recon report too becomes suspect.

But now it’s Tuesday and I’m on the clock. Yesterday was the Apocalypse, and the Friday drive to Iowa is only three days off. No looking back; let today take care of itself. I can smell the barn and I’m heading straight for it, no more distractions.

I’ve made the turn, crossing the little bridge over the drainage ditch. The electrical control box beside the bridge has been encased inside a hollow plastic boulder: is it for aesthetic purposes, or to thwart terrorists using satellite surveillance to identify targets for knocking us off the grid? There’s water flowing in the ditch for a change: snowmelt, followed by two days of rain. The grass is green and dandelions are everywhere. In a month all of this would be brown and crisp if the terrorists blew up the electrical and the sprinkler system wouldn’t run.

Next to the fake boulder a block of glass about two feet square is embedded in the ground. I don’t remember seeing it before: probably it’s part of the electrical system. There seems to be a yellowish-orange light flickering down there below the glass. I can’t make it out though, because the glass is thick, uneven in consistency, and partially opaque. Maybe it’s just a reflection from the morning sun. Walking on, I greet the old Central European man who walks his Chow Chow along this path every morning around this time, a dog that, cliché be damned, does in fact bear a striking facial resemblance to the man holding the leash.


Here’s the poem:

Iowa City to Boulder, by William Matthews

I take most of the drive by night.
It’s cool and in the dark my lapsed
inspection can’t be seen.
I sing and make myself promises.

By dawn on the high plains
I’m driving tired and cagey.
Red-winged blackbirds
on the mileposts, like candle flames,
flare their wings for balance
in the blasts of truck wakes.

The dust of not sleeping
drifts in my mouth, and five or six
miles slur by uncounted.
I say I hate long-distance

drives but I love them.
The flat light stains the foothills
pale and I speed up the canyon
to sleep until the little lull
the insects take at dusk before
they say their names all night in the loud field.

And here’s the Deleuze-Chomsky debate, trilingual with English subtitles, courtesy of dmfant in a comment on the most recent Noir Realism thread:

12 May 2013

Here’s One

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:21 pm

[I mentioned in a comment on the prior thread that, approaching the end of the novel I’m just finishing up, I’ve been writing a chapter consisting of monologues from 14 significant characters in the series. Each of the 14 monologues is 14 lines long, with 14 syllables per line. Prose poems, I suppose is what they are. I just wrote this one, which elaborates on a minor narrative detail in an incident from a prior book that reads like this: “Why am I here?” the Dancer responded to the Ceramicist’s inquisitive look. She scooped up a smooth milky stone from the edge of the road and juggled it in her left hand as she spoke…]



Walking to the Cantina that time, past the two mile mark,
my glance landed on a small stone at the edge of the road.
We had opened the vault of photos, the gallery of
the dead at the two mile shrine. Red rocks edging a red road,
the border of the shrine marked off a world of memory
and loss. Recognizing none, I remembered every one.
Though small, the stone beside the road kept a hidden meaning:
milky white and smooth, it was alien to the redness,
left perhaps by another Pilgrim from another place.
A name was written on that stone, a name I did not know.
I wanted to return to that place; I wanted to bring
my own stone, a name written on it that no one would know
but the one who had received it. Then I would add my stone
to the one I’d found beside the road, a two stone barrow.


[The bit about the name written on the stone is an allusion to Revelation 2:17. One more monologue to write, then four more chapters to go after this one and the first draft is done, hopefully on Thursday.]

8 May 2013

Nobel-Level Self-Assurance

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:17 pm

“This is not the place to go into detail about how the brain gives rise to consciousness. I have done that in several books, which may be consulted.”

– Gerald Edelman, Second Nature (2006)

4 May 2013

Fictional Fiction Writers at Work

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:00 pm

[Yesterday the new fiction surpassed 80,000 words, and now I can smell the barn, as they say in horse country. If I keep up the pace I should have a first draft finished in two weeks. Here’s a short chapter I drafted last Tuesday. In this interlude, two unidentified writers are inventing a story together, a story about a character — the bathrobed man — who has an ongoing role in the larger story. I’ve written dialogue for these two storytellers before, in earlier episodes. Every time it’s been fun, fast, freeing to distance myself from my own fiction by handing my job off to these two guys.]


The bathrobed man bundles up his twenty-one birthday installments, plus maybe whatever’s left of his money as part of his legacy. He sends the parcel to his designated under-the-radar courier, along with instructions and mailing address. Obviously the unborn child has no name yet, so the bathrobed man can’t write Dear Jimmy or Dear Susie at the top. But he can still sign as Dad at the bottom.

Perhaps the instructions include sending each year’s installment from a different location, again protecting against the possibility of discovery by the enemies.

Good idea, but that’s going to set the courier back financially.

Perhaps the bathrobed man includes in the parcel…

…Includes in the parcel some money to defray his courier’s expenses over the next twenty-one years.

Yes. And we presume also that the courier is a loyal and trusted person. He will feel duty-bound to honor what may be the last wishes of his doomed friend, even after all of the money has been spent.

Great, that’s it then.

Excuse me, but I have a question. We are presuming that the bathrobed man is about to be killed by his enemies. Imagine that, through his resourcefulness, he manages to survive this seemingly fatal ordeal. Would he then retrieve the first parcel from the lawyer, as well as the second one from the courier?

Or would he lay low?

Remaining undercover for a month, a year, twenty-one years, until at last he emerges from seclusion. What changes would have been wrought in him? From some underground control center would he have masterminded the implementation of his hermetic scheme? Would he have teetered over the edge into paranoia, into madness, remaining forever in seclusion, perhaps taking his own life?

But how could he have escaped? The thugs have him cornered, his house is surrounded. They’re professionals, and in their profession the consequences of failure are dire. The bathrobed man isn’t the sort of guy to break out the windows and start shooting.

And he is alone, our bathrobed hero. An amateur, alone, pits himself against several hired guns? Even in a B Hollywood gangster film this one-man stand cannot succeed. One thug keeps him occupied by returning fire through the front window, while two of his associates calmly walk around to the back door. A locked door? These are hired killers. The bathrobed man is a duck in a shooting gallery.

Booby traps?

Are you suggesting perhaps the noose around the ankle ploy, hoisting the thug into the air, suspended from the stout branch of a nearby tree? Or perhaps the patch of leaves disguising a pit into which the gangsters who tread upon it will drop? Or do you recommend something more lethal, in which explosives are involved?

Do I hear sarcasm?

Indeed. Simply put, our bathrobed man is not the sort of fellow who goes in for violence. He is an engineer; his genius is conceptual, systemic.

So couldn’t he engineer devices to ward off the thugs? He is at his own house after all, plenty of time to set things up, work out the bugs. And he is motivated, wanting to protect his mysterious invention, his Icon, even if it turns out to be just a crackpot scheme after all. And he is paranoid, maintaining constant vigilance against those who would steal it for nefarious purposes or financial gain. Why wouldn’t he booby-trap his house?

Yes, I concede that these are valid points which you are making now.

Okay then.



Even without the booby traps, the boobies will make a great deal of commotion, no? They will fire their guns at the bathrobed man. If he is prepared to take violent means into his hands, he will return their fire. The neighbors will hear, they will telephone the police, the squad cars will soon surround the house. Our bathrobed man will be taken into custody. He will be required to reveal information about his Icon. No, none of this is permissible for him.

So he needs to escape. Now we’re back to where we started. He’s surrounded so he can’t escape, and he’s not prepared to call attention to his grand scheme through gunplay and explosives. He’s dispatched the parcels, one to his childhood lawyer friend, the others to his trusted courier friend. And so now he dies to protect his secret schemes.

Perhaps taking his own life to avoid being the subject of so-called extreme interrogation tactics, by means of which the thugs would attempt to extract the truth from him.

So why aren’t we satisfied to leave it at that? It’s a good story the way it is. It’s as if we’ve gotten too attached to the bathrobed man, like he’s calling on us to save him from his fate.

And it is a fate that was sealed twenty-one years ago when the bathrobed man sealed the secret parcels. Now we have moved on in the story, far into the future. The thugs have perhaps discovered the lawyer friend, the son or daughter has gone in search of the father. The future becomes the present. This is where we must concentrate our attention.

Wait a minute…

Of course. After twenty-one years of waiting, what is another minute?

No, listen. The Icon. Bathrobed man designed the Icon, this awesome system linking everyone and everything together across vast distances. Okay great. So listen. Bathrobed man sent off his drawings and documentations. But didn’t he also start building this thing, this Icon? We’ve already said that he has associates, that he had financiers backing his work. The written documentation is a backup, we said. There’s also an oral tradition, a means of communication propagated among a cadre of operatives, associates of the bathrobed man who are secretly building the Icon according to his prior verbal instructions.


Maybe the Icon has bootstrapping potentials that help with the implementation. For example, maybe some module of the system enables an unspoken means of communication, letting the Icon-builders communicate with each other without leaving a paper trail, or an electronic one.

Yes, and perhaps the Icon, as gradually it is taking form and substance, enables the secret cadre to identify others who could join them, others whom the bathrobed man never met, others whose behavior patterns or brain waves conform to a certain profile that identifies them as promising co-conspirators.

Fine. Now, the Icon links people and things together across vast distances.What about across time? Across long spans of time? Does the Icon make temporal linkages?

Yes, perhaps also the dimensionality of time is built into his grandiose schematics. The likelihood is high, I think now. So the bathrobed man anticipates that the Icon will gradually be assembled over the years after his demise at the hands of the gangsters.

And he set it in motion across time, this gradual assembly. Built by his associates, by new co-conspirators…

Eventually achieving the ability to assemble itself.

Yes, that’s great.

Even if the bathrobed man did not know how to design this autopoietic capability of his Icon, he set it on the course toward its eventual emergence as a self-generating device.

And perhaps also self-regenerating, the ability to diagnose and repair its own breakdowns.

And self-replicating.

Yes. So the bathrobed man envisions the gradual self-creation of the Icon as something like an organism, or even a new species of organisms capable of reproduction. It extends across vast tracts of space, across multitudes of people, across long spans of time. Now, does the Icon also extend itself backward in time?

Oh God. You wish now for the Icon to turn itself into a time machine?

Why not? It does everything else.

What does it do precisely?

Hell, I don’t know. It does everything. And if it does everything, then surely it ought to be able to manage time travel.

But have you not yet seen enough such stories of time travel? Must we be doomed to repeating the time travel trope, as though stuck in a time loop that repeats itself again and again, never to be surpassed?

You mean like Groundhog Day?

I’m sorry – like what now?

Never mind. But look, this is how we rescue the bathrobed man from his imminent and inevitable demise.

The Icon returns from the future to save its master, its creator, its father?


 Oh my God. The tears will be flowing down the aisles. Or perhaps they already flowed. Have flowed? Have been flowing? These verb tenses…

But yes, suppose we do that. We have the what, now we need the how. How will the Icon save the bathrobed man, twenty-one years in the past?

I don’t know. No, yes I do. It is already happening. We are the instruments, the vessels of the Icon as it performs its heroic time-traveling mission into the past. This is what the Icon will do. It will invade our minds so that we will write a scenario that saves its father, twenty-one years in the past. But of course it is the past only in diagetic time. In narrative time the rescue remains, happily, poised as a future unfolding of the story. Is invading our minds? Has been invading?

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